Williams, Ben Ames
Williams, Ben Ames 1889-1953
American novelist and short story writer.
Williams was one of the best-known American writers of magazine fiction and novels of the first half of the twentieth century. A frequent contributor to the Saturday Evening Post and other popular periodicals of the 1920s and 1930s, Williams published more than 400 short stories, essays, and serialized novels. He also produced more than thirty books of fiction in a variety of subgenres, including adventures, mysteries, and historical novels. Over the course of his career, Williams came to be associated with rural Maine, where many of his stories, including those collected in Fraternity Village, were set. In these and other works Williams sought "to interweave fact and fiction," as evidenced by the meticulous research he generally conducted before writing. Primarily considered a popular author, Williams is nonetheless valued as a skilled realist and craftsman of the short story form; his historical novel House Divided is viewed among his finest achievements.
Williams was born in Macon, Mississippi on 7 March 1889. He spent his youth in Jackson, Ohio, where his father Daniel Webster Williams was editor and owner of the local newspaper. Williams received his primary education in Jackson, and later attended the Allen School in West Newton, Massachusetts and was privately tutored for a time while living with his family in Cardiff, Wales. He entered Dartmouth College in 1906 and upon graduation in 1910 moved to Ohio to run the Standard Journal, his father's paper. In September of that year he returned to the Northeast. Williams took a job as a reporter at the Boston American and began to write short fiction. During the course of four years, over eighty of his stories were rejected for publication by various periodicals; he waited four years before one of his pieces, "The Wings of Lias," was accepted for publication in Smith's Magazine. By 1916, increased sales of his writing allowed Williams to leave the American and concentrate on fiction writing. Between 1917 and 1941, 179 of his stories, essays, and serials appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and others were published in competing periodicals. In 1918 Williams visited the small town of Searsmont, Maine where he purchased a summer home. He continued to return to Searsmont for the remainder of his life, fictionalizing the village as Fraternity, Maine in an extended series of short stories. Williams's first unserialized novel, Splendor, appeared in 1927. Over the next several decades he published short fiction and 35 more novels, many of them best-sellers. Williams died on 4 February 1953 of a heart attack.
During the course of his career, Williams wrote several adventure and mystery novels including The Silver Forest, The Dreadful Night, and Leave Her to Heaven. It is for his realistic short stories and historical novels that he is primarily distinguished. Splendor details the life of a Boston journalist, Henry Beeker, in the years 1872 to 1916. Come Spring describes the circumstances of Joel Adam after returning to Maine's wilderness frontier following the close of the American Revolutionary War. Williams's sprawling Civil War novel House Divided analyzes the impact of war on an aristocratic Southern family, and is filled with historical detail uncovered by considerable research. Set in southern Ohio during the 1890s, Owen Glen recounts the life of a young Welsh-American boy growing up in a small mining town. Representative of his early short fiction, "They Grind Exceedingly Small," an ironic parable, appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919 and later earned Williams the O. Henry Memorial Award. Among his other short works, the stories of Fraternity Village epitomize many of Williams's detailed, character-driven pieces. These tales frequently featured the amusing, idyllic anecdotes of Chet McAusland or the thrill of adventure, as in "Another Man's Poison," a tale of two escaped convicts who invade the otherwise bucolic town of Fraternity.
Extremely popular in their day, many of Williams's novels appeared at the top of best-seller lists. Beyond popular appreciation, the balance of criticism at the time came from generally positive reviewers and Williams himself, who admitted that he consciously emulated the style of such writers as Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and Bret Harte. Early in his career, Williams also acknowledged that the work of translating Georges Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations had provided him with fodder for the plotlines of his stories. Since his death, critical appreciation of Williams's fiction has failed to match his earlier, popular success. Nevertheless he has been praised for his realism, use of detail and irony, directness, and skill as a storyteller.
All the Brothers Were Valiant (novel) 1919
The Sea Bride (novel) 1919
The Great Accident (novel) 1920
Evered (novel) 1921
Black Pawl (novel) 1922
Audacity (novel) 1923
Sangsue (novel) 1923
Thrifty Stock, and Other Stories (short stories) 1923
The Rational Hind (novel) 1925
The Silver Forest (novel) 1926
Immortal Longings (novel) 1927
Splendor (novel) 1927
The Dreadful Night (novel) 1928
Death on Scurvy Street [also published as The Bellmer Mystery] (novel) 1929
Great Oaks (novel) 1930
Touchstone (novel) 1930
An End to Mirth (novel) 1931
Pirate's Purchase (novel) 1931
Honeyflow (novel) 1932
Money Musk [republished as Lady in Peril] (novel) 1932
Mischief (novel) 1933
Pascal's Mill (novel) 1933
Hostile Valley [republished as Valley Vixen] (novel) 1934
Small Town Girl (novel) 1935
Crucible (novel) 1937
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SOURCE: "Ben Ames Williams," in The Men Who Make Our Novels, revised edition, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925, pp. 578-83.
[In the following essay, Baldwin evaluates Williams as a storyteller.]
We live and learn, we do; and there's no place for learning like an American college. Take Dartmouth—if you can. When Ben Ames Williams entered Dartmouth in 1906 he was told that he had no faintest conception of what good English was or ought to be. Four years later, on graduation, the same prof—remembered as the caster of that first slur—openly hailed Mr. Williams as one of only two men in his class capable of producing true literary English.
However, true literary English is a drug on the market; and Williams' learning brought him little or nothing. During six years as reporter (and latterly as a re-write man) on the Boston American, eighty-two short stories by Mr. Williams were refused before one, in 1914, was accepted—and in 1912 he had married an old sweetheart, the daughter of a long line of sea-captains familiar with the China trade. It was a desperate business, but it explains, in part, Mr. Williams' austerity. It proves his courage, if proof were necessary. It attests the hard discipline he underwent before winning to his present success.
There is in every line he writes a history of that long bout with the editors. Soon or late he would force them to accept...
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SOURCE: "Four Against Ennui," in The Bookman, London, Vol. LXXV, No. 449, February, 1929, pp. 287-88.
[In the following review, Jerrold describes Williams's thriller The Dreadful Night.]
Mr. Ben Ames Williams has . . . provided us with a "thriller," but one of simpler and more customary kind as his title, The Dreadful Night, may be said to indicate. The setting is provided by a lake on the islets of which prosperous Bostonians have built themselves lordly pleasure houses for summer rustication. Molly Sockford has sent her children home to the city and is awaiting her husband, that they may close up for the winter. He is unaccountably delayed; she is joined by a girl friend and later by a newspaper man who comes with a tale of horrid tragedy from a neighbouring island, where he has been to interview a celebrated singer. And then the dreadfulness threatens them—for Mrs. Sockford possesses the sinister emerald! The author succeeds in imparting an appropriate sense of the eerie to a lively narrative.
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SOURCE: "An Interview with Ben Ames Williams," in Writers and Writing, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946, pp. 339-42.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1943, Williams reveals to van Gelder his method of writing.]
"One of the tough problems of a writer," said Ben Ames Williams, an extremely likable man who has been established as a writer for twenty-seven years, "is rarely talked about. But it is a problem that always has bothered me. It is this: what to do with yourself in the afternoons. I've tried just about everything—golf, bridge, backgammon, mah jong, a couple of hookers of whisky and the movies. You see, there's this need for anything that will give your brain just a little to do, just enough action to get the work out of it, so that you can go to sleep at night. Otherwise, you're working endlessly.
"We spend about six months each year on our farm in Maine—go to bed before sunset and get up before sunrise—and there we have an elaborate croquet game that sometimes is good for five hours in the afternoon—the way we work that is, the ball never is out of bounds; you wander all over the countryside. That's good, but hardly a complete solution. Now Ken Roberts (author of "Northwest Passage") works in the mornings, then carves wood. He also manages his place, which is a fairly large one. However, at night he works for an hour just before dinner. Well, as you can...
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SOURCE: "About Ben Ames Williams," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 7, September, 1963, pp. 263-77.
[In the following excerpt, Williams's wife offers a sketch of her husband's life and career.]
[Ben-Ames—he dropped the hyphen while still a schoolboy—was born in Macon, Mississippi, on March 7, 1889, to Sarah Marshall Ames and Daniel Webster Williams.] This is what his father wrote in his diary of this event: "Ben Ames was a child of very mature grandfathers, and one very mature grandmother, while the other grandmother and his parents were no longer children. This maturity of ancestors is supposed to be one condition that produces a genius. He was born at 11:30 A.M. after we had become much alarmed. He was a large child with a very large head. He had large limbs and body and promised to be a large man, like his grandfather Ames and my Williams cousins."
[Williams had a congenital handicap which few readers, allured by his detailed and vivid descriptions, would suspect.] Occasionally the family took a drive out into the country in a carriage hired from a livery stable in Jackson. On one of these drives, Ben's parents saw a huge clump of fire pinks by the roadside and said to him: "Oh, see those flowers, Ben-Ames! You hop out and pick a few of them, will you?" Ben got out cheerfully enough, then stood hesitantly by the roadside. "Well, where are the flowers?" he...
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SOURCE: "Ben Ames Williams: Pastoral Moralist," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 7, September, 1963, pp. 278-93.
[In the following essay, Yokelson discusses the pastoral mode of Williams's fiction.]
In statements about his books Ben Ames Williams consistently stressed his desire to give pleasure or simply to tell a good story. Authorial practice varies: to D. H. Lawrence fiction was a vehicle for a prophetic vision, to some writers it may be no more than a mechanical variation of the boy-meets-girl formula. But that a writer aims to entertain does not preclude his maturest judgments and deepest feelings from finding their way into his work. Thus a reading of even a sampling of Ben Ames Williams' fiction reveals a concatenation of ideas, assumptions, and biases which should perhaps not be labelled a philosophy but which nevertheless cohere into a sort of pastoral myth. It is this myth which raises the rustics in his local color stories above mere eccentric types, makes a historical novel like Come Spring far more than a chronicle, and gives point to a psychological shocker like Leave Her to Heaven. In fact, given the explicitness with which Williams sometimes uses the pastoral point of view, one might call him a pastoral moralist.
The pastoral myth appears in its nearly pure form in an early story, "Thrifty Stock." More a sermon than a...
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SOURCE: "Ben Ames Williams and Robert H. Davis: The Seedling in the Sun," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 7, September, 1963, pp. 302-25.
[In the following essay, Cary recounts the friendship of Williams and his editor Robert H. Davis.]
When the stout and florid Editor first saw the Tyro and his wife, he grinned genially, extended his hand, and said, "I'm Bob Davis." Years later he roared with laughter as he recalled the scene. "I found myself facing the youngest, the most frightened pair of kids I had ever seen, and, so help me, they were holding hands!"1 His impression of the eager, uncertain, emergent author, "weighing 280 on the hoof and broad as a roll-top desk,"2 was one he never let Ben Ames Williams forget.
Born twenty years and a thousand miles apart (Robert Hobart Davis on March 23, 1869, in Brownville, Nebraska; Ben Ames Williams in Macon, Mississippi, on March 7, 1889), their lives traced dissimilar route-lines before, inevitably, they conjoined in a publishing office in New York City on June 19, 1916. It was a fertile meeting for both men: the novice whose reading audience was to become the widest of his time in America and the veteran whose knowledge and influence were the widest in the field of popular magazine fiction.
From the two hundred and fifty Davis letters to Williams, now at Colby College, and the eighty Williams...
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SOURCE: "Ben Ames Williams: The Apprentice Years," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 11, September, 1972, pp. 586-99.
[In the following essay, Cary explores the early portion of Williams's literary career to 1920.]
Fate, or whatever it is that impels a man's life in one direction rather than another at crucial crossroads, was particularly whimsical on the day in January 1910 when Ben Ames Williams (1889-1953) was preparing for final examinations prior to graduation from Dartmouth College. "Through a series of circumstances of which I have no recollection, a boys' school in Connecticut, which needed someone to start in February as a teacher in English, offered me a job. I telegraphed Father: 'Have been offered a job teaching. Shall I accept?' My handwriting has always been difficult and as delivered to Father, the telegram read: 'Have been offered a job travelling. Shall I accept?' Father told me years afterward that if the telegram had read 'teaching' he would have told me to take the job, but he had no desire to see me become a travelling man."1 Since the advent of handwriting, men have pored and cursed over cacography. For Williams it proved to be the ineluctable boon, diverting him from a purgatory of grading endless, immature English "themes" and thrusting him toward a career as one of the most popular storytellers of his time.
Williams could easily have gone the...
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SOURCE: "House United," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 179-90.
[In the following essay, Ben Ames Williams, Jr. presents a biographical remembrance of his father.]
Whenever my father wrote a story in which there was a disagreeable woman, he would get many letters from female readers offering him the joys of their friendship, because they assumed he was using his wife as a model. And Mother would receive an almost equal number of scolding letters. Then in one of his books a boy who was at Dartmouth got a girl "in trouble." Both my brother and I, having gone to Dartmouth, got many an askance glance from acquaintances for several weeks after publication.
Yet in answer to the often-asked question: "What is it like to be in the family of a famous author?" our answer has always been—"Wonderful." Then, if the questioner would hold still, we would happily enlarge on how fine it was to live with him, to share his exciting life, to be stimulated by his vital mind and be guided by his great spirit and wisdom. Because that's how it was—wonderful!
When Professor Cary asked me to write about my father for the Quarterly, I accepted the opportunity with pleasure. What to say about him becomes more difficult. Perhaps if I just start at the beginning.
My first recollection must go back to when I was four or five. We lived then...
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SOURCE: "Ben Ames Williams and 'The Saturday Evening Post'," in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 190-222.
[In the following essay, Cary examines Williams's decades-long contribution of short stories and serialized novels to the Saturday Evening Post.]
Ben Ames Williams (1889-1953) wrote eighty-four stories before he sold one. For five years, while working full time as a reporter for the Boston American, he applied two or three of his off hours daily to turning out narratives which he hoped would appeal to editors of popular fiction magazines. The steady downpour of rejection slips, which dampened his spirits not one whit, was finally stayed by Charles Agnew MacLean, who printed "The Wings of 'Lias" in Smith's Magazine of July 1915. In that year Williams published three more stories in the so-called pulps, and seemed well launched toward a career as purveyor of gratifying adventure and romance. When in the following year Robert H. Davis, editor in chief of the Munsey magazines, embraced him as both friend and frequent contributor to All-Story Weekly, Williams' level and direction as a writer appeared to be defined.1
Williams' entry into authorship had been prompted by a desire to capitalize his restless energies, to "kill time," he once said offhandedly. However, the more he wrote, the more he became intrigued by the mysteries of...
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Cary, Richard. "Ben Ames Williams in Books." Colby Library Quarterly VI, No. 7 (September 1963): 293-302.
Bibliography of Williams's novels and anthologized short stories.
——. "Ben Ames Williams in Periodicals and Newspapers." Colby Library Quarterly IX, No. 11 (September 1972): 599-615.
Chronological bibliography of the periodical publication of Williams's short stories.
——. "Ben Ames Williams in the Saturday Evening Post." Colby Library Quarterly X, No. 4 (December 1973): 223-30.
Bibliography of the short stories Williams contributed to the Saturday Evening Post between 14 April 1917 and 8 February 1941.
Phelps, William Lyon. Review of Black Pawl. Scribner's Magazine LXXIII, No. 1 (January 1923): 118-19.
Features a positive assessment of the missionary-hero of Williams's Black Pawl.
——. Review of The Rational Hind. Scribner's Magazine LXXVIII, No. 4 (October 1925): 436.
Calls Williams's The Rational Hind "an admirable story of Maine farmers."
Review of The Great Accident. The Dial LXIX (August 1920): 211.
Describes The Great Accident as "an American novel pulsing with democracy."
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