John A. Williams Essay - Critical Essays


John A. Williams’s novels draw on personal experience, though they are not strictly autobiographical; they reflect the racial issues facing American society, especially during the civil rights period. Williams writes in the clear, readable prose of a journalist; his plot structures mix linear time with flashback passages to achieve a seamless continuity. His characters have been writers, jazz musicians, black mothers, and military veterans, and his themes have addressed the hardships of the black writer, the expatriate in Europe, black family life, interracial relationships, and political conspiracy. The presentation of jazz is a frequent element, and New York City is a repeated setting, though Williams has also depicted the Caribbean and Africa.

The Angry Ones

Williams’s initial novel is a first-personnarrative drawing on autobiographical elements. Like Williams, Stephen Hill, the African American main character, is a World War II veteran, who works for a vanity press in New York. Early in the novel, Williams refers to African and Native American origins and jazz contexts. The novel is principally about Steve’s relationships with his employer, coworkers, and friends. One of Steve’s closest associates is Linton Mason, a white former college mate and editor at McGraw-Hill. The novel uses Lint’s success in publishing to indicate the racial divide, sexual jealousy, and the benefits of being white in racist America. Another theme is the search for a meaningful relationship, the choice between interracial and intraracial love. The causes of black anger are linked to Steve’s frustrating attempts to rise within the company run by Rollie Culver and, generally, the treatment of black men in New York’s publishing world, symbolized by the suicide of Steve’s black friend, Obie Roberts. The novel presents racism through the day-to-day experiences of the main character.

Night Song

Set in Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950’s, Night Song is a jazz novel that mirrors the life of famed alto saxophonist Charlie Parker through the portrayal of Eagle (Richie Stokes), a drug-addicted musician who retains the capabilities of jazz performance despite his debilitation. Eagle befriends the alcoholic David Hillary, an out-of-work white college professor employed in the jazz café run by Keel Robinson, a former black preacher and Harvard graduate involved in an interracial relationship with Della. Each of the characters is fractured, most notably Eagle, whose alcoholism and addiction are implicitly the result of the racist treatment of the black artist. Williams portrays David as a savior and betrayer of Eagle; David’s “healing” is the ironic result of his association with Eagle, Keel, and Della.


Titled for the mother of two principal characters, Iris and Ralph, Sissie is divided into four parts. Through memories, the novel presents the stories of Iris, Ralph, and Sissie Joplin, with Sissie’s history revealed in parts 3 and 4, resulting in a Joplin family saga. Iris’s story—her failed marriage, her...

(The entire section is 1276 words.)