William March 1893-1954
(Full name William Edward Campell) American novelist and short story writer.
Best known for The Bad Seed, March wrote novels and stories that reflect his grim obsession with human suffering. Deeply disturbed by his front-line experience in the first World War, and by what he saw when he represented a business firm in Germany during the first years of Hitler's regime, March wrote stories and novels in which violence, loss, hopelessness, disillusionment, and guilt are painfully triumphant. Company K, March's first novel, unrelentingly presents the horrors of war. The Bad Seed, his last, is the story of Rhoda, a model child and an impassive murderer. Despite the sensationalism in his work and the apparent despair of his outlook, March's prose and his understanding of human character are marked by clarity, restraint, and compassion.
March set much of his work in a fictionalized region of the south that corresponds to his native Mobile, Alabama, where he was born, one of eleven children, into a poor and itinerant family. By the age of fourteen, March had left school and, by means of a succession of jobs, earned enough money to take courses in business and law. In 1917 he enlisted in the Marines; he fought in Europe, was wounded, decorated, and, in 1919, discharged. He went to work for an Alabama steamship company and rose to be one of its top executives and major shareholders. In the late 1920s he began writing stories about what he had seen of the war in an attempt to relieve the pressure of recollections which tormented him. In 1938, after the success of his first novel and his first collection of short stories, March resigned his position as vice president of the Waterman Steamship Company to devote himself to writing full time. While not autobiographical, his writing reflects the torments, anxieties and divisions that afflicted him throughout his life. He died of a series of heart attacks at the height of his popularity, which declined precipitously after his death despite the fact that his work retained a loyal following and critical respect.
In simple stories and in complex novels, March wrote about the explosive outbreak of pent-up and hidden things. One of his earliest and most well-regarded stories, “The Little Wife,” reveals a man as he struggles to avoid accepting his wife's death. Another story “Woolen Drawers,” delineates the bitter results of the suppression of sexuality in its main characters and explores some elements common to prostitution and prudery. “Private Letter” describes Germany at the time the Nazi Party began to assert itself. His novels, always critically esteemed, explore the conflicts spawned by unresolved class, family, sexual, and racial matters. All of March's work provides an examination of the conflicts that tormented him and caused him, for a time, to abandon writing and to suffer emotional breakdowns.
March is recognized by critics for his narrative skill, for the seriousness of his themes, and for his ability to create authentic characters, convincing symbols, and compelling plots. Stanley Edgar Hyman has compared him to William Faulkner. Some of his short fiction has been anthologized or adapted for radio and television. The Bad Seed was not only a best seller but the basis of a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie. March captured the spirit of the time, the range of its conflicts, and its toll on human beings. Alistair Cooke called him a “classic modern” and “the most underrated of all contemporary American writers of fiction.”
Company K (novel) 1933
Come in at the Door (novel) 1934
The Little Wife, and Other Stories (short stories) 1935
The Tallons [published as A Song for Harps in England] (novel) 1936
Some Like Them Short (short stories) 1939
The Looking-Glass (novel) 1944
Trial Balance: The Collected Short Stories of William March (short stories) 1945
October Island (novel) 1952
The Bad Seed (novel) 1954
A William March Omnibus (short stories) 1956
99 Fables (short stories) 1960
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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: A review of Company K, in The Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 32, No. 1632, May 11, 1933, p. 332.
[In the following excerpt, a reviewer praises the effectiveness of the narrative strategy March employs in Company K.]
The idea behind Mr. William March's story is a clever one for a War novel. It is, in fact, so obviously effective that it is curious that it has not been thought of before. It is to take the imaginary roster of a company of infantry and give a short extract, in the first person, from the views of every officer and man either on the War in general or on some particular incident. The company being an American one, the synthesis is not so representative as is claimed, since the Americans took part only in the last year of the War, but it could have been made more representative than it is. There are some inconsistencies and other points where probability is strained. The shooting of twenty-two prisoners, deliberately and in cold blood on the order of the company commander, does not create the sickening horror which the powerful descriptions from several points of view would seem to warrant because one can only dismiss it as fantastic. One was, however, pleased to see that company commander shortly afterwards shot through the head, and not a little disappointed that the author, probably in a fit of...
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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1936)
SOURCE: A review of A Song for Harps, in The Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 35, No. 1805, September 5, 1936, p. 711.
[In the following review, the critic praises the complexity of March's skill as a writer, but laments the bleakness of his vision.]
It has been said of Mr. March that he seems to write with all his senses where most novelists write with one; and it is certainly some such quality of wide awareness as the statement implies that gives his work much of its compulsive power. Whatever one makes of his new novel as a whole, the sensation of life, rendered in its fine particularity of detail, is undeniable. Whether he describes a person or a scene, a movement or a thought, the thing is instantly clear before one.
So evident is this ability that one regrets the more to see it directed in some respects so narrowly and, in its total effect, so despondently. Possibly there is in A Song for Harps no more completely characteristic incident than that of a woman in the Alabama village which is its setting who, having made herself ill with worry that her daughter should have married a murderer, learns that the victim was a “nigger,” and instantly recovers, crying out now against the neighbour who had misled her to think her son-in-law a criminal. “‘She didn't say it was a nigger!' said...
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SOURCE: A review of The Looking Glass, in The New Republic, Vol. 108, No. 6, February 8, 1943, pp. 187-8.
[In the following review Hyman extols The Looking Glass, and calls for a wider recognition of all March's work.]
It is about time someone “discovered” William March. True, there is a William March cult, but a man who has been writing for twelve years and has published six books that rank with the best American fiction being written should have something more than a cult and a quiet fame in the short-story anthologies. By now, March has explored his Alabama county almost as thoroughly as Faulkner has explored his Mississippi county, delved just as deeply into the recesses of the human personality, and come up with material fully as striking (if handled without Faulkner's somewhat excessive symbolism of horror).
The Looking Glass, March's fourth novel and his first since 1936, is almost impossible to summarize on the level of plot. It is concerned with the interrelated lives of the inhabitants of “Reedyville,” including at least a dozen central characters and innumerable minor ones. There is Manny Nelloha, the boy obsessed with the fear that he is a Negro, who grows up to become a doctor, deliberately murders the girl he loves through a septic abortion, and spends the rest of his life in expiation; Honey Boutwell, the oversexed white girl who achieves...
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SOURCE: “Poor Pilgrim, Poor Stranger,” in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XXXVII, No. 29, July 17, 1954, pp. 9, 33-4.
[In the following reminiscence, Tallant affectionately recalls March as a man and as a writer.]
There was a sheet of paper in his typewriter. At the top of it he had typed the heading “Poor Pilgrim. Poor Stranger,” and beneath it he had written this paragraph:
The time comes in the life of each of us when we realize that death awaits us as it awaits others, that we will receive at the end neither preference nor exemption. It is then, in that disturbed moment, that we know life is an adventure with an ending, not a succession of bright days that go on forever. Sometimes the knowledge comes with repudiation and quick revolt that such injustice awaits us, sometimes with fear that dries the mouth and closes the eyes for an instant sometimes with servile weariness, an acquiescence more dreadful than fear. The knowledge that my own end was near came with pain, and afterwards astonishment; with the conventional heart attack, from which, I've been told, I've made an excellent recovery.
So did William March describe, probably as well as any man can, his reactions to his own death. For he did not make that excellent recovery. Early in the morning of May 15, 1954, presumably within the same day's cycle during which,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Little Wife, in The Explicator, Vol. XX, No. 8, April, 1962.
[In the following excerpt, Going explicates March's “The Little Wife.”]
The regularity with which William March's short stories have appeared in texts and anthologies contrasts markedly with the lack of criticism of these stories. Perhaps the forthright style and the deceptive clarity of theme lead commentators to pass them by. Although March keeps the narrative thread simple, the complication usually lies in a series of thematically related insinuations about life.
“The Little Wife,” the title story of March's first volume of short stories (1935) and the selection of Wallace and Mary Stegner for Great American Short Stories (1957), is a case in point. The obvious theme that death is a reality and cannot be pushed aside should not obscure the neatness with which March weaves together his favorite themes and makes this story an epitome of his basic ideas without destroying its brief, controlled scale. After Joe Hinckley (the literary forebear of O'Neill's Hickey in The Ice Man Cometh) receives but cannot open the second telegram confirming his wife's death, he struggles desperately to project onto the minds of his hearers his own image of his living “little wife” and thereby the image of himself as successful husband and proud father. His failure to do so underlines the...
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SOURCE: “The Bad Seed: A Modern Elsie Venner,” in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 361-3.
[In the following excerpt, Hamblen compares March's The Bad Seed with a nineteenth-century telling of a similar story.]
When William March's novel about a little-girl killer was published in 1954, it attracted widespread attention, probably because its theme—that of cold-blooded, congenital evil—has an almost morbid fascination for many readers. Rhoda is just eight years old, but by the time the book ends she has coolly killed three people and a puppy.
It is noticeable that no question of “guilt” or “sin” enters here. This child may be a criminal, but nowhere is there a suggestion that she is earmarked for a Calvinist hell or even that she is a candidate for repentance. March brushes past these ideas in order to refute them, dwelling instead on the mother's sense of shame and responsibility.
No notice has been taken of the fact that the novel presents a problem that was interesting in the nineteenth cenury, even before Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes focused attention on it with Elsie Venner, the story of a girl who has many ophidian traits, including a murderous disposition. When he wrote it, Holmes found it necessary to reiterate his conviction that evil can possess a human being through no fault of his own; that his...
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SOURCE: “An Unending Circle of Pain: William March's Company K,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 33-46.
[In the following essay, Simmonds explores the origins, themes, characters, and structure of Company K.]
On 25 July 1917, just over three months after America's entry into World War I and a fortnight or so after the first contingent of the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris, William Campbell, then aged twenty-four and employed as a clerk and subpoena server for a large law partnership in New York, applied for enlistment in the United States Marine Corps. He was accepted on 31 July, joining Company F, Marine Barracks, Parris Island, South Carolina, and was subsequently transferred to 133rd Company at the Marines' new base at Quantico, Virginia, in early January the following year. In February, the company sailed from Philadelphia in the USS Von Steuben, arriving in Brest on 24 February 1917.
Four weeks later, Campbell joined the 43rd Company (“Company F”) in the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment. On 18 June at Belleau Wood, as a result of machine gun fire, he received wounds to his left shoulder and to his head which hospitalized him for nearly three weeks. He was subsequently appointed company clerk and, after taking part in the St. Mihiel salient offensive, was rapidly promoted, first to corporal on 24 September and...
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SOURCE: “William March: Regional Perspective and Beyond,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 430-43.
[In the following essay, Going reviews March's published work and suggests directions for March scholarship.]
William March (1893-1954) has been praised as “the most underrated of all contemporary writers of fiction” and “one of the finest technicians writing the short story in English.”1 Between 1929 and 1954 he published six novels—including the memorable Company K and the popular The Bad Seed—and some seventy short stories; he also wrote over one hundred fables, amassed a personal fortune as vice president of Waterman Steamship Corporation, and assembled one of the finest private collections of modern French paintings in the United States.2 Often compared by contemporary critics to his fellow Southerner, William Faulkner, March depicted southern Alabama in both novel and short story. Since there has been no book-length study of March, this essay will be devoted to aspects of his life, the nature of his works, and the need for critical material about those works.
William March was born William Edward Campbell in Mobile, Alabama, on the corner of Broad and Conti Streets on 18 September 1893, the eldest son and second child of eleven, eight of whom lived to maturity.3 His father, John...
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SOURCE: “William March's ‘Personal Letter’: Fact Into Fiction,” in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Fall, 1977, pp. 625-37.
[In the following essay, referring to March's story “Personal Letter,” Simmonds explores March's use of his own experience in composing his fiction.]
William March's short story “Personal Letter,” written in Germany in the early 1930s, did not appear in print until many years later when March included it in the volume Trial Balance (1945). According to March, Trial Balance contained all those of his short stories he considered “worth preserving.”1 The book reprinted forty-eight of the fifty-five stories which had appeared in various magazines during the preceding sixteen years and/or in the two earlier story collections, The Little Wife and Other Stories (1935) and Some Like Them Short (1939). Of the seven stories omitted from Trial Balance, five (“Fifteen from Company K,” “The Dappled Fawn,” “Nine Prisoners,” “Sixteen and the Unknown Soldier,” and “Two Soldiers”) had, with some revision, already been incorporated into March's first full-length work, Company K (1933); one (“The Unploughed Patch”) had been, after somewhat more extensive revision, incorporated into the novel The Tallons (1936); and one (“The Marriage of the Bishops”) was probably omitted by March...
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SOURCE: “The Fiction of Pressure: William March's Short Stories,” in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 105-15.
[In the following essay, Routh examines the role of stress and obsession in March's short stories.]
In the penultimate of his 99 Fables, William March (1893-1954) depicts the artist's fate: the artist is appreciated only after he has died. But March himself has been dead nearly three decades now, and his fiction—six novels, two novellas, his fables, and over sixty short stories—still awaits the recognition it merits. As anyone who attempts to do work on March quickly learns, he is discussed in very few studies of American novelists, short-story writers, or Southern writers (much of March's fiction is situated in and around Reedyville, a fictional setting for a rendering of March's own native South Alabama). Nor is he to be found in most standard reference works on literature (including the Literary History of the United States).
As with numerous American fictionists, with March less is often more, for he is usually best when he is briefest. That is, like, say, Poe, Crane, Anderson, and Steinbeck, and perhaps even Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, March can be viewed as being essentially a writer of short stories who also wrote novels. Indeed, all of March's novels are indebted to their author's experience as a short-story...
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SOURCE: An afterword to The Two Worlds of William March, The University of Alabama Press, 1984, pp. 316-25.
[In the following excerpt, Simmonds discusses the major themes and conflicts that determined March's fiction and his life.]
The novelist John Gardner, discussing the mysteries of the creative processes, considered the nature and extent of bibliotherapy, explaining in the following terms what it means so far as he is concerned:
You really do ground your nightmares, you name them. When you write a story, you have to play that image, no matter how painful, over and over until you've got all the sharp details so you know exactly how to put it down on paper. By the time you've run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked every tic of your terror, it's lost its power over you. That's what bibliotherapy is all about, I guess. You take crazy people and have them write their story, better and better, and soon it's just a story on a page, or, more precisely, everybody's story on a page. It's a wonderful thing. Which isn't to say that I think writing is done for the health of the writer, though it certainly does incidentally have that effect.1
There is, in one respect, a marked similarity between Gardner's exposition and March's own approach to his writing, in that he also used his literary work as a means...
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SOURCE: “Killer Kids,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 17, November 6, 1996, pp. 16-20.
[In the following excerpt, Oates sees Rhoda, the murderous child of The Bad Seed, as a precursor to a series of lethal children who have appeared in popular fiction and the movies since the 1950s.]
First published in 1954, when it was an immediate and much-discussed best-seller, The Bad Seed has long been out of print and its eccentric author, William March, author of five previous novels and three short story collections, long forgotten. Popular culture swallows the creations of individuals and excretes them, so to speak, as autogenetic-mythopoetic figures: of those worldwide millions familiar with Frankenstein (that is, Dr. Frankenstein's unnamed creature) and Dracula, for instance, presumably only a small fraction know that these are literary creations, still fewer the names and identities of their authors. Popular culture has no memory, or sense of chronology; “history” is a matter of costuming, not a complex matrix of forces yielding complex meanings. To the degree to which horror fiction is successful, it tends to be detached from a specific author and from the vehicle of language itself. So with The Bad Seed, which germinated a mass-market harvest of evil, murderous children where none had previously existed; or, if they'd existed, had been too nuanced and ambiguous...
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Simmonds, Roy S. “A William March Checklist.” The Mississippi Quarterly XXVIII, No. 4 (Fall 1975): pp. 461-88.
Provides a comprehensive survey of March's work.
Cooke, Alistair. “William March A Trial Balance.” The Manchester Guardian Weekly 70, No. 24 (June 10, 1954): p. 11.
An obituary tribute to March and his work by the editor of A William March Omnibus.
Cooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967, 271 p.
Includes March and Company Kin a study of American novelists' responses to the First World War.
Additional coverage of March's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 86.
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