William March Essay - Critical Essays

March, William

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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

Criticism

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1933)

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 forgetfulness, had resurrected him at the end of the book.

Nevertheless, some of the little narratives or comments are clever and natural. There is the plain blunt soldier, the strict N.C.O., the dressmaker who has been made a cook, the poet who feared he was boring an unimaginative companion, and the companion who had been inspired by him in reality. There is the poor soul haunted by imaginary persecution, and the unhappy officer who sends an N.C.O. with his section, against the N.C.O.'s judgment, to dig himself in amid a clump of trees marked down by the enemy, and sees the whole section blown to pieces. The dead have their say, giving their emotions up to the moment of death. Some who have not hitherto spoken take up the tale after they have returned home and become private citizens again. There is also, but rarely, a gleam of pleasant humour to relieve the dark background.

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1936)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Stanley Edgar Hyman (essay date 1943)

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...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Robert Tallant (essay date 1954)

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...

(The entire section is 2722 words.)

William T. Going (essay date 1962)

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 entire section is 512 words.)

Abigail Ann Hamblen (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Roy S. Simmonds (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 7877 words.)

William T. Going (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 5857 words.)

Roy S. Simmonds (essay date 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 4866 words.)

Michael Routh (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 4061 words.)

Roy S. Simmonds (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 4655 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 4342 words.)