Ben Ames Williams Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.