Ben Ames Williams Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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

The Strumpet Sea [republished as Once Aboard the Whaler] (novel) 1938

The Happy End (short stories) 1939

Thread of Scarlet (novel) 1939

Come Spring (novel) 1940

The Strange Woman (novel) 1941

Time of Peace (novel) 1942

Leave Her to Heaven (novel) 1944

It's a Free Country (novel) 1945

House Divided (novel) 1947

Fraternity Village (short stories) 1949

Owen Glen (novel) 1950

The Unconquered (novel) 1953


Charles C. Baldwin (essay date 1925)

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 him. But the ordeal made him old as it made him impatient of irrelevance. He has none of the amateur knowingness of Chambers or Vance and none of the sheer fatuity of Arthur Stringer. He is a magazine author, true; but with Hergesheimer, he always gives of his best—he is serious. He writes because he is a born writer, and not because some editor or other has taken a fancy to his writings.


Though born in Macon, Mississippi, March 7, 1889, Mr. Williams spent his youth in Jackson, Ohio, where his father was (and is) the editor of a country weekly, one of the most amusing and likable of Ohio's thousand and one editors, recently a candidate for governor in the primaries, running against Donahey.

William Dean Howells was the son of an Ohio editor; and Howells got his learning (what little it was) of Latin and Greek from browsing among his father's books. So too, with Williams. The house was like a library; and until he went East to school, at fifteen, his chief delight had been in listening to his mother read from one or another of his father's books. Indeed, until he entered Dartmouth, he had little formal education, for he had scarcely begun at his Eastern preparatory school when his father was made consul at Cardiff, in Wales, and the family transferred to Britain. There he studied Latin with a tutor until he found himself reading it for pleasure; from then on most of his preparation for college was done alone.


It was in 1916 that Mr. Williams was discovered by Bob Davis of Munsey's, the most enterprising and generous editor in America—possibly (now) excepting H. L. Mencken. Encouraged by Mr. Davis, Williams resigned from the Boston American and settled down to an author's life. He took a house at Newtonville in Massachusetts and spent his summers at a camp near Belfast in Maine. One place or the other he works, fishes, shoots, plays with his two growing boys, and drives a Ford station-wagon, locally known as the Yellow...

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Walter Jerrold (review date 1929)

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...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Robert van Gelder with Ben Ames Williams (interview date 1943)

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...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)

Florence Talpey Williams (essay date 1963)

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...

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Joseph B. Yokelson (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 6098 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1963)

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...

(The entire section is 9215 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 5426 words.)

Ben Ames Williams, Jr. (essay date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 4322 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1973)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 185 words.)