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...
(The entire section is 1433 words.)