Ben Ames Williams Criticism - Essay

Charles C. Baldwin (essay date 1925)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.)

Walter Jerrold (review date 1929)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 friend and later by a newspaper man who comes with a tale of horrid tragedy from a neighbouring island, where he has been to interview a celebrated singer. And then the dreadfulness threatens them—for Mrs. Sockford possesses the sinister emerald! The author succeeds in imparting an appropriate sense of the eerie to a lively narrative.

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

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5460 words.)

Joseph B. Yokelson (essay date 1963)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13218 words.)