Williams, John A(lfred) 1925–
Williams is a black American novelist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, biographer, poet, and editor whose work concerns the effects of racism on individual identity and pride. Critics note that his changing personal opinions and literary style strengthen with each successive novel. The Man Who Cried I Am is his best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)
In his new work, Sissie, [John A. Williams] draws in part on his authoritative knowledge of [the jazz] world, but this novel is far richer and cuts deeper than most books about jazz. For Sissie is a chronicle of Negro life in transition, and it unites, as few novels do, the experience of the brutalized older generation of Negroes with that of the sophisticated young, who, one way or another, have made it in American life. As such, it is full of vivid contrasts, and it conveys memorably an image of the double war that Negroes wage—against their white oppressors on the one hand, and generation against generation on the other. In its portrayal of the conflict of generations, Sissie suggests the American-Jewish novel of a few decades ago in which the younger generation rebels against, but is emotionally wedded to, the experience of its parents.
Sissie is a proud, indomitable matriarch with two surviving children, Ralph and Iris. On one level the story is almost a sentimental saga of a Negro family that struggles against poverty and demoralization and finally achieves strenuous respectability. Here the book is akin to the traditional American "immigrant" novel. But Sissie is steadily redeemed from sentimentality by the grain of its sensibility and its implacable anger. There is none of the congratulatory tone of the usual up-from-the-slums story. The author is far too keenly attuned to the monstrous price of the victory….
[Sissie] may well be the authoritative portrait of the Negro mother in America, that Machtweib who has given the beleaguered Negro family whatever strength and stability it has. Williams depicts Sissie with stunning fidelity—her capacity to endure, her cunning, and her abiding strength, at once supportive and disabling. For what Sissie is really about is the effort of her children to emancipate themselves from this Big Mama who in nurturing them almost destroyed them….
Inevitably, this novel invites comparison with James Baldwin's Another Country. Sissie is by far the better work. For all his platform polemics, Baldwin does not seem to possess the grasp of the Negro milieu that Williams displays. And where Another Country is shrill and noisy, Sissie is permeated by a quiet anger that builds and builds inexorably. John A. Williams may well be a front-runner in a new surge of Negro creativity.
David A. Boroff, "Blue Note for Bigotry," in Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1963 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 30, 1963, p. 49.
In The Man Who Cried I Am John Williams uses conventional craftsmanship to induce readers to suspend their disbelief; then, at the end, he reveals a conspiracy theory of recent history which links a United States government blue-print for Negro genocide with [real events]…. Flashbacks intertwine this shocker with a great deal of more easily assimilable material. Williams' generally believable characterizations and constant references to painful aspects of modern American history will prepare most readers to accept the ending as at least symbolically true. It may be viewed as the logical extension of what we already know. Other readers less predisposed to Williams' point of view will regard the often stilted dialogue and the overambitious plot as defects that prevent the book from totally convincing. (p. 411)
Williams records his...
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impressions of almost everything that has ever happened between World War II and 1964. His ability to work all this in depends mainly on his choice of a hero, Max Reddick, who is not only a successful Negro novelist, former officer of a segregated army unit during the invasion of Italy, resident of Harlem, the Midwest, and Paris, but also (like the author) a journalist with international experience. Williams does not present this subject matter for its own sake, however; Max can discover his individual identity only as he comes to understand the true history of Negroes in America. The book's ending builds upon the hero's earlier betrayals, which take place against a background of ineffectual white liberals and increasingly appealing Black Nationalists. (pp. 411-12)
In spite of his encyclopaedic tendencies, Williams manages to keep a good grip on two main characters and many minor ones. The hero maintains a nice balance between idealism and despair…. [He] is supplemented by the more cynical voice of the book's second major figure, Max Ames, who in many ways represents Richard Wright. Unfortunately, Williams gives Ames some sermons on the role of Negro artists which seriously impair the effect of the book's early scenes. Some of the minor characters seem even more artificial and stereotyped.
In spite of these faults, The Man Who Cried I Am grips the reader powerfully. Williams attempts to evoke many current moods and succeeds to an impressive degree. (p. 412)
Barbara Joye, in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1968, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Fourth Quarter (December, 1968), pp. 411-12.
Mythic or not, Mothersill and the Foxes … is yet another chapter in the long history of the Black man as lover, as phallic symbol…. Long live the myth! Long live copulation! Long live foxes (slang for fine chicks)! the author seems to be shouting at us in ear-shattering decibels….
Though the locale changes—hotel rooms, his apartment, the women's apartments, three continents—the setting is always the same, a bed. Professionally, Odell Mothersill is a social worker, but his talents lie in the direction of the "lay."… Williams manages a skillful blending of the two consuming interests in the life of his main character with a deft manipulation of the plot culminating in a surprising denoument. He emerges as an arresting storyteller. (p. 89)
Odell Mothersill is a middle-class Black, escaping a prior generation of Pullman Car porters and maids, and ostensibly this raises the level of respectability of his amorous forays. He is college trained, professional, Ph.D., top management. He has fought his way to the top of the heap and is respected by Blacks and whites alike as a giant in his field. And with good cause, for he knows what he is doing and, despite his pleasurable sexual encounters, he comes through as a man of warmth and concern….
John A. Williams is never as effective when he is nice, gentle, soft as he is when he is brutal, intense, basic. His The Man Who Cried I Am, with the protagonist suffering from cancer of the rectum, is far more lucid than his Sissie, which deals with an indomitable matriarch and her two surviving children. Experience shapes the writer, and Williams has drained from his experiences every drop and distilled it into words for readers. In short, Mothersill and the Foxes is pure Williams—Williams doing the kind of writing he does with lusty aplomb.
The novel is in no way profound. It is gallantly entertaining. (p. 90)
That Williams is a gifted writer there can be no doubt…. That he is a prolific writer, there is hardly room for argument. There is no Black writer around who can match him for sheer quantitative output. There are few who can match him in ability.
What happens to myths? Some of them live on, and on in fictional characters like John Henry, like Joe the Grinder, like Odell Mothersill. (p. 91)
Huel D. Perkins, in Black World (reprinted by permission of Black World Magazine; copyright, 1975 by Johnson Publishing Company, Inc.), June, 1975.
John A. Williams is a black writer, the way the crocus is a spring flower. "The Junior Bachelor Society," his latest novel, is the story of nine middle-aged black men and what their lives have become in the more than three decades gone by since they played ball together, and grew up together, in Central City, in upstate New York. (p. 32)
[What] reunites them after all this time is a three-day testimonial to their former coach and character-builder Charles ("Chappie") Davis, now in his 70's. Sports, for all of them, was where it was. (pp. 32-3)
Along with the lives of the nine principals, rendered in loving detail, Williams also fleshes out their wives, and the marital relationships, as well as the intricate crosscurrents prevailing when they all get back together, for many of the women grew up in Central City as well….
Williams not only manages it all, combines and orchestrates it all, but gives the reader (as the best novelists have always done) the sense of still more interconnected life out there, still more books out there, already written and yet to come, than what is here so brilliantly encompassed….
Himself now in his early 50's, Williams is responsible, as author or editor, for some 18 books. Through sheer weight of craftsmanship, he should come crashing through one day soon to the kind of recognition he deserves. Until then … between Frank Yerby and Eldridge Cleaver there are universes to explore, and it is good to know John A. Williams remains on the case. (p. 33)
Ivan Gold, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 11, 1976.
In writing ["The Junior Bachelor Society," a] novel about the thirtieth reunion of a group of upstate New York childhood friends and football teammates, Mr. Williams appears to have wanted to close the gap in literature about the black middle class single-handed. And he very nearly succeeds…. Many of [the] people are interesting, but Mr. Williams is in such haste to push on to the next character's life that it becomes increasingly difficult to remember which details belong with which character. The book is also rather awkwardly paced and has strange lacunae. One gets to know almost nothing, for example, about the old coach, Chappie, whom the men have come together to honor, and very little more about the man they all rally around in the novel's rather Hollywoodish ending—a pimp who recently murdered a policeman. For all its flaws, however, the book does tug one along, and it provides many evocative glimpses of people who wear American culture like a coat made of a material that they're allergic to but need for warmth. (p. 90)
The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 16, 1976.