William March Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

William March 1893-1954

(Full name William Edward Campell) American novelist and short story writer.

Best known for The Bad Seed, March wrote novels and stories that reflect his grim obsession with human suffering. Deeply disturbed by his front-line experience in the first World War, and by what he saw when he represented a business firm in Germany during the first years of Hitler's regime, March wrote stories and novels in which violence, loss, hopelessness, disillusionment, and guilt are painfully triumphant. Company K, March's first novel, unrelentingly presents the horrors of war. The Bad Seed, his last, is the story of Rhoda, a model child and an impassive murderer. Despite the sensationalism in his work and the apparent despair of his outlook, March's prose and his understanding of human character are marked by clarity, restraint, and compassion.

Biographical Information

March set much of his work in a fictionalized region of the south that corresponds to his native Mobile, Alabama, where he was born, one of eleven children, into a poor and itinerant family. By the age of fourteen, March had left school and, by means of a succession of jobs, earned enough money to take courses in business and law. In 1917 he enlisted in the Marines; he fought in Europe, was wounded, decorated, and, in 1919, discharged. He went to work for an Alabama steamship company and rose to be one of its top executives and major shareholders. In the late 1920s he began writing stories about what he had seen of the war in an attempt to relieve the pressure of recollections which tormented him. In 1938, after the success of his first novel and his first collection of short stories, March resigned his position as vice president of the Waterman Steamship Company to devote himself to writing full time. While not autobiographical, his writing reflects the torments, anxieties and divisions that afflicted him throughout his life. He died of a series of heart attacks at the height of his popularity, which declined precipitously after his death despite the fact that his work retained a loyal following and critical respect.

Major Works

In simple stories and in complex novels, March wrote about the explosive outbreak of pent-up and hidden things. One of his earliest and most well-regarded stories, “The Little Wife,” reveals a man as he struggles to avoid accepting his wife's death. Another story “Woolen Drawers,” delineates the bitter results of the suppression of sexuality in its main characters and explores some elements common to prostitution and prudery. “Private Letter” describes Germany at the time the Nazi Party began to assert itself. His novels, always critically esteemed, explore the conflicts spawned by unresolved class, family, sexual, and racial matters. All of March's work provides an examination of the conflicts that tormented him and caused him, for a time, to abandon writing and to suffer emotional breakdowns.

Critical Reception

March is recognized by critics for his narrative skill, for the seriousness of his themes, and for his ability to create authentic characters, convincing symbols, and compelling plots. Stanley Edgar Hyman has compared him to William Faulkner. Some of his short fiction has been anthologized or adapted for radio and television. The Bad Seed was not only a best seller but the basis of a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie. March captured the spirit of the time, the range of its conflicts, and its toll on human beings. Alistair Cooke called him a “classic modern” and “the most underrated of all contemporary American writers of fiction.”