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Augustus ()

When I was asked to be the guest editor of an issue of Ploughshares, my first thought was John Williams. I knew that he had a new novel in progress, and I hoped to be able to publish a portion of it and do some kind of interview that would bring his work to the attention of other appreciative readers. The abiding frustration of the "cult" of dedicated Williams fans is that his books are not nearly as well known as they deserve to be. That is a common complaint among writers, but John's case seems perversely unique.

When Stoner was published by The Viking Press in 1965, it sold about 2,000 copies, and the only review it received in any national publication appeared in the "Briefly Noted" column of The New Yorker. A year later, someone recommended the novel to Irving Howe, who was moved to write an appreciative essay about it in The New Republic, which, as Williams says, "didn't sell a single copy, but gave the book a kind of underground life."

When the novel was published in England in 1973, C.P. Snow began a glowing notice by asking the question that continues to perplex and disturb the devoted admirers of Stoner:

"Why isn't this book famous?"

Snow went on to say that "Very few novels in English, or literary productions of any kind, have come anywhere near its level for human wisdom or as a work of art."

Yet today, the book is out of print. It can be found in some libraries, and its going price on the used book market is $25.

When Williams' next novel, Augustus, was published by Viking in 1972, it was praised by Orville Prescott in an advance reading as "the most brilliant novel I have read in many years. . .an absolutely astonishingly impressive technical performance. . . it ranks with Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March as a work of literature." Still, though it enjoyed what is known in the trade as a "modest but respectable" hardcover sale of 10,000, it was almost universally ignored by the literary press until its nomination for The National Book Award the following year prompted several "catch-up" reviews.

To the delight and surprise of Williams and his cult (we are accustomed to Stonerian frustration), Augustus was named co-winner of The National Book Award for Fiction with John Barth's Chimera. At last, our man had got his due; surely the NBA would bring him and his work to the wider audience it so richly deserves. But it hasn't really happened that way. Augustus is still in print in a Penguin paperback edition, but there hasn't seemed to be any carryover to Williams' other books, or his larger recognition as a writer.

When I mention John Williams to otherwise literate readers, I sometimes get only a blank stare, and sometimes a look of recognition followed by "Oh, you mean John A. Williams, the black writer." No, I don't. I know and respect the work of John A. Williams, who is a fine novelist himself, but not the one I mean. So common is this confusion that some people now refer to "the white John Williams" to distinguish him from John A., but I personally prefer to think of him as "the plain John Williams," in reference to his own description of his chosen style of writing, as well as his omission of the use of a middle name or initial.

Perhaps the lack of recognition of "the plain John Williams" is traceable in part to the very principles and ideals that serve as the subject matter of much of his fiction, and are reflected in the precision and integrity of his "plain" style.
    -ESSAY: John Williams: Plain Writer (Dan Wakefield, Fall/Winter 1981, Ploughshares)
Suffice it to say that his death ten years ago hasn't brought John Williams any posthumous recognition either. In fact, when I first looked for this National Book Award winner it was out of print, though a nice new edition seems to have come out since. At any rate, this is a terrific mostly epistolary account of the rise to power and reign of Augustus, with letters to, by, and about him mixed in with fragments of memoirs and histories. This narrative structure may be a bit off-putting at first--I'm not personally a big fan of epistolary novels--but you quickly get the hang of it and it affords a range of perspectives on the great man that has a powerful cumulative effect.

Though the life of Augustus is largely a tale of triumph, the story told here is more like a tragedy. Young Octavius and his friends are motivated by a dream of the greatness of the lost Roman Republic, but, as Gaius Cilnius Maecenas writes to Titus Livius (Livy):
What you seem so unwilling to accept, even now, is this: that the ideals which supported the old Republic had no correspondence to the fact of the old Republic; that the glorious word concealed the deed of horror; that the appearance of tradition and order cloaked the reality of corruption and chaos; that the call to liberty and freedom closed the minds, even of those who called, to the facts of privation, suppression, and sanctioned murder. We had learned that we had to do what we did, and we would not be deterred by the forms that deceived the world.
The bulk of the book consists of Octavius become Augustus learning this lesson. He is able to restore order--after the chaos that followed Julius Caesar's assassination--but must make so many personal and political compromises and so hurt those he loves that there is little joy in all he achieves. In one exchange with his daughter, Julia, we get what is almost a plea, rather than an affirmation:
"Father," I asked, "has it all been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?

My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. "I must believe that it has," he said.
This gives the book a somber, elegiac tone, though it's an immensely enjoyable read nonetheless.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Historical Fiction
John Williams Links:

    -John Edward Williams Papers (University of Arkansas)
    -John Williams (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: John Williams: Plain Writer (Dan Wakefield, Fall/Winter 1981, Ploughshares)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Caesar Augustus: An Annotated Guide to Online Resources (
    -History & Literature of the Roman Revolution
    -REVIEW: of Augustus by John Williams (Ana Schwartz, Cleaver)
    -REVIEW: of Stoner by John Williams ( Michelle E. Crouch, Cleaver)
    -ESSAY: How Augustus rebuilt Rome: Why the age of Augustus still transfixes us (TOM HOLLAND, New Statesman)