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John Williams: Collected Novels (slipcased edition)


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As the spirit of experimentation swirled around him in the 1960s and ’70s, John Williams, working in relative obscurity as an English professor, wrote finely crafted novels distinguished by precise form, powerful but restrained prose, and close attention to physical detail and its symbolic import. His three major works—Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and the National Book Award–winning Augustus (1972)—have come to be recognized as masterpieces of American fiction. This authoritative Library of America volume brings all three together for the first time, along with editor Daniel Mendelsohn’s selection of essays in which Williams reflects on the context of his work.

In Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Harvard student William Andrews, his imagination fired after hearing a lecture by Emerson, strikes out West, arriving in the small Kansas prairie town of Butcher’s Crossing, where he is quickly enticed to finance a buffalo hunting expedition to the Colorado Rockies. Driven deeper and deeper into the wild by unreasoning greed as winter approaches, beset by trouble without and within, the expedition stumbles toward a scene of slaughter no reader will ever forget.

Stoner (1965) follows the life and unremarkable career of William Stoner, an English professor in a midwestern university in the early decades of the last century. Despite keen disappointments in his marriage and family and repeated failures in the fraught arena of faculty politics, Stoner fashions an inner life—rendered by Williams with consummate skill—that becomes a source of solace and strength. Writing for The New York Times, Morris Dickstein called Stoner “something rarer than a great novel—it is a perfect novel.”

In Augustus (1972), Williams transports readers back to the turbulent final years of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire, to contemplate, in the imagined words of his titular emperor, “the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility—which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it.” Narrated through letters, journals, and memoranda by Julius Caesar, Augustus, Augustus’s daughter Julia (banished by her father to a barren volcanic island for the crime of adultery), and an ever-changing cast of allies and enemies, Augustus is a masterwork of historical fiction that, as Daniel Mendelsohn has written, “suggests the past without presuming to recreate it.”

Rounding out the volume is a selection of three essays by Williams—“The Western: Definition of the Myth” (1961), “Fact in Fiction: Problems for the Historical Novelist” (1973), and “The Future of the Novel” (1974)—as well as the author’s remarks upon accepting the National Book Award for Augustus in 1973.

Daniel Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, where he is Editor-at-Large. His books include The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, and, most recently, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate.

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