Joan Williams’s considerable recognition for her five novels and short story collection—National Book Award finalist (1961), John P. Marquand First Novel Award (1961), grant recipient from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1962), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1998)—provides only a glimpse of the rich literary life she led.
Born on 26 September 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee, Williams centered her fiction on Tate County, Mississippi, where her maternal grandmother, Arvenia Moore, and other relatives lived. Williams’s parents were not particularly interested in literature, though her mother, Maud Moore Williams (1903–97), read a good deal, and her father, Priestly Howard Williams (1895–1955), a dynamite salesman, made up stories in his head as he drove. Joan Williams later said that this disclosure was as close as her father ever came to telling her he also wanted to be a writer. In Williams’s second novel, Old Powder Man (1966), her father’s larger-than-life character emerged, and it is one of very few novels—and perhaps the only novel—that meticulously re-creates the days of Mississippi’s levee camps.
Williams, an only child, attended Miss Hutchison’s School for Girls in Memphis and received her bachelor’s degree from Bard College. During the summer of 1949, before entering her senior year at Bard and fresh from winning the Mademoiselle College Fiction Prize for her short story “Rain Later,” Williams met William Faulkner in Oxford. What began as an intense and sustained correspondence between the two eventually led to romantic involvement. Williams was the only writer Faulkner ever mentored, and the art of writing dominated many of their letters. During the four years of their relationship, Williams published one story: a young editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Seymour Lawrence, accepted “The Morning and the Evening” in 1952.
In the early 1950s, while working at Look magazine in New York, Williams met Ezra Drinker Bowen, a member of the original editorial staff of Sports Illustrated. When their romance became serious, Williams ended her relationship with Faulkner in November 1953, though they continued to correspond until his death in 1962. Williams and Bowen married on 6 March 1954 in Memphis.
Ezra Bowen’s mother, biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen, recommended Williams for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference . Bread Loaf was a breakthrough for Williams, who by then had two small sons and a husband who commuted fifty miles from Stamford, Connecticut, to work in New York City. Since parting with Faulkner, Williams had been writing on her own and had taken a creative writing course at Columbia University. On the advice of Nancy Hale, her Bread Loaf adviser, and with suggestions from Berton Roueché, she developed “The Morning and the Evening” into a novel, which was published in 1961 and garnered acclaim and praise.
Williams’s marriage to Bowen ended in 1970, and on 28 October of that year, she married John T. Fargason Jr. of Clover Hill Plantation in Coahoma County, whom she had met while he was incarcerated at Parchman Prison for the manslaughter death of his sixteen-year-old stepson, Matthew Carter Stovall, on 12 February 1969. An article Fargason wrote while in prison was republished in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and a friend mailed it to Williams. Like her friendship with Faulkner, their relationship began with a sustained correspondence. Her marriage to Fargason ended in divorce in 1981.
Four books followed Old Powder Man: The Wintering (1971), a fictionalization of her friendship with Faulkner; County Woman (1982); a short story collection, Pariah and Other Stories (1983), dedicated to Faulkner’s memory; and Pay the Piper (1988). Between 1981 and 1995 she also published four short stories and an essay.
When Williams’s path again crossed Lawrence’s in 1984, his situation had changed substantially. The young Atlantic editor who took her short story in 1952 was now a leading publisher of literary authors with his own Houghton Mifflin imprint. Over the next decade, Williams watched and sometimes helped him discover talented authors, continuing and diversifying her literary education. Few writers’ lives are intertwined with those of such notable figures as Faulkner, Bowen, and Lawrence, yet Williams is best remembered for her novels and stories. She died on 11 April 2004.
- Lisa C. Hickman, William Faulkner and Joan Williams: The Romance of Two Writers (2006)
- Memphis Commercial Appeal (30 October 1971)