From the HBW Archives: The Works of John A. Williams, Novelist and Journalist

[by Meredith Wiggins]

Last year, HBW inaugurated the GEMS Project, an initiative designed to bring renewed critical interest to older, living African American authors who have received less scholarly attention in recent years than their works should merit. 

The subject of HBW’s current GEMS Project is journalist and novelist John A. Williams.  We’re collaborating with Williams’s family to produce a tribute video that will feature biographical information, popular and lesser-known images of the writer, and a reflection about Williams’s work from Ishmael Reed.

Today’s blog post will preview HBW’s forthcoming GEMS project by highlighting some of Williams’s works held in the HBW archives.

 As can be seen from the picture above the jump cut, HBW’s General Collection holds copies of several works by the highly prolific Williams, who published 12 novels between 1960 and 1999 in addition to numerous works of nonfiction, including book-length studies and newspaper and magazine assignments.  Several of Williams’s works deal with armed conflict and revolution, perhaps reflecting his time in the United States Navy during World War II and his time stationed as a journalist in West Africa during the 1960s.

Left, 1988 edition; right, 1969 edition.

Many of Williams’s works feature dynamic cover illustrations, and the novels that HBW holds multiple copies of provide a particularly good example of how novel covers can evolve through multiple printings to reflect current trends in publishing as well as larger cultural shifts, a topic we’ve covered on the HBW Blog in the past.

Left, 1972 edition; right, 1988 edition.

In the pictures to the right, we see how the covers of Sissie and Captain Blackman, originally published in 1963 and 1972, respectively, changed in subsequent printings.  In both cases, the earlier editions feature bold graphics that highlight the author’s name and book title, while the later editions place more emphasis on depicting actual or stylized versions of African Americans.

As was the case in our last Archives post,
these copies came to HBW from a variety of sources.  Some were obtained
from libraries and book sales, others through donations–and others,
like our first-edition Captain Blackman, were purchased by HBW’s
own Maryemma Graham and signed by the author during its initial
publication run.  Our 1975 re-issued copy of Night Song (originally published in 1961) even came with its original owner’s handwritten notes on the text!  

Title page with author’s personalized inscription.
Night Song and its owner’s notes on the text.

While far from complete, HBW’s collection of Williams’s work provides an excellent overview of the author’s creative output and emphasizes the breadth and importance of his artistic output throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.  As HBW moves forward with its GEMS Project on Williams, we look forward to playing a part in bringing the author and his work the attention they deserve.

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