Ben Ames Williams

Ben Ames Williams (March 7, 1889 February 4, 1953[2]) was an accomplished American novelist and short story writer; he wrote hundreds of short stories and over thirty novels during the course of his life. Among his novels are Come Spring (1940), Leave Her to Heaven (1944) House Divided (1947), and The Unconquered (1953). He was published in many magazines, but the majority of his stories appeared in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

Ben Ames Williams
Born(1889-03-07)March 7, 1889
Macon, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedFebruary 4, 1953(1953-02-04) (aged 63)
Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.
NationalityUnited States
Years active1919-1988
SpouseFlorence Tafton Talpey (1912-1953)
ChildrenPenelope Ann
Roger Chilton (Dartmouth, Class of `36)
Ben Ames, Jr. (Dartmouth, Class of `38)[1]

Early life

Williams was born in Macon, Mississippi to Daniel Webster Williams and Sarah Marshall Ames on March 7, 1889.[3][4]

Just after his birth, he and his parents moved to Jackson, Ohio. As his father was owner and editor of the Jackson Standard Journal, he grew up around writing, printing, and editing. In high school he worked for the Journal, doing grunt work in the beginning and eventually writing and editing. He attended Dartmouth College and upon graduation in 1910 was offered a job teaching English at a boys school in Connecticut. He telegraphed his father seeking career advice, but his handwriting was terrible and his father mistook "teaching" for "traveling" and, not wanting his son to become a travelling businessman, advised him not to take the job. Richard Cary says it later saved Williams from "a purgatory of grading endless, immature English 'themes'" and propelled him "toward a career as one of the most popular storytellers of his time [5]

After graduation he took a job reporting for the Boston American. Williams worked hard reporting for the local newspaper, but only did this for income; his heart lay with magazine fiction. Each night he worked on his fiction writing with the aspiration that one day, his stories would be able to support himself, his wife, Florence Talpey, and their children, Roger, Ben, and Penelope.


Williams first publications were The Wings of 'Lias in Smith's Magazine in July 1915,[6] and on August 23, 1915[7] in The Popular Magazine with his short story, Deep Stuff. After that his popularity slowly grew. On April 14, 1917, the Saturday Evening Post picked up one of Williams' stories, The Mate of the Susie Oakes. Richard Cary has highlighted the privilege of being printed in the pages of this mammoth magazine: "The Saturday Evening Post represented an Olympus of a sort to him and his contemporaries. To be gathered into its pantheon of authors, to be accepted three or five or eight (and eventually twenty-one) times in a year constituted "a seal of approval and a personal vindication",[5] and it certainly helped his career. One of his stories in 1926 included a notorious mathematical puzzle known as The monkey and the coconuts which provoked an outpouring of 2000 letters to the Post asking for a solution to the problem.[8] He published 135 short stories, 35 serials, and 7 articles for the Post during a period of 24 years. After the Post took him, other magazines began eagerly seeking Williams to submit his fiction to their magazines.

Although there generally is not a common theme running through Williams' work, the pieces he contributed to the Saturday Evening Post tended to be focused on the business environment. Such stories of his as "His Public" complemented the business slant of the Post. Williams became "identified in later years with rural Maine because so many of his stories were set there[9] He owned a summer home there, and grew fond of the land because he spent so much of his free time in Maine with friend A.L. McCorrison. Williams is perhaps most famous for creating the fictional town of Fraternity, located in rural Maine. 125 of his short stories were set in Fraternity, and they were most popular in the Post, though George Horace Lorimer was always upset that there was too much character and not enough plot in these stories [9]

Film adaptations

A number of his novels were later turned into films, the most popular of these being Leave Her to Heaven (1945), The Strange Woman (1946), and All the Brothers Were Valiant twice, first in 1923 and again in 1953. His writing traversed a wide range of genres and evinced considerable expertise in a number of divergent fields. Other films based on the writing of Williams are After His Own Heart (1919), Jubilo, Jr (1927), Too Busy to Work (1932), Small Town Girl (1936), Adventure's End (1937) and Johnny Trouble (1957).[10]

Later Years

The mid-1920s were the peak of Williams' short-story-writing career. In 1926, he published an impressive twenty-one stories in the Saturday Evening Post in addition to the stories he published in other magazines that same year. There were two main factors contributing to his slow fade out of the spotlight: the Great Depression and the trend towards shorter fiction, a tough mold for the often-verbose Williams to fit into. This transition away from magazine culture enabled him to focus on novel-writing.

Ben Ames Williams died on February 4, 1953, in Brookline, Massachusetts, after suffering a heart attack while participating in a curling contest at the Brookline Country Club. He was survived by his wife, three children, and his mother.[11]

Selected List of Novels Published

  • All the Brothers Were Valiant (1919)
  • The Sea Bride (1920)
  • The Great Accident (1920)
  • Evered (1921)
  • Black Pawl (1922)
  • Sangsue (1923)
  • Audacity (1924)
  • The Whaler (1924)
  • The Rational Hand (1925)
  • The Silver Forest (1926)
  • Immortal Longings (1927)
  • Splendor (1928)
  • The Dreadful Night (1928)
  • Death on Scurvy Street (1929)
  • Touchstone (1930)
  • Great Oaks (1931)
  • An End to Mirth (1931)
  • Pirate's Purchase (1931)
  • Honeyflow (1932)
  • Pascal's Mill (1933)
  • Mischief (1933)
  • Small Town Girl (1935)
  • Crucible (1937)
  • Thread of Scarlet (1939)
  • The Happy End (1939)
  • Come Spring (1940)
  • The Strange Woman (1941)
  • Deep Waters (1942)
  • Leave Her to Heaven (1944)
  • It's a Free Country (1945)
  • House Divided (1947)
  • Owen Glen (1950)
  • The Unconquered (1953)

Further reading

  • 1. Williams, Ben Ames Jr. "House United." Colby Library Quarterly 10 (Dec 1973): 179-189.
  • 2. Williams, Florence Talpey. 'About Ben Ames Williams", Colby Library Quarterly 6 (Sep 1963): 302-327.
  • 3. Yokelson, Joseph B. "Ben Ames Williams: Pastoral Moralist", Colby Library Quarterly 6 (Sep 1963): 278-292.


  2. Lloyd, James B. (1981). Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. pp. 467–469.
  3. Cary, Richard. "Ben Ames Williams profile", Saturday Evening Post: Colby Quarterly 10.4.
  4. Cary, Richard. "Ben Ames Williams in Periodicals and Newspapers", Colby Quarterly 9.11.
  5. Cary, Richard. "Ben Ames Williams: The Apprentice Years", Saturday Evening Post: Colby Quarterly 9.11 (1972): pp 586-99.
  6. Ben Ames Williams, The Editor (July 15, 1917)
  7. Profile, FictionMags Index; accessed August 27, 2015.
  8. Martin Gardner’s The Monkey and the Coconuts by Gary Antonick in The New York Times: Numberplay, October 7, 2013
  9. "Ben Ames Williams." American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series. Ed. Bobby Ellen Kimbel. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 102. Detroit: Gale, 1991, pp. 358-365
  10. "JohnnyTrouble based on Prodigal's Mother". Retrieved August 27, 2015.
  11. "Ben A Williams, 63, Novelist, Is Dead" (PDF). The New York Times. July 5, 1953. Retrieved January 20, 2017.

See also

The monkey and the coconuts

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