John A. Williams Online Exhibit, Univ. of Rochester: intro

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Shelter from Storms: Gathering the John A. Williams Archive

Genius does what it must, the adage reminds us, and talent does what it can.

For more than fifty years as a writer and educator, John A. Williams has felt compelled to do what he must and in doing so has amassed an impressive body of work, including thirteen novels, two books of poetry, eight books of non-fiction, more than fifty published essays, two libretti, and several plays and television/film screenplays. He has edited or co-edited twelve books of collected fiction and non-fiction; his work has been reproduced in more than thirty-five anthologies and textbooks. As a journalist, his work has appeared in major newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Village Voice, Jet magazine, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

With the exception of a few items held by Syracuse University, the University of Rochester holds the complete, extant John A. Williams archive: manuscripts, typescripts, drafts, notes, proofs, photographs, audio-visual materials, ephemera, diaries/journals and correspondence. The correspondence includes letters from literary luminaries such as Henry Roth, Chinua Achebe, Philip Levine, Ishmael Reed, Gwendolyn Brooks and more than one hundred letters from Chester Himes.

The original purchase agreement provided for the acquisition of all future archival material generated by Williams and, at the time of the processing of the collection in 2002, the archive measured approximately eighty-eight linear feet. (Williams continues to assume new projects; he is currently working on a new novel, a new book of poetry, his autobiography tentatively titled Over My Shoulder and, with wife Lori, Dear Chester, Dear John a collection of Chester Himes and John A. Williams correspondence. A recent addition has expanded the archive to ninety-six linear feet.) A complete collection of Williams’s books in all editions and languages compliments the archive, as well as a collection of reference books used by Williams for research purposes and a significant collection of inscribed books from Williams's’ personal library presented to him by the authors.

In 1995, interviewed by son Dennis for Forkroads, Williams said, “Writing’s become a way of life, and I’m not sure it’s not also seeking shelter from storms.” The University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library is honored to assume curatorial custodianship of the Williams legacy and to provide a safe harbor where the archive can continue to grow, be preserved and made accessible for generations to come.

Richard Peek
Rare Books & Special Collections Library
July 8, 2004