Our second Saturday was more like what I imagine and hope most will be. Before, after, and between sales I had time to do a bit of cataloguing, some straightening of shelves, and a little cleaning. It is important to me that this be the way it works. No need to rush. I had enough of that on Newbury Street when, even on slow says, all the customers we did have would come in waves. It’s actually possible to have a conversation in our little barn in Lee. And to have a second thought. When asked for an author I don’t know, I can use the plastic and digital marvels of the twenty-first century while sitting in this eighteenth century post and beam, and learn something new.
One customer asked about a novel he remembered fondly from his youth that might be called ‘Come Spring.’ He told me it concerned early settlers on the coast of Maine. I looked that up on the magic screen and discovered there were many novels with those words in the title but only one that fit, written by the fine but sadly neglected author, Ben Ames Williams. Williams I knew. He was a favorite in my own youth, but I had never read Come Spring.
I have always, since my boyhood scrounging days, collected old magazines and read as much of the contents as possible before selling them off. It happens that Ben Ames Williams was one of the most successful short story writers of the first half of the Twentieth Century—the golden age of magazines.
The story of Ben Ames Williams himself is as American as peach cobbler. Born in Mississippi, and raised in Ohio. His father owned a small town newspaper in Jackson, and Williams worked every job there from sweeping the floor and setting type to writing up the news items and delivering the papers to customers. Later he would attend Dartmouth College right here in New Hampshire. However, one thing he did not master was handwriting. (I feel a kindred spirit there too). Upon graduation in 1910 he was offered a job teaching and wrote home for advice but his scrawl was so bad his father mistook ‘teaching’ for ‘traveling’ and advised his son against it. Instead Williams worked for the Boston American as a reporter while writing his first short stories. And along the way, as it happens, he fell in love, married and had three children to raise.
He was first published in 1915, but his big break occurred in 1917 when the Saturday Evening Post, the largest and best paying market in the country took one of what became over 100 short stories as well as publishing several dozen of his novels in serial form. And a great many of those stories took place in a fictional town called ‘Fraternity,’ on the coast of Maine, which is also the setting for Come Spring. In those tales, as well as several of his other novels, he developed characters who lived from one story to the next and became well known and loved by millions of Americans. In fact, despite their popularity, the editor of The Saturday Evening Post, George Horace Lorimer, complained that the stories lacked sufficient plot. Interestingly, that was one of several factors then that made me like Williams all the more. Early on I had rebelled against the overuse of plot to drive narrative. The normal cycle of life itself is very often plot enough.
Williams was fortunate to have a number of his novels turned into successful movies, including Leave Her to Heaven, and Strange Woman, but most of these I would call ‘pot-boilers’ and made too much use of the sort of plot development Hollywood craved—often adding such twists to stories that didn’t need them. To my mind his ‘Fraternity’ stories are his best and deserve to be collected and read on their own.
In another bit of synchronicity, Ben Ames Williams died in Brookline Massachusetts, my own home for more than twenty years.
So as it happens—as it happened in other ways so many times in the past—a visitor to our shop has opened up a forgotten memory, enlightened me, and has now set my sights on buying more of Ben Ames Williams.