Image of Ben Ames Williams


Lifetime: 1889 - 1953 Passed: ≈ 71 years ago


Novelist, Writer


United States

Ben Ames Williams

Ben Ames Williams was an American novelist and writer of short stories; he wrote hundreds of short stories and over 30 novels. 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.

Williams was born on March 7, 1889 in Macon, Mississippi to Daniel Webster Williams and Sarah Marshall Ames. He was the grand-nephew of Confederate General James Longstreet.

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 the telegraph company clerk mistook "teaching" for "traveling", and the father, not wanting his son to become a traveling 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".

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 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, and on August 23, 1915 in The Popular Magazine with his short story, Deep Stuff. After this, his popularity slowly grew. On April 14, 1917, the Saturday Evening Post picked up one of Williams' stories, titled 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", 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 2,000 letters to the Post asking for a solution to the problem. He published 135 short stories, 35 serials, and seven 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.

The mid-1920s were the peak of Williams' short-story-writing career. In 1926, he published an impressive 21 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 from the spotlight: the Great Depression and the trend toward shorter fiction, a tough mold for the often-verbose Williams. This transition from magazine culture enabled him to focus on novel-writing.

Williams also edited and annotated the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886), a Confederate wife; although others had published shorter editions, his version, titled A Diary from Dixie, was the most comprehensive edition for several decades. Recent commentators have noted that "his lack of scholarly acumen was alternately hailed by reviewers and lamented by academic critics, but Williams's work on the edition signaled his unwavering immersion in Civil War history." Steven Stowe of Indiana University explained that "Ben Ames Williams, a writer of popular fiction, brought out an edition of Chesnut’s diary in 1949, now known as one of the most extravagant escapades of editorial overreaching."

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. His wife survived to 1970, and self-published a biography of her husband.

Books by Ben Ames Williams

Black Pawl Cover image

Black Pawl

Adventure Novel
Young Action Ship Journey Relationships

This riveting novel takes place on a whaling ship, where its captain, Black Pawl, has a troubled relationship with the first mate, his son. A minister is permitted aboard for the homeward-bound journey along with a young woman who is accompanying him...

All the Brothers Were Valiant Cover image

All the Brothers Were Valiant

Joel Shore, newly appointed captain of the whaling ship Nathan Ross following his brother's apparent demise as captain of the same ship, elects to make his first cruise as captain to the very location where his brother had last been seen - the Gilber...