jonathan williams

13 04 2008

Jonathan Williams | Photo: Reuben Cox

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No. 137 | April 13, 2008


I’m not sure how many writers and artists of today’s generation ever heard of JARGON and Jonathan Williams.

I never heard of him either when I began writing, until one day I received a letter from him telling me how much he admired a short story of mine, “The Hour of the Sunshine Now,” which appeared in The Minnesota Review back in…? …1968!

(I just found a copy in my files, after an hour’s search…Vol VIII, Number 2. It’s been years. Alvin Greenberg was the editor…Charles Baxter was on the editorial staff…I remember an editor, Lyn Heath, extraordinarily helpful, insightful. Margaret Randall’s in here, Dane Wakoski, Gerald Locklin, Henry H. Roth, Robert Creeley, Richard Howard, the great English writer, Colin Wilson!…among other.)

I remember thanking Williams, being much more aware of him as a publisher from that point on…but through the years, gradually losing track of him and all that he was doing. I had bigger fish to fry, of course. We all do when starting out. But I was both saddened and surprised to learn of his death the other day. More sorry than ever that I did not acknowledge him more. Support his press, etc. Hell, I had no idea he was still alive. That’s how easily we forget even the slightest pat on the head.

This obit by Dennis Hevesi is a wonderful tribute to Williams and all that he did in his own small way from a very small corner of America. A shame, “if the truth be known” it too often becomes known when it’s almost no matter to anyone. This small publisher’s life should be a reminder to many of us concerned about the many dead-ends in the arts today, including American publishing, that we need to continue in Jonathan Williams’ way, keep the real work alive, honor the tradition of giving light wherever and whenever it is needed. A little self-sacrifice goes a long way in the end. Norbert Blei

Death of a Small Press Publisher By DENNIS HEVESI

Jonathan Williams, the founder of the Jargon Society, the small publishing house in the western mountains of North Carolina that for more than 50 years has introduced the works of unknown, little-known and soon-to-be-better-known writers, photographers and artists, died on March 16 in Highlands, N.C. He was 79 and lived and worked in Scaly Moun¬tain, N.C. The cause was pneumonia, said Thomas Meyer, Mr. Williams’s companion for more than 40 years. Mr. Williams was himself a poet, essayist, photographer and graphic artist — talents he brought to the meticulously refined design of the approximately 100 books of avant-garde poetry and fiction, folk art and photography that Jargon has published since 1952.

“The face he presented to the world was of an irascible crank, a loose cannon, a gadfly,” Mr. Meyer said. “But as a publisher he was extraordinarily generous, always looking for the overlooked.” Among the writers whose ca¬reers budded or bloomed through Mr. Williams’s attention were James Broughton, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Paul Metcalf, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky. A book- length poem about the history of industrialization by the futurist Buckminster Fuller was published by Mr. Williams in 1962. Hugh Kenner, a Canadian literary critic, once called Mr. Williams “the truffle hound of American poetry.”

In the early 1950s Mr. Williams turned down Alien Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which became a Beat Generation classic. He had no regrets. “If Jargon had published it,” he told The New York Times in 1976, “it would have sold 300 copies.” Artists and photographers whose work has been highlighted in Jargon books include Harry Callahan, R. B. Kitaj, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert Rauschenberg. Mr. Rauschenberg, the acclaimed Pop artist, was barely known in 1952 when he painted swirling arrows to illustrate “The Dancer,” a poem by Joel Oppenheimer, published by Jargon.

Mr. Williams was an early champion of outsider art — works by those, mostly self-taught, who are outside the artis¬tic establishment and away from art-world centers and might use materials like corrugated roofing, plywood or rug remnants. “Although he lived in Manhattan and also San Francisco in the mid-50s, he felt there was this whole vibrant culture outside of cities,” Mr. Meyer said. Noted outsider artists shown in Jargon books include Thornton Dial and Howard Finster. In his own writings and photographs, published by other small-press houses and in periodicals, Mr. Williams delved into his diversity of passions: long distance hiking, Appalachian plant life, civil rights, vernacular variations, English parish churches, graveyards, Chinese porcelains, Japanese poetry, French haute cuisine, corn bread and barbecue.

His curmudgeonly affinity for the low-brow led, in 1986, to the publication by Jargon of Ernest, Mickler’s “White Trash Cook¬ing,” with recipes for delicacies like cooter pie, okra omelets and potato-chip sandwiches. New York publishers initially declined to buy the manuscript unless the author changed the title to some¬thing like “Poor Southern Cook¬ing.” When Mr. Mickler refused, Mr. Williams gave him a $1,000 advance and ordered a modest 5,000-copy first printing. It was a best seller and was the only seriously profitable Jargon publication.

Jonathan Chamberlain Williams was born in Asheville, N.C., on March 8,1929, the only child of Thomas and Georgette Chamberlain Williams. When he was a child, the family moved to Washington. Mr. Williams dropped out of Princeton after his freshman year and began independently studying painting, etching, photography and book design. In 1951 he went to Black Mountain College, a hive of creativity outside Asheville, and came under the tutelage of the poet Charles Olson. Mr. Olson urged students in his poetry class to go beyond the writing on the page. Mr. Williams took him at his word. He started what became Jargon on campus. In 1968, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it became a nonprofit corporation.

At different times Mr. Williams offered different mottos for Jargon. In 1956 he told The Times it was, “Wanted, 500 readers.” Two decades later he said it was, “One poet’s way of doing something for other poets.”

[Source: New York Times 3.30.08]

Jonathan Williams | Photo: Doug Moore