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University of Denver to host literary conference in honor of former professor John Williams and his novel 'Stoner'

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In his book, “Stoner,” the late John Williams takes a mundane story and turns it into a remarkable tale about one man’s life.

The latter, said Sally Stich, who is coordinating an upcoming literary conference about Williams, is “because of his style of writing.”

Being offered as a University of Denver Enrichment Program, the conference is called The Undeniable Genius of John Williams: “Stoner” and the Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. It takes place on March 28 and will offer a day of sessions focused on Williams’ “Stoner,” as well as his career as both an author and a professor at DU.

“That’s what his focus really was in life — his academics and his writing,” said Jonathan Williams of Thornton, one of the author’s three children. He plans on attending the event and added that his father is “well-deserving” of a literary event in his honor.

Williams was born in Texas in 1922 and grew up poor. He eventually came to Colorado to study at DU, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and a Master of Arts degree in 1950. Williams became a professor at DU by the mid-1950s — a position he held for more than 30 years — and is known for helping to develop, and eventually direct, the creative writing program in the university’s English department.

But as serious as he was about academics, Williams was just as serious about his writing, said Alan Prendergast, senior contributor at the Westword, who wrote a biographical article on Williams about 10 years ago. Prendergast will be delivering a keynote address at the conference.

Williams had two volumes of poetry and four novels published. Despite his 1973 “Augustus” winning a National Book Award that year, “‘Stoner’ is the one that amazes people the most,” Prendergast said.

“Stoner” was published in 1965. It is a fictional story about a man named William Stoner, who was born near the end of the nineteenth century and grew up poor on a farm in Missouri. He learned of famous authors by visiting the library, and when he was sent to study agriculture at the University of Missouri, he discovers a further love for literature and eventually becomes a professor at the university. The prose tells of Stoner’s life as a scholar, the tribulations and disappointments he faces and his confrontation of solitude.

“Stoner” has a universal message, Prendergast said, in that “it is about life. It describes the consolation of loving literature when life is bleak.”

Though people found Williams’ work fascinating, it was underappreciated, Prendergast said. But “so much of that has changed since then,” he added.

“Stoner” went out of print in 1966. It was rediscovered in the 1980s, but still went largely unnoticed even after Williams’ death in 1994, Stich said.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s when a French author read “Stoner” and urged her publisher to buy the international rights to it, Stich said. And by the 2010s, it began to catch on in the U.S. and gained popularity largely through “word-of-mouth” and literary reviews, Stitch said.

The literary conference at DU is coinciding with the 55th anniversary of “Stoner” being published.

The conference isn’t “just to celebrate someone who taught at DU,” said Stich, a DU alumna. “There is something greater than Denver in John Williams. (But) there is a logical connection to one of our own who has never had a literary conference devoted to him.”

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