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Wakeful Anguish

A Literary Biography of William Humphrey

Southern Literary Studies

403 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 10 halftones

Literature - American

  Hardcover / 9780807128879 / January 2004

In this deeply felt biography, Ashby Bland Crowder treats in near definitive fashion one of southern literature’s unjustly neglected masters. In superb novels like Home from the Hill, The Ordways, and Proud Flesh as well as in the brilliant story collections The Last Husband and A Time and a Place,William Humphrey (1924–1997) created an imaginary East Texas Red River County, conjuring the speech and life rhythms of his native territory with artistic genius.

Crowder’s lyrical blending of biographical fact and incisive analysis corrects a mistaken view that Humphrey was among those writers mired in the pious cult of southern delusionary remembrance. From early short fiction set in a New York commuter village through late works of the Northeast, such as Hostages to Fortune and September Song, Humphrey allowed himself a psychic distance from the South that fueled an unsparing critique of its myths—exemplified by the fierce deconstruction of Texas heroes found in his last novel, No Resting Place.

In a poignant discussion of Humphrey’s memoir, Farther Off from Heaven, Crowder demonstrates that the tragic death of his father led to Humphrey’s overriding fictional themes of pain and inconsolable loss. Indeed, Crowder asserts that Humphrey failed to achieve literary renown in part because he evokes emotional experiences beyond what most people can endure. Humphrey's fiction derives its power from refusing to indulge in the false consolations of vanished people and history, from showing that living in the southern past is not living at all.

Wakeful Anguish is among the first books about William Humphrey and will be greeted as one of the finest. Marshalling unpublished archival letters, interviews with persons who knew Humphrey at different stages in his life, and private correspondence and conversations between Humphrey and himself, Crowder achieves something rare in literary biography: a portrait that reveals both the sustained suffering in an author’s life and work and his exultation in the triumph of his art. 

Ashby Bland Crowder is the Peace Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Hendrix College. He is the author of Wakeful Anguish: A Literary Biography of William Humphrey, as well as the editor of Far from Home: Selected Letters of William Humphrey and two volumes of The Complete Works of Robert Browning.

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