A previously unpublished novel written by historian William Appleman Williams has been released online by Oregon State University in an effort to make the manuscript widely available to scholars and others.
The novel, “Ninety Days Inside the Empire,” touches upon themes that were important to the author’s life and work, which includes his influential nonfiction work “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.”
Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, and written in the 1980s, Williams’ novel tells the story of racial strife and civil rights mobilization through the eyes of military servicemen following the end of World War II.
A veteran of the United States Navy, Williams served as a line officer during the war. Afterward, Williams was stationed in Corpus Christi, where he joined the NAACP and participated in civil rights activities.
OSU Special Collections head Clifford S. Mead said that the novel was an attempt by Williams to reach a wider audience.
Williams joined the OSU faculty in 1968 after more than 20 years as a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In failing health, he retired in 1986 and died in 1990, leaving his papers to OSU Special Collections, which oversaw preparation of the manuscript for its online release.
Williams never aggressively tried to have the novel published. In an introduction to the novel, Kerry Ahearn, chair of OSU’s English department, notes that Williams did show the novel to colleagues, including author Gore Vidal. Vidal supposedly said it would make a better movie than a novel.
Mead said that other friends likely told Williams that publication of the novel “wouldn’t help his reputation.”
“He was a great historian,” Mead said, “but that doesn’t necessarily make him a great novelist.”
Mead termed the novel a “solid” effort, but it’s not up to the standard set by Williams’ nonfiction books.
Nevertheless, the novel is still a gold mine for scholars and other people interested in Williams and his work — and that was the idea behind publishing “Ninety Days” on the Web, Mead said.
Preparing the novel for online publication did involve some time and expense, but not as much as would have been involved in an effort to publish the novel in book form.
“This is a completed manuscript,” Mead said. “We didn’t edit it, but divided it into chapters that seemed appropriate for a web-based presentation, and included images drawn from multiple sources.” The web version of “Ninety Days Inside the Empire” spans 125 pages over 14 chapters.
“This is sort of a trial run,” Mead said. OSU officials will track the online traffic the novel draws. If the project is a success, it might be a template for other universities to follow to highlight portions of their collections.
In fact, Mead added, OSU officials are pondering other possible projects from Special Collections for online publication, but he declined to be specific.
“We’re very happy that the Williams novel is up,” he said.
Todd Simmons of OSU’s News and Communications Services contributed to this story.