Hail Augustus! But Who Was He?

1.

Compared to John Williams’s earlier novels, Augustus—the last work to be published by the author, poet, and professor whose once-neglected Stoner has become an international literary sensation in recent years—can seem like an oddity.* For one thing, it was the only one of his four novels to win significant acclaim during his lifetime: published in 1972, Augustus won the National Book Award for fiction. (Williams was born in Texas in 1922 and died in Arkansas in 1994, after a thirty-year career teaching English and creative writing at the University of Denver.)

mendelsohn_2-081414.jpg
British Museum/DEA/Granger Collection
Bronze head of Augustus with glass and alabaster eyes; from Meroë, Sudan, 27–25 BC

More important, the novel’s subject—the life and history-changing career of the first emperor of Rome—seems impossibly remote from the distinctly American preoccupations of Williams’s other mature works, with their modest protagonists and pared-down narratives. Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is the story of a young Bostonian who, besotted with Emersonian Transcendentalism, goes west in 1876 to explore the “wilderness” where, he believes, lies “the central meaning he could find in all his life”; and where he participates in a savage buffalo hunt that suggests the costs of the American dream.

Stoner (1965) traces the obscure and, to all appearances, unsuccessful life of an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri in the early and middle years of the last century—a man of desperately humble origins who sees the Academy as an “asylum,” a place where he finds at last “the kind of security and warmth that he should have been able to feel as a child in his home.” (Williams later repudiated his first novel, Nothing But the Night, published in 1948, about a dandy with psychological problems.)

It would be difficult to find a figure ostensibly less like these idealistic and, ultimately, disillusioned minor figures than the real-life world leader known to history as Augustus—a man whose many and elaborate names, given and taken, augmented and elaborated, acquired and discarded over the eight decades of his tumultuous and grandiose life, stand in almost comic contrast to the simple disyllables Williams gave those two other protagonists. Both, as readers will notice, share their creator’s name—William Andrews, William Stoner: a coincidence that makes it almost impossible not to see some element of autobiography in the early novels.

No such temptation exists in the case of Augustus. The emperor who gave his lofty name to a political and literary era was born Gaius Octavius Thurinus in 63 BC, the year in which the statesman Cicero foiled an aristocrat’s attempted coup d’état against the Republic. The offspring of Gaius Octavius, a well-to-do knight of plebeian family origins, he was raised in the provinces about twenty-five miles from Rome. While still a teenager, the sickly but clever and ambitious youth sufficiently impressed his maternal great-uncle, Julius Caesar, to be adopted by him;…


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