William Humphrey was born on June 18, 1924, in Clarksville, Texas, to Clarence and
(Varley) Humphrey. Located in Red River County in Northeast Texas, Clarksville was
a part of the old South than the Texas West. It was a community built around cotton
farming and provided the setting for many of Humphrey's short stories and novels.
spent his early years with his parents in and around Clarksville, moving from one
house to another--15 in one five-year period. His father, an auto mechanic, was
described by Humphrey's own account as a quick-tempered, self-destructive son of an
Indian and brother of a bank robber. An expert hunter who lived fast, drove fast,
drank more as the Depression deepened, his death in an auto accident when Humphrey
thirteen forced William and his mother to leave Clarksville and move to Dallas to
Humphrey excelled in school from an early age and after moving to Dallas was able
attend an art academy on scholarship. He attempted to join the Navy during World War
but was rejected for being color blind. He soon dropped the idea of becoming an artist
and began to focus on writing. He attended the University of Texas and Southern
Methodist University in the early 1940s, but in 1944 he left SMU in his final semester
and headed for Chicago, working various odd jobs. He later moved to Greenwich Village
New York where he met a painter named Dorothy (Feinman) Cantine. She left her husband
and married Humphrey in 1949.
That same year, Humphrey began teaching writing and English at Bard College and
published his first short story, "The Hardys," in
The Sewanee Review. Fellow Texan
Katherine Anne Porter had helped Humphrey get started as a writer and came to Bard
lecturer at his invitation. The two remained close for years, but suffered a falling
in the early 1970s over his role in the publication of The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne
Porter. While at Bard, Humphrey also formed a close relationship with poet
Theodore Weiss. These two became great supporters of each other's work and corresponded
often in later years, relaying thoughts and suggestions on their latest pieces.
Humphrey soon published additional stories in Accent, Harper's Bazaar,
The New Yorker, and other magazines.
These were eventually published in collected form in his first book The Last Husband and Other Stories (1953).
These stories reflect Humphrey's life in 1930s Clarksville and are filled with
characters and events based on his family and friends from that time.
Humphrey's first novel, Home from the
Hill (1957), continued to draw on his Clarksville experiences. Although at first
Humphrey was labeled a "western" writer due to the color and humor of his writing
his Texas roots, Home from the Hill
showed his grounding in the Southern writing tradition, more akin to Faulkner in his
of dialog and his treatment of time, family, and place.
The success of the novel (made into a motion picture in 1960) allowed Humphrey and
wife to travel extensively and pursue his passion for fly fishing. They moved to England
in 1958 and later lived in Italy. While in England, Humphrey met publisher Ian Parsons
with whom he had corresponded for years. Parsons' firm, Chatto & Windus,
published most of Humphrey's books in the UK and the two forged a lifelong friendship
during Humphrey's stay.
While in Europe, Humphrey continued to publish stories in major magazines such as
The Atlantic Monthly and Esquire, and in 1963 returned to the U.S.
for a one-year appointment as a lecturer at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
In 1965 he took a one-year position at MIT and bought an apple farm in Hudson, New
Although he would still travel extensively in the coming years, and took other short
term positions at Smith College (1976) and Princeton (1981), Hudson remained his home
for the rest of his life.
Humphrey's second novel The Ordways
(1965) again combined elements of Western comedy and Southern tragedy in a story of
generations of the Ordway family and their movement west after the Civil War. The
received strong critical reviews and was followed with equal acclaim by his second
collection of short stories, A Time and a
Place (1968). Most of the stories were written while he was living in Italy and
working on The Ordways. Once more the
focus was on the Northeast Texas of his youth, and with its themes of poverty,
desperation, and prejudice during the 1930s, the book related well to the social
concerns of the late 1960s.
Many of Humphrey's works reflected his love and knowledge of the outdoors, and in
early 1970s his short stories began to focus increasingly on sporting and fishing.
published numerous stories in Sports
Illustrated and other outdoor magazines, and two of these stories were so
popular that they were extended for publication as short books. "The Spawning Run," first published in
Esquire Magazine in 1970, told the
parallel tales of the sex lives of salmon and salmon fishermen in England. The second
tale, "My Moby Dick" first appeared
in Sports Illustrated in 1978, and
related the personal battle between Humphrey and a great elusive trout.
While The Ordways chronicled the
progress and change of a Texas family over several generations, Humphrey's next novel,
The Proud Flesh (1973), showed the
demise and dissolution of the Renshaw clan as its matriarch dies and the family's
secrets are revealed. In Farther Off from
Heaven (1977), Humphrey made his final literary trip to Clarksville,
recounting the day of his father's fatal wreck and the lives of his family leading
the event. Considered by many to be his finest work, it often draws comparisons to
Agee's A Death in the Family as a
touching remembrance of a young boy's reaction to his father's death.
Humphrey continued his hard look at death and its impact on those left behind in a
based in part on the suicide of a close friend's son. Hostages to Fortune (1984) takes place on a weekend fishing
trip, during which a man relives the previous year in which he attempted suicide
following the suicides of his son and his best friend and the breakup of his marriage.
Humphrey followed Hostages to Fortune
with two books containing, for the most part, previously published short stories.
Collected Stories (1985) included works
from his first publication, The Last Husband
and Other Stories, and from A Time
and a Place. Open Season: Sporting
Adventures of William Humphrey (1986) drew from his numerous sporting and
outdoors articles and included his two small books My Moby Dick and The Spawning Run. Humphrey's final novel, No Resting Place (1989), was historical fiction based on
the "Trail of Tears" forced
migration of Cherokee Indians to Texas and then Oklahoma.
The 20 short stories in Humphrey's final published book September Song (1992) cover a wide range of topics, but
uniformly convey his sense of frustration over his declining health and increasing
As he approached his 70th birthday, he suffered continued loss of hearing and underwent
repeated treatments for skin cancer. Diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in April
he died on August 20th of that year.