||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
part of the old South than the Texas West. It was a community built around cotton
and provided the setting for many of Humphrey's short stories and novels. He spent
years with his parents in and around Clarksville, moving from one rented 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
a bank robber. An expert hunter who lived fast, drove fast, and drank more as the
deepened, his death in an auto accident when Humphrey was thirteen forced William
mother to leave Clarksville and move to Dallas to live with relatives.
||Humphrey excelled in school from an early age and after moving to Dallas was able
an art academy on scholarship. He attempted to join the Navy during World War II,
rejected for being color blind. He soon dropped the idea of becoming an artist and
focus on writing. He attended the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University
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 in New York where he
painter named Dorothy (Feinman) Cantine. She left her husband and married Humphrey
||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 as a lecturer at his invitation.
remained close for years, but suffered a falling out in the early 1970s over his role
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
"western" writer due to the color and humor of his writing and his Texas roots, Home from the Hill showed his grounding in the Southern writing
tradition, more akin to Faulkner in his use of dialog and his treatment of time, family,
||The success of the novel (made into a motion picture in 1960) allowed Humphrey and
to travel extensively and pursue his passion for fly fishing. They moved to England
and later lived in Italy. While in England, Humphrey met publisher Ian Parsons with
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 York. Although he would still
extensively in the coming years, and took other short term positions at Smith College
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 four generations
the Ordway family and their movement west after the Civil War. The book 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,
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
1970s his short stories began to focus increasingly on sporting and fishing. He 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
"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
family leading up to the event. Considered by many to be his finest work, it often
comparisons to James 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
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 age. As he
approached his 70th birthday, he suffered continued loss of hearing and underwent
treatments for skin cancer. Diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in April 1997, he
August 20th of that year.