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University of Texas at Austin

William Humphrey:

An Inventory of His Papers in the Manuscript Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Humphrey, William, 1924-1997
Title: William Humphrey Papers
Dates: 1932-1992, undated (bulk 1944-1992)
Extent: 28 boxes, 1 oversize box, 1 oversize folder, 9 galley folders (11.86 linear feet)
Abstract: These materials document the family, life, and work of the American writer William Humphrey. The papers contain manuscripts and notebooks covering most of his books and short stories. Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-02076
Languages: English, French, and Italian.
Access: Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Purchases and gift, 1994-1995
Processed by: Stephen Mielke, 2001

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

William Humphrey was born on June 18, 1924, in Clarksville, Texas, to Clarence and Nell (Varley) Humphrey. Located in Red River County in Northeast Texas, Clarksville was more 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. He spent his early 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 brother of a bank robber. An expert hunter who lived fast, drove fast, and drank more as the Depression deepened, his death in an auto accident when Humphrey was thirteen forced William and his 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 to attend an art academy on scholarship. He attempted to join the Navy during World War II, 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 in 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 as a lecturer at his invitation. The two remained close for years, but suffered a falling out 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 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, and place.
The success of the novel (made into a motion picture in 1960) allowed Humphrey and his 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 York. 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 four generations of 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, 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 the early 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 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 up to the event. Considered by many to be his finest work, it often draws 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 novel 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 age. 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 1997, he died on August 20th of that year.


Humphrey, William. Farther Off from Heaven. (New York: Knopf, 1977).
Kilber, James E. Jr., Editor. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume Six: American Novelists Since World War II. (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980).
Lee, James W. Southwest Writers Series No. 7: William Humphrey. (Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn Co., 1967).
Winchell, Mark Royden. Western Writers Series No. 105: William Humphrey. (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1992).

Scope and Contents

Typed and holograph manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, clippings, photographs, and printer's and galley proofs document William Humphrey's writing, life, and family from 1932 to 1992. The papers are organized in three series: I. Works, 1948-1992, undated (21 boxes); II. Correspondence, 1932-1991, undated (5 boxes); and III. Subject Files, 1937-1988, undated (2 boxes).
The Works series is the largest of the three and contains manuscript material for all of Humphrey's books and many of his short stories. Also included are drafts of lectures he presented at Washington and Lee University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These lectures from the 1960s focus on literary styles and various writers, but not his own writing. A 1988 interview from the Mississippi Quarterly details Humphrey's thoughts on other writers, but also addresses his works.
Notebooks located throughout the series provide particular insight into Humphrey's life and writing. In varying detail, they contain hand written outlines, notes, revisions, commentary, and typed fragments that trace the creation of his published and unpublished works. The majority of the loose manuscripts in the Works series are typed, late drafts with minor corrections, so early development of his work is often best documented in the notebooks. Humphrey also used many of the notebooks as diaries or personal journals while he traveled, and several contain one or two drafts of outgoing letters.
The materials in this series are in chronological order, reflecting the development of Humphrey's works over time. He often spent several years between the publication of his books and would work on different pieces simultaneously, or switch back and forth. Because of this, many of the notebooks contain entries for more than one story or novel and can span several years in content. Although most materials for individual works are filed close together, those that underwent particularly long gestations, such as The Proud Flesh, No Resting Place, or the unpublished novel The Last Refuge, have materials located in several places in the series.
In addition to typed manuscript and notebook drafts, printer's proofs or galley proofs are present for most of Humphrey's major books. Magazine tear sheets, review clippings, and small amounts of incoming correspondence are also present.
The only materials in the Works series related to the movie version of Humphrey's novel Home from the Hill are a small number of newspaper clippings. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer earnings statements for the film are located in the Correspondence series. Materials for a film version of "The Last of the Caddoes" include a draft of the script, a still photo from the production, and correspondence between Humphrey and the film's producer.
The Correspondence series consists almost entirely of incoming correspondence to Humphrey dating from the mid 1940s to the early 1990s. The letters are in chronological order, with the bulk filed under the heading "General," as Humphrey maintained them. The remaining correspondence is filed under headings for specific individuals and businesses, such as: Knopf Inc. [Alfred Knopf], Ian Parsons, Ted Weiss, and Glenway Wescott. There is also one folder containing incoming letters to Humphrey's wife, Dorothy, which contains the earliest letters in the series, most of them pre-dating her relationship with Humphrey.
Much of the correspondence documents the business aspects of Humphrey's writing, such as publication, promotion, sales, reviews, and copyright. There are letters of a more personal nature throughout the series, but the bulk of this type of correspondence is located in folders for specific persons. A few letters include drafts or copies of Humphrey's replies. Additional drafts of outgoing letters are found in several of the notebooks located in the Works series.
The smallest series, totaling two boxes, consists of subject files. These include general clippings, biographical and bibliographical records, personal memorabilia, travel brochures and maps, and several short works by students and other writers. Also present are a large number of photographs, including several of Humphrey as a child in Clarksville. Several folders of notes, clippings, and other documents relating to a 1987 murder in Hudson, New York, indicate Humphrey's strong interest in the case, possibly as the subject of a book.

Separated Material

Non-comercial sound recordings were transferred to the Ransom Center's Sound Recording collection and are described individually in a list at the end of this finding aid and in a searchable database. Commercial recordings were transferred to the Ransom Center Library.

Index Terms


Affre, Pierre.
Antone, Evan Haywood.
Dupee, Fred W.
Eady, Toby.
Faulk, John Henry.
Foote, Shelby.
Gottlieb, Robert, 1931- .
Hills, L. Rust.
Knopf, Alfred A., 1892-1984.
Lambert, Jean.
Lawrence, Seymour.
Lucas, Jack.
Lyons, Nick.
Mewshaw, Michael, 1943- .
Parsons, Ian.
Porter, Katherine Anne, 1890-1980.
Smallwood, Nora.
Stone, Richard L.
Thomas, Ted.
Weis, Ted.
Wescott, Glenway, 1901-1987.


Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Chatto & Windus (Firm).
Doubleday & Company, Inc.
Gallimard (Firm).
Nick Lyons Books.
Sports Illustrated.


Authors, American--20th century.

Document Types

Audio tapes.
Love letters.
Phonograph records.
Sound recordings.

Folder List