Gerald Williams, Poet, Essayist and Editor, Dies at 85

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Gerald Williams so impressed his ninth-grade English teacher with a short story he had written, titled “Cat-a-log,” that she anointed him editor of his school’s literary magazine.

“She told me I’d be a writer,” he told The Massachusetts Review in 2018.

Ms. Figarty was mostly right: Mr. Williams found an eclectic calling as a poet and essayist but also as an editor and translator.

He began his career after being discharged from the Army in Europe in the 1950s, when he went to work in Paris for Olympia Press, which published erotic and avant-garde fiction by writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller and William Burroughs — work that was often banned in English-speaking countries.

He went on to work for the World Veterans Federation, a humanitarian organization, and Delta, a literary review in Amsterdam.

Mr. Williams returned to the United States in the late 1960s and settled in Manhattan, where he became an associate editor of Reader’s Digest and translated art books from Dutch, French and German into English for Harry N. Abrams, Inc., now Abrams Books.

Mr. Williams died of complications of the coronavirus on July 17 in Manhattan, his cousin, Clayton Carrington, said. He was 85. Mr. Williams was also being treated for pancreatic cancer.

Gerald M. Williams was born on June 2, 1935, in the Bronx to Joseph and Joyce (Sims) Williams. His mother was a high school teacher, and his father was a truck driver. Gerald spent his teenage years in Boston, and after graduating from The English High School there, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1957 from Boston University.

“He began writing prose and poetry as a boy, and continued to do so all his life,” his friend Bob Baldock said.

In addition to contributing to numerous literary publications, like New Letters, The Massachusetts Review and Harvard Review, he wrote a book-length biographical poem titled “Blowing Up Hitler: A Life of Johann Georg Elser, Would-Be Assassin” (1986), about a 1939 attempt to kill the Führer with a time bomb secreted in a pillar in a Munich beer hall at an annual rendezvous of Nazi figures. (The plot failed when Hitler left 10 minutes early.)

Mr. Williams’s chapbook included this passage from the poem:

Hitler and his pack

Must be replaced

By a nonwarring State

(Elser resolves);

One that honors

Hard work

With a decent wage.

While working as a substitute teacher in Manhattan, Mr. Williams discovered that students no longer learned cursive writing. In his essay “The Astounding Power of Penmanship” (2017), he lamented its loss both to written communication and to the training of memory.

In his interview with The Massachusetts Review, Mr. Williams explained the impact of penmanship on his creativity.

A keyboard “tends to make my outpourings smart-alecky and seldom allows me to say what I really mean,” he said.

He added: “Longhand is a must. My brain is in my hand then.”



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