A Small Gallery of Literary Giants

November 4, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 24 5 min read

When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s, I had a buddy named Tim Johnstone who introduced me to the joys of drawing and, more broadly, to the pleasures of letting my imagination off the leash. The Johnstones were an odd family. For one thing, they owned a foreign sports car, a curvaceous XK-120 Jaguar from Great Britain, which was regarded as an act of unpatriotic heresy in the Big Three church of Detroit. Not content to have a prosaic pet, Tim mailed away for a baby ferret, which he proceeded to toilet-train.

Tim’s father was an engineer who traveled the world supervising the construction of factories he had designed. Whenever his enormous blueprints had served their purpose, Mr. Johnstone gave them to Tim, who spread them on the rec room floor, blank side up, and invited me to help him fill them with elaborate panoramas that sometimes took us weeks to complete. We always settled on a theme — the Wild West, the Civil War, the deep sea, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs, outer space (this was those jittery years after Sputnik) — and then we spent hundreds of hours sprawled on our stomachs, pencils moving non-stop, our imaginations carrying us backward or forward in time, deep beneath the sea or out into the cosmos. t was bliss.

The itch to draw, born on the Johnstones’ rec room floor half a century ago, has never left me. One reason I was barely an above-average student was that I spent most of my time in school drawing pictures of my teachers and classmates instead of taking notes. Over time my focus narrowed to drawing one thing: the human head, in all its infinite variety. As I pursued my life-long dream of becoming a writer, the focus narrowed further. I started drawing the heads of writers. Then the focus narrowed yet again. Since I’m convinced that people tend to be more interesting once they’re dead, obituaries have always been my favorite part of the newspaper. So whenever a noteworthy writer died, I started drawing the picture that accompanied the obit, eventually adding drawings of noteworthy long-dead writers. Here, then, is a gallery of a few of those literary giants, along with brief explanations of what was going through my head as my pen (or, in a few cases, my pencil) was fashioning their heads.

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941) — Operating under the assumption that any writer who influenced Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck has got to be worth reading, I dove into Sherwood Anderson’s most famous book, Winesburg, Ohio, some thirty years ago. It bored me silly, and I came away scratching my head over what the fuss was all about. I tried again a few years ago and found the book even more boring on a second reading. So when I set out to draw Anderson, I wanted to capture a sharpie who has just pulled a fast one and is laughing at us dupes out the side of his mouth.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) — Here are three simple sentences from Flannery O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” that changed my life: “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” These words taught me the invaluable lesson that my youthful hunger for experience was beside the point if I wanted to become a writer. I was already a fan of Flannery’s fiction, but her non-fiction made me realize she saw things the existence of which I had not even begun to imagine. So I wanted her eyes to look like they could see straight through anyone who pauses to look at this drawing.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) — A brilliant poet, Robert Lowell was also a tortured man who tortured others, especially the ones he loved. When 852 pages worth of his letters were published in 2005, I drew his head from a photograph that accompanied the review in The New York Times. I tried to convey that this was a man whose spirit was being pushed earthward by a pulverizing weight, a man who was no stranger to the dark precincts of madness.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)– The only way Philip K. Dick could have written so many books — and so many fine weird ones — was with the help of chemistry. I imagine him slamming a typewriter all through the California night, jacked to the gills on speed, weed, booze, caffeine, maybe a hit of acid to take the edge off. Out poured a river of words that often had a manic, paranoid, bi-polar flavor. Or maybe the word I’m looking for is gnostic. Dick was a visionary chronicler of life’s moral chiaroscuro, its black evils and moments of shining virtue, which made him an ideal subject for a black-and-white ink drawing that features a blinding source of light and its inevitable counterpart, dark, dark shadows.

Irving “Swifty” Lazar (1907-1993) — Though not a writer, Swifty Lazar was the agent of Hemingway, Faulkner, Truman Capote, Vladimir Nabokov and Tennessee Williams, along with half of the Hollywood galaxy. I’ve always thought of him as the colossus of the 15 percent crowd, gazing down at us mere mortals through ashtray glasses that magnified his big barracuda eyes. (He also had sharp little barracuda teeth.) Cross this man at your peril.

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) — As radical — and funny– as his writing could be, I’m never able to think of William S. Burroughs without remembering that he shot his common-law wife in the head during a drunken game of William Tell in 1951. Burroughs admitted that the (accidental?) killing haunted him for the remaining 46 years of his long and prolific life, and as a result I’ve always imagined him as a man split in two by the trauma, then put back together all wrong.

Naomi Schor (1943-2001) — Those lips! That hair! What’s not to love about the literary critic Naomi Schor? But it was the contents of her obituary that clinched it for me: “Dr. Schor once said she had love affairs with intellectual ‘ism’s,’ including fetishism, realism, idealism, universalism and feminism, her favorite.” It gets better. She also “explored the notion of male lesbianism, suggesting ways that Flaubert and other male authors seemed to speak from a lesbian perspective.” Wow — Flaubert was a male lesbian! This revelation convinced me I needed to read more literary criticism, but fortunately I came to my senses and drew this picture instead.

Shelby Foote (1916-2005) — Shelby Foote’s magisterial three-volume narrative history of the Civil War has been called America’s Iliad, and I’ve got to believe that devoting your life to such a project exacts a price. I think of Foote more as a monument than a mere man, so when I drew him I tried to make him look like he was carved out of stone. And I wanted him to be doing what he did for so many years while composing his masterpiece — staring into the blackest, bloodiest abyss this nation has, so far, managed to conjure.

Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Fantastic. Reading the intro was like reading about myself growing up, and I still draw heads today at 62. Great drawings Bill.

  2. To Josh and Peter:
    Thanks for the kind words. Keep on drawing, and keep on reading The Millions.
    Bill Morris

  3. I do believe The Millions has trumped The New Yorker by latching onto this writer and artist…

    Lisa F.

  4. Terrific stuff. But the interesting thing about Sherwood Anderson is that his second book of short stories, The Triumph of the Egg, is far better than his most famous. Wineberg feels too much like a literary conceit. The stories in the second collection, including I Want To Know Why and The Egg, are among the finest in American fiction. Read them and you’ll give Anderson a new drawing.

  5. As a big fan of author portraits, not to mention artist biographies, I gotta say this piece thrilled me to the corneas. I love the way you describe the drawings themselves. The picture’s worth a thousand words even more when its assisted by explanation. thanks!

  6. Tony M.:
    Thanks for the tip about “Triumph of the Egg.” I’ll definitely check it out — and maybe it’ll move me to do a new drawing of old Sherwood.
    Bill Morris

  7. Jiust great stuff, Mr. Morris. An informed honest opinion (Sherwood Anderson)
    is priceless as are your skatches.

  8. I love the drawings and wondering about getting permission to reproduce the one of O’Connor for a flyer advertising an NEH summer institute. Please be in touch!

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