William L. Heath (1924-2007) was a prolific novelist and short-story writer who was raised in Scottsboro, Jackson County. His work reflects both his own experiences and the lives of people he met in Scottsboro. In his best work, Heath creates convincing portraits of life in small southern towns.
Violent Saturday Poster William Ledbetter Heath was born September 29, 1924, in Lake Village, Arkansas, the third son of Charles Merrill and Ann Maples Heath. Heath’s mother died soon after he was born, and he was sent to Scottsboro to be raised by his grandmother and aunt. After attending Scottsboro public schools, he enrolled in the Baylor Military Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville. Heath’s education was interrupted in 1943 by World War II, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew combat missions over Burma (now Myanmar) and China and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
After he was discharged from the Army in 1945, Heath returned to UVA and graduated in 1949, majoring in English. His interest in writing, which began while he was in the service, increased while at UVA. He published his first short story, “A Piece of Jade,” in Collier’s magazine while he was still a student. Another short story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” won the Literary Award from UVA’s student literary journal, the Virginia Spectator. After graduation, he worked for two years as copy editor at the Chattanooga Times. In 1950, he married Mary Anne Stahle, with whom he had three sons.
Heath produced approximately 30 short stories and eight novels. Three television plays were adapted from his short stories. In his first novel, Violent Saturday (1955), Heath traces the converging lives of the spectators, victims, and participants in a climactic bank robbery in the fictional town of Morgan, Alabama. Three strangers arrive in Morgan to rob the bank, but their plan goes badly wrong and leads to a kidnapping and a violent shootout. In Heath’s third novel, Ill Wind, also set in Morgan, he explores the political and romantic repercussions of the violent death of tax collector Charley Mott, who shoots himself while cleaning his gun. Heath’s fifth novel, The Good Old Boys, uses an element of small-town life that also is central to his previous novels—gossip—to trace 50 years in the history of Morgan. Through the stories told by the town barber, Heath explodes the myth of the small town as a haven from the violence, hypocrisy, and lust normally associated with big cities. Heath considered his last novel, The Earthquake Man, to be his best work, even though it sold only 3,000 copies. In it, two brothers left alone for a few days by their parents discover a troll living in their apple orchard. A stranger calling himself the Earthquake Man comes and offers to capture the troll to prevent an earthquake.
Although many of Heath’s works are out of print, he was acknowledged in the 1950s as one of the founders of the genre known as southern noir, which features ordinary people in small, southern towns who are caught up in violent situations. His reputation today is based primarily on the novel Violent Saturday, likely because of the 1955 film adaptation by Twentieth Century Fox that starred such well-known actors as Victor Mature, Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Marvin.
Selected Works by Heath
Violent Saturday (1955)
Sad Clown (1956; also titled The Laughing Stranger of East Point)
Ill Wind (1957)
Temptation in a Southern Town (1959; also titled Blood on the River)
The Good Old Boys (1971)
Most Valuable Player (1973)
Max the Great (1977)
The Earthquake Man (1980)