Readers that come to this book through a love for Williams’ poetry may be surprised to find that poetry is not always at the center of the story, not because no attention is paid to his writings but because Baldwin has set himself to portray the whole man. This biography brings Williams to life as a doctor and family man as well as a sincere writer.
It is the story of an unassuming man who possessed the strength to live two lives—fulfilling, as it were, both the practical ideals of his father and the artistic aspirations of his mother. The biographer shows that these parallel careers proved symbiotic. Williams’ observation of his patients and family were poured into his writings, and this writing, grounded in thought about the continuities of America’s hybrid life, helped him to empathize with his immigrant clientele.
It is not that Williams had no regrets. During World War II, with both his sons in the service, the poet began to think that he had neglected them as they grew up. Moreover, he later envied Pound the freedom that his friend had to write. Indeed, the friendly rivalry between these poets provides an important counterpoint in the biography. Pound was rebellious and sophisticated; Williams opted for conventionality (in lifestyle if not verse) and simplicity. Williams chose to write about common things in a simple language, while Pound came to write in a heavily allusive, elliptical style. In the end, there is an underlying,...
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To All Gentleness avoids the traditional sins of biographies of writers that are meant for young adults: It neither downplays the faults of the subject nor overestimates that subject’s achievements. The rather tawdry circumstances of William Carlos Williams’ marriage, on the rebound from another woman, are presented. At the same time, Williams’ literary triumphs are not glamorized. This is not the heroic story of an unorthodox writer’s fight for recognition or of the dramatic creation of some singular masterpiece. Williams struggled for recognition over decades without making any sudden breakthrough. Moreover, he created not one towering work but rather a large body of exceptionally creative literature.
One might guess that Neil Baldwin’s ability to write a biography that is engrossing without whitewashing or exaggeration grows from his own life and relation to the writer. He first became excited about Williams when, as a student, he took on the job of cataloging the poet’s papers at a university library. Working for three years, he studied not only drafts and poems but also letters and diaries. Thus, he was able to see all sides of the doctor-poet. After graduating, Baldwin became a teacher of poetry in public schools. In 1981, he published The Poetry Writing Handbook out of this experience. Working with student writers, he could see the flow of creativity as a process, thus avoiding a fixation on unique monuments as the keys to understanding literature.
Readers can thank these two experiences, as well as Baldwin’s thoughtfulness and taste, for preparing a work for young adults that, in the way that Williams’ poetry did, shows that a life presented unvarnished and unromantically can yield the most well grounded truths.