In the American Grain

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

That the new world was never really “new” disturbs Williams. He shows the explorers asserting old identity, their inherited view, in a vast wilderness with names only Indians knew. The discoverers quite simply failed to understand what they had discovered. Williams portrays Columbus’ inability to do more than open the door for crazed exploitation. With wry humor Williams sees Champlain’s gentle frenchified mapping of the northern wilderness. The conquests--of Ponce De Leon, Cortez, and DeSoto--are shown as the blind and destructive acts that they were.

The colonizers ignored the spirit inhabiting this land. Conquerors and settlers destroyed the Indian. Puritans asserted their grim control, placing in stocks any white man who would prefer the maypole to their sermons. Their treatment of witches under Cotton Mather, Williams finds especially telling, and killing. The fear of touch was the earliest Americans’ problem, compounded by an unwillingness to see what the Indians’ culture was about.

Williams affirms some of our myths. He beautifully restates the treasure we owned in George Washington. Daniel Boone and Sam Houston remain authentic heroes. Benjamin Franklin, however, is seen in a harsh light: Williams cites his pragmatism and Poor Richard wit as a guise adopted out of fear of the New World’s wildness.

Through energetic prose, Williams brings the figures on postage stamps to life. Often quoting directly from original sources, he adapts the tone of his writing to the quotation. Empathy, not iconoclasm, is the mode Williams uses in the book. He desperately hoped that America would recognize its genius and tradition as separate from English Protestantism and European culture. Thus the book aims not to debunk but to reveal, lovingly, our connection in the twentieth century with our founders. This connection is not a simpleminded patriotic nostalgia, but a living and problematic relationship.

In the American Grain Historical Context

A number of time periods clash in In the American Grain, which is only natural for a work that spans many centuries of history. The...

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In the American Grain Literary Style

Narration
The narrative voice in works of history is central to those works’ claims of authority. Generally, historiography...

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In the American Grain Compare and Contrast

1925: The United States enjoys the Roaring Twenties, a decade of economic prosperity and relative good times after the hardships and...

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In the American Grain Topics for Further Study

Research the coming of the Spanish to the ‘‘New World.’’ How did Columbus’s voyage differ from Cortéz’s or Coronado’s? What...

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In the American Grain What Do I Read Next?

For those interested in Williams’s other writings, probably the best place to start would be with his Selected Poems, first...

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In the American Grain Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Breslin, James, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, Oxford University Press, 1970.

Conrad,...

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In the American Grain Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos...

(The entire section is 194 words.)