Study Guide

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams Essay - Williams, William Carlos

Williams, William Carlos

Introduction

William Carlos Williams 1883-1963

American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and autobiographer.

An important American poet, Williams also wrote short stories, most notably the collections The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life along the Passaic River (1938). Williams was a devoted, practicing physician during most of his literary career, and much of his work demonstrates his respect and concern for his patients and their life situations. The poverty, suffering, and means of survival among the ordinary, poor people of his native New Jersey inform most of Williams's short fiction, which often features conversations written in "the American idiom," his term for the vernacular language essential to shaping his vision of the American experience. Unconventional in form and episodic in construction, his realistic, and sometimes graphic, stories often juxtapose vivid images from life to convey their messages. Williams received a lukewarm critical reception to his short fiction during much of his career. However, many scholars have since recognized that his stories significantly influenced the development of the short story form in twentieth-century American literature.

Biographical Information

Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he spent his entire life. During his adolescence, a heart ailment forced him off the sports fields and led him to study literature. Nevertheless, from 1902 to 1906 Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he made lasting friendships with American poets Ezra Pound and H. D. By the time Williams had established his own medical practice in 1910, he had published his first book, Poems (1909). During the next decade, Williams married Florence ("Flossie") Herman in 1912, started a family in 1914, and published two more books of poetry. In the 1920s Williams extended his literary efforts to prose, producing the prose "improvisations" of Kora in Hell (1920), the short novel The Great American Novel (1923), the historical essays of In the American Grain (1925), and his first full-length novel, A Voyage to Pagany (1928). Williams's short stories began appearing in the 1930s. Scholars have surmised that his growing frustration at the mild response to his poetry prompted Williams to write fiction, including the novels White Mule (1937)—his first popularly acclaimed work—and the first volume of The Stecher Trilogy, which is based on the people and the circumstances of his wife's youth. The 1940s and 1950s marked Williams's most productive period. He published two novels, three plays and a libretto, another collection of stories entitled Make Light of It (1950), his autobiography, and many collections of new and previously published poetry, most notably the five-book epic poem Paterson (1946-1958), which is widely considered a masterpiece of American literature, and Selected Poems (1948), which won the 1949 National Book Award. Following a series of heart attacks and a bout of depression from 1948 to 1953, Williams retired from his medical practice, but continued to write. In 1961 he published his final collections of stories, The Farmers' Daughters, and plays, Many Loves and Other Plays. After he died on March 4, 1963, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures from Brueghel (1962) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal for poetry.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Williams, the doctor-narrator in most of his short fiction, believed that the short story form was "a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally." Most of the eleven stories in The Knife of the Times represent Williams's experiences with some of his patients and neighbors during the early years of the Great Depression, showing their fortitude and perseverance while dealing with social and individual suffering. The "knife" in each of these stories refers to more than the hardships of dire economic reversal, often focusing on "couples" and their unions and separations. The title story, for instance, portrays a lesbian relationship between Ethel and Maura, who cope with the "knife" of their homosexuality. "Old Doc Rivers," perhaps the best known story of the collection, relates the anecdotes of a legendary small-town doctor, who "would go anywhere, anytime, for anybody," but tragically succumbs to shifting American cultural values and ultimately to the "knife" of drugs and alcohol. Life along the Passaic River contains nineteen stories about similar themes and situations, but the tone is darker, the focus turned more toward children characters, and the locale assumes significance, reflecting Williams's belief that "In a work of art place is everything." In a series of vignettes that dissolve into one another, the title story offers detailed descriptions of the industrialized riverscape and the people who live there, focusing on the conflict between industry and nature. In "The Use of Force," Williams's most frequently anthologized story, a doctor attempts to diagnose a child's fever, but the child refuses to allow an examination, so the doctor must resort to forceful methods. "Jean Beicke," one of Williams's favorite stories, centers on the life and death of an eleven-month-old girl, including a vivid description of the child's autopsy. Make Light of It comprises the stories from Williams's first two volumes and twenty-one other stories in a section entitled "Beer and Cold Cuts," of which all but two had been previously published. The Farmers' Daughters includes all of Williams's previously collected short fiction and the uncollected title story, which recounts the relationship between two southern farmers' daughters and their doctor. The Doctor Stories (1984) collects several doctor-themed stories from Life along the Passaic River.

Critical Reception

The technique and style of Williams's stories have often been compared to that of Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, early Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence. The stories of Life along the Passaic River have received the most critical attention, particularly "The Use of Force," which has been interpreted variously in terms of its implications about violence, practical applications in the field of medical ethics, sexual connotations, psychological aspects, and autobiographical factors. Many critics have emphasized the autobiographical quality of much of Williams's work: "His temperament . . . was neatly split between that of a feeling, observing doctor and that of the practicing poet. . . . He was a poet-physician. These two-parted identities stand behind his every word," observed George Monteiro. Most scholars have agreed that Williams's innovations in the short story form were revolutionary. Linda Welshimer Wagner has pointed out that "the apparently effortless telling, the informal (and often unresolved) plot, the emphasis on character presented through salient details, and above all, the reliance on dialogue—these trademarks of a Williams's story occur repeatedly in contemporary writing." James G. Watson has likewise remarked on Williams's contributions to the American short story: "Declining the formulas of tradition and the acceptable contemporary conventions, Williams chose to state frankly the intimate passions and passionate brutalities that he said were flashes struck from the materials of life." Commenting on Williams's literary accomplishments, Wagner concluded that his "short stories may have had as deep an effect on contemporary fiction as his poems have had on modern poetry."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories 1932

A Novelette and Other Prose (novella and prose) 1932

Life along the Passaic River 1938

Make Light of It: Collected Stories 1950

The Farmers' Daughters: The Collected Stories 1961

The Doctor Stories 1984

Other Major Works

Poems (poetry) 1909

The Tempers (poetry) 1913

Al que quiere! (poetry) 1917

Kora in Hell: Improvisations (poetry) 1920

Sour Grapes (poetry) 1921

GO GO (poetry) 1923

The Great American Novel (novel) 1923

Spring and All (poetry) 1923

In the American Grain (essays) 1925

A Voyage to Pagany (novel) 1928

The Cod Head (poetry) 1932

Collected Poems, 1921-1931 (poetry) 1934

An Early Martyr and Other Poems (poetry) 1935

Adam & Eve & the City (poetry) 1936

* White Mule (novel) 1937

The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906-1938 (poetry) 1938

*In the Money: White Mule—Part II (novel) 1940

The Wedge (poetry) 1944

†Paterson (Book One) (poetry) 1946

The Clouds (poetry) 1948

A Dream of Love: A Play in Three Acts and Eight Scenes (drama) 1948

†Paterson (Book Two) (poetry) 1948

†Paterson (Book Three) (poetry) 1949

The Pink Church (poetry) 1949

Selected Poems (poetry) 1949

A Beginning on the Short Story [Notes] (essay) 1950

The Collected Later Poems (poetry) 1950

The Autobiography (autobiography) 1951

The Collected Earlier Poems (poetry) 1951

†Paterson (Book Four) (poetry) 1951

*The Build-Up: A Novel (novel) 1952

The Desert Music, and Other Poems (poetry) 1954

Selected Essays (essays) 1954

Journey to Love (poetry) 1955

I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet 1958

†Paterson (Book Five) (poetry) 1958

Yes, Mrs. Williams: A Personal Record of My Mother (biography) 1959

Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays (dramas) 1961

Pictures from Brueghel, and Other Poems (poetry) 1962

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. 2 vols. (poetry) 1986-1988

*These works are commonly referred to collectively as The Stecher Trilogy.

†These volumes, together with notes for a proposed sixth book, were collected and published as Paterson in 1963.

Criticism

Philip Rahv (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "Dr. Williams in His Short Stories," in Image and Idea: Twenty Essays on Literary Themes, New Directions Paperbook, 1957, pp. 155-58.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Partisan Review in March 1938, Rahv summarizes the themes of Life on the Passaic River.]

In his prose as in his poetry William Carlos Williams is too hardy a frontiersman of the word to permit himself the idle luxuries of aestheticism. There are too many things to be seen and touched, too many cadences of living speech to be listened to and recorded. Kenneth Burke once said of Williams that he was engaged in "discovering the shortest route between subject and object."...

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Vivienne Koch (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "The Novels and Short Stories," in William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, 1950, pp. 187-246.

[In the following excerpt from a detailed assessment of Williams's fiction to 1950, Koch reviews the stories in The Knife of the Times and Life along the Passaic River, indicating their significance in the development of Williams 's career and of the modern American short story form.]

The logic of Williams' allegiance to the quest for a knowledge of localism, for a defining of the American grain, has compelled in his fiction a restriction to American materials. The notable exception to this is his first novel, A Voyage to Pagany. While its...

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William Carlos Williams (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)," in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, Random House, 1954, pp. 295-310.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1950, the author comments on the art of the short story.]

The principal feature re the short story is that it is short—and so must pack in what it has to say (unless it be snipped off a large piece of writing as a sort of prose for quality of writing which might be justifiable).

It seems to me to be a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally.

There's "Melanctha" (and there are the Poe stories), a means of writing, practice...

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Cid Corman (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Farmers' Daughters: A True Story about People," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 319-24.

[In the following essay, Corman discusses the chief literary qualities of Williams's writing style in The Farmers' Daughters.]

Bill was upstairs. (I was visiting 9 Ridge Road, 1954.) Floss was explaining his nervousness whenever the phone rang. He thinks it's for him, a patient. Few seem to realize that 70% of his life has been given to his practice.

She was implying, perhaps, that writing occupied only part of the remaining 30%. But life, like death, has a funny way of getting round percentages. And to read...

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R. F. Dietrich (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Connotations of Rape in 'The Use of Force'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 4, Summer, 1966, pp. 446-50.

[In the essay below, Dietrich analyzes sexually suggestive aspects in the language and tone of ''The Use of Force. "]

It is difficult to pick up a collection of short stories these days without finding William Carlos Williams' odd little story "The Use of Force." Its ubiquity in college anthologies is not surprising, really, in that it simply, quickly, effectively illustrates many of the conventions of short story writing, and thus provides easy means for the instructor's first assault on the elements of fiction. Readily identifiable in this...

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J. E. Slate (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "William Carlos Williams and the Modern Short Story," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1968, pp. 647-64.

[In the essay below, Slate relates Williams's theories about writing short fiction to the stories themselves, demonstrating the modern qualities of Williams's thought and practice.]

William Carlos Williams' "The Use of Force" needs no defense in academic circles. Endorsed by the critics and teachers who print it in anthologies, "The Use of Force" now indisputably belongs. Though the other fifty-one stories in Williams' largest collection are still relatively unknown, fifteen years in the right circles have established this single piece of...

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Thomas R. Whitaker (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "On the Ground," in William Carlos Williams, Twayne Publishers, 1968, pp. 97-118.

[In the excerpt below, Whitaker gives a thematic overview of Williams's short fiction.]

Though Williams had written short stories during the previous decade or so, not until the 1930's did this form become of major importance to him. In the people among whom he worked, the Depression was now revealing qualities that demanded a brief narrative form: "brokenness and heterogeneity—isolation, color." Temporary uncertainty about his direction in poetry also led him to prose—as a "laboratory for metrics" in which he could listen to live speech, hoping to discover the new. And behind...

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Linda Welshimer Wagner (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Shape of Men's Lives'," in The Prose of William Carlos Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1970, pp. 104-20.

[In the following essay, Wagner surveys Williams's short fiction, relating its subjects and techniques to those of other contemporaneous writings.]

Williams' short stories may have had as deep an effect on contemporary fiction as his poems have had on modern poetry. Denis Donoghue feels that "his stories will wear better than his poems, because the stories keep him rooted in the particular incident" [Connoisseurs of Chaos, 1965]. Many modern writers, ranging from Flannery O'Connor to Robert Creeley, share this view. The apparently effortless...

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Fergal Gallagher (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Further Freudian Implications in William Carlos Williams' The Use of Force'," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 34, No. 4, May, 1972, pp. 20-1.

[In the essay below, Gallagher identifies the characters of the child, the doctor, and the parents in "The Use of Force" with the function of id, the ego, and the superego in the human psyche.]

In his interesting article on William Carlos Williams' "The Use of Force," R. F. Dietrich points out the sexual connotations of the story that "are there because they express the savagery in human nature that, lying so close to the surface, can erupt at any moment in a flow of irrational behavior . . ." (Studies in Short Fiction,...

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Murray M. Schwartz (essay date 1972-73)

SOURCE: "'The Use of Force' and the Dilemma of Violence," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter, 1972-73, pp. 617-25.

[In the following essay, Schwartz offers a psychoanalytic reading of "The Use of Force, " focusing on Williams's representation of violence in the story.]

My subject is a very short story by William Carlos Williams called "The Use of Force," about a doctor who forces a spoon into a little girl's mouth to reveal diphtherial membranes that she has been hiding for three days. But, as so much else in Williams' art, it also represents the dynamics of violence, the convergence of motive and situation which transforms the apparently ordinary...

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Majorie Perloff (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams," in The Georgia Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 840-53.

[In the essay below, Perloff examines psychosexual aspects of the doctor-patient relationships in several medical stories from Life along the Passaic River.]

In one of William Carlos Williams' autobiographical sketches about the world of the big city hospital, a story called "World's End," the doctor-narrator recalls a particularly difficult little girl about six years old who was brought to the hospital kicking and screaming so violently that she could not be placed in a ward. The doctor decides to see what he can do: he...

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George Monteiro (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Doctor's Black Bag: William Carlos Williams' Passaic River Stories," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 77-84.

[In the essay below, which originally was presented as a paper at the Eastern Comparative Literature Meetings in May 1980, Monteiro shows how Williams's own identity as "poet-physician" informs several of his doctor stories.]

All day long the doctor carries on this work, observing, weighing, comparing values of which neither he nor his patients may know the significance. . . . He is half-ashamed to have people suspect him of carrying on a clandestine, a sort of underhand piece of spying on the public...

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James G. Watson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: 'The American Short Story: 1930-1945," in The American Short Story, 1900-1945: A Critical History, G. K. Hall & Company, 1984, pp. 103-46.

[In the following excerpt, Watson surveys Williams's contributions to the short story form.]

Other native sons and daughters whose work significantly contributed to the contours of the short story between the wars include two at apparently opposite ends of the spectrum: the American expatriate writer, Kay Boyle, and the doctor-poet of Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams. Expatriate and poet are delimiting labels for these two, but they help to account for divergences in the pattern I have been tracing. In her...

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Joseph M. Gratto (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "An Analysis of William Carlos Williams' 'Mind and Body'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 347-51.

[In the essay below, Gratto details the autobiographical, medical, and literary components of "Mind and Body."]

William Carlos Williams' short story "Mind and Body" takes a vignette about a woman who obviously fascinated Williams, melds it with the substance of a chapter from a highly popular medical book of the depression era, and illustrates in a very effective literary way the main elements of an important medical issue—the relationship of psychiatric medicine to general practice.

The case of Martha Darby,...

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Paul Mariani (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "La Giaconda's Smile," in William Carlos Williams Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 55-60.

[In the following essay, Mariani closely analyzes Williams 's use of language and its effect on meaning in "Country Rain."]

"Why don't you write a story about the place while it's raining, now you've got your typewriter set up." So Williams has his wife, Floss, ask him in his short story, "The Country Doctor."

And Williams, art reflecting life: "Country Rain, said I, looking out of our bedroom window over the ploughed field. Or, The Dark Helen, huh?"

In early August, 1946, with the hardest part of the war...

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Robert F. Gish (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Rare Presences: The Knife of the Times and Life Along the Passaic River," in William Carlos Williams, A Study of the Short Fiction, G. K. Hall & Co., 1989, pp. 39-78.

[In the following excerpt, Gish elucidates the thematic, stylistic, and technical characteristics of Williams's short fiction.]

Williams's first two volumes of short stones, The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life Along the Passaic River (1938), represent the kinds of "rare presences" he found as a doctor in his various encounters with his patients and with people in general; in listening to what they said and how they said it—with the ear not just...

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