To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, the Doctor-Poet Critical Context - Essay

Neil Baldwin

Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.