Williams’s collection of essays In the American Grain, first conceived in the early 1920’s, was undertaken, the writer said, “to try to find out for myself what the land of my more or less accidental birth might signify” by direct examination of the original records of American founders. His hope was to rediscover the unmediated truth about the founders, the makers, and the discoverers of America. “In letters, in journals, reports of happenings,” he says, “I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.”
Williams divided In the American Grain into twenty chapters ranging in time and place from the settlement of Greenland, through the voyages of Christopher Columbus, to the exploration of Kentucky and the Civil War. In form, the essays include dramatic narratives, lyric interludes, brief character sketches, whole sections of Columbus’s journals, Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Daniel Boone’s autobiography, and excerpts from John Paul Jones’s letters and log entries.
Taking his subjects in chronological order, Williams begins with the exploration and settlement of Greenland by Erik the Red and his son, Leif Erikkson; he ends with a prose poem on Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The collection includes sketches of such major or representative historical figures as Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Sir Walter Ralegh, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Edgar Allan Poe.
In addition, Williams wrote essays on minor figures, such as Ponce de León, Hernando de Soto, Père Sebastian Rasles, Aaron Burr, and Sam Houston. Most of these apparently minor figures, especially Rasles, assume heroic proportions after Williams’s assessment of their encounters in the New World. Williams’s meditations on America’s discoverers also include consideration of attitudes toward violence, sports, and commerce in the United States of the 1920’s as well as such blights on the American conscience as the slaves (“Poised against the Mayflower is the slave ship . . . bringing another race to try upon the New World”) and the suppression of women (“So Jacataqua gave to womanhood in her time, the form which bitterness of pioneer character had denied it”). Williams’s hope in these essays is to restore his readers’ awareness of the past.
Even the original records distort the truth about the past, Williams claims, so that it must be researched and reconstituted in new writing in order to be understood. In his attempt to get back to “the strange phosphorus of the...
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