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 life” that precedes every effort made to record it, he therefore metaphorically repeats or imitates the action of his subjects, who abandoned the advanced culture of Europe in order to go back to the beginning again, back to the forces and conditions that precede culture.
In order to restore a past lost through use of the wrong words to describe it, Williams often employs the words of his subjects so as to convey their ways of vision and expression. He attempted to compose each chapter in a style suited to its subject, copying and using what that subject had recorded. In “The Discovery of the Indies,” for example, Williams makes extensive use of Columbus’s journals.
In some chapters Williams allows his subjects to speak for themselves, verbatim. “Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World” consists entirely of excerpts from that book. A major theme of In the American Grain results from Williams’s strategy of exploring, through myriad voices, ways in which his subjects viewed new worlds. Williams contends that history is as much a matter of language and imagination as of data; the past may be falsified by a misuse of language, failure to recognize its nuances, failure to perceive “new contours” in “old words.” His use of sources is somewhat like his friend Ezra Pound’s approach to translation. Williams is not afraid to compress, adapt, or modify in order to express more strongly...
(The entire section is 5,497 words.)