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First published: 1925

Type of work: Historical narratives and essays

Time of work: The tenth century to the 1860's

Locale: The Americas

Principal Personages:

Eric the Red

Christopher Columbus

Hernando Cortez

Juan Ponce de Leon

Hernando de Soto

Sir Walter Raleigh

Samuel de Champlain

Thomas Morton

Cotton Mather

Pere Sebastian Rasles

Daniel Boone

George Washington

Benjamin Franklin

John Paul Jones


Aaron Burr

Edgar Allan Poe

Abraham Lincoln


History, to paraphrase Corinthians, is many things to many men. It is the record of what really happened and also the story of what men in later times have believed really happened. It is the story of what men thought and felt and did under the pressure and crisis of decisive action. It is concerned with the noble, the foolish, the violent, the base. It is the careful untangling of political, social, and economic motives and forces in the national experience. It is the unvarnished record of fact and it is also the romantic dream of something men have believed in and died for. It is a record of truth but never the final truth, for each age interprets the events and personalities of history according to its knowledge or need. So it becomes almost meaningless to talk about the "lessons" of history or their meanings: history is a story that is never quite finished because it is always open to reappraisal or new conclusions. The many-sided aspects of history provide one reason for the appeal it holds for its writers, professionals, and amateurs alike.

IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN, one of the authentic classics of the 1920's, is a poet's venture into historiography. As such, it is unstaled by conventional theory, without debt to academic authority, and as brilliant and idiosyncratic in purpose, insights, and structure as D. H. Lawrence's STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE. Also, like Lawrence's critical essays, it is a book written before its proper period. Only in recent years has it been recognized as a revitalizing view of the American past, an original work of considerable magnitude and weight.

At the same time, it was never without influence during the years when it was out of print and neglected by both the critics and the public. One literary debt that comes quickly to mind is found in Hart Crane's THE BRIDGE. Traces of Williams' insights and idioms run through the poem. The half-title page of "Powhatan's Daughter," for example, requotes a passage from Thomas Morton's THE NEW ENGLAND CANAAN, and there are obvious likenesses between the vision of Columbus in the opening "Ave Maria" section of THE BRIDGE and Williams' essay titled "The Discovery of the Indies." Another poet who may have been influenced by IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN is Archibald MacLeish in CONQUISTADOR, especially by Williams' description of the destruction of Tenochtitlan and his accounts of the conquistadores—Cortez, Ponce de Leon, and De Soto. There may be echoes also in the closing paragraphs of Fitzgerald's THE GREAT GATSBY, in the reference to Henry Hudson and his sailors when they saw for the first time the green shores of the New World and were filled with wonder at the promises the new continent held for men's westering dreams. All of this is not to say that these writers were guilty of plagiarism, only that IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN offered to perceptive readers images and impressions to be held in memory and knowledge until they could be released in fresh works of the imagination.

Despite its significance as a seminal work, IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN is even more important for the function...

(This entire section contains 2668 words.)

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it performs. Williams' purpose, briefly, was not to give a new interpretation of history or to consider its uses, but to discover the thing itself, its nature and the conditions under which it took shape. In "Pere Sebastian Rasles" he set forth his aim in a discussion with Paul Valery, who in the essay is called Valery Larbaud. Impressed by the other man's knowledge of and interest in American history, Williams claims that everything which has happened or been produced in America springs from discoverable roots, rests on ground capable of being explored and mapped. In the face of the other man's urbane probing into Williams' mind and attitude, the poet insists that it is not possible to trust the men who have interpreted history, from the time of Cotton Mather on. He will go to the sources, he declares, not to uproot history but to make history reveal itself, to trace to their past beginnings the obscurities and partisan views that oppress him, to uncover in the documents of the time the evidence needed to separate fact from myth.

Williams' reordering of the American experience from the century of the Norseman to the Civil War is symbolic rather than philosophical. Clearly, his task involved more than the retrieving of a usable past from the leveling action of time and from legends growing out of the common imagination, or the attempt to find in the meaning of the past a way out of the unsettled present into the future. Exploratory in nature, the book is first of all an act of discovery and recovery, two aspects of the single process of knowing and understanding. Some events or personalities that most historians gloss over or ignore have been brought into the foreground; others recede into it. For Williams is not tracing the development of a society or justifying the culture it created. To speak of a culture implies an abstraction, a phenomenon of cause and consequence which allows no place within its long perspective for the accidental, the discrete, the contingent. This view reduces all history to a concept free of all the rich confusion of chance and circumstance that is life itself. Instead, Williams employs what Allen Tate has called the "Short View" of history, the particular stories of the particular lives of man engaged in contemporaneous interactions of place, time, and personality. Believing, like Emerson, that history is a record of the lengthened shadows cast by men on the earth, Williams reveals in this book the same qualities that we find in his poetry, a strong sense of the "Local"—which is not to be confused with local color—and a ruling passion to express his vision of the world as concisely and concretely as possible. To the poet who declared that there is no reality except in things, no other course was possible.

His experiment in historiography involved also an experiment in style. To give richness of historical content to his book he borrowed lavishly from his sources. Quotations from letters, chronicles, and journals are scattered through the sketches—passages from Columbus' journals, reports of the Salem witchcraft trials, letters written by Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones—to color the prose and give it vitality and the ring of truth. Sometimes this quoted matter complements Williams' own prose; sometimes it clashes with dramatic vigor. One is reminded throughout of one of Williams' statements on the writing of poetry: his declaration that the writer takes words as he finds them but transforms them, without destroying their clarity and passion, into an expression of his own feelings and perceptions so presented that they become revelation. It is not what a writer says, he claimed, that is important as a work of art, but the thing he makes with such intensity that it lives by its own force of outward movement and wild inward logic. In the brief narratives and essays making up IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN the writer's historical imagination holds revelation of personality and meaning of situation in delicate but compelling balance, while the language gives the whole resonance and depth.

The book is divided into twenty chapters—dramatic narratives, lyric interludes, brief character sketches—ranging in space and time from the settlement of Greenland through the voyages of Columbus and the exploration of Kentucky to the Civil War, and dealing with such representative or illustrative figures as the conquistadores, Sir Walter Raleigh, Cotton Mather, George Washington, John Paul Jones, Aaron Burr, Poe, and Lincoln. The arrangement is chronological, but the scale of values accorded to the men and events is quite different from that found in the history texts. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, is no longer the wise founding father but the great apostle of catchpenny materialism and opportunism whose face, appropriately, now decorates the one-cent stamp. Aaron Burr, on the other hand, is not the self-seeking man who tried to upset the established order of government because of personal ambition; Williams sees him as a good soldier who brought into politics an element of democratic theory necessary to the times but neglected by other men already in power or aspiring to office, a champion of liberty at a time when freedom was subverted to bureaucratic tyranny, a man finally driven to the imprudence and excesses of which his opponents had already accused him.

Two themes run through the book. One is the failure of Americans to create for themselves a sense of place. The early settler on these shores was already an alienated man, an exile from European society, and on the new continent his feeling of separation became complete. He saw America not as a place to be sensed and assimilated but as a land to be conquered for selfish ends. The forces motivating him were external circumstances of time and place on the one hand, the opportunity to exploit a vast and rich continent, and on the other inward necessity, the need to justify his own identity as a new man in a new land. The first of these drives was public and pragmatic; it hastened the westward movement, created the myth of scientific progress, and laid the foundation for an industrial society and the comforts of an expanding, affluent technical economy, all the while ignoring the cost in terms of individual hardship, economic waste, and the erosion of human values. The other was private and moral. From it we get in part the restlessness, the violence, the communal guilt and shame, the inner fears, the secret loneliness and desire that agitate our society today. Only at rare intervals, in Williams' view, does history present an individual so completely and individually himself and so much at ease in his environment that he shows himself capable of acting as an American, not as a transplanted European or an alien in his own society: Daniel Boone as the explorer and settler, Aaron Burr as the politician, Edgar Allan Poe as the artist, Abraham Lincoln as the leader of a divided nation in conflict with itself. This conflict is implicit in the beginnings of our history. Columbus sensed without really understanding the meaning of America and saw with bright vision the possibilities of place and life in the New World. The opposite side of the picture is the story of the Spanish conquerors, the impact of the cross and sword of feudal Spain upon a pagan society. Occasionally the exploited land revenged itself onits despoilers; the disappointments of Cortez and the secret river burial of De Soto are in effect payment for the destruction of Tenochtitlan and the rape of Mexico and Peru.

Williams' second theme is the blight of Puritanism over the American land. Like Hawthorne, he viewed the Puritans as "miserable wretches" who possessed strength of purpose and will but not the tolerance of strength or the wisdom of purpose. Puritan bigotry and ignorance were demonstrated in the treatment of Quakers in New England and the Salem witchcraft trials. The abstract ideal of purity and salvation almost entirely excluded from Puritan life the idea of place or a sense of beauty as a concrete, natural thing. Williams finds Cotton Mather niggardly and narrow, a man of great but unassimilated learning, whose belief in the supernatural often verged on superstition. Hostile to a flowering of the spirit, the Puritans tried to convert all life into facts and figures, and Benjamin Franklin, as revealed in his maxims, was the inheritor of their materialism and morality. If IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN contains a major flaw, it is found in Williams' treatment of the Puritan. Although he does not succumb to the Puritan-baiting popular among intellectuals in the 1920's, he sometimes criticizes Puritanism, or expresses his grudging admiration, for the wrong things. Today we realize that Puritanism was more than an abstract ideal of an earthly paradise, a theocracy of dogmatic belief and practice; it was also a seedbed of political freedom and independence of mind and spirit.

Because he himself was a poet, perhaps, the true hero of Williams' argument is Edgar Allan Poe, whom he calls the first writer to recognize the possibilities of American life in art and to give shape in language to the spirit of place and time. For Poe, culture was not something to be brought into the national experience but something to be revealed because it was already present in the conditions and circumstances of the world around him. In his poems, short stories, and criticism, he tried to find universal meanings in the local, not in setting alone, but in the American psyche, in apocalyptic visions of the American soul. In the end he was defeated by the forms and forces of culture inherited from the past, and he retreated into a region of grotesques. But at best he expressed with originality and vigor the spirit of place, used the creations of his imagination to suggest that literature is a serious business as logical and depth insighted as science or philosophy. He tried to clear the ground of colonial imitation and the growing belief that material advance was the only possibility offered by American life. His effort was moral as well as aesthetic, and for this reason Williams regards him not as a frustrated genius but as a heroic figure deserving the highest praise.

The book ends with a brief appreciation of Abraham Lincoln. The choice is an appropriate one. For Lincoln was our president in the period of the Civil War, the most deeply felt and possessed experience in our national life, the violent summation of all that had gone before and the adumbration of everything that has happened since. Lincoln is here a symbolic figure, an image of the shortcomings and possibilities in our history, a figure of tragic failure as well as a promise of hope. This impingement of the present upon the past gives IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN an added dimension, a deeper relevance in our own understanding of the events and the men who have shaped our history. This is a poet's book as well as an amateur historian's, a work in which the writer's vision provides new insights into historical truths imaginatively viewed and passionately re-created in language. In it the local view strikes deep into the shape and meaning of the American past.


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