Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3662
Bridget Bishop is one of the witches put on trial in the chapter entitled ‘‘Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World.’’ The witnesses testifying against her are stricken with pain when they look at her. Among the testimonies offered against her are stories that she kept ‘‘poppets,’’ or dolls, in the walls of a house, that she bewitched a sow, and that she caused apparitions to appear in front of people.
For Williams, Daniel Boone is one of the central figures of American history. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, Boone and his family moved to the unsettled parts of North Carolina when he was a boy. From there, he became an uncannily good woodsman. After Boone married, he left the settlement in which they lived to explore the woods to the west. He was captured by Indians and released, but the desire to explore the vast, unknown lands west of the Appalachians possessed him. Williams admires Boone as a true American—a man who incorporated into himself the drive of the European settlers with a full acceptance of the ways of the American continent and the Indians who inhabited it.
In the chapter ‘‘The Virtue of History,’’ Aaron Burr is the main character. Williams felt that Burr had been unfairly condemned by history as a result of his killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Williams quotes Hamilton’s statement that Burr was ‘‘a dangerous man’’ and spends much of the chapter examining and ultimately debunking that idea. Burr was one of the most powerful and important figures in the early Republic, serving as Vice President and being nominated (but ultimately rejected) for the post of Ambassador to France. But his duel with Hamilton, and the resulting public reaction, doomed his political career.
Burr’s most important characteristics, the traits that resonate in later American history, were his persuasiveness, his ambition, and his irresistibility to women. This final characteristic, seemingly unimportant within the larger scope of history, is actually central to Williams’s idea of the American character. True Americans are womanizers; they are men of action who seek to act upon something, whether that ‘‘thing’’ be a woman or a land. Closely linked to this trait, at least in Williams’s eyes, is the tendency to not be concerned about what others think—what Williams calls Burr’s ‘‘open disregard for the opinion of the world.’’ Finally, Williams praises him for his ‘‘humanity, his own, free and independent, unyielding to the herd, practical, direct.’’
Samuel de Champlain
Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer, the son of an admiral, who spent years in the territories of French Canada. The narrator calls him ‘‘a great adventurer, tremendous energy, one of the foremost colonizers of our country.’’ In the incident recounted in In the American Grain, he learns of and thwarts a plot against him by members of his exploration party.
Champlain, like Pere de Rasles, serves Williams as an example of the French/Catholic approach to colonization. While he does not endorse this approach, Williams sees it as better than the Puritan approach (although, given the singlemindedness of the Puritans, the French/Catholic way was doomed to insufficiency). Champlain appreciated the ways of the New World and wanted to be a part of it. As the narrator states, ‘‘it is the weakness of you French—planting a drop of your precious blood in outlandish veins, in the wilderness and fancying that that addition makes them French— that by this the wilderness is converted!’’ Cham plain (and Cortéz, for that matter) want to convert the Indians and the land itself, while the English Puritans simply want to eliminate them.
The story of Christopher Columbus is familiar to every American schoolchild. Williams uses this familiar story as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the character of Columbus. His most important trait is his resolution: he determined to accomplish a particular goal and nothing could keep him from that. Even given that, though, Columbus’s own character was ultimately of little importance because he is ‘‘a straw in the play of elemental giants’’—that is, he is at the mercy of kings, queens, emperors, and the sea itself. Columbus went four times to the New World, yet he personally never benefited from the great wealth he brought to Spain. The majority of the chapter devoted to him is a narrative of his first voyage to the New World and demonstrates his determination and his cleverness in staving off what seemed like an inevitable mutiny. For Williams, Christopher Columbus (like George Washington) was a necessary man but not a great one in the development of the American ‘‘grain.’’
Hernán Cortéz was the ‘‘conquistador’’ who sailed from newly settled Cuba to the eastern shores of Mexico, searching to enrich himself and his king. The story of his encounter with the powerful Aztec empire and its enigmatic leader, Montezuma, is one of the most remarkable stories in world history. The representative of a violent, self-assured, and farreaching empire, Cortéz came to Mexico utterly confident in his ability to take the land (even though his army was relatively small). When he landed at what is now Veracruz, advance scouts from the Aztec empire carried messages from Montezuma urging Cortéz to stay away from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. As Cortéz and his small group of Spaniards (eventually accompanied by large numbers of Indians from tribes oppressed by the Aztecs) marched toward Tenochtitlan, Montezuma continued to urge him to stay away.
Arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortéz was amazed at the sophistication of the city, which outshone Madrid or Seville. But Cortéz, Williams emphasizes, was completely unable to appreciate the glories of a foreign land. His goal was clear and he would not waver. As Williams writes, ‘‘Cortéz was neither malicious, stupid nor blind, but a conqueror like other conquerors.’’ In the process of taking over Tenochtitlan, he profanes the Aztecs’ altars and causes the death of Montezuma. In the end, though, he gets what he wanted both for Spain (the vast holdings of ‘‘New Spain’’) and for himself (a large estate in the present-day state of Oaxaca).
Unlike Columbus, Cortéz was a powerful personality whose actions, by themselves, shaped the New World. However, this is not to say that he is necessarily an admirable man. He is a prefiguration of the Puritans. Unlike the Puritans, though, he was not entirely self-absorbed. He could reach out to other cultures and interact with them to a small extent. However, the result is the same: the destruction of the ‘‘orchidean beauty’’ of the native culture and the substitution of the European way of life.
Williams has a problem with Benjamin Franklin: he could have been so much more than he ended up being. Franklin’s most important characteristic is his endless energy. He could have done anything, accomplished anything, simply by dint of persistent effort and tirelessness. But Franklin simply does not have anything on which to expend all of that energy. He is ‘‘motion without direction,’’ ‘‘a voluptuousness of omnivorous energy.’’ However, as Williams makes clear, Franklin had no worthy project. The New World and its fundamental incomprehensibility to the practical mind thwarted his ability to be a Daniel Boone or Pere Rasles (two of the most positive figures of the book).
For everything negative Williams says about Benjamin Franklin, he tempers it with something positive. Franklin was utterly unable to understand the New World, but he was able to use the ‘‘massive strength of its primitive wilderness’’ when he was among Europeans (while in Paris, Franklin often went about dressed as a frontiersman). However, he is always looking back at Europe, not forward to the American continent. He embodies ‘‘timidity’’ and ‘‘the strength that denies itself.’’ Ultimately, Williams seems to be most disturbed by Franklin’s refusal to accept the great gift that America’s land and people wanted to give to him. He turns his back on it, concentrates on thrift and saving and building forts against the land. In this he upholds the worst of the Puritan legacy.
Freydis is one of the daughters of Eric the Red and therefore Leif Ericson’s sister. In the first chapter of the book, she commands her own ship in the expedition to Vinland. She has an argument with two of her fellow explorers, Finnbogi and Karlsefni, and has her husband Thorvald kill the two men. After Thorvald does this, Freydis kills the two women who were traveling with Finnbogi and Karlsefni.
Hamilton appears primarily in the chapter on Aaron Burr, with whom he will be forever linked. Hamilton was a self-made man, born in the West Indies, who came to America and quickly showed himself to be perhaps the most intelligent of all the so-called ‘‘Founding Fathers.’’ He graduated from college and quickly joined the staff of General George Washington. During the debate surrounding the writing of the Constitution, Hamilton argued for a strong Federal power, opposing such men as Burr and Thomas Jefferson who wanted a decentralized government. He founded the New York Post and from there attacked men—such as Burr—who opposed him. Eventually, through his newspaper, he called Burr ‘‘politically dangerous’’ and Burr challenged him to a duel. In this duel (held in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan), Burr killed Hamilton. Hamilton was fifty-seven.
Because of his views on finance, Hamilton was reviled by modernist artists. He sought to establish a strong central bank, and he supported the interests of banks and capitalists against the interests of farmers and workers. Because of his own left-wing political leanings, Williams felt that the right-wing Hamilton was one of the villains of early American history.
Sam Houston was born in Tennessee and, for awhile, lived among the Indians of that territory. Returning to white society when he was eighteen, he obtained an education and rose to prominence in his home state, eventually becoming governor. In 1829, he got married, but the marriage was quickly annulled for unknown reasons. Disgraced by this failed marriage, Houston resigned from his office and left the state to again join the Cherokees in Arkansas. After a number of years with the Cherokees, Houston came to Texas and led the Texan army to victory at San Jacinto. He became governor and later senator for his adopted state.
Williams admires Houston because, unlike so many of the other figures in the book, Houston left white society and lived with the Indians. In doing this, he came to understand the New World. Williams believes that the truly great figures in American history (as well as what he calls the ‘‘poets’’ ) must come up from the very ground, like Boone and Houston.
Jacataqua is the name of an Abenaki Indian woman who figures in the chapter named after her. She is eighteen, a ‘‘Sachem’’ of ‘‘mixed French and Indian blood.’’ She watches for English troops with Squire Holworth, but is startled when she observes Aaron Burr, who is just as taken aback by her. Their meeting and mutual attraction represents, for Williams, the ideal meeting of the Indian and the Anglo traditions.
John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones was a Scotsman who came to America and joined the Continental Navy. In his most famous battle, he captained the ship Bon Homme Richard against the British ship Serapis. Although his ship was gravely damaged, he managed to lash it to the Serapis and bring the battle to close range, ultimately defeating the British crew.
An important French modernist poet, Valery Larbaud was one of the writers whom William Carlos Williams met on his trip to Europe in 1924. Although Larbaud’s influence and friendship were important to Williams on this trip to France (a trip during which he came to a greater understanding of his relationship to his own country and to the modernist experiment going on in Europe at the time), he only figures in this book as Williams’s foil in a discussion of the Puritans. Larbaud argues with Williams that the Puritans were not essentially a malignant influence on the settlement of America and the development of an American character. He believes that they were ‘‘giants,’’ possessed of a ‘‘fiery concentrate of great virtues’’ that allowed them to accomplish remarkable acts.
Williams disputes these points with Larbaud throughout the chapter, agreeing that the Puritans’ inability to see what was in front of them was a source of power, but feeling that they used this power in ways that crippled the American ability to live with the ‘‘new world.’’ Ultimately, Williams seems to feel that Larbaud is aestheticizing the Puritans, looking at them as an interesting phenomenon rather than as a group whose beliefs and activities had real-world effects.
Lincoln was, of course, the sixteenth president of the United States, elected in 1860 and reelected in 1864, who held office during the Civil War. Only the last page of the book is devoted to Abraham Lincoln, and Williams’s feelings about Lincoln are hard to extract from these few words. Williams sees Lincoln as the last important figure of what he calls ‘‘THAT period,’’ the period of American history lasting from first exploration to the 1860s. He characterizes this period as ‘‘the brutalizing desolation of life in America.’’
Susanna Martin is another of the accused witches from the Cotton Mather chapter. The record shows that she used her witchcraft to hinder witnesses from testifying against her. Evidence against her includes testimony that she caused some people’s oxen to run into the river and drown, caused cattle to go mad, and caused animals to pester or even attack other people.
Cotton Mather was the minister of the Old North Church in Boston in the late seventeenth century who led investigations into witchcraft. In many ways he was ‘‘behind’’ the famed Salem Witch Trials, for he instigated the charges. Several of the judges appointed to sit at the trials were members of his church and friends of his. Mather’s advice to the judges to use their best judgment regarding the admissibility of hearsay and stories doomed the accused, and made him a perfect example, in Williams’s eyes, of the closed and insular nature of Puritan society.
When Cortéz came to Mexico in 1521, Montezuma was the emperor of the great Aztec empire. Montezuma was also the last important leader of the Aztecs. He was a morose and moody man who feared Cortéz because he seemed to fulfill the prophesies that described the end of the Aztecs. Still, Montezuma tries to bargain with him, and was apparently unable to come to a conclusion as to whether Cortéz was a god or a man. After the Spaniards came to Tenochtitlan, Montezuma was taken prisoner. During his captivity, he hoped to stave off the death of the empire and therefore did not order his people to attack. After the Spaniards overthrew the holy places of the Aztecs and took even greater liberties, Montezuma called for vengeance. He was killed by an errant missile from one of his own subjects.
Thomas Morton was a ‘‘libertine,’’ a pleasureloving man who lived in Massachusetts during the Puritan era. Morton kept a trading post at Merry Mount, a place where ‘‘a rough and lawless class of men, selling liquor and guns’’ to the Indians gathered. He also ‘‘consorted’’ with Indian women. The Puritans hated and feared him, because Morton threw himself into the world and appreciated its pleasures. He threw a party when the Indians agreed to change the name of a settlement to Merry Mount. The party lasted for days and involved much drinking and even some sex between Indians and white people. Because of this, the Puritans attacked him, took his land and possessions away, and put him in custody.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer who lived in, among other places, New York City and Baltimore in the early nineteenth century. He is most famous for short stories such as ‘‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ or ‘‘Masque of the Red Death’’ that explore grisly, horrific themes. He also wrote poems such as ‘‘Annabel Lee’’ and ‘‘The Raven.’’ Although Edgar Allan Poe was virtually unknown in his time, some late nineteenth-century French symbolist poets, such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, saw him as a spiritual ancestor. In Williams’s book, Poe is the literary equivalent of such figures as Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, or Pere Rasles. He acknowledged and even welcomed the strangeness of the New World, and did not feel the need to shut it out or ignore it as did his Puritan forebears. As Williams writes,
he was the first to realize that the hard, sardonic, truculent mass of the New World, hot, angry—was, in fact, not a thing to paint over, to smear, to destroy— for it WOULD not be destroyed, it was too powerful— it smiled!
Juan Ponce de Leon
A Spanish explorer and adventurer who settled in Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon was the archetype of the greedy, foolish Spanish explorer. Seeking slaves to repopulate his plantation, Ponce de Leon is granted the right to take slaves from among the Carib Indians of the surrounding islands. When he attempts to do this, he is shocked at the viciousness of the Indians’ resistance. The Spaniards eventually enslave them, however. One of the Indian women tells Ponce de Leon about the legendary Fountain of Youth, which she says is located on the island of Bimini. Ponce de Leon sets forth on an expedition to find this fountain, but after much wandering finds nothing. He returns to Puerto Rico and spends three years there, until he hears of the feats of Cortéz and the destruction of Tenochtitlan. Jealous, he sets out on what will be his final expedition to Florida. This time, he is killed.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was the epitome of the ‘‘Renaissance man.’’ A scholar, a poet, a soldier, an explorer, a courtier, and a financier, Raleigh embodied the Elizabethan era in England. Raleigh founded the colony of Virginia but never went there himself (the Queen would not allow it). Williams believes that, although Raleigh himself never came to Virginia, he ‘‘seeded’’ the land with his ‘‘genius.’’ Like Red Eric, Daniel Boone, and Aaron Burr, Raleigh is one of Williams’s heroes: a strong man willing to engage what is really in the world, including women, both literally (Elizabeth) and figuratively (the land of Virginia).
Pere Sebastian Rasles
Pere Sebastian Rasles was a French Jesuit priest who lived among the Indians in what is now Quebec and Maine and was eventually killed by the English. He wrote letters explaining the reasoning behind the Indian attacks on English villages, and, although he condemned the violence, he shows a deep appreciation for the virtues of the Indians and for native culture in general. He wrote of the day-today life of the Indian and accepted them as equals and as human beings just as deserving of life and land as the Europeans were. In light of this, he is one of the great inspirational figures (as opposed to the active ‘‘heroes’’) of Williams’s book.
Eric the Red was a Norse adventurer, exiled from his country for a murder. He sailed to Greenland and Iceland in search of new territory. Red Eric was the father of Leif Ericson, who was the first European to set foot on the American continent. Leif’s adventures are not described in Williams’s book. Rather, the chapter focuses on the violence and independence of spirit found among the explorers who first came to America.
Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador who set out to explore the lands adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. Enduring hardships, he and his party travel through Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, and eventually make their way to the Mississippi River. His ultimate goal was to find the legendary Cities of Gold, and it was by using this promise that he was able to recruit fellow adventurers. The adventure continues for nearly four years, but, upon reaching the swampy delta of the Mississippi, they bog down, restrained both by terrain and by hostile Indians. De Soto contracts fever and dies.
In this chapter, a female voice speaks to Hernando de Soto. This woman is what we might call the ‘‘spirit’’ of pre-conquest America. Williams’s theories about the role of male sexuality in exploration and conquest are fully played out here, for the woman speaks to de Soto as if to a lover, and the process of exploration and subjugation is described in very sexual terms. The woman describes the Mississippi as the very heart of the country, and de Soto’s arrival at the Mississippi marks his full ‘‘conquest’’ of her.
For Williams, George Washington is not a particularly important character in American history. He was a pleasant enough man, and, like most of Williams’s other heroes, a womanizer. Plain and simple, Washington was a man who tended to be in the right place at the right time. Williams introduces him as ‘‘the typically good man: take it as you please.’’ In the ‘‘Virtue of History’’ chapter, the narrator calls him a ‘‘monster of prudence’’ and a ‘‘helpless mother.’’ Yet in the chapter devoted strictly to Washington the picture is more flattering, concentrating on his strength and, more than anything, his necessity: he was a necessary figure for the time. The new nation needed a physically strong, solid-appearing man to reassure them that the nation itself had such strength. However, at the end of his life the American people turned on him, Williams feels. ‘‘He was the typical sacrifice to the mob,’’ Williams concludes, ‘‘in a great many ways thoroughly disappointing.’’
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support