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 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...
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