When Williams wrote In the American Grain and saw it published by the small American literary firm of Albert and Charles Boni, he was a middle-aged poet of little repute. Although he had produced a number of volumes of poetry that have since been recognized as masterpieces, these books had been published by small presses and found small audiences. In the 1920s, moreover, many readers erroneously lumped him in with the group of American modernist writers located in Paris. Although he often wished to live the life of a bohemian poet in Europe, Williams felt strongly that he had an obligation to his home country and thus remained there. Writing In the American Grain was one way in which he hoped to better understand his vexed but ultimately devoted relationship with the United States.
The book mixes personal meditation with sourcebased history, the voice of the historian with the voice of the historical figure. It is neither essay nor monograph. Consequently, contemporary reviewers didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many attacked it for not being ‘‘real history.’’ One of the most influential literary critics of the day, Saturday Review of Literature editor Henry Seidel Canby, as quoted in Charles Doyle’s William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, simply dismissed it. Williams’s arguments exalting the Indians and the ‘‘instinctive, full-blooded people’’ and attacking ‘‘crafty, prudent folk like Franklin’’ and ‘‘coldblooded conservatives like Hamilton,’’ Canby asserted, make Williams ‘‘another, if a less original, Rousseau.’’ Williams’s book falls into a category of works that
are not history, not even good sense, especially when the author regards the sober march of civilization across the continent as an unfortunate curtailing of savage liberty, and puts his curse on his native land because he is not allowed to dance naked in the moonlight around a broached rum cask in Gramercy Park.
Williams’s friend Kenneth Burke, a philosopher and scholar of rhetoric, saw the same traits that Canby did but appreciated them. In his review appearing in the New York Herald-Tribune (also quoted in Doyle), Burke stated that ‘‘the purpose [of the book] is poetry, not history. Williams seeks bravuras rather than facts. ‘Meaning’ in his mind is not to observe, but to cry out.’’ Another important writer of the time, Gorham Munson, saw the book in the context of Williams’s poetic work. Williams ‘‘approaches the American past to rename it and retell it in such a way that its surge and color, its irony and beauty, its own indecisions and suspenses may show themselves’’ (in Doyle). Munson praises the book’s prose ‘‘that puts muscle into its stride’’ and ‘‘superb wordings.’’ Munson does grant, however, that ‘‘there is a full measure of his more usual broken impatient hammering at the subject and the reader.’’
The book’s most important precursor, as many critics have pointed out, is the novelist D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, in which Lawrence identifies what he sees as a buried strain in the American character, an instinctive vitality that has been put entirely under the control of the civilized and the intellectual. In the American Grain clearly has this as one of its themes and, consequently, the book is congenial to Lawrence, who lauded it in a review in the Nation quoted in Doyle. Lawrence’s is the most perceptive of all of the contemporary reviews of the book, for, unlike the other reviewers, he sees the theme that in many ways dominates all of Williams’s work: the centrality of the particular and the local, whether that particular be of place, personality, or object. The American situation has molded...
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Americans, Lawrence and Williams agree, and one cannot understand American history simply as the record of the great deeds of great men. Rather, Lawrence hears Williams saying that one must examine all of the ramifications of the collision between the native cultures with the European. ‘‘History in this book,’’ Lawrence wrote, ‘‘would be a sensuous record of the Americanization of the white men in America, as contrasted with ordinary history, which is a complacent record of the civilization and Europizing (if you can allow the word) of the American continent.’’ ‘‘I am only too thankful that Mr. Williams wrote this book,’’ Lawrence concluded.
The book was quickly forgotten after its initial publication. In 1939, though, the young company New Directions Press reprinted the book in its ‘‘New Classics’’ series, a series intended to resurrect ‘‘lost’’ works by modern authors who had been unfairly ignored by critics and academics. Part of New Directions’s strategy in publishing the ‘‘New Classics’’ was to give readers direction; as a result, a number of the books had introductions appended to them. As Bryce Conrad points out in Refiguring America, his study of In the American Grain, although Williams provided Horace Gregory with a great deal of information on the sources and composition and intentions of the book, Gregory’s introduction to In the American Grain ‘‘doesn’t really talk about the book at all.’’ Rather, Gregory’s introduction was a preemptive strike at readers who might arrive at Canby’s opinion about the book. The book is best understood as prose poetry, as a work of art rather than a work of history, he argued.
Partly because of the war, partly because New Directions was a small house with a small advertising budget, and partly because Williams was still not a well-known poet, the reprinted edition of In the American Grain did little for the book’s fame or reputation. It was not until 1950, at a time when scholars began to write seriously about Williams’s accomplishments as a poet, that the book emerged again. In that year Louis Martz (as quoted in Doyle), one of the most important early critics of modernism, identified it as a crucial piece of work in Williams’s career, a ‘‘prose preparation for Paterson,’’ the epic poem that is truly Williams’s masterpiece. But, again, Martz did not regard the book as a work of history.
Most critics continued to do this until the late 1960s, when a few began to seriously consider the book as a work of historiography, and went back to examine the source materials used by Williams. Of these critics, James Breslin is probably the most notable. For his book William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, Breslin went to the New York Public Library reading room and found the source books originally used by Williams. From sifting through what Williams used and what he omitted, Breslin came to the conclusion that ‘‘Williams’s method was to cut through a prolixity of detail . . . in order to point up a hidden symbolic pattern . . . latent’’ in the source texts.
Because of a general scholarly concern in recent years with the ways that heritage, race, and locality play out in cultural production, Williams’s book is enjoying increasing prominence in English, American studies, and even history courses. The postmodern interest in undermining the artificial boundaries between types of discourse is also congenial to In the American Grain’s wide variety of voices and claims to authority. These aspects of the book are studied in the only full-length monograph on In the American Grain, Conrad’s 1990 work Refiguring America. One of Conrad’s theses is that the book is ‘‘anarchically disruptive of systematic thought,’’ and his book takes that as a point of departure for an examination of the text.