In the American Grain Critical Overview
by William Carlos Williams

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Critical Overview

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 1,239 words.)