Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1870
Williams has become known as a poet of the particular, overwhelmingly concerned with the specifics of place and of the objects to be found in any particular place. The three poems that are probably Williams’s most famous all express this concern with the particularity of things. In ‘‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’’...
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Williams has become known as a poet of the particular, overwhelmingly concerned with the specifics of place and of the objects to be found in any particular place. The three poems that are probably Williams’s most famous all express this concern with the particularity of things. In ‘‘The Red Wheelbarrow,’’ the speaker focuses on a specific image of a wet, red wheelbarrow next to white chickens, saying that ‘‘so much depends/upon’’ this wheelbarrow. The question, of course, is what? What depends upon this wet wheelbarrow? Perhaps the answer can be found in Williams’s most genial poem, ‘‘This Is Just to Say,’’ in which the speaker goes into sensual detail about plums he has taken from the ice box, describing them as ‘‘so sweet/and so cold.’’
Poetry records the specificity of sensory experience, that part of the sheer pleasure of living in the world that inheres in objects and our perception of them. What ‘‘depends’’ upon the wheelbarrow, then, is everything: if we do not have the objects of the world, we have nothing.
The final poem germane to this discussion is ‘‘A Sort of a Song.’’ In this poem Williams moves from the simple declaratory statements of the two previous poems to the combination of the concrete and the abstract—metaphor—that is, the primary business of poets. The central image of this poem is saxifrage, a plant that can actually break stones by growing through them. ‘‘Metaphor,’’ the speaker says, will ‘‘reconcile/the people and the stones./ Compose. (No ideas/but in things).’’ The world and its physical reality must be the starting-place for all abstract ideas; one must induce (construct abstract general concepts from specific evidence) before one can deduce (apply abstract concepts to the evidence of the world). In the introduction to his long poem Paterson, Williams writes that he must ‘‘make a start,/out of particulars,/and make them general, rolling/up the sum, by defective means.’’ The poet’s job is to create these metaphors, roll up these specific sums, which will ‘‘reconcile the people and the stones,’’ or explain to people their necessary, if forgotten, relationship to the world around them.
A grounding in the facts of the real world around one, then, is an absolute prerequisite for true understanding. A religious skeptic, Williams is ut terly opposed to the blanket application of general concepts to the world (which is, arguably, the cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition). Williams values flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to encounter the new and accept it on equal footing. In the American Grain is the story of encounters with the utterly unfamiliar. The book recounts dozens of encounters between Europeans and the unfamiliar people and land of the New World. The heroes of the book are those men (and they are all men) who are willing to venture into the New World and meet it. The villains are those, like the Puritans, who back their way into the New World, closing their eyes to the news, shutting themselves off from its people and possibilities.
To be sure, Williams did not approach the project of writing In the American Grain with an unbiased view of the Puritans, nor was he alone in attacking them. American artists have always explained public attacks on or lack of interest in their work as a residual effect of our nation’s Puritan heritage. Among other accusations, the Puritans have been blamed for our repressed attitudes about sexuality and the body, and for what many see as the excessive presence of religion in our political discourse. In the 1920s, a number of cultural developments (from the Scopes evolution trial to revulsion at the loosened morality of the Jazz Age) seemed to be tied to America’s Puritan heritage. But Williams sought to explain their pernicious legacy in deeper, more structural terms than had been attempted before.
Williams explains the genesis of the Puritans as being a reaction to the ‘‘flamboyant force’’ of Tudor England’s ‘‘lusty blossoming.’’ They are the ‘‘hard and little’’ seed left over after that efflorescence, in all ways the opposite of the sophisticated, daring, sexualized society of Elizabethan times. The figurative language he applies to them is very telling: they are small, dark, cold, hardy, determined. Most importantly, they are both closed and empty. The first page of the ‘‘Voyage of the Mayflower’’ chapter describes them as an almost unconquerable force, answerable to no outside authority apart from their God and dominated at all times by fear. Their ideology was free of complication and their religion told them that anything that did not accept their ideology had to be destroyed, for it was a manifestation of Satan.
This refusal to be open to any new experiences or possibilities enabled the Puritans to succeed in an incredibly harsh and hostile environment. Williams does not downplay the hardships that the Puritans overcame; rather, he attributes their success to their single-mindedness. They arrived, set up their forts, took advantage of the Indians as long as they had to and then exterminated them, and inflexibly taught their children that the world was dangerous and sinful and that life consisted of work and the constant contemplation of God. Outsiders such as Rasles or Morton who approached the Indians in different ways were cast out or killed. The Puritans, Williams makes clear, were a ruthless and efficient machine for the conquest of a land. The Spanish and French sought to incorporate the New World into their own through conversion and education and intermarriage. The Puritans simply sought to make the New World as empty as they were themselves.
Williams’s attitude toward the Puritans was common among artists and writers, of course. Where In the American Grain is a groundbreaking book is in its ambitions. Williams wanted this book to be taken seriously as a work of historiography. He researched it as a historian would, and like a historian he makes a strong and well-supported argument (in his case, an argument about the makeup of the American ‘‘grain,’’ or character). But any reader can tell that this is not a traditional work of history. Its shifting narrative perspectives, highly opinionated and idiosyncratic authorial voice, and refusal to stick to what is traditionally considered ‘‘important’’ in American history excludes it from that category.
The book also contradicted the traditional schoolbook view of American history. That view (propagated, not coincidentally, by Puritan-influenced texts such as the McGuffey readers) held that the Puritans’ determination was the sole cause of American greatness. The traditional view of American history held that the Indians were savages who benefited from the arrival of white settlers, that the American landscape was a ‘‘slovenly’’ (to borrow a term from Wallace Stevens) wilderness waiting for responsible people to put it to use, and that soberminded, hardworking Christianity was what enabled white settlers to conquer this vast and hostile land. Williams rejected that idea. In his book, the land and the Indians are figured as women who wait for their strong, intrepid lovers. The American ‘‘grain’’ is a result of the conjunction (often expressed in quite sexual terms) of the two. Such a sexualized explanation of American history could be considered quite hostile to Puritan ideology. Moreover, the Indians and their appreciation of the particularities of the land are described in glowing terms. Williams’s endorsement of what he saw as the Indian component of the American character is prefigured in D. H. Lawrence’s book Studies in Classic American Literature; Williams goes beyond Lawrence, though, in applying this judgment not just to America’s literary tradition but to a number of prominent figures in American history.
A central component of Williams’s resentment of the Puritans is their lack of what the Indians had: an appreciation for and openness to the particulars of place. Puritan writing (and Williams read most of it in the course of preparing to write In the American Grain) is utterly uninterested in the particulars of the American landscape except that they must be overcome. The Puritans’ minds were on religion and morality; they came to America to impose their abstract concepts on this new land, and had absolutely no interest in understanding the new land. ‘‘The purpose’’ of the Puritans’ early settlement, Williams writes in ‘‘The American Background,’’ an essay not appearing in In the American Grain, was to ‘‘force back’’ the land. ‘‘That these transplanted men were at the same time pushing back a very necessary immediate knowledge of the land . . . could not become at once apparent,’’ Williams continues.
The heroes of the settlement of America, by contrast, were interested in the land. In the same essay, Williams writes that ‘‘the significance of Boone and of the others of his time and trade was that they abandoned touch with those along the coast . . . and made contact with the intrinsic elements of an as yet unrealized material of which the new country was made.’’ ‘‘Material’’ here has a double meaning: it is both the intangible mental and psychological qualities that would make up the ‘‘American grain’’ and it is the actual material of the country: the wet wheelbarrows, the cold plums, the saxifrage plant that breaks the stone. These men then become cut off from or even destroyed by the societies that produce them. Red Eric, Cortéz, Boone, Houston: all of these men went out into the land, grew to understand it by close and frequent contact with it, and found themselves cut off from the societies that produced them. They became something different than what they were because of their encounters with the new. The Puritans encountered the new, turned their backs on it, and built palisades from which to attack and eventually obliterate the new.
Williams’s exploration of the American grain was aimed not just at the Puritans and their philistine, reactionary descendants who dominated (and in many ways, still dominate) American politics and culture. Williams’s attacks were also aimed at his closest associates, the American modernist poets and writers who left America to write from London, Paris, or Italy. These writers (Ezra Pound in particular, but also T. S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and many others) cursed American closed-mindedness and suburban smugness from their garrets in crumbling European cities. They made pronouncements on what America meant but, Williams felt, refused to engage with the real America. The modernists lived in the past, in many ways; threaded throughout all of their work is a vast knowledge of past cultures and foreign lands and languages and a condemnation of the present-day world. This infuriated Williams, who unlike most of these writers actually lived not in a milieu of other artists and writers but among the poor of northern New Jersey. In the American Grain is an even-handed assessment of American history that in many was prefigures today’s reconsiderations of the Puritan legacy and the ‘‘conquest’’ of the New World. And in terms of the work of Williams himself, the book is a prefiguration of Williams’s masterwork Paterson, an attempt to capture vividly the particularities of one small American place.
Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on In the American Grain, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7636
In the American Grain makes history not a matter of events, but a matter of language—or rather, of languages as itself an event. The underlying premise of Williams’ book is that a history of America must be, in part, a history of language in America, a study of the tropes and verbal configurations which have historically defined the place. ‘‘Studies,’’ in fact, is exactly what Williams terms In the American Grain in the epigraph to his book. Stating that he had not only read ‘‘letters,’’ ‘‘journals,’’ and ‘‘reports of happenings,’’ but had ‘‘copied’’ portions of such ‘‘original records’’ directly into his text, Williams dedicates his work to the task of achieving a verbal archaeology, of excavating ‘‘the true character’’ of his historical sources from beneath ‘‘a chaos of borrowed titles.’’ As he tells the French literary critic Valery Labaud in the discussion that forms the book’s central chapter, ‘‘Père Sebastian Rasles,’’ it is ‘‘only by intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records,’’ that Americans can come to recognize ‘‘that what we are has its origins in what the nation in the past has been.’’
Williams enacts this process of investigation and recognition in the Rasles chapter, locating two seminal responses to America in the books of the Puritan Divine Cotton Mather and the letters of the French Jesuit Priest Sebastian Rasles. Mather and Rasles were contemporaries—but while Mather lived securely among his Puritan community of the elect in Boston, Rasles lived among the Abnaki Indians of Maine, ‘‘spending thirty-four years, October 13, 1689 to October 12, 1723, with his beloved savages, drawing their sweet like honey, TOUCHING them every day.’’ Like Mather, Rasles sought to convert the Indians to Christianity, but unlike Mather, Rasles sought to do so by first converting himself to the Indians’ way of life, learning to observe their customs, to partake of their diet, and to speak their languages. Williams stresses these points with excerpts from two lengthy letters Rasles wrote toward the end of his life. Quoting several passages in the original French and translating others into English, Williams particularly emphasizes Rasles’ sensitive devotion to Indian speech: ‘‘He speaks of his struggles with their language, its peculiar beauties, ‘je ne sais quo id’ énergique,’ he cited its tempo, the form of its genius with gusto, with admiration, with generosity.’’ Rasles was not afraid ‘‘to hybridize, to crosspollenize’’ with the New World, and Williams points to ‘‘the figure 8 used by Rasles in his alphabet of the Abnaki language to signify the unique guttural sound characteristic of the Indian dialects’’ as evidence of Rasles’ openness to that which could not be contained within the familiar lexicons of Europe.
Compared to Rasles’ writing, Mather’s language is hermetically sealed, bearing the same rhetorical stamp that Williams had found in another Puritan writer, William Bradford, whose first-hand account of the 1620 Mayflower voyage Williams critiques in an earlier chapter. ‘‘The jargon of God, which they used, was their dialect by which they kept themselves surrounded as with a pallisade.’’ Mather shows his fear of the raw life of the New World by verbally barricading himself, and isolating his community as well, from direct contact with the aboriginal peoples of America. From the India Christiana, a tract which Mather wrote for the ostensible purpose of converting the Indians to Christianity, Williams cites Mather’s view of the Indians as ‘‘men Satan had whished away (via Asia)’’ at ‘‘the advent of the gospel.’’ Mather’s rigid rhetorical allegorization of the Puritans as the bringers of God’s light to the dark heathens of America implicitly demands annihilation of the Indians’ cultural difference if they are to be converted. Mather would not let himself be touched by that which was different from himself—a point Williams makes clear with a passage from the Magnalia Christi Americana in which Mather describes his attempt to convert a group of Frenchallied Indians who were captured and carried prisoners to Boston during King Phillip’s War. Though Mather makes great show of his interest in the Indians’ salvation, ‘‘He would not suffer the contrite Indians to lay their hands upon him, as the Catholic fathers in the north had done, but drew back and told them to address themselves to God alone.’’ Under Williams’ analysis, Mather and Rasles present not only two differing responses to the American Indian, but critical historical instances of linguistic closure and openness to the fact of the New World.
Williams’ attempt to base a knowledge of history not on words that have been written about the past, but on language written in the past is prescient of recent developments in historiographic theory. Work by Arthur Danto, Louis Mink, and Hayden White has shown how ordinary modes of historywriting invent stories about the past according to narrative conventions rather than historio-scientific laws. White, in particular, has worked extensively with the premise that to approach written history as a ‘‘verbal artifact that purports to be a model of structures and processes that are long past and cannot therefore be subjected to either experimentation or observational controls’’ is to show that our histories are ‘‘verbal fictions, the contents of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences.’’ Even in its most objective descriptions of the past, White claims, written history linguistically constitutes its subjects and events, ordering them into narrative schemes of organization. There are no ‘‘authentic’’ histories, White suggests, but only texts that try to ‘‘authenticate’’ themselves as the true story of the past by passing off their own verbal strategies of organization as the structure of the events they pretend to describe. As Lionel Gossman points out, conventional history-writing engages in the ‘‘referential fallacy,’’ conflating its constituted subjects with their actual referents, creating the illusion that the historian’s text truly represents the past itself.
Williams had recognized this fallacy as early as 1919, writing in the prologue to Kora in Hell, ‘‘Of course history is an attempt to make the past seem stable, and of course it’s all a lie. Nero must mean Nero or the whole game’s up.’’ Williams was strongly aware of the irremediable gap between the past and its narrative representations. And in writing In the American Grain, he eschews the standard practices by which historians create the illusion of a well-ordered past. Williams doesn’t tell a continuous narrative of events about a central subject. Indeed, he specifically attacks conventional historywriting for following ‘‘governments and never men. It portrays us in generic patterns, like effigies or the carvings on sarcophagi, which say nothing save, of such and such a man, that he is dead. That’s history. It is concerned only with the one thing: to say everything is dead.’’ Yet ‘‘History,’’ says Williams, ‘‘must stay open, it is all humanity.’’ Williams’ idea of an ‘‘open’’ history is not just one which is open to language of the past, but one which is conscious of itself as language. Rather than attempting to conceal the history-constituting function of his own language, Williams often plainly reveals the structural devices by which he constructs the past, making In the American Grain not simply a study of historical sources, but also an exploration of the ways in which historical knowledge can be created.
Tropological analysis of the kind Williams employs with Mather’s writings and Rasles’ letters— as well as with Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation in ‘‘The Voyage of the Mayflower’’—is but one of the ways in which Williams explores the potential meanings of history. In ‘‘The Discovery of the Indies,’’ Williams uses the technique of collage, juxtaposing excerpts from Columbus’ writings with interstitial comments of his own in order to achieve a startling reversal of ordinary historical chronology. Williams draws on Columbus’ writings from the sanguine visions of the journal of the first voyage in 1492 to the latter letters Columbus wrote from the depths of despair during his last two voyages in the early sixteenth century. But Williams doesn’t arrange these documents in the received chronology. Instead, he begins with Columbus’ return journey to Spain in 1493, moving chronologically forward from that point to the disastrous end of Columbus’ fourth voyage in 1503, when the man who had once been named perpetual Viceroy and Governor of whatever territories he might find to the west was broken in spirit, stripped of his titles, and barely able to keep his ships afloat. Columbus had lost proprietorship of the New World, but Williams transforms that loss into an aesthetic repossession of the place, making Columbus’ discovery of America a rediscovery, a journey back in memory. Conjecturing that if Columbus had followed his design of making a pilgrimage to Rome after his third voyage, rather than making one last vain attempt to regain the New World, he might have often remembered the New World in all its ‘‘old-time loveliness’’, Williams delivers the text of the journal of 1492, ending with the moment of discovery and Columbus’ awestruck account of his first hours on the beach at San Salvador. No longer contained within a conventional narrative sequence of events, the moment of discovery becomes a verbal adventure, an exploration not of geography but of the poetic imagination, as Columbus eagerly opens his language to embrace ‘‘the most beautiful thing which I had ever seen.’’
Williams uses this same collage approach in ‘‘De Soto and the New World,’’ but rather than reversing the chronology of his source narratives, he subverts the received emplotment of the narratives by interspersing the voice of ‘‘She’’—the archetypal female ‘‘essence’’ of America—throughout his excerpts. Williams’ primary source for the De Soto chapter was the anonymous Fidalgo of Elvas’ account of the expedition’s collapse in the wilderness, though he also drew on details from two briefer narratives—one by Hernandez de Biedma, the expedition’s factor, the other by Rodrigo Ranjel, De Soto’s personal secretary— that had been gathered together in a single collection by Edward Gaylord Bourne, the same historian who had edited Williams’ Columbus documents. Like Columbus, De Soto lost the New World he sought to possess, and Williams uses the inevitable fact of De Soto’s demise to create a verbal source in the land itself for the disorder that overwhelms the Spaniard’s projected schemes of conquest. De Soto does not merely become lost in the unknown interior of the country— he is seduced from his path by the spirit of the land that dictates a new plot to the events which the expedition’s chroniclers report. ‘‘She’’ panders to De Soto’s lust for gold and riches to draw him inexorably across her contours and into her center, the Mississippi, where he sinks, a ‘‘solitary sperm,’’ plunging down into the amnion of the continent. Through the words of ‘‘She,’’ the wanderings of De Soto in the wilderness and his death at the Mississippi River become a ritual fertilization of the New World, an expression of Williams’ primary mythos for In the American Grain: to become seed for the growth of an American culture, Europe must die upon these shores.
Williams forces us to read old texts in new ways—yet at times he freely mixes his own language with that of his sources so that an entirely new text is generated. Williams uses this technique of recreation in ‘‘Red Eric,’’ appropriating the sparse details of the two Icelandic sagas about early Norse voyages to the New World to create a voice for Eric, who narrates the first part of the chapter. While ‘‘The Saga of Eric the Red’’ and ‘‘The Vinland History of the Flat Island Book’’ merely mention that Eric was slow to adopt Christianity, Williams makes Eric outspokenly defiant of the new religion spreading from Rome: ‘‘Who was this Christ, that he should come to bother me in my own country?’’ Eric’s westward removals to flee the ‘‘bishops that lie and falsify the records’’ and ‘‘make me out to be what I am not’’ implicitly subverts the Puritan notion that American history properly begins with the establishment of Christianity in the New World. Though Eric himself never reaches America, his illegitimate daughter Freydis—offspring of his recalcitrant paganism—cruelly conspires to eradicate the fledgling Christian settlement in Vinland, returning the New World to that state of ‘‘immaculate fulfillment’’ in which it continues to lie, ‘‘beyond the sphere of all things known to history,’’ until Columbus’ first voyage nearly five centuries later.
Williams’ use of recreation in ‘‘The Destruction of Tenochtitlan’’ is no less subversive of received historical notions. From the voluminous letters Cortez wrote to Charles V in Spain about the conquest of Mexico, Williams draws primarily on a brief section which Cortez devotes not to his military exploits but to a description of Montezuma’s splendid city. Cortez was certain of his skills as a commander of troops, but less so as a commander of words. As long as his subject to Charles V was his feats in the field, Cortez felt on familiar ground— but in the section of his letters upon which Williams bases ‘‘The Destruction of Tenochtitlan,’’ Cortez had momentarily left off his relation of military matters to venture upon the more difficult task of verbally capturing the dazzling shapes and textures of the Aztec capital. Williams takes that narrative task over wholesale from Cortez, displacing him as narrative expositor of the chapter, appropriating his descriptions of the city’s marketplace, temples, and Montezuma’s palaces to reveal the incredible structure and organization of Tenochtitlan. Indeed, Cortez’ conquest of the city, though explicitly named in the chapter’s title, isn’t the real subject of the chapter at all. Though Williams acknowledges the irrevocable loss of the city, his recording of history enacts the construction of Tenochtitlan rather than its destruction. It takes Cortez’ language as a verbal blueprint to create an image of the city in all its pristine beauty, relegating Cortez’ military acts against the city to the periphery of the chapter, like mere narrative packaging.
Some of the book’s most striking chapters, however, are those in which Williams seems not to mediate his source materials at all, making the purely bibliographical thrust of his enterprise starkly apparent by copying entire documents verbatim into his book, reprinting substantial portions of the historical record in the manner of an anthologizer. In ‘‘Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World,’’ Williams cuts and pastes chunks from Mather’s book on the evidence and occurrences of witchcraft without otherwise altering a single word. In ‘‘Poor Richard,’’ he gives us the complete text of Franklin’s Information to Those Who Would Remove to America—and in the subsequent chapter, ‘‘Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis,’’ Williams again reprints an entire document, Jones’s letter to Franklin about the absurdly disastrous events which beset his naval operations off the English coast during the Revolutionary War.
James Breslin identifies these verbatim extract chapters as the weakest sections of In the American Grain. He accuses Williams of pulling ‘‘too simple a rhetorical trick,’’ of taking the easy way out by simply copying his material instead of artistically remaking it as he had done in other chapters. But Williams’ verbatim extract chapters are very much an integral part of his approach to American history. Williams, in fact, saw these chapters as one of his major achievements in the book, telling Horace Gregory that in his effort to get as close as possible to the style of past writing he had copied the documents by Mather, Franklin, and Jones ‘‘with malice aforethought to prove the truth of the book, since the originals fitted into it without effort on my part, perfectly, leaving not a seam.’’ But despite Williams claim of an effortless fit, he doesn’t simply anthologize these documents—he also edits and editorializes about them. Nor is the kind of selective excerpting he employs in piecing together twenty pages of text from Mather’s two-hundred-page Wonders of the Invisible World Williams’ only means for mediating these anthologized materials. In the Franklin chapter Williams supplements rather than shortens his source, appending his own ‘‘Notes for a Commentary on Franklin’’ to the text of Franklin’s Information to Those Who Would Remove to America. And in the Jones chapter. Williams sets up a brilliant interplay between his documents by selecting a letter written to Franklin from Jones detailing the ill-fortunes of the Bon Homme Richard, the ship Jones named after Franklin’s celebrated persona, Poor Richard. Williams directly invokes ‘‘Poor Richard’’ in his title for the Franklin chapter, pointing to a possible reading of Jones’s narrative not simply as a letter to Franklin, but as a response to Franklin’s own text about the happy stability of American life. Jones’s report of deceit and disorder on the high seas thus trenchantly undercuts the tidy and efficient stability of Franklin’s nearly uttered vision of American experience in the Information.
Williams knits these documents into the scheme of In the American Grain in even more subtle ways. In the ‘‘Curiosities’’ section of his Wonders, for example, Mather writes how ‘‘That Reverend and Excellent Person, Mr. John Higginson, in my Conversation with him, Once invited me to this Reflection; that the Indians which came from far to settle about Mexico, were in their Progress to that Settlement, under a Conduct of the Devil, very strangely Emulating what the Blessed God gave to Israel in the Wilderness.’’ Mather’s view of the ancient Aztecs as the legions of Satan is implicitly undermined by Williams’ treatment of Tenochtitlan as the brightest flowering of civilization in the New World. And in the Information, Franklin’s insistence that ‘‘America is the land of labor, and by no means what the English call Lubberland, and the French Pays de Cocagne, where the streets are said to be paved with half-peck loaves, the houses tiled with pancakes, and where the fouls fly about ready to be roasted, crying, Come eat me!’’ is ironically subverted by Williams’ metaphors and facts of food in ‘‘Père Sebastian Rasles.’’ Rasles learns to adjust to the difficulties of the native diet, thereby finding an abundance that Franklin’s parsimonious character could never perceive in the New World, save in an immigrant’s fanciful dream of a land of plenty.
Yet these are only a few of the possible readings we might give of these verbatim documents— and Williams himself remarks none of these potential verbal interplays for us. Other than establishing a context in which the documents might take on particular resonances, Williams offers virtually nothing in the way of explicit interpretive comment or directive. In the Mather and Jones chapters, he gives us nothing but the words of the documents themselves. And even though he appends a commentary to Franklin’s Information, Williams doesn’t deliver a reading of Franklin’s text at all, but comments more largely on Franklin’s role in disseminating a secularized Puritanism to the young nation. In these three chapters, the task of reading the documents— the act of making history mean—is primarily left to us alone. Williams structures In the American Grain to initiate us as readers of early American texts, asking us to begin our own studies in the verbal grain of America.
But Williams does provide us with a possible model for the process of reading these documents. Through his reading of a passage from Champlain’s Voyages, Williams gives a marvellously dynamic enactment of the reader’s mind at creative play, making ‘‘The Founding of Quebec’’ not simply a narrative of Champlain’s adventures, but, more insistently, an adventure in reading Champlain’s narrative. Williams, in fact, narrates ‘‘The Founding of Quebec’’ as if he himself has Champlain’s text directly at hand, punctuating his progress through the Frenchman’s account of the treacheries which nearly thwarted the founding of the city by repeatedly asking ‘‘What’s happened?’’ and exhorting us to ‘‘imagine what comes next.’’ Williams invokes our imaginative involvement on the level of the plot, and there is indeed an engrossing plot to the section of Champlain’s Voyages Williams chooses for his chapter—a plotted mutiny which Champlain himself has to unravel if he is to succeed in founding his colony at Quebec. Williams uses that plot to engage us more fully in the process of reading, but it is not the suspense of the attempted insurrection that makes Champlain’s relation remarkable reading for Williams. After giving the background to Champlain’s and Pont Gravé’s joint voyage to New France in 1608. Williams brings Champlain to the harbor at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence, then endeavors to instruct us how to read the signs that more accurately constitute the man’s character:
But what has happened? Where is Pont Gravé and the other ship? The New World presses on us all; there seems no end to it—and no beginning. So too with him. They see a ship’s boat coming. So Pont Gravé has gained the harbor. Good. But there’s a stranger in the skiff. A Basque. There’s been trouble.
To me there is a world of pleasure in watching just that Frenchman, just Champlain, like no one else about him, watching, keeping the thing whole within him with almost a woman’s tenderness—but such an energy for detail—a love of the exact detail—watching the little boat drawing nearer on that icy bay. This is the interest I see. It is this man. This—me; this American; a sort of radio distributor sending out sparks to us all.
Well, here’s the boat. What’s happened? Ah, Pont Gravé is here, of course. Well? There was a Basque in the ship in the bay before him, they refused to stop their trade in furs at the King’s order. A short battle. Pont Gravé wounded. This Basque with us has come to make a truce. Champlain was ‘‘greatly annoyed’’, his records say, at such a beginning. Greatly annoyed! Isn’t that a treasure?
Williams attempts to cultivate in us as readers the same quality he reads in Champlain as writer— ‘‘a love of the exact detail.’’ Not just the details of the unexpected turn of events at the beginning, but the details of the whole with ‘‘no end’’ and ‘‘no beginning,’’ the entire field of verbal action. He cites Champlain’s attentiveness to ‘‘that little boat drawing nearer on that icy bay’’ as indicative of Champlain’s acute focus on both the world and word at hand, momentarily isolating that fact from the plot in order to delight in watching Champlain himself in the act of ‘‘watching, keeping the thing whole within him.’’ It is just such watchfulness over the whole scene of reading that enables Williams to discover the character-revealing contours in Champlain’s admission that he was ‘‘‘greatly annoyed’’’ at the news from the boat. ‘‘Greatly annoyed!’’ proclaims Williams. ‘‘Isn’t that a treasure?’’ And he expresses the same delight in later noting that Champlain was busy preparing a garden when he received further intelligence of the plot against him. ‘‘‘I was in a garden that I was having prepared,’ he writes. In a garden! that’s wonderful to me.’’
But Williams uses Champlain’s account of the near-mutiny for something more than a mere device to hook the reader’s interest in detail. He also uses it to view Champlain’s character through the qualities of his responses to the mutineers. Champlain proves not only a perceptive reader of situations but an adept author of events as well. Once he learns the names of the chief conspirators, he sends them two bottles of wine and an invitation to dinner, then arrests his unsuspecting foes when they arrive. ‘‘Can you beat it?’’ asks Williams. He revels in Champlain’s artful foiling of the mutiny, relating with gusto how Champlain finally decided it was sufficient to kill the ringleader and put his head upon a pike as an example to the rest. ‘‘To me the whole thing’s marvelous—all through,’’ says Williams, and it is indeed the textures of the ‘‘whole thing’’ that he tries to impress upon us ‘‘all through’’ his reading of Champlain.
We can well imagine how Williams might give such a playfully attentive reading of yet another tale of treachery and mutiny—the one he leaves for us to read in ‘‘Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis.’’ At the opening of his letter, Jones asks his reader to pay strict attention to the details of his narrative. He states the conditions upon which he set sail with the apparent support of a French squadron, then remarks, ‘‘Whether I was or was not deceived will best appear by a relation of circumstances.’’ What follows is an astounding account of disguised intentions and deceptive twists as Jones’s subordinate captains show themselves insubordinate traitors. But though Williams leaves us to tackle Jones’s relation on our own, he has schooled us in reading such narratives—and he has also cautioned us with a startling demonstration of the instability of any one interpretation. At the end of ‘‘The Founding of Quebec,’’ Williams unexpectedly overturns everything he has just said about Champlain. It initially seems that the primary speaker in the chapter forcefully advocates a patently American reading of Champlain, calling him ‘‘a sort of radio distributor sending out sparks to us all’’, finding in Champlain’s keen sensitivity to the New World a manifestation of ‘‘my own world, the world in which I myself breathe and walk and live— against that which you present.’’ But the ‘‘you’’ who replies to conclude the chapter voices an even more savagely American point of view, undercutting the French posturing of the primary speaker, accusing him of having uttered too sophisticated an appreciation of Champlain, castigating him for displaying ‘‘the weakness of you French,’’ for imagining that ‘‘a drop of your precious blood’’ civilizes the wilderness and links it to a great chain of ‘‘historic continuity’’ reaching far back ‘‘with roots in every culture of the world.’’
Williams’ book constantly disrupts the possibility that any one interpretation or reading of the past might gain authoritative status. In chapters structured as dialogue between opposing points of view—such as Williams’ discussion with Larbaud in ‘‘Père Sebastian Rasles,’’ or the voices which heatedly contest the character of Aaron Burr in ‘‘The Virtue of History’’—Williams strives to make history a subject of debate rather than unchallenged pronouncement. It is precisely that aspect of debate and argument between contending visions of America that Williams accuses conventional historians of masking beneath a ‘‘chaos of borrowed titles.’’ And in ‘‘The May-Pole at Merry Mount,’’ Williams pursues with literal verity the task of rescuing a contending voice from the hands of the historian, endeavoring to release Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan from the obscuring patina of Charles Francis Adams’ lengthy Introductory essay to the text. Williams admits that Morton’s book ‘‘was no great literary feat,’’ but he contends that ‘‘as a piece from American History it has a savor which Adams dulls rather than heightens—which is too bad.’’ Williams makes Adams the living symbol of what is wrong with academic historians, claiming that ‘‘He has seen the time too near.’’ Adams perpetuates the distorting myopia which characterizes much American historical writing for Williams. ‘‘A most confusing thing in American History, as we read it, is the nearly universal lack of scale,’’ states Williams, and he attacks Adams for his ‘‘parochialism’’ in viewing Morton as a licentious drunkard among the Puritans: ‘‘The description, ‘a vulgar libertine, thrown by accident into the midst of a Puritan Community, an extremely reckless but highly amusing old debauchee and tippler,’ is not adequate to describe a man living under the circumstances that surrounded Morton; its tone might do for a London clubman but not a New World pioneer taking his chances in the wilderness. It lacks scale.’’
Williams, in fact, devotes more of ‘‘The May- Pole at Merry Mount’’ to disputing Adams than he does to quoting or discussing Morton’s text, mangling the well-known historian’s name with flagrant carelessness by calling him ‘‘A. C. Adams.’’ He charges Adams with failing the office of historian, which should have been to give ‘‘a simple exposition of the facts relating to’’ Morton’s book: ‘‘Thomas Morton was unique in our history and since Adams does attempt an evaluation of his book it is a pity he did not realize that, in history, to preserve things of ‘little importance’ may be more valuable— as it is more difficult and more the business of a writer—than to champion a winner.’’ In Williams’ view, Adams, not unlike his New England forbears, couldn’t really see Morton’s qualities, because he let the question of Morton’s sexual relations with the Indians overshadow all other concerns. In one of the verses he composed to be sung around the infamous maypole, Morton had beckoned, ‘‘Lasses in beaver coats come away/Ye shall be welcome with us night and day.’’ Adams, in his introduction, cites those lines as his primary proof of Morton’s profligacy, and Williams quotes Adams on that point in order to fault him for his handling of the evidence:
Some of the earlier writers on the New England Indians have spoken of the modesty of the women; Wood, in his Prospect, for instance, and Josselyn, in the second of his ‘‘Two Voyages.’’ ‘‘Morton however is significantly silent on this point, and the idea of female chastity in the Indian mind, in the rare cases where it existed at all, seems to have been of the vaguest possible description. Morton was not a man likely to be fastidious, and his reference to the ‘lasses in beaver coats,’ is suggestive.’’ This is as near as Adams ever gets to a full statement of the facts.
Williams goes on to give us a much more ‘‘full statement of the facts,’’ delivering an impressive display of scholarship. From Parkman’s Jesuits in North America he quotes the Jesuit missionary Le Jeune’s comments on Algonquian attitudes toward sexuality, then quotes Parkman himself before delivering passages concerning Indian sexual mores from Roger Williams’ A Key into the Language of America and Morton’s own New English Canaan. And last but not least, Williams provides a substantial excerpt from William Strachey’s Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, quoting the passage on ‘‘Pocahuntas, a well featured, but wanton yong girle, Powhatan’s daughter.’’ Yet none of the evidence points decisively one way or another on the issue of female chastity among the Indians, and Williams concludes—against Adams’ contention that Morton’s failure to speak of Indian modesty suggests a meaningful omission—that using the issue of female chastity among Indians as grounds to judge Morton is untenable because ‘‘From con flicting reports from many sources the truth seems to be that the state of affairs with respect to this trait of female chastity was a matter largely of individual inclination.’’
Williams marshalls his evidence with precision. He even provides the kind of bibliographical references he generally omits from In the American Grain, citing not only authors’ names and titles of books, but even chapter and page numbers. With Parkman’s Jesuits in North America, Williams documents his material as ‘‘(ch. iv),’’ and with Strachey he directs us to ‘‘(Historie p. 65).’’ Yet such assiduity with bibliographical details seems somewhat out of character for Williams’ handling of documents. And indeed it is. Both the bibliographical data and all the conflicting reports on Indian sexuality are pirated directly from Adams, taken straight out of the footnotes to both his introductory essay and Morton’s own text. Williams follows a well-marked path through these notes. From p. 16, n. 2, and p. 17, n. 1, Williams splices together Parkman’s material on Le Jeune, and the additional remarks by Parkman himself and Roger Williams. (Adams, 16, n. 2, had quoted more extensively from Williams’ A Key into the Language of North America, as well as from Josselyn’s Two Voyages and Wood’s New England’s Prospect.) The sentence about ‘‘an incident mentioned by Morton,’’ though it seems to be spoken by Williams, is also from Adams’ notes, and, in this case, is in Adams’ own words. Williams appropriates Adams’ statement, then follows the historian’s reference ‘‘(Infra, *32)’’ to the designated section New English Canaan in which Morton tells the story of an Indian who may have been cuckolded by an Englishman. Williams quotes that story, then picks up the thread of Adams’ notes on Indian sexuality from that point in Morton’s text, leafing back to p. 145, n. 2, to take the long quotation on Pocahuntas from Strachey’s Historie. The final passage Williams delivers, misleadingly punctuating it as if it were a continuation of the Strachey material, is actually compounded of two separate statements Adams makes in reference to Parkman on Indian sexuality in the same note.
Such appropriations are, of course, very much in the character of In the American Grain. But of all Williams’ borrowings in the book, his lifting of Adams’ footnotes is the most brazen theft. Williams not only nakedly plagiarizes this material, he turns it against its author, using Adams’ own scholarship to dismiss Adams as scholar. Williams’ treatment of Adams points to Williams’ own paradoxical relationship with history and historians. Though he aggressively wages a dispute with historians throughout In the American Grain, Williams actually relies quite heavily on the work of historians—and not on just their factual researches, like Adams’ extensive notes on conflicting reports of Indian sexuality, or Bourne’s copious supplementary notes to Columbus’ journal. In several chapters of his book, Williams relies solely on a single historian’s account of the figure in question. Williams’ claim to have studied only autobiographical documents—‘‘The plan was to try to get inside the heads of some of the American founders or ‘heroes,’ if you will, by examining their original records. I wanted nothing to get between me and what they themselves had recorded’’—is not entirely consistent with his practice. In ‘‘George Washington,’’ Williams relies primarily on Paul Leiscester Ford’s The True George Washington, taking his observations of Washington’s physical stature and interest in women from Ford’s chapters ‘‘Physique’’ and ‘‘Relations with the Fair Sex.’’ And his use of James Parton’s biography of Aaron Burr in ‘‘The Virtue of History,’’ as well as Henry Bruce’s Life of General Houston in ‘‘Descent’’ and Cecil Hartley’s Life and Times of Colonel Daniel Boone in ‘‘The Discovery of Kentucky,’’ suggest that Williams sometimes preferred viewing his subjects from the outside, at a distance, through the lenses of the historian’s vision. With Washington, Burr, Houston, and Boone, Williams sacrificed the possibility of letting these men speak for themselves in order to give their lives a biographical sweep he generally withholds from other characters in the book.
Yet Williams is even more profoundly dependent upon historians. They are the ones who made available to him the very books and records so vital to his studies in In the American Grain. Williams’ book is an archaeology of knowledge—but William didn’t do his digging in an untouched field. When Williams went to the New York Public Library, he found not just a field already laid out by the structure of the library itself—an American history reading room with books catalogued and arranged by topic on shelves—but a field made rich by the historians who had preceded Williams’ in his task. In the American Grain profits immensely from that era in our national history, from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, when many American historians dedicated themselves to making available modern, annotated editions of early American historical records. Projects like J. Franklin Jameson’s multi-volumed ‘‘Original Narratives of Early American History’’ series and the Prince Society’s reprint series of early American documents provided Williams with both reliable texts and scholarly insight.
Indeed, Williams’ whole book seems to be structurally patterned upon one such reprint series— the Old South Leaflets issued from 1895–1922 by the directors of the Old South Studies in History at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Williams most probably encountered these leaflets at an early point in his investigation of the library’s resources. Collected in bound volumes, the Old South Leaflets not only became Williams’ basic American history primer, they also determined to a great extent his apprehension of early American history. Like the leaflets, In the American Grain conceptualizes history episodically, devoting ten to twenty page sections to some particular figure or event in American history. And in more than one case Williams let the leaflets decide not only which passages of a given historical record he would select, but how he would title his chapter as well. In ‘‘Voyage of the May- flower’’ Williams discusses only those portions of Bradford’s voluminous Of Plymouth Plantation which are reprinted in the leaflets under the title ‘‘Voyage of the Mayflower,’’ while in ‘‘The Founding of Quebec,’’ Williams’ reading of Champlain is based entirely upon the passage from his lengthy relations that the leaflets print under the title ‘‘The Founding of Quebec.’’ And in ‘‘Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis,’’ Williams essentially reproduces Old South Leaflet No. 152, title and all.
The Old South Leaflets also provided Williams with the text of Franklin’s Information that he reprints in ‘‘Poor Richard.’’ But in several instances, Williams relied upon the leaflets to introduce him to particular texts and figures which he later went on to investigate more deeply. In leaflet No. 35, Williams found the genesis of ‘‘The Destruction of Tenochtitlan’’ by reading ‘‘Cortes’s Account of the City of Mexico,’’ an excerpting of Cortez’ amazed and amazing attempt to comprehend Tenochtitlan’s splendor from Folsom’s Despatches of Hernando Cortes. And in leaflet No. 36, Williams discovered the materials for ‘‘De Soto and the New World’’ by reading ‘‘The Death of De Soto,’’ which reprints passages from the narrative of the anonymous Fidalgo of Elvas concerning De Soto’s demise on the banks of the Mississippi. ‘‘Red Eric,’’ too, may have been suggested to Williams by reading ‘‘The Voyages to Vinland, from the Saga of Eric the Red’’ in leaflet No. 31—which delivers the Arthur Middleton Reeves translation of the Vinland portions of the Flat Island Book that Williams later met again in Olson and Bourne’s The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot 985–1503—while Williams’ lyrical performance in ‘‘Sir Walter Raleigh’’ was spurred by his reading of Arthur Barlowe’s account of the first voyage to Virginia in leaflet No. 92 and ‘‘The Invention of Ships, by Sir Walter Raleigh’’ in leaflet No. 166. And Williams most probably had his first contact with New English Canaan through leaflet No. 87, which reprints sections of Morton’s text as ‘‘Manners and Customs of the Indians’’ from Charles Frances Adams’ Prince Society edition of the work.
Old South Leaflets offered Williams just what he needed—expedient access to materials. A kind of library within the library, the leaflets give excerpts from some two hundred primary documents, many of them accompanied by bibliographical and biographical source citations. They provide an excellent representation not only of documents, but of the work historians had done since the mid-nineteenth century to make such documents available. Old South Leaflets was dedicated to publicizing that work by reprinting portions of it. The leaflets were printed in massive numbers and sold cheaply to the public, the directors of the project announcing it as their purpose ‘‘to bring important original documents within easy reach of everybody.’’ Williams was sympathetic to that populist effort, and his own reprinting of selections from the Old South reprints adds another disseminating thrust to the process, continuing the Old South directors’ campaign to acquaint Americans with the basic original texts of early American history.
Yet unlike the Old South Studies, Williams’ ‘‘studies’’ didn’t entail his leaving clear tracks to mark his passage through the library. Williams, in fact, claimed not to be able to remember his sources for In the American Grain. Writing to Horace Gregory in 1939, Williams lamented that he hadn’t ‘‘kept a record of all the things I read.’’ Williams most probably hadn’t forgotten the Old South Leaflets, which essentially are a record of what he had read for his book. And what seems to have been nothing less than an attempt to keep the bibliographical origins of his work cloaked in obscurity points to an important aspect of In the American Grain. Williams’ book is not just a study of early American writing—it is the work of a student. Williams had no extensive knowledge of American historical documents prior to writing his book. He expressly undertook the creation of In the American Grain in order to gain such knowledge, to educate himself about the writers and texts of early America, ‘‘to establish myself from my own reading, in my own way,’’ as he would tell Gregory. But Williams also needed to play an educated part for his own students, the readers of In the American Grain, and at times the gap between those two roles creates visible tensions in the text.
Williams self-consciously juggles these roles of student and teacher in his discussion with Valery Larbaud, posing himself alternately as a crude, untutored block and a knowing teacher of things American. At the beginning of the chapter, Williams sits in mute fear that the more learned Larbaud ‘‘will ask me questions that I cannot answer!’’ Larbaud, he pointedly states, ‘‘knows far more of what is written of my world than I.’’ But by the end of chapter it is Williams who reduces Larbaud to silence, reversing their initial positions of student and teacher as he delivers a lecture to the scholar, excoriating him for failing to comprehend the importance of Mather’s and Rasles’ writings for the study of American history. Yet judging by the evidence in Williams’ diary and letters concerning the actual meeting with Larbaud in Paris upon which the chapter is based, it seems that Williams did indeed sit in intimidated silence before the more sophisticated Larbaud, who spoke knowledgeably about the books of early America. In the letters he wrote to Marianne Moore after his meeting with Larbaud in Paris on January 26, 1924, as well as in the diary he kept of his European tour during 1924, Williams portrays himself as the silent party who listened in awed admiration while Larbaud spoke to him about the works of Cotton Mather and contrasted the English mode of colonizing the New World with that of the Spanish. Yet in ‘‘Père Sebastian Rasles,’’ it is Williams who speaks volubly about Mather’s books, quoting readily from the India Christiana and the Magnalia Christi Americana, while Larbaud lapses into disgruntled silence. One cannot but wonder, even though there is no mention of Sebastian Rasles in Williams’ letters and diary, whether Larbaud himself, a Frenchman, was not the one who informed Williams about the relatively unknown French Jesuit missionary.
Williams was acutely aware that from the perspective of the European tradition—particularly the European tradition as it was symbolized for him by Pound and Eliot, those Americans who had gone to Europe in order to steep themselves in it—he was no intellectual. At times he sought to play up the image of himself as the crude and unrefined American: ‘‘a beginner . . . United Stateser,’’ as he had put it in The Great American Novel—‘‘the brutal thing itself,’’ as he says of himself in Larbaud’s presence. But Williams also felt the need to reply to Pound and Eliot in their own terms, to show himself adept at the pursuits of a scholar, for he recognized, as he said in ‘‘Descent,’’ that ‘‘from a low position it is impossible to answer those who know all the Latin and some of the Sanskrit names, much French and perhaps one or two other literatures.’’ Williams attempted to achieve his own high ground by a kind of scholarly posturing much like that which he had mocked in Pound. In the prologue to Kora in Hell, Williams mentions an incident in which Pound ‘‘was glancing through some book of my father’s. ‘It is not necessary,’ he, said, ‘to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don’t tell everybody I said so,’ he added.’’ Williams defied Pound by publishing the remark, but he also followed Pound’s advice. He was well aware that In the American Grain would serve him best if it would create the impression that he knew more about American history than he did, and he never let on to just how he came by his materials. It’s entirely likely that if his use of the Old South Leaflets had ever come to light during his own lifetime, Williams would have quite simply denied any knowledge of them, just as he later claimed to have never met anyone named Valery Larbaud. Yet such erasures and appropriations are very much in keeping with Williams’ modernist approach to the problem of writing history. Like his Columbus, who can imaginatively rediscover the New World only once he has acknowledged its loss, Williams renders the past open to aesthetic repossession in the present by cancelling out the myth of historical verisimilitude. Though he insistently gestures to sources and origins throughout his book, he just as certainly erases and disguises others, making history, ultimately, deceptive ground in In the American Grain.
Source: Bryce Conrad, ‘‘The Deceptive Ground of History: The Sources of William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain,’’ in William Carlos Williams Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 22–40.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2539
By virtue of its insistently recuperative strategy, Williams’s book affirms what Donato, by way of Kojève, and White each in their own ways suspect about the necessarily ironic condition of post-Hegelian history: In The American Grain is decidedly a post-historical history, for Williams deems the present which animates it to have its origins in a past which keeps repeating itself into the present. His twentieth-century America, that is, represents a cultural moment whose immediacy is grounded in the forms of a past tradition which is its central source, so that the present is conceived as a kind of dead representation of a deadening history.
But if Williams claims for his book the status of ‘‘history’’ (albeit a history redefined by its own rethinking of the word), we need to ask what kind of history it in fact produces. If it is aimed at protecting contemporary culture from history’s ‘‘tyrannous designs,’’ we need to examine critically the design which it provides for history, assessing the success of its strategy in terms of the extent to which it can claim, in any meaningful way, to be historical.
The design of Williams’s version of American history is oppositional. The seeming paradox of his assertion that the past is both the source of America’s present degradation and of its renewal is due to the fact that there are two diametrically opposed traditions in Williams’s history. Its recuperative hope is keyed to what he calls the necessary ‘‘annihilation’’ of one of them—Puritanism. The tradition of the Other which his book seeks to privilege— depicted primarily in his chapters on Boone, Rasles, and Houston—is the tradition of a relationship to the new world which Williams wants to re-evoke as an antidote to the Puritan origins of the American self. The dichotomy he generates between what we might call Puritanism and Frontierism constitutes not only the structural design of his book—it actually becomes the history which it recounts.
As a structural design, the poles of his opposition oscillate through the middle and late portions of the book, forming a series of contrasts which structure and control the story it tells. Thus the ‘‘May- flower’’ chapter on Puritanism is followed by two chapters, on Samuel de Champlain and Thomas Morton, celebrating their adventuresome and energetic contract with the wilderness and ‘‘with its natives . . . to which the Puritans so violently objected’’. These chapters are followed by what Williams calls the ‘‘madness’’ of Mather’s defense of the witchcraft trials, which in turn is followed by his celebration of Sebastin Rasles’s ‘‘sensitive and daring . . . close embrace of native things’’. Rasles is deemed a ‘‘moral source’’ whose ‘‘force’’ is ‘‘equal to the Puritans but of opposite character’’. The Rasles chapter is followed in kind by Williams’s Hernán Cortéz entering Tenochtitlan piece on Boone, whose ‘‘passionate, possessive’’ power is deemed to be full of a rich regenerative violence . . . when his history will be carefully reported’’. These two chapters are balanced by the chapter on Franklin, whose ‘‘Puritanism’’ is deemed to have created in him a ‘‘terror before the NEW’’, and a strength that denies itself’’. With this oscillating structure of oppositions Williams leads the reader back and forth through a carefully designed experience of his two traditions, damning Puritanism as an ‘‘IMMORAL source’’, and privileging Frontierism as a ‘‘regenerative’’ one.
What needs to be pointed out here is that the affinities and the contrasts which control this design are less historical than they are metaphorical. That is, the qualities by which Williams links and contrasts these key figures are generated aesthetically by the book’s network of images and symbols, rather than concretely by recourse to information which might in even the most rudimentary of ways be termed historical. The book does use the historical record as a ‘‘source’’ or ‘‘origin’’ for its individual sketches, but the ‘‘history’’ it produces is finally subsumed by its central metaphoric network, a network which re-presents the past in terms of what can only be called a sexual mythology: the categories of Puritanism and Frontierism are given a kind of historical substance in the book, but as they are accorded the status of two opposing ‘‘forces’’ they are mythologized in a transformation which finds Williams sexualizing their particular qualities.
If Williams’s critique of Puritanism has a single recurring theme it is his insistence that its denial of sexual pleasure was at the heart of the destructive legacy it produced. His preoccupation with the Puritan’s ‘‘fury against unofficial sexual indulgence’’, its ‘‘stress of the spirit against the flesh’’, and what Williams calls its ‘‘lie’’ that sexual ‘‘pleasure is evil’’, is inextricably connected with his general deprecation of Puritanism’s refusal to ‘‘touch’’ and ‘‘embrace’’ the New World. ‘‘The Puritans,’’ he writes, ‘‘have damned us with their abstinence, [their] removal from the world’’.
This general preoccupation with the negative legacy of Puritanism’s sexual repressiveness is given specificity when it surfaces in the network of metaphors which structure and inform his treatment of the book’s key heros and anti-heros. For example, Williams’s Benjamin Franklin is a man ‘‘terrorized’’ and ‘‘shocked’’ by his first sexual encounter, a man whose ‘‘praise’’ came for ‘‘making walls: not in bursting into flower’’. The metaphors marshalled to describe Franklin suggest sexual impotence, sublimation, repression: ‘‘His energy, never attained a penetrant gist; rather it was stopped by and splashed upon the barrier, like a melon, and his ‘good’ was scattered about him’’. His ‘‘crude energy,’’ Williams continues, was ‘‘equalized’’ by ‘‘a colossal restraint,’’ resulting in ‘‘complete . . . frustration’’. In contrast, Daniel Boone is praised for having ‘‘descended’’ to ‘‘the ground of his desire,’’ for having a ‘‘power’’ which was ‘‘voluptuous,’’ ‘‘passionate,’’ and ‘‘possessive’’. While Franklin’s energy and desire were ‘‘stopped,’’ Boone’s was ‘‘filled to over-brimming,’’ and ‘‘he sought only with primal lust to grow close to’’ the land, in what Williams calls ‘‘an ecstasy of complete possession’’.
The book’s recurring imagery of touch, embrace, penetration, and flowering, on the one hand, and withdrawal, denial and withering, on the other, is subsumed in the metaphorics which dominate these two descriptions, so that Williams’s two traditions become characterised as opposed sexual forces. In his chapter on Sebastin Rasles this contrast is placed explicitly in the context of Williams’s anti- Puritanism, and then raised to a more general level. Here, the opposition of Puritanism and Frontierism as sexual forces is transposed into a contrast between the Freudian categories of Eros and Thanatos. In praising Rasles’s contact with the new world and its inhabitants Williams makes of him an emblem of Eros, the principle which he insists should replace Puritanism as a new moral ‘‘source.’’ Williams intones that Rasles will be ‘‘another root’’, representing the morality of the erotic: ‘‘It is this to be moral . . . TO MARRY, to touch . . . to give to him . . . who will join, who will make, who will fertilize . . . create . . . hybridize . . . cross-pollenize—not to sterilize, to draw back, to fear, to dry up, to rot’’. Embedded in this contrast, of course, are Williams’s two traditions, but evoked now as natural, universal forces of generation and death.
The central paradox of Williams’s book, then, is that the more stridently it seeks to overcome history’s ‘‘tyrannous designs,’’ and the more insistently it asserts the need to use historical ‘‘records’’ and ‘‘books’’ as a ‘‘defense’’ against a history which has left the present ‘‘fixed’’ and ‘‘finished’’ like an ‘‘effigy’’, the more it must mythologize the past with which it is concerned. By structurally and thematically playing off the sexual repression and impotence of his version of Puritanism with the supposed sexual vitality of his Frontiersmen, Williams ends up methodically embedding his historical materials in a pervasive sexual metaphorics and assimilating that material into a struggle between the psychological forces of Eros and Thanatos, so that his history plays itself out at the level of romance and myth. In Williams’s scheme of things, sexual energy is given transcendent importance; it over-determines his history, so that in his text, economic, political, and technological forces take a backseat to the forces of Eros and Thanatos.
The consequence of such an over-determination is that all of the historical forces in Williams’s text become grounded in a dialectical struggle of opposed ‘‘Universal,’’ ‘‘Eternal,’’ and ‘‘Natural’’ forces which are explicitly a-historical. In fact, Williams takes recourse to a sexualized schema precisely because it grounds, orders, and explains the chaos of American history in a profoundly ‘‘Natural’’ way. In its purposeful confusion of fiction and history it confuses ‘‘Nature’’ and ‘‘history,’’ and/or ‘‘Nature’’ and ‘‘culture.’’ As it seeks to recuperate a particular tradition, his text locates the ‘‘problem’’ of American history in Nature, that is to say, it subsumes the complexity of history into a dialectic of Eternal forces which transcends the particular moments of its appearance. In so doing, Williams’s historical material is ordered by a process of Naturalization, a process which, as it organizes the past into an explanatory order, renders history secondary to a ‘‘transcendent’’ struggle whose character is less historical than universal. The metaphorics of the book’s explicitly sexualized historical explanation raises the level of Williams’s discourse above history by creating a language for rendering its central problematic which grounds that problematic in a Universal struggle between the forces of Eros and Thanatos. Dependent as it becomes on such a language, and on the depiction of a struggle between these ‘‘universal’’ forces, its hope of recuperating history becomes transposed into its effort to create an essentially a-historical symbology which might explain it. With such an operation at the heart of its rhetoric, Williams’s recuperative hope has its origins less in history than in the power of his metaphors.
Williams’s strategy in In The America Grain, based as it is on a kind of recuperative aesthetics, is in its way emblematic of American Modernism’s interest in history—whether that history be defined as regional, national, European, or Classical. We have seen that while his strategy makes operative the creative potential of an aesthetic historiographic practice, the contradictions which it generates are also a measure both of the dilemmas inherent in such a practice, and the extent to which they are an outgrowth of a nineteenth-century epistemological and representational crisis. The confusion of History and Nature in Williams’s book is, for example, connected with its strategic conflation of history and fiction, a conflation which points to the seemingly unavoidable paradox of a post-Nietzschean aesthetic historicism like that which animates In The American Grain: the formal and critical power of historical discourse is given free rein in a work like Williams’s, but at the same time history evolves in that work as a construct of the writer’s aesthetic imagination. In such a work, history becomes among other things a hermeneutic discourse, a discourse always driven by strategic—that is to say, ideological— purposes.
Such a discourse, it might be argued—especially in light of the a-historical strain in Williams’s book—is not history at all. But, paradoxically, it can also be argued that by virtue of its method and its philosophy Williams’s book, despite its a-historicism, actually clarifies the ontological status of history. If we return to the book’s metahistorical discourse we will recall that for Williams the ‘‘tyranny’’ of history’s ‘‘designs’’ is precisely the illusion that it is privileged as fact and that it is ideologically innocent. In seeking to protect history from this ‘‘tyranny,’’ Williams’s book works specifically to undetermine these two illusions. Its reading of American history may have produced something more like a sexual myth of origins, but its critique of history, its insistent recognition that history is a product of representation, does constitute the necessary deconstruction of an innocent relationship between historical events and their existence in narrative. It is after all the ‘‘tyrannous design’’ of this innocent relationship which Williams’s book seeks to mitigate. Moreover, his demystified conception of history as a product of competing discourses (‘‘if there is agreement on one point in history, be sure there’s interest there to have it so and that’s not truth’’, draws its role as an ideological force among others explicit.
This rethinking of history’s ontological ground, and this critique of traditional historicism, is a logical outgrowth both of the crisis in historicism we reviewed earlier and the recuperative hope which drives Williams’s writing. The technique of In The American Grain constitutes a demystification of history’s status as ‘‘fact’’—the undermining of what Roland Barthes has called the ‘‘prestige’’ of the phrase ‘‘this happened’’—because it approaches its material in the spirit of Nietzsche’s and Adams’s skepticism about ‘‘old formulas.’’ But while Williams’s appropriation of history as material for his art affirms Nietzsche’s skepticism about the ‘‘objective’’ privilege of historical discourse over fictional discourse, it does not, therefore, posit history as a simple free-play of supreme fictions. Because it inherits from the nineteenth century the idea that history is the sum of its representations, it can affirm that history is ‘‘a living thing . . . undecided.’’ However, the decisions Williams makes about history are grounded not in a conviction that they are fictions among a plenitude of fictions, but in the conviction that they are truthful because they are born of his artistic insight. ‘‘I seek the support of history,’’ he writes, ‘‘but I wish to understand it aright, to make it SHOW itself’’.
Such a wish, as we have seen, is animated by Williams’s desire to recover from history a ‘‘regenerative force.’’ It thus participates in rethinking the relationship between history and its representations not to reduce history to the status of a fiction, but to ground itself in a practice which will allow Williams to produce a text which is at once a reading of history and an argument about it. With this strategy foregrounded, Williams’s book becomes a selfconscious example of Hayden White’s observation that ‘‘history . . . is never history of, it is always also history for.’’ Because it is a history for America, rather than a history of America, the past emerges in In The American Grain as its product, not its topic. It is for this reason that Williams’s book is, in the final analysis, ideologically skewed. Its historical analysis lapses into the creation of an over-determined (and over-determining) sexual myth, but its metahistorical premises demystify the relationship between history and its discursive origins. Its selfconsciousness in this respect is probably more productive than the reading of American history it provides, for, as Terry Eagleton has written,
When history begins to ‘‘think itself’’ as historiography . . . the rupture thus established between thought and reality is not the guarantee of knowledge, though it is the precondition of one.
It is precisely this rupture which appears in the metahistorical observations which both punctuate Williams’s text and determine its methodology. These observations, more than its arguments against Puritanism and for a renewed Erotic vitality, surely constitute its more important knowledge.
Source: Paul L. Jay, ‘‘American Modernism and the Uses of History: The Case of William Carlos Williams,’’ in New Orleans Review, Winter 1982, pp. 16–25.