Attacking the Puritans
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...
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