In the American Grain

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

That the new world was never really “new” disturbs Williams. He shows the explorers asserting old identity, their inherited view, in a vast wilderness with names only Indians knew. The discoverers quite simply failed to understand what they had discovered. Williams portrays Columbus’ inability to do more than open the door for crazed exploitation. With wry humor Williams sees Champlain’s gentle frenchified mapping of the northern wilderness. The conquests--of Ponce De Leon, Cortez, and DeSoto--are shown as the blind and destructive acts that they were.

The colonizers ignored the spirit inhabiting this land. Conquerors and settlers destroyed the Indian. Puritans asserted their grim control, placing in stocks any white man who would prefer the maypole to their sermons. Their treatment of witches under Cotton Mather, Williams finds especially telling, and killing. The fear of touch was the earliest Americans’ problem, compounded by an unwillingness to see what the Indians’ culture was about.

Williams affirms some of our myths. He beautifully restates the treasure we owned in George Washington. Daniel Boone and Sam Houston remain authentic heroes. Benjamin Franklin, however, is seen in a harsh light: Williams cites his pragmatism and Poor Richard wit as a guise adopted out of fear of the New World’s wildness.

Through energetic prose, Williams brings the figures on postage stamps to life. Often quoting directly from original sources, he adapts the tone of his writing to the quotation. Empathy, not iconoclasm, is the mode Williams uses in the book. He desperately hoped that America would recognize its genius and tradition as separate from English Protestantism and European culture. Thus the book aims not to debunk but to reveal, lovingly, our connection in the twentieth century with our founders. This connection is not a simpleminded patriotic nostalgia, but a living and problematic relationship.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

A number of time periods clash in In the American Grain, which is only natural for a work that spans many centuries of history. The...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The narrative voice in works of history is central to those works’ claims of authority. Generally, historiography...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1925: The United States enjoys the Roaring Twenties, a decade of economic prosperity and relative good times after the hardships and...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Research the coming of the Spanish to the ‘‘New World.’’ How did Columbus’s voyage differ from Cortéz’s or Coronado’s? What...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

For those interested in Williams’s other writings, probably the best place to start would be with his Selected Poems, first...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Breslin, James, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, Oxford University Press, 1970.


(The entire section is 316 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Axelrod, Steven Gould, and Helen Deese, eds. Critical Essays on William Carlos Williams. New York: G. K. Hall, 1995.

Beck, John. Writing the Radical Center: William Carlos Williams, John Dewey, and American Cultural Politics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Bremen, Brian A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Copestake, Ian D., ed. Rigor of Beauty: Essays in Commemoration of William Carlos Williams. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Fisher-Wirth, Ann W. William Carlos...

(The entire section is 194 words.)