In the American Grain

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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

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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 subject matter of the books reaches from the voyages of Eric the Red in the late tenth century to the presidency of Lincoln in the nineteenth. However, another time period that barely appears in the book nonetheless has a great bearing on the composition of the book and on our understanding of what the book is meant to be. That period is the 1920s, the age of the so-called ‘‘Lost Generation’’ of American writers and artists who lived in Europe during that time.

Williams was not a member of this ‘‘Lost Generation.’’ So why is this group of people so important to this book? Because it is largely in response to their attitude toward America that Williams formulated his theories about American history and, consequently, it is largely in reaction to their ideas that Williams wrote In the American Grain. For many of the American artists of the ‘‘modernist’’ period (a loosely defined term for a broad group of artists who worked between the 1860s and the 1930s), the United States was a profoundly antagonistic nation, a country of philistines and social climbers and materialists, a land where the accumulation of money was the highest goal. A smug indifference to culture has often characterized the United States, certainly, and our society has historically been belittling or even hostile toward artists. American society has also historically been quite conservative in its attitude about sexuality, the body, religion, and politics. Artists of the modernist period explored these topics, often in ways that had never been attempted before, and as a result they became outcasts, bohemians.

In Europe these bohemians gathered together in such cities as Paris,...

(This entire section contains 788 words.)

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London, Berlin, and Vienna. They supported each other, bought each other’s books and paintings and sculptures, and eventually became a ‘‘movement’’ that influenced young artists. Artists in the United States had no such places to gather. The cities that we now think of as havens for bohemianism—New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles—were too concerned with economic development or with simply becoming cities to develop thriving artistic scenes. (Probably the most bohemian city in the United States in the early twentieth century was New Orleans, but it never became an important artistic center for anything except music.) At any rate, because of the lack of support and of a ‘‘critical mass’’ of like-minded people, American experimental artists in the early twentieth century fled to Europe, to Paris and London mostly. Painters, composers, dancers, photographers, and especially writers came together in a large but loosely affiliated group in Paris in the 1920s. If these artists were widely diverse and often hostile to each other, they almost all shared the conviction that the United States, because of its capitalist materialism and its Puritan conservatism, was irredeemably hostile to art.

Among this group were a number of Williams’s acquaintances, most importantly his old college friends Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle and his close friend Robert McAlmon. These artists condemned America as a nation that would always be stunted by the influence of the Puritans and of the drive toward wealth. They basked in the cultural accomplishments that they found in Europe and, in their art, entered into a conversation with historical periods. America was, to them, a savage land originally populated by primitive people and now populated by greedy businessmen.

Williams, however, strongly felt that America had something else to offer. Throughout his life, in his correspondence with his bohemian friends, he defended the United States. It is very important to note that while he could have gone to Europe to live the life of the poet he did not: he stayed in New Jersey, practiced medicine, and wrote on the side. He felt an undeniable connection with and obligation to the land of America, and was convinced that Americans had a character that was not just greedy and reactionary. In the American Grain was his attempt to formulate an explanation of what the American character was, so it is not strange that the villains of the book are the Puritans. They were the original source of all that was closed, conservative, hypocritical, and venal in America. The Puritans utterly rejected all that the New World had to offer. The heroes of Williams’s book, then, are those men who are willing to incorporate the New World into themselves instead of rejecting it wholesale. By providing this model of American history and Americans, Williams hoped to explain not only to his friends but to all American intellectuals who disparaged the American ‘‘character’’ that they were being shortsighted.

Literary Style

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The narrative voice in works of history is central to those works’ claims of authority. Generally, historiography (or the writing of history) takes two forms: first-person narrations by people who figured in or lived through the period being described, or third-person narrations in which a historian researches a period by using source materials, interviews, or any other form of evidence and writes about the period without making reference to his or her own role in picking and choosing among this evidence. These two kinds of history are also called, respectively, ‘‘primary sources’’ and ‘‘secondary sources.’’

Each kind of historiography claims authority in a different way. First person histories often capture the details of the time and, when written by the leaders of the organizations involved, can give the reader otherwise unavailable information about the motivations of the players in the drama. However, this kind of history suffers from a lack of perspective. When a person takes part in a historical event, even if that person is Napoleon or Winston Churchill or Henry Kissinger, he or she usually cannot see the ‘‘big picture’’ of how this event related to other contemporary or historical events. On the other hand, secondary-source history’s strength does just that: a historian ideally reads all of the relevant materials about an event to understand what ‘‘really happened’’ apart from individual players’ biases, and then analyzes that event in light of other events of the time and similar events throughout history. The drawbacks of secondary-source history are numerous, though. If a circumstance or a component of an event was not recorded, it is unavailable to the historian. The historian often cannot eliminate his or her own cultural assumptions from the analysis of another period of time, and thus may miss or overemphasize the ramifications of that event in its time.

In In the American Grain, Williams attempted to confront this problem in a new and unique way. As he made clear in his descriptions of the project and in his correspondence to Horace Gregory when Gregory was preparing an introduction to the book in 1939, he went about his research as a true historian would. Williams spent hour after hour in the New York Public Library, reading the firstperson accounts and autobiographies and journals of his subjects. He wanted his work to be taken seriously as history, and thus he went about his research in the way that ‘‘real’’ historians do. However, Williams was suspicious of ‘‘real’’ history because, in its ‘‘objectivity,’’ it had utterly misunderstood the meaning of American history—and then, by eliminating the presence in the text of a narrator with whom we can argue, it implicitly claimed to be inarguable. Williams’s project is just as relevant today as it was then precisely because it attempts to undermine the claims to authority taken by secondary-source historians.

Williams’s solution to the problem of historical authority was to claim a different kind. His text is what narrative theoreticians call ‘‘multivocal,’’ or speaking with many voices. Dozens of voices tell the story in In the American Grain, and Williams puts himself in the mix with the rest of them, sometimes standing outside of the events of history and sometimes, as in the chapter on Rasles, inserting himself into the narrative of events. He does this in part to emphasize that he is, like the people whose stories he narrates, an actor in American history, shaped by his place and time just as much as they are. Secondary-source history attempts to prevent the reader from thinking about the historian as a person with prejudices, experiences, and fallibility. This kind of history, Williams felt, gave us the picture of America that he so vehemently rejected— a picture of a country following quietly in the determined, hardworking footsteps of its Puritan founders. Wanting to disinter the buried history of a vital, earthy America, Williams sought to allow the figures to speak for themselves.

Compare and Contrast

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1925: The United States enjoys the Roaring Twenties, a decade of economic prosperity and relative good times after the hardships and sacri- fices associated with World War I.

Today: After the largest peacetime economic expansion in history during the 1990s, the United States begins to suffer from what some commentators call a ‘‘downturn’’ and others call, more ominously, an impending recession.

1925: In the United States, racial discrimination is the norm, and the legal system of segregation known as ‘‘Jim Crow’’ is the law in all Southern states. But even in the North, African Americans receive different treatment in economic, political, and social spheres.

Today: Legal (de jure) segregation is against the law in all states, but social (de facto) segregation endures across America. Efforts, both legal and social, continue to eliminate it.

1925: The era of mass communication is just beginning. The recently invented radio allows people all over the country to listen to the same event simultaneously and ‘‘talkie’’ motion pictures match sound with moving images.

Today: The ever advancing progress of mass communication through the twentieth century enables people in all parts of the world to experience events at the same time. Because of the interactive nature of the Internet, people can comment on events and communicate with each other directly (as with e-mail) or indirectly (by posting messages to publicly accessible forums such as bulletin boards or Web sites). Access to this technology is limited to those who have the money to buy or rent the equipment, however.

1925: Poetry holds a small but important place in American literary culture. Poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg sell large numbers of books and obtain mass popularity, while other poets (such as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or Williams himself) must hold other jobs to make a living while they write poetry that will eventually be considered some of America’s greatest.

Today: In the late 1990s, poetry’s popularity jumped slightly because of such factors as U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project and the ‘‘poetry slam’’ movement. Most serious or professional poets hold jobs as university professors; almost none make enough money from their poetry to live on that income alone.

1925: In Dayton, Tennessee, science teacher John Scopes is put on trial for teaching his biology students about evolution. Two of the country’s most eminent lawyers face off in the trial: Scopes is defended by Clarence Darrow and former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan prosecutes.

Today: Although evolution is regarded as fact by a majority of the scientific community, religious groups in the United States still insist that alternative ‘‘creation science’’ theories be taught in schools. They achieve victories such as in Kansas where in the late 1990s a law is passed mandating that evolution must not be taught as fact.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Conrad, Bryce, Refiguring America, University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Doyle, Charles, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Guimond, James, The Art of William Carlos Williams, University of Illinois Press, 1968.

Lawrence, D. H., Studies in Classic American Literature, T. Seltzer, 1923.

Williams, William Carlos, ‘‘The American Background,’’ in Selected Essays, New Directions, 1969.

Further Reading
Guimond, James, The Art of William Carlos Williams: A Discovery and Possession of America, University of Illinois Press, 1968. Guimond’s book was one of the first full-length studies of Williams’s work. Unlike many other books about modernist poets, Guimond’s concentrates on the cultural background of the poet and on his relationship to his society.

Kutzinski, Vera, Against the American Grain, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Kutzinski, a professor in the English Language and Literature department at Yale University, provides a critical interpretation of Williams’s relationship to his home continent.

Lowney, John, The American Avant-Garde Tradition, Bucknell University Press, 1997. Lowney’s concern is with the marketing of ‘‘avantgarde’’ art and its relationship to mass culture. He argues that, although we are encouraged to understand Williams’s poetry as anti-popular, Williams actually desired mass popularity—and was not shy about encouraging his publishers to get out and sell his books.

Mariani, Paul, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. Mariani’s biography of Williams is the most comprehensive of the numerous lives of this poet. Williams’s book is especially valuable for a reading of In the American Grain, for his thesis is that Williams is a particularly American poet.

Wagner, Linda Welshimer, The Prose of William Carlos Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1970. One of the first studies of Williams’s prose, this book concentrates on Williams’s fiction but sheds interesting light on how In the American Grain fits into Williams’s larger oeuvre.


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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 Williams and Autobiography: The Woods of His Own Nature. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Gish, Robert. William Carlos Williams: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Laughlin, James. Remembering William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Lenhart, Gary, ed. The Teachers and Writers Guide to William Carlos Williams. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1998.

Lowney, John. The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1997.

Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. 1981. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vendler, Helen, ed. Voices and Visions: The Poet in America. New York: Random House, 1987.

Whitaker, Thomas R. William Carlos Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1989.




Critical Essays