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.