In the American Grain Themes
Puritanism was a variety of Protestant Christianity that came about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Anglican church was established in England as the official state religion, replacing Roman Catholicism. The Anglican (or, as it is called in the United States, ‘‘Episcopalian’’) faith was very similar to Catholicism in its rites, structure, and theology. Beginning in the later 1500s and continuing on into the 1600s, many English theologians began to oppose this tendency, using the work of such writers as Luther, John Knox, and especially John Calvin to argue that religion should be stripped of the decorations and rituals and hierarchy of Catholicism. God was immediately present everywhere, these ‘‘Puritans’’ (so called because they sought to purify the English church) felt, and all of the trappings of Catholicism were merely idolatry.
These Puritans were persecuted during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods. As a result, many of them left England for such places as Holland and the American colonies. The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1620 were Puritans. The colonies the Puritans founded in America bore the marks of their inhabitants’ ideologies. Religion was not simply the center of daily life; it was the totality of it. All activities were regulated by religious strictures. The Puritans were very strict about all types of behavior, but they were especially vigilant about any transgression of the codes governing sexual conduct. Women were entirely governed by men, and women who broke the rules (by adulterous behavior or simply by not marrying) were cast out of society. (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is the best-known depiction of this.)
Williams holds the Puritans responsible for many of what he sees as the defects in the American character—its hostility to ideas, its often violent insularity, its suspicion of anything different. Throughout In the American Grain Williams attacks the Puritans and blames them for, frankly, problems of his own life and career. His literary work was never appreciated as much as he thought it should have been (this was especially true in the 1920s, when this book was written) and, like many American modernists, he blamed the anti-intellectual, anti-artistic feeling of American society that derived, he felt, from the Puritans. In the chapter on ‘‘Pere Sebastian Rasles,’’ this anger underlies his argument with Valery Larbaud. Larbaud, on the other hand, sees in the Puritans a vitality, determination, and energy that cannot be condemned wholesale. Williams’s sympathetic inclusion of Larbaud’s contrary opinions suggests that, although he felt very strongly that the Puritans had an unmitigatedly negative effect on the American character, he recognized that much of this animus could have been personal and that people not brought up in America might see a more positive legacy left by the Puritans.
Throughout the entire time that he published poetry, Williams was a practicing physician. And even though his vocation may have been that of poet, the body, its functions, and the various ways in which it can go wrong was his profession. Consequently, his poetry has a carnality, a sense of the reality of physical existence, that much modernist poetry lacks. For Williams, the body was not something to be ashamed of or something to celebrate; it was the ineluctable, unavoidable primary fact of existence.
Therefore, it is not surprising that In the American Grain is a book permeated with sensory impressions. Eric the Red must endure the privations of the ‘‘ice,’’ while Columbus and his crew experience hunger and the sweaty astringency of a sea voyage. The chapters about de...
(The entire section is 932 words.)