Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072
William Carlos Williams makes it clear in his autobiography that he undertook the profession of medicine to ensure both his living and his freedom to write whatever he deemed appropriate: “I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to.” The story of his life vindicates the belief that a person can get what he wants if he works hard enough. Through his persistent efforts, Williams continuously engaged himself in literary creativity while practicing medicine at the same time and eventually achieved enduring fame in American literature. His determination to write as he wanted manifested itself in his lifelong search for the appropriate literary expression for his age. In seeking a new mode of writing, Williams, like his contemporaries (T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), turned to European culture for inspiration. Unlike them, however, Williams insisted on using various aspects of American culture as the essential basis for his writing. In the first two parts of his autobiography, there are many detailed descriptions of his trips to Europe (these chapters take up more than one-fifth of the entire book); in the third and last part, he describes his travels within the United States. His emphasis on the importance of American culture for American literature becomes more evident in the concluding chapter, in which he explains why he chose Paterson, New Jersey, as the setting for his most ambitious poem. He quotes John Dewey to support this view of art: “The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds.” As an effective means of representing modern American society—Williams’ fundamental subject matter—colloquial speech becomes the standard style of Williams’ writing. Consequently, short, simple sentences and paragraphs, distinguished by American idioms, abound in his autobiography.
Closely related to Williams’ promotion of the local is his objective theory of art. From the viewpoint of objectivism, a poem—a work of art—is an object independent from yet related to the exterior world. Traditional theories that define a work of art as either a replication of nature or the projection of an artist’s mind are unacceptable to Williams. Rather than copying nature, an artist, like nature, creates an object: “It is to make, out of the imagination, something not at all a copy of nature, but something quite different, a new thing, unlike anything else in nature, a thing advanced and apart from it.” By participating in the creative process of nature, the artist consequently is at one with nature. Such views of art, which Williams had promoted for most of his life, are actually based on a deep sense of complacence about himself and the world around him. The entire autobiography well attests, despite his insufficiencies, this spirit of contentment and security.
Because of this sense of complacence, Williams does not see, as nineteenth century Romanticists or Symbolists often did, a great gap between the self and the exterior world, the mind and the object. In Williams’ expression, the mind and the object are essentially one: “for the poet there are no ideas but in things.” Based on this concept, his autobiography contains mostly descriptions of exterior events rather than a scrutiny of inner thoughts. The poet Wallace Stevens and the critic J. Hillis Miller have suggested that Williams’ work is characterized by a union of opposites. In portraying his life, Williams usually causes opposites to complement each other, making the interplay between contending forces a dominant feature in both his life and his art. The notion that opposites are essentially complementary can be found in the opening statement of the autobiography: “I was an innocent sort of child and have remained so to this day.” The fact that the author is actually a man in his late sixties greatly qualifies this statement, ironically equating a child with an old man. The word “innocent,” Williams’ favorite, refers to both his ignorance and his integrity, two pronounced themes in the book. In the work the author endeavors on the one hand to envelop himself with an aura of ignorance. He informs the reader that early in his life he was made keenly aware of his own lack of knowledge when he was greatly humiliated by the French painter Marcel Duchamp. The description of Williams’ association with Ezra Pound, who often instructed Williams on various literary matters, also contributes to Williams’ image as an innocent, amateur writer. Williams, however, was not as unlearned as he claimed to be, nor did he hesitate to criticize Pound’s involvement with Fascism. Later in his life, when Williams became a well-established writer, he often acted as a patron to younger poets (such as Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov), a fact which indicates his achievement as a significant figure in the contemporary literary world.
Williams’ life was essentially characterized by the dynamic interplay of innocence and sophistication. While constantly turning to the sophisticated world of Europe for inspiration, he hardly forgot his simple, colloquial American style. To Williams, the sophisticated is embodied in the simple. In terms of ethics, many passages in the autobiography represent an Emersonian type of integrity. Williams’ resignation as resident surgeon at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in New York is a clear illustration of his moral integrity. Another outstanding example is the fish peddler, Joe, who sold fish of superior quality for a minimum price for thirty years. Moreover, Williams’ generosity with a rather helpless man, whom he met on his way to the Bronx Zoo on Christmas Day, well demonstrates his amicable spirit. These anecdotes together create an ethical world, which informs the spirit of the book. Again, however, Williams’ life was not without blemish. His dalliance with women is consistently suggested in his autobiography, with no evidence that he was troubled by the effect on his wife of his repeated infidelities. Still, in spite of his intimacy with other women, Williams remained happily married throughout his life.
Encompassing various opposing forces, the world of Williams’ autobiography is one of plenitude. As signified by the juxtaposition of the priest and the prostitute in his recollection of his internship at the French Hospital in New York City, his sympathetic imagination can comprehend both the holy and the lowly. No matter how divergent things are, each and every element is sure to find a place in Williams’ world.
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