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The late 1940’s and early 1950’s witnessed, on the one hand, the sharp rise of William Carlos Williams’ literary fame and, on the other, the rapid decline of his health. Because of his literary achievements, Williams, during these few years, received a number of awards and honorary degrees from prestigious institutions. At the same time, however, his health began to fail him. In February, 1948, Williams experienced the first of a series of heart attacks and strokes which were to burden him for the last fifteen years of his life. He had good reason to believe that it was time to assess his own literary career and evaluate the achievements of his life. Shortly after recovering from his first attack, Williams signed a contract in 1949 with Random House to write an autobiography, completing it in less than a year.

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Moving in approximately chronological order, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams covers the period from his childhood until the year he completed the work, at the age of sixty-eight. Four hundred pages long, the book consists of the author’s foreword (four pages) and three parts. Part 1, which contains twenty-one chapters (124 pages), deals with his early life, from his childhood to his advanced medical training in Leipzig, Germany, in 1910. The second part, which contains nineteen chapters (169 pages), begins with his practice as a doctor in New Jersey and ends with his summer excursion to Newfoundland, Canada, in 1931. Parts of the diary that Williams originally kept on his sabbatical trip to Europe are included verbatim in the second part. Relatively short, the third and last part, consisting of sixteen chapters, mainly records the events of his later life, a period during which his literary achievements began to gain wide recognition. At the end of the book, an eight-page index of names is attached.

Essentially the history of a poet’s growth, this book can also be read as a record of the world in which Williams lived. Through the recollection of his past as a poet, Williams brings to light the intellectual environment of his time: his schooling in the United States and Europe, his acquaintanceship with various literary and artistic figures, his participation in the activities of some literary and artistic groups, his association with different journals and academic institutions, and, above all, his recapitulation of contemporary views of art all contribute to an understanding of the cultural milieu in which Williams’ literary talent blossomed. A number of chapters deal with the background and formation of some of his literary works, including information on the interaction between him and his critics. In addition to this elite intellectual world, Williams presents a picture of everyday, commonplace society, which he had the advantage of observing as a doctor. His internship at two hospitals—especially at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in a notorious section of New York City, a position from which he had to resign because of his refusal to sign a form containing dubious statistical figures—his visits to various patients at their homes, and his belief in a sound medical practice are the topics that he often explores. At times, Williams simply recorded what impressed him as a man, such as the fish peddler who sold good fish in his neighborhood for thirty years without fail (chapter 24 is entirely devoted to him). Because of Williams’ profession as both physician and writer, the relationship between medicine and poetry became one of his major concerns. Very often, the worlds of medicine and poetry blend together in his work.

Because the book is composed of many short chapters, greatly differing in nature, it contains a variety of tones. Depending on his subject matter, Williams’ tone can be either ironically humorous (as in the case of the three-hundred-pound woman who gave birth to twins) or seriously polemical (as in his protest against the poetic style of T. S. Eliot). Whether casual or formal, humorous or polemical, his tone, however, is more often than not optimistic.

In explaining the composition of his autobiography, Williams states that he has the general reader in mind. Many anecdotes, drawing on occurrences in his daily life, appear to have a general appeal. His aim, however, is not merely to entertain his audience, for as he explains in his foreword, “I have struggled to get a meaning from my failures and successes.” His autobiography is thus both an assessment of his literary career and an anatomy of his life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 81

Koch, Vivienne. “The Man and the Poet,” in The Kenyon Review. XIV (Summer, 1952), pp. 502-510.

Leibowitz, Herbert. “‘You Can’t Beat Innocence’: The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams,” in The American Poetry Review. X (March/April, 1981), pp. 35-47.

Mariani, Paul L. “Floodtime: The Response to Williams, 1946-1963,” in William Carlos Williams: The Poet and His Critics, 1975.

Stone, Irving. “Two Autobiographies,” in Yale Review. XLI (Winter, 1952), pp. 316-318.

Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “Canvas I: Longer Fiction,” in The Prose of William Carlos Williams, 1970.

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