Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

A first-generation American, William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. His father, William George Williams, of English ancestry, had been born in England and raised in the West Indies. His mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb Williams, whose ancestry contained elements of French, Spanish, and Jewish cultures, had been born in Puerto Rico.

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With his younger brother, Edward, Williams went to public schools in his hometown. When he was fourteen, he went with his family to Europe for two years, where he attended school first near Geneva, Switzerland, and later in Paris. When his family returned to the United States, he was sent to Horace Mann High School in New York City. He commuted daily from Rutherford by streetcar and Hudson River ferryboat. Williams entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902. While there, because of his interest in poetry, he met the poets Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the painter Charles Demuth, all of whom became his lifelong friends.

After his graduation from medical school in 1906, Williams interned at the old French Hospital and the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in New York City. His first volume of poetry, Poems, published at his own expense, appeared in 1909. That same year he went to Europe again, where he did postgraduate work in pediatrics in Leipzig, Germany. While in Europe he renewed his friendship with Ezra Pound, and through him was introduced to many writers and artists of prewar London.

After brief trips to Italy and Spain, Williams returned to Rutherford in 1910 to begin the practice of medicine. In 1911, he married Florence Herman, the “Flossie” of his poems. During the next few years, Williams became the father of two boys, William and Paul. In 1913 he bought the house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford which would be his residence for the rest of his life. His second volume of verse, The Tempers, was published in England that same year. Williams was a very active pediatrician with a wide practice among the industrial workers of northeastern New Jersey. Nevertheless, he continued to be a deeply committed poet and literary man eagerly involved in the artistic life, publishing ventures, and general creative climate of Greenwich Village in the years of World War I and after.

During the 1940’s, Williams contributed to numerous magazines, including The Glebe, Poetry, Others (of which he was associate editor for a time), The Little Review, The Dial, and Broom. He became acquainted with Walter Arensberg, Kenneth Burke, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Kreymborg, Marianne Moore, Charles Sheeler, and other poets and painters. Williams published his third collection of poems, Al Que Quiere!, in 1917 and Kora in Hell: Improvisations, an experimental collection of poetry and prose, in 1920. From 1920 until 1923, Williams edited Contact with the publisher Robert McAlmon and during these years published three daring experiments in prose and poetry: Sour Grapes (1921), Spring and All (1923), and The Great American Novel (1923).

In 1924 Williams went to Europe with his wife for six months and savored the expatriate life of the most important members of the American “lost generation” and their French counterparts. He was guided again by Ezra Pound, along with McAlmon, and through them Williams associated with such writers and artists as George Antheil, Sylvia Beach, Kay Boyle, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, and such French writers as Valery Larbaud and Philippe Soupault.

Williams published one of his most influential prose works, In the American Grain, in 1925, a collection of essays on American history. During the following decade he contributed to transition, The Exile, Blues, Front, Pagany, Alcestis, and other magazines. In 1926 he received the Dial Award for Services to American Literature. Still a full-time pediatrician with a large private practice among the working class of Rutherford, he joined the staff of the Passaic General Hospital, while maintaining his general practice.

In 1927 he made another European visit when he and his wife escorted their two sons to school in Switzerland. While his wife remained with their sons in Switzerland for a year, Williams returned to his medical practice and to writing in New Jersey. During that time, he wrote a novel, A Voyage to Pagany (1928), based on the family’s visit to Europe.

Williams continued in the following years to write prose (short stories, essays, novels, and an autobiography), poetry, and plays. Despite the pressures of constant professional demands and intrusions in those years, he published more than twenty volumes. Collected editions of his poems were published in 1934 and 1938. In 1941 and ensuing years, as his literary reputation grew, Williams lectured at the University of Puerto Rico, Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and elsewhere. In 1946 Williams began publication of Paterson, his long verse masterpiece. Individual books of the poem were published in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1951, and 1958. Notes for a sixth book were published posthumously.

Williams received the first National Book Award for Poetry (for Paterson, Book III and the 1949 collection Selected Poems) in 1950. His autobiography, published in 1951, shows the extent of his association with the avant-garde of American letters, especially during the years between 1910 and 1930.

In 1952, Williams was appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position roughly equivalent to poet laureate. The appointment was withdrawn before he could take office, however, partly because of accusations about his supposed leftist sympathies, owing much to his long friendship with Ezra Pound, who had been accused of being a traitor to the United States during World War II. Williams was subsequently reappointed to this position, but because of ill health he was never able to take it up.

A series of strokes that eventually made him a semi-invalid forced Williams to turn over his medical practice to his son William in the 1950’s. He continued to devote himself to writing, however, and made frequent appearances at colleges and universities to lecture and to read his poems. In spite of periods of difficulty with his vision and his speech, he continued to live a vigorous creative life and to travel in the United States and, on two occasions, to the Caribbean region.

During the forty years he practiced medicine in Rutherford, Williams wrote in his autobiography, he saw a million and a half patients and delivered two thousand babies. Meanwhile, scribbling or typing rapidly between patients, jotting down images and ideas on prescription blanks between house calls, and typing late into the night after his workday as a pediatrician was over, he laid the foundation of the most extensive one-man body of literature in American history: a total of forty-nine books in every possible literary form. He wrote about six hundred poems, four full-length plays, an opera libretto, fifty-two short stories, four novels, a book of essays and criticism, his autobiography, a biography of his mother, an American history, and a book of letters.

When Williams died at the age of seventy-nine, on March 4, 1963, his reputation as a major poet was firmly established. He had won numerous awards during his lifetime, and two months after his death he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures from Brueghel (1962) and the Gold Medal for Poetry of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

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