William Carlos Williams

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

New Jersey’s reputation does not create confidence in the state’s ability to inspire poetry. Its image hangs, like those of Detroit and Brownsville, in the national mind as a place to be avoided altogether or, in cases of grim necessity, to be passed through as rapidly as possible. Sandwiched between urban centers with better public relations—Philadelphia, New York, and Washington—New Jersey is disliked by those who have never explored its varieties. Such is unrequited love.

In fact, this state has been a source of one of the strongest American poetic traditions, flowing through the nation’s literary heritage as clearly as the waters of its Pine Barrens. From Walt Whitman’s Camden to the Paterson of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, New Jersey’s special mixture of urbanity and rural backwardness has been a microcosm of the nation’s physical and moral character. From the old industrialism of its overpopulated Northeast to its usually forgotten South, this state has offered a condensed imaginative opportunity for those poets, old and new, who wished to sing of the American enterprise.

William Carlos Williams was very much a poet of New Jersey, as his Paterson (1946-1951) made so clear. Like Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), which Williams both admired and feared, this long poem found the material of poetry in the complex relations of the city setting. In his growth from early romantic effusions, through Imagism, to this epic, Williams more and more placed his verse in its social, cultural, political, and physical context. This sense of context is also the achievement of Paul Mariani’s massive biography.

While Mariani’s work may be a bit too long and too crammed with details of Williams’ literary and personal life, it nevertheless produces a sense of living time and place. By varying the nature of his exposition—sometimes objective, sometimes critical, sometimes humorous—Mariani delivers a cornucopia of facts without becoming boring. He avoids the terse, lifeless style of Reed Whittemore’s biography of 1975 without surrendering to the mawkishness of hero worship.

While Mariani’s admiration and love for Williams are evident, he maintains his objectivity. He draws heavily on Williams’ own entertaining but loosely structured autobiography, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1951), but he does not take it at face value. In telling his own life’s story, Williams had relied heavily on anecdote and remembered conversations. The book was self-consciously limited, sporadic, and discontinuous. The reader feels intimately engaged with the quirks of Williams’ personality but also somewhat trapped by this same “I.” Mariani tries instead to balance the claims of personal immediacy, historical accuracy, and critical distance.

Mariani demonstrates that Williams’ growth as a poet stemmed from his family situation, the tremendous technical, political, and economic changes of his epoch, and the envy, competitiveness, and jealousy that constituted the interpersonal foundation of that apparently theoretical and impersonal movement known as Modernism. Williams is seen with all his hats as son and father, husband and friend, doctor and poet, critic and dreamer.

Many of Williams’ continuing interests seem to have been born with him. Both of his parents contributed to his creativity: his father was dramatic, philosophical, and literary while his mother had talents in music and painting. Both parents may also have contributed to his demand for “American poetry”: his father never gave up his English citizenship, and his mother constantly remembered her Caribbean-French background. Perhaps this explains why William Carlos Williams, in an age filled with expatriates, did not feel the need to locate his sensibility abroad. Williams himself enjoyed that which he had discovered in Edgar Allan Poe, the “genius of place.” He grew up with New Jersey,...

(The entire section is 1627 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, December, 1981, p. 92.

Booklist. LXXVIII, October 1, 1981, p. 175.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXIII, December, 1981, p. 55.

Library Journal. CVI, October 1, 1981, p. 1928.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, November 25, 1981, p. 36.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 22, 1981, p. 1.

Saturday Review. VIII, November, 1981, p. 83.