Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5512
Williams’s writing is one of the major achievements in twentieth century American literature. As a significant representation of the modern American consciousness, it must be placed with that of four other poets born between 1874 and 1888: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Williams’s work complements...
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- Critical Essays
Williams’s writing is one of the major achievements in twentieth century American literature. As a significant representation of the modern American consciousness, it must be placed with that of four other poets born between 1874 and 1888: Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Williams’s work complements theirs in important ways. He was less ready than they to maintain traditional techniques or assimilate the discoveries made in other literatures, but he was more genuinely open and responsive to both the fullness and the emptiness of contemporary life in the United States.
He listened more keenly to the dance rhythms and the flat cadences of American speech, observed more accurately the degradation and the unexpected beauties of its cities and countrysides, and explored more intensely the immediate historical ground on which Americans stood. He did all this, moreover, without slighting the spiritual emptiness that has haunted twentieth century writing. Williams may well be, of those five poets, the most important influence on the development of the American idiom in poetry during the last years of the twentieth century.
His work in both poetry and prose combines great technical ability with a passionate humanity. The major beauty of Williams’s art is perhaps that of a hard-won honesty, achieved through his attempt to isolate individual experience, to make the distinctions necessary to its proper perception, yet to acknowledge at the same time the continuity of all experience.
The content of Williams’s writing tends toward “pure poetry.” He seldom moralizes or indulges in philosophical or religious sermonizing. Criticism of capitalism is sometimes found in his fiction (for example, in the story “Jean Beicke”) and other prose (as in parts of In the American Grain) but almost never in his poetry. (“The Yachts” is one notable exception.)
The same is true of Williams’s medical background. He uses his scientific training and his experience as a doctor frequently in his fiction (as in his fine 1932 short-story collection, The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories), but it seldom appears in his poetry, except in an occasional term or phrase borrowed from medicine. As a writer of fiction—he published four novels and a number of first-rate short stories—Williams’s style is more conventional than in his poetry, but it is often ironic, sometimes even apparently callous, in attitude. His medical stories contain some of the most powerful descriptions of disease and suffering in modern fiction. In his fiction, as in his poetry, however, Williams is objective rather than indifferent. He shows the sympathetic detachment of a man who combined the writing of literature with a full-time career as a practicing physician.
Williams united a lifelong dedication to writing with a medical practice in New Jersey by writing emphatically about the life around him—the ordinary, and even apparently uninteresting, people, events, and landscapes that he encountered during his daily routine. His writing embodies two major tendencies. The first is vigorous formal experimentation in poetry and prose, frequently in the direction of abandoning traditional forms and, in his poetry, of mastering the possibilities of free verse, of which he remains the most influential practitioner.
The second is a plain-speaking directness of manner well suited to his native subjects and settings—for example, city streets, vacant lots, workers and their tools, a wheelbarrow, scraps of conversation, a sheet of paper rolling along in the wind, pieces of broken glass behind a hospital, the number five on a speeding fire engine. Nature, especially as represented by flowers and trees, is also an active presence in his poems, and it is celebrated without ever being idealized; it is puddles rather than lakes, sparrows rather than nightingales, weeds rather than roses. Everything is presented tautly, with a minimum of comment or judgment, in the simplest language and according to a lifelong preference for the concrete as expressed in his famous motto: “No ideas but in things.”
Early in his career, Williams rejected the literary heritage of the Victorian era, particularly its trite diction and stultified verse forms. He strove constantly to achieve the brusque nervous tension, the vigor and rhetoric, of American speech. Although he avoids slang, his language is thoroughly idiomatic. He seldom uses a word that is beyond the vocabulary of the ordinary reader, and the rhythm and intonation of his language are those of common speech. A careful study of his typography and punctuation shows that they, too, are intended to reproduce the rhythm—the pauses and emphases—of ordinary speech.
Williams’s poetry may be the most accessible and humane in modern American literature. He had a special knack for using natural speech poetically and an unusual appreciation of how other people feel and think. Virtually all of Williams’s lyrics illustrate his determination to develop in poetry the rhythm, diction, and syntax of the language actually spoken in Rutherford, New Jersey. Many of his lyrics are about poetry—what it is, how to write it—but a poem about poetry is also, for Williams, about how to live, for poetry is essentially the direct “contact”—the fresh perceiving and feeling by which life becomes worth living.
The music of Williams’s poems seems at first to be a deliberate absence of music, and it takes some time to perceive the finely controlled dance that the hesitations and abruptnesses of the free-verse lines accomplish. Reading them aloud should include experimentation with the pauses to be found on the page and listening for the plain, emerging music. The recognition of this unlikely lyricism involves the same kind of delighted surprise that can be experienced from Williams’s ways of finding beauty in unexpected places. Subject and style have the same aims, and an aesthetic of discovery through reduction and directness lies behind everything Williams did. To put it in terms of the visual analogies that very much interested him, his poems combine the freshness and daring of cubist painting and the candor and unmediated confrontations of photography.
Williams’s revolutionary ideas led him to write poetry that was simple, direct, and apparently formless. He seemed to be a “nonliterary” writer, yet his poetry, for all its freshness and seeming spontaneity, was the result of constant rewriting and refinement. Like nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman, Williams used common-place American scenes and speech to portray contemporary urban America. Like Whitman, he was a significant force in the freeing of poetry from the restraints and predictive regularity of traditional rhythms and meters. Williams was a prime literary innovator in prose and poetry, and he was the poet of the twentieth century most sensitive to the teeming squalor of modern America.
In all of his work, Williams carried forward a revolutionary heritage that was welcomed by younger writers responsive to his example and influence. While steadfastly supporting the principle of free organic form, he also helped refresh and renew the language of poetry by freeing it from stereotyped associations. In his passionate equalitarianism, he has been more attractive to younger generations of poets than the more aristocratic Pound and Eliot. Williams’s writing reveals an openness to experience of all kinds and a refusal to accept doctrinaire theories and solutions. While insisting upon the authenticity of his own vision, he has at the same time insisted upon the relativity of all knowledge and the inadequacy of dogma. To this extent at least, despite his distance from the confident rationalism of the Enlightenment (which he also distrusted), his work as a whole supports the Jeffersonian principle of “eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
First published: 1917 (collected in Al Que Quiere!, 1917)
Type of work: Poem
While describing how to conduct a funeral, Williams’s speaker gives advice that applies to many communal activities.
“Tract,” from Al Que Quiere!, Williams’s second book of poetry, appears at first to be a frankly didactic poem in which the speaker attempts to teach the proper way “to perform a funeral.” The speaker gives advice in four areas: hearse, flowers, driver, and bereaved.
In stanzas 1 through 3, objecting to the usual funeral, with its standardized conventions which insulate mourners from the meaning of death, the speaker would substitute for the polished black hearse a “rough dray” to be dragged over the ground, with no decoration other than perhaps gilt paint applied to the wheels for the occasion. In stanza 4, in place of the usual wreaths or hothouse flowers, the speaker recommends “Some common memento . . . / something he prized and is known by:/ his old clothes—a few books perhaps—/ God knows what!” In stanza 5, he would have the driver pulled down from his seat to “walk at the side/ and inconspicuously too!” His final admonition, in stanza 6, is to the mourners:
Walk behind—as they do in France,seventh class, or if you rideHell take curtains! Go with some showof inconvenience; sit openly—to the weather as to grief.Or do you think you can shut grief in?What—from us? We who have perhapsnothing to lose? Share with usshare with us—it will be moneyin your pockets. Go nowI think you are ready.
By such simplicity and show of inconvenience, the poem holds, the townspeople “are ready” to conduct a funeral properly.
At first glance, “Tract” seems to be a poem of direct statement: The speaker attempts to reform his neighbors’ ideas about the proper conduct of a familiar ritual by setting forth specific precepts. The speaker’s impulse to reform, however, reveals a preoccupation with the idea of form that goes beyond the subject of funerals. The fact that the funeral is a common ritual is a reminder that any such group activity is inevitably symbolic and, in Williams’s view, a kind of art. From this perspective, the speaker’s injunctions apply not only to one rite but also to a whole range of symbolic activity in which members of a community may be involved.
Metaphorically, the “tract” becomes a statement of an aesthetic as the poet asserts his commitment to certain principles of form which he urges upon his unenlightened townspeople. These are, not surprisingly, the familiar tenets of an organic theory in which rigid, predetermined conventions are rejected in favor of forms that are free and functional and adapted to the circumstances from which they arise. The separate assertions of what had seemed a poetry of statement are revealed to be integral parts of a more comprehensive, dramatically unified symbolic art.
“The Red Wheelbarrow”
First published: 1923 (collected in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 1986)
Type of work: Poem
Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary wheelbarrow and a few chickens.
“The Red Wheelbarrow” is perhaps one of the shortest serious poems ever published by an American poet. The structure is rigidly formal. The poem consists of four miniature stanzas of four words each.
so much dependsupona red wheelbarrowglazed with rainwaterbeside the whitechickens.
Three images are involved: the wheelbarrow, described simply as red, the qualifying adjectival phrase “glazed with rain/ water,” which relieves the excessive severity of the second stanza, and the contrasting white chickens of the final stanza. The first line is colloquial and open in its invitation; the second line, the preposition “upon,” prepares the reader for the specifics to follow. Each two-line stanza has two stressed syllables in the first line and one in the second, and yet there is lively variation in where the stresses fall.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams discovers an aesthetic pattern and sensory pleasure in an ordinary sight. The poem—or the moment of perception it reports—evokes no cultural traditions or literary associations. The absence of these is strongly noticed, however, for if the poem is an immediate experience, it is also a demonstration and argument. “So much depends,” it says, on the object being there, but it also means that so much depends on the reader’s response to what is seen. If one’s response is dull, the world takes on this quality, and the converse is also true. Thus, although Williams believed that the American environment offered a new challenge and possibility to poetry, his deeper meaning was that anything, however familiar or even drab, would become significant and moving when met with a full response.
“Spring and All”
First published: 1923 (collected in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 1986)
Type of work: Poem
Williams celebrates the struggle of all new life to assert itself and discover its innate form.
“Spring and All” is a poem of only twenty-seven lines, yet it echoes some of the imagery as well as the concepts of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and is filled with Williams’s desire to break with poetic tradition. The poem reveals this in the second and third words of the title. Spring is one of the most traditional themes of poetry; “and All” deflates it.
The poem corrects poetic notions of spring—those one finds, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous opening of The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), in which he describes the “sweet” season of flowers, bird songs, and balmy winds. Beginning with a description of a bleak winter scene on a road through muddy fields, the poem turns (in stanza five) to the tentative awakening of spring and the “naked,/ cold, uncertain” leaves of grass which are the first evidence of the return of life to the world. At first unconscious, the spring plants gradually acquire awareness as they come to life: “rooted, they/ grip down and begin to awaken.”
Thus the poem depicts the cyclical rebirth of life, which is here, through the allusion to the “awakening” and awareness of plants, connected to intelligence and thus to humanity. A deft touch is the transition from winter images to images of spring, achieved in only seven words in the fifth stanza; the two lines of the stanza are connected organically to the preceding passage by one word, “lifeless,” which echoes “leafless” in the fourth stanza. The poem’s simple and understated ending is typical of Williams’s pared-down style. Through Williams’s sensitive concentration on the new life of trees and shrubs struggling into being in the cold spring wind, “Spring and All” celebrates the struggle of all new life to assert itself.
First published: 1935 (collected in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I, 1909-1939, 1986)
Type of work: Poem
Despite its beauty, a yacht race during the Depression reminds Williams’s speaker of social inequality and injustice.
In “The Yachts,” Williams’s more typical penchant for imagistic presentation coexists with a tendency toward symbolism. Halfway through the poem, there is an interesting and unusual shift from an imagistic to a symbolic mode. The occasion is a yacht race in a bay protected from the “too-heavy blows/ of an ungoverned ocean.”
During the preparations for the race, the speaker is impressed by the physical beauty of the graceful craft, “Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute/ brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails.” Although the appeal is primarily imagistic, there is a metaphoric suggestion in the observation that the yachts, surrounded by more clumsy “sycophant” craft,
appear youthful, rareas the light of a happy eye, live with the graceof all that in the mind is feckless, free andnaturally to be desired.
As the race begins, however, after a delaying lull, the scene changes ominously. The waves of the roughening water now seem to be human bodies overridden and cut down by the sharp bows of the yachts: “It is a sea of faces about them in agony, in despair/ until the horror of the race dawns staggering the mind.” The original appeal of the beautiful spectacle of pleasure boats is broken and then displaced by the revelation of deeper meaning. The race is finally shown to be a symbol of human struggle, in which the masses are cut down and destroyed.
There remains a question as to the nature of the struggle. Is it to be understood simply as a common battle for survival in nature, in Darwinist terms, or does it have more specific social implications? The yachts inevitably suggest a privileged life. As the fruits of surplus wealth acquired within a protected socioeconomic preserve (like an enclosed bay), the leisure and beauty of the life they represent exists at the expense of an exploited class. For all its seductive appeal, supported by long custom and tradition, the spectacle of the yacht race in a poem of the Depression period (the poem was written in 1935) must be a reminder of social inequality and injustice.
The movement of the poem from imagistic charm to symbolic horror is in accord with the shift in the poet’s perception from a preoccupation with sensuous phenomena to an awareness of human meaning and value—the necessary movement, in short, from image to metaphor, without which the poetic presentation of such an event would remain an innocuous imagistic diversion.
First published: 1946-1958
Type of work: Long poem
Paterson envisions the epic development of that New Jersey town and its inhabitants as representative of modern urban America.
Paterson is a long poem originally in four parts, or books, published separately in 1946, 1948, 1949, and 1951, although sections of them had existed in various forms in earlier works. Williams added a fifth part in 1958, and fragments of the incomplete Book VI were published posthumously (1963) as an appendix to the collection of the first five parts. According to most critics, Paterson is one of Williams’s greatest works and one of the finest long poems written by an American.
Like most long modern poems that abandon traditional narrative forms, Paterson is not easy to follow. One must first understand its basic and arbitrary symbols. The protagonist, Paterson, is a city, man, doctor, and poet. The land (sometimes personified as a woman) is not only that waiting to be civilized but also the poet’s raw material. The river is both language and the natural movement of historical life. Thus, before the poem begins, the author’s note declares, “A man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody—if imaginatively conceived—any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”
Although primarily a book-length poem, the work also incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters. As subject, Williams uses the city of Paterson on the Passaic River near his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, so as to bring forth the universal from a local setting. The poem presents local history and the natural scene (particularly Passaic Falls and Garrett Mountain) as well as the consciousness of a gigantic, mythic man (Paterson) and of the author—poet and doctor.
Paterson’s struggle to interpret the language of the falls, his search for an expressive American language, is the major motif of the poem. Paterson swarms with characters, incidents, impressions, and dramatic passages, bound together by the work’s wide-ranging introspective and associative process and its quest: “Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?” Williams dissociated and consciously recombined these narrative, descriptive, and lyric elements in the manner of a montage or cubist painting. The jagged, juxtaposed collage effects are one way Williams hopes to break through contaminated words to reality.
Although there are echoes of both Pound and Eliot, the poem’s basic technique is that of Irish novelist James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Williams took certain historical places and events (the town of Paterson, the Passaic River, and events recorded in local histories and newspapers) and forged them into a myth. The poem’s general theme is the decay of life in a small eastern town meant to mirror American society. The falls above the town suggest both the possibility of good and healthy life and the correlative health of native speech. True to both history and myth, however, the river below the falls becomes polluted by industry, and the people’s language and the people themselves take on a parallel dirtiness, loss of purpose, and inability to communicate. The process of decay, however, is not irreversible, as Williams indicates late in Book IV of the poem, when he insists that the sea (into which the river issues) is not humankind’s true home.
Book I, “The Delineaments of the Giants,” mythologizes the early history of Paterson in an effort to define the “elemental character of the place” and introduces the city (a masculine force), the landscape (a feminine principle), and the vital, unifying river. In this book, the city is linked with the as-yet-undiscovered identity of the poet. The river, which “comes pouring in above the city,” is the stream of history and of life as well as the stream of language from which the poet must derive his speech:
(What common language to unravel?. . combed into straight linesfrom that rafter of a rock’slip.)
Book II, “Sunday in the Park,” concerned with “modern replicas” of the life of the past, meditates on failures in communication through language, religion, economics, and sex. The park, “female to the city,” brings the poet into contact with the immediate physical world, the sensual life that he must transform. Here the Sunday crowd, the “great beast” (as Alexander Hamilton had called the people), takes its pleasure, pursues its desires among the “churring loves” of nature and within the sound of the voice of an evangelist, who vainly tries to bring them into the truth through the language of traditional religion, which Williams regards as outworn and simply another block to expression. Williams suggests, however, that redemption is possible through art, imagination, and memory.
In Book III, “The Library,” the poet turns in his search for a common language from his immediate world to the literature (broadly interpreted) of the past. He moves from the previous section’s “confused uproar” of the falls to find that “books will give rest sometimes”; they provide a sanctuary for “dead men’s dreams.” The past, however, represents only desolation, destruction, and death. Paterson’s quest for beauty must continue. He says, “I must/ find my meaning and lay it, white,/ beside the sliding water: myself—/ comb out the language—or succumb.”
Book IV, “The Run to the Sea,” treats the polluted water below Passaic Falls in terms of corruption by modern civilization, while recognizing innovations in science, economics, and language. Finally, however, the identity of the river is lost in the sea, although the individual man (Paterson) survives and strides inland to begin again.
Book V, published seven years after Book IV, reveals a substantial continuity of image, theme, and metrical form, but there are significant differences in Williams’s attitudes and in the treatment of certain themes carried over from the earlier books. Untitled, but dedicated to the French Impressionist artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Book V is like a separate work, an oblique commentary on the poem by an aged poet from a point of view more international and universal than local. As for the poem’s quest for beauty, this book shows that the only beauty that persists is art. Of the various Patersons (Paterson the Sleeping Giant; Paterson, New Jersey; Paterson Williams), Paterson, Book V is most intimately concerned with Paterson as Williams himself. The first four books found the place; it is himself the poet must now find—or rather, find again.
Paterson is a complex and difficult poem, yet it is honest and uncompromising. Williams lives in a world in which wholeness is intellectually indefensible; thus he makes no suggestion of the possibility of a wholeness representative of a systemized worldview. In this respect, Paterson is more modern and representative of its science-minded, skeptical age than myth-oriented poems such as The Waste Land of Eliot and The Bridge (1930) of Hart Crane, which depend for their basic organization upon the pattern of the rebirth archetype. On a much larger scale than in Williams’s other poetic works, Paterson is a vigorous effort to discover the “common language” shared by the poet and the American people.
First published: 1948 (collected in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume II, 1939-1962, 1988)
Type of work: Poem
Clouds take on many meanings in this poem about individual expression and expression and the life of the imagination.
Williams’s insistence upon the freedom of the mind and hatred of conventional restraints is powerfully expressed in “The Clouds,” a four-part poem in which the central image is the march of the ever-changing clouds across the sky. As natural phenomena, the stuff on which the mind and imagination feed, they symbolize the shifting flux of experience in which one must find human significance if one is to be more than a turtle in a swamp.
Clouds also represent the “unshorn” minds of free spirits such as Francois Villon, Desiderius, Erasmus, and William Shakespeare, who “wrote so that/ no school man or churchman could sanction him without/ revealing his own imbecility.” These minds, like the skeptical Socrates, “Plato’s better self,” accepted the fact of human mortality and devoted themselves to the life of the mind and imagination—a life to which Williams gives precedence: “The intellect leads, leads still! Beyond the clouds.”
In a brief and lively “Scherzo” (part 3 of the poem), Williams remembers coming as a tourist upon a priest in St. Andrew’s in Amalfi, Italy, “riding/ the clouds of his belief,” as he performed a Mass, “jiggling upon his buttocks to the litany”:
I was amazed and stared in such mannerthat he, caught half off the earthin his ecstasy—though without losing a beat—turned and grinned at me from his cloud.
Although he recognizes the ritual to be an act of the imagination, to Williams, the priest’s cloud is not enough. In its regularity and neat order, reassuring though these may be to believers, it stands in contrast to “the disordered heavens, ragged, ripped by winds,” which the poet, who accepts a naturalistic outlook, must confront in his search for form and meaning. The “soul” is the precious burden of the life of the imagination that each individual has a share in carrying forward, humanistically, from generation to generation: “It is that which is the brotherhood:/ the old life, treasured.”
In the American Grain
First published: 1925
Type of work: Essays
Williams attempts to discover the essential qualities of the American character by focusing on the lives and words of major and minor figures in American history.
Williams’s collection of essays In the American Grain, first conceived in the early 1920’s, was undertaken, the writer said, “to try to find out for myself what the land of my more or less accidental birth might signify” by direct examination of the original records of American founders. His hope was to rediscover the unmediated truth about the founders, the makers, and the discoverers of America. “In letters, in journals, reports of happenings,” he says, “I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.”
Williams divided In the American Grain into twenty chapters ranging in time and place from the settlement of Greenland, through the voyages of Christopher Columbus, to the exploration of Kentucky and the Civil War. In form, the essays include dramatic narratives, lyric interludes, brief character sketches, whole sections of Columbus’s journals, Cotton Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), Daniel Boone’s autobiography, and excerpts from John Paul Jones’s letters and log entries.
Taking his subjects in chronological order, Williams begins with the exploration and settlement of Greenland by Erik the Red and his son, Leif Erikkson; he ends with a prose poem on Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. The collection includes sketches of such major or representative historical figures as Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Sir Walter Ralegh, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Edgar Allan Poe.
In addition, Williams wrote essays on minor figures, such as Ponce de León, Hernando de Soto, Père Sebastian Rasles, Aaron Burr, and Sam Houston. Most of these apparently minor figures, especially Rasles, assume heroic proportions after Williams’s assessment of their encounters in the New World. Williams’s meditations on America’s discoverers also include consideration of attitudes toward violence, sports, and commerce in the United States of the 1920’s as well as such blights on the American conscience as the slaves (“Poised against the Mayflower is the slave ship . . . bringing another race to try upon the New World”) and the suppression of women (“So Jacataqua gave to womanhood in her time, the form which bitterness of pioneer character had denied it”). Williams’s hope in these essays is to restore his readers’ awareness of the past.
Even the original records distort the truth about the past, Williams claims, so that it must be researched and reconstituted in new writing in order to be understood. In his attempt to get back to “the strange phosphorus of the life” that precedes every effort made to record it, he therefore metaphorically repeats or imitates the action of his subjects, who abandoned the advanced culture of Europe in order to go back to the beginning again, back to the forces and conditions that precede culture.
In order to restore a past lost through use of the wrong words to describe it, Williams often employs the words of his subjects so as to convey their ways of vision and expression. He attempted to compose each chapter in a style suited to its subject, copying and using what that subject had recorded. In “The Discovery of the Indies,” for example, Williams makes extensive use of Columbus’s journals.
In some chapters Williams allows his subjects to speak for themselves, verbatim. “Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World” consists entirely of excerpts from that book. A major theme of In the American Grain results from Williams’s strategy of exploring, through myriad voices, ways in which his subjects viewed new worlds. Williams contends that history is as much a matter of language and imagination as of data; the past may be falsified by a misuse of language, failure to recognize its nuances, failure to perceive “new contours” in “old words.” His use of sources is somewhat like his friend Ezra Pound’s approach to translation. Williams is not afraid to compress, adapt, or modify in order to express more strongly and succinctly the spirit of his subjects; he does not feel it necessary to provide scholarly footnotes explaining his method.
To Williams, then, American history is not a result but a process. Because history is what is alive or dead in a present mind, any fixed idea of the past that one might hold is a fixation in oneself. That is why Williams urges, “History must stay open, it is all humanity.” In order to keep history open, Williams orchestrated a conversation of many voices, dramatizing the continuing discovery (of the past and of oneself) that may occur as one pays attention to his historical ground.
From the beginning of his series of essays, Williams is aware of a dichotomy, of two types of people. On one hand were those, the Indians and some explorers, travelers and settlers, whose contact with the new continents of North and South America was positive. On the other hand were those who voyaged to the new land to prey upon it and either to return to the Old World with their plunder or, somewhat later, to settle on the land, as the Puritans did, and yet reject contact with it and inhibit the contact of others.
Another keen observer of the American spirit, D. H. Lawrence, expressing what he had learned from Williams’s books, identified two major ways that Americans react to their continent. The first, and most common, is to recoil into individual smallness and insentience, and then to gut the great continent in mean fear. It is the Puritan way. The second way is to touch America as it is; to dare to touch it. This is the heroic way. Thus Williams’s true heroes are those, like Columbus, Rasles, Boone, and the American Indian, who had embraced the gritty, fearful truth of America and had loved it.
In the American Grain is not a history book but an act of discovery, in which Williams attempted to “find out for myself what the land of my more or less accidental birth might signify.” In its treatment of the makers of American history, ranging from Erikkson to Lincoln, In the American Grain has impressed many as Williams’s most succinct definition of America and its people. The collection of essays is an exhilarating effort to reexamine the key figures, historical events, and documents that reveal the essence of America’s myth about itself and its underlying psychological pressures. With Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), it stands as a pioneering effort in critical thinking.