William Carlos Williams was one of the major figures of literary modernism whose peers included Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Highly influenced by the visual arts and the imagist movement, Williams’s work was marked by a rejection of metaphysics, characterized by his famous dictum: “No ideas/ But in things.” Williams’s objective approach to literature is reflected in the coarse realism of his short stories. His prose shares the basic principles of his poetic theory: use of an American idiom, adherence to a locale, communication through specifics, and belief in organic form. The pastiche effects of Williams’s poetry and prose had a profound influence on the next generation of American literary modernists, particularly the so-called Objectivist School, which included Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Charles Reznikoff.
M. L. Rosenthal claims that William Carlos Williams’s short stories “are often vital evocations of ordinary American reality—its toughness, squalor, pathos, intensities.” As such, this short fiction tends to exhibit distinctive characteristics. First, its style is the American idiom, with heavy reliance on dialogue and speech rhythm. Second, Williams inevitably writes of his own locale and stresses the Depression’s dramatic effect on ordinary working people. Third, as he shows in his poem “A Sort of a Song,” there should be “No ideas/ But in things”; in other words, details should suggest underlying ideas, not vice versa. Fourth, Williams himself is often present, but as a doctor, never as a poet; thus biography and autobiography constitute important plot elements. Last, the author allows plot to develop organically, which affects length (the tales range from one to thirty pages) and structure (the stories may appear diffuse or highly compressed).
Williams published two main short-story anthologies: The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories and Life Along the Passaic River. In 1950, he collected these and other stories into a single volume called Make Light of It; then, in 1961, this was superseded by his complete collected stories entitled The Farmers’ Daughters. Although these stories may indicate progressive technical sophistication or experimentation, they all treat “the plight of the poor” (as Williams says on several occasions) or the physician’s frequently ambiguous role of healing the sick within an infected society.
“Old Doc Rivers”
On the choice of title for his first short-story anthology, Williams observes “The times—that was the knife that was killing them” (the poor). A typical story is “Old Doc Rivers,” which provides a full background on one rural general practitioner. It also contains a strong autobiographical element because the narrator is a younger doctor (apparently Williams). An enormously complex picture emerges of Doc Rivers: efficient, conscientious, humane, yet simultaneously crude, cruel, and addicted to drugs and alcohol. The story builds this portrait by piling up specifics about the physician’s personal and professional lives and interweaving case studies among the young doctor-narrator’s comments. The narrator is astonished by River’s psychological sharpness, intuition for the correct diagnosis, and ability to inspire blind faith in his patients. As with many Williams tales, the reader’s moral response is ambiguous, for when sober, Rivers is not a good doctor, yet when drunk or doped, he is at least as good as anyone else. The plot follows a roughly chronological structure which charts Rivers’s gradual mental and physical decline. This story’s particular strengths are its narrator voice, concrete details, re-creation of dialogue, and exploration of the doctor-patient relationship.
Williams further considers the physician-patient relationship in “Jean Beicke” and “A Face of Stone,” representative of his second short-fiction collection. Told by a pediatrician-narrator (but this time an established, not a beginning, doctor), “Jean Beicke” is...
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set in a children’s ward during the Depression and recounts the story of a “scrawny, misshapen, worthless piece of humanity.” Although Jean is desperately ill, she wins the hearts of the physicians and nurses by her sheer resilience: “As sick as she was,” the narrator marvels, “she took her grub right on time every three hours, a big eight ounce bottle of milk and digested it perfectly.” Yet little Jean’s symptoms puzzle the medics, and despite initial improvement, she finally dies. Up to this point, doctors and readers alike have been ignorant of her previous history, but when her mother and aunt visit the dying infant, it is learned that she is the third child of a woman whose husband deserted her. As her aunt says, “It’s better off dead—never was any good anyway.” After the autopsy, the doctors discover they have completely misdiagnosed Jean. The storyteller ends the tale like this:I called the ear man and he came down at once. A clear miss, he said. I think if we’d gone in there earlier, we’d have saved her. For what? said I. Vote the straight Communist ticket. Would it make us any dumber? said the ear man.
Williams thought “Jean Beicke” was “the best short story I ever wrote.” One reason is its involved narrator, whose sophisticated social conscience (why cure these Depression babies only to return them to a sick society?) contrasts with the nurses’ instinctive (but perhaps naïve) humanitarianism. The story’s careful structure takes us from external details—Jean’s misshapen body, tiny face, and pale blue eyes—to internal ones—in the postmortem—and so suggests that beneath society’s superficial ills lie fundamental, perhaps incurable, troubles. Once again, Williams shows his skill for catching the speech patterns of ordinary Americans, especially in the monologue of Jean’s aunt. Finally, the author’s main achievement is to individualize yet not sentimentalize Jean and to dramatize her life-and-death struggle so that it matters to him—and to the reader.
“A Face of Stone”
In “A Face of Stone,” the doctor-narrator becomes the main character. A harried family doctor, he finds himself at the end of a busy morning confronted by a young Jewish couple. The husband, one of “the presuming poor,” insists that he examine their baby, while the wife maintains an expressionless, stony face. As the doctor approaches the baby boy, his mother clutches him closer and is extremely reluctant to relinquish him. Frustrated and tired, the doctor is brusque and patronizing. When he eventually looks at the child, he discovers that it is quite healthy. During the winter, the people request a house call, but he refuses to go; then, in the spring, they return and still protest that the child is unwell. Conquering his annoyance at their persistence, the family doctor checks the boy and says that he simply needs to be fed regularly and weaned.
Now the physician expects the consultation to finish, but the young Jew asks him to examine his wife. The doctor is by this time exhausted and furious; however, he starts to check this passive, poverty-stricken, physically unattractive woman. Then, almost accidentally, he discovers she is a Polish Jew who has lost her whole family. Immediately, he forgets her ugliness, grasps her intense anxiety for her baby, and realizes the strong bond between wife and husband: “Suddenly I understood his half shameful love for the woman and at the same time the extent of her reliance on him. I was touched.” The woman smiles for the first time when the doctor prescribes painkillers for her varicose veins and she senses that she can trust him.
This story effectively dramatizes the shifting reactions between patients and doctors as they try to establish a viable relationship. Often, a physician may exploit his position of power (as this one does at the beginning) and forget that his clients are human. If he does, he turns into Doc Rivers at his worst. The best relationship occurs when both parties move beyond stereotypes to view each other as individuals. Because the doctor narrates the tale, the reader follows his process of discovery, so when he stops stereotyping the couple, the reader does too. Williams once again successfully uses dialogue to convey character interaction. Also, as in “Jean Beicke,” he reveals people through detail (such as the woman’s ripped dress, bowlegs, and high-heeled, worn-out shoes).
“The Farmers’ Daughters”
Williams composed few notable short stories after Life Along the Passaic River, mainly because he diverted his energies into longer projects (novels, plays, and Paterson). From the early 1940’s to the mid-1950’s, however, he worked on a long short story which he eventually called “The Farmers’ Daughters” (and whose title he used for his collected short fiction). The title characters are Helen and Margaret, two southern women who have been (and continue to be) betrayed by their men. Their similar background and experience form the basis of an enduring, unshakable friendship that terminates only with Margaret’s death. Technically, this is one of Williams’s best stories: It unfolds quickly in a “paragraph technique” as the narrator—once more a doctor—re-creates the women’s conversations and letters, then links them chronologically with his own comments. The teller refers to himself in the third person, so that most of the time the story progresses through dialogue. This extract, in which Margaret and the doctor chat, illustrates the strength of using direct, idiomatic speech:What’s your favorite flower, Margaret? Why? I just want to know. What’s yours? No. Come on—don’t be so quick on the trigger so early in the evening. I think I can guess. Petunias! (emphasizing the second syllable.) God knows I’ve seen enough of them. No. Red roses. Those are really what I love.
Unlike Williams’s previous stories, “The Farmers’ Daughters” relies on complex character depiction and development rather than on plot or theme.
Most short-story writers merely write, but Williams left behind theoretical as well as practical evidence of his interest in the genre. A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes) (1950) outlines his basic tenets: truthfulness, unsentimentality, and simplicity. “The finest short stories,” he states, “are those that raise one particular man or woman, from that Gehenna, the newspapers, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual.” From the herd of humanity, Williams succeeds in individualizing Doc Rivers, little Jean Beicke, the Jewish couple, Margaret, Helen, and all his various doctor-narrators.