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SOURCE: "Dr. Williams in His Short Stories," in Image and Idea: Twenty Essays on Literary Themes, New Directions Paperbook, 1957, pp. 155-58.
[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Partisan Review in March 1938, Rahv summarizes the themes of Life on the Passaic River.]
In his prose as in his poetry William Carlos Williams is too hardy a frontiersman of the word to permit himself the idle luxuries of aestheticism. There are too many things to be seen and touched, too many cadences of living speech to be listened to and recorded. Kenneth Burke once said of Williams that he was engaged in "discovering the shortest route between subject and object." Perhaps that explains why in Life on the Passaic River, a collection of nineteen short stories, not one imitates in any way the conventional patterns of the genre. The directness of this writer's approach to his material excludes its subjection to the researches of plot and calculated form. What Williams tells us is much too close to him to lend itself to the alienation of design; none of his perceptions can be communicated through the agency of invented equivalents. The phenomena he observes and their meanings are so intimately involved with one another, the cohabitation of language and object is so harmonious, that formal means of expression would not only be superfluous but might actually nullify the incentive to creation.
These notations in a doctor's notebook, these fragments salvaged from grime and squalor, these insights gained during the routines of humble labor—such would only be given the lie by the professional mannerisms of authorship, its pomposities and braggadocio. Where a writer usually takes the attitude of an impresario toward his themes, calculating each entrance and exit, Williams will begin or end his story as the spirit moves him; pausing to face his reader, he will take him into his confidence and speak his mind without recourse to stratagems of ingratiation. Elliptical in some passages and naturalistic in others, Williams is perfectly conscious of writing but hostile to "literature." Out of "a straight impulse, without borrowing, without lie or complaint," he puts down on paper that which stirs him. His subjects are few and often minute, their scope is sharply circumscribed by his personal experience and by his voluntary seclusion within the local and immediate, he repeats himself frequently—yet these stories are exceptional for their authenticity and told not to provoke but to record. It is pain which is the source of values here. The dread of annihilation is ever present. "Christ, Christ! . . . How can a man live in the face of this daily uncertainty? How can a man not go mad with grief, with apprehension?" No grand conceits, no gratuitous excitements, no melodrama. There is no doing away with the staples of existence; no gallivanting on the banks of the Passaic River.
For what could be more dismal than life in these small industrial towns of New Jersey? The mills are worked by immigrant laborers, and their youngsters are "all over the city as soon as they can walk and say, Paper!" The doctor visits these uprooted households, often angry at himself because of the tenderness in him that reaches out to these people, quite as often resigned to doing his job, to immersing himself in the finalities of human life. "To me," he writes, "it is a hard, barren life, where I am alone and unmolested (work as I do in the thick of it), though in constant danger lest some slip send me to perdition but which, being covetous not at all, I enjoy for the seclusion and primitive air of it."
The little girl, both of whose tonsils are covered with membrane, fights furiously to keep him from knowing her secret. Another one, a lank-haired girl of fifteen, is a powerful little animal upon whom you can stumble on the roof, behind the stairs "any time at all." A whole gang is on her trail. Cured of her pimples, how will this tenacious creature ever slash her way to the bliss recited on the radio? "The pure products of America go crazy," Williams once wrote in a poem. And these stories are familiar images of the same, released by that active element of sympathy which is to be prized above all else in the equipment of an artist. But this writer has no hankering for consistent explanations, for the constancy of reason; he seldom permits himself to ask why. "What are you going to do with a guy like that. Or why want to do anything with him. Except not miss him," he says of one of his characters. This last is the point. He is content with grasping the fact, with creating a phenomenology; but the relations, social and historic, that might unify these facts and significate them on a plane beyond sensation or nostalgia or pathos he has no mind for. And this absence of what one might call, in his terms, ideological presumptuousness, while admirable in its modesty, also constitutes his defeat. However much of value there is in these facts of "hard history" and in the scrupulous gathering of their detail, the larger implications are systematically neglected. Thought is proscribed as anti-aesthetic. Yet, though habitually confined to the suggestive and purely descriptive, this prose nevertheless holds within itself some of the raw elements of a comprehensive consciousness.
But Williams does think about America, if only to sketch it in psychic outline. He is under the spell of its mystique and strains to encompass it in a vision. This need in him provides a contrast and relief to the phenomenological principle informing his work; and much of his charm flows from the interaction of his precise facts with his American mysticism. In his novel, White Mule, the fusion of these two qualities allowed a visible direction to emerge. "What then is it like, America?" asks Fraulein Von J. in "The Venus," which seems to me the best story in the collection. This German girl is a genuine Weimar-period object. She has a genius for formulating the most complex modern problems in the simplest terms. The daughter of a general, she comes to Italy to become a nun. But perhaps America—she questions the American, Evans, who carries a flint arrowhead in his pocket—could prove a satisfactory alternative to the Church? Evans speaks of the old pioneer houses of his ancestors, and of that "early phase" of America whose peculiar significance has been forgotten or misunderstood. The German girl holds the arrowhead in her hand, feeling its point and edge. "It must be even more lonesome and frightening in America than in Germany," she finally says. The story recalls us to the Williams of In the American Grain, a writer ravaged by this hemisphere's occult aboriginal past. In some ways Dr. Williams is really a medicine-man.
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William Carlos Williams 1883-1963
American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and autobiographer.
An important American poet, Williams also wrote short stories, most notably the collections The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life along the Passaic River (1938). Williams was a devoted, practicing physician during most of his literary career, and much of his work demonstrates his respect and concern for his patients and their life situations. The poverty, suffering, and means of survival among the ordinary, poor people of his native New Jersey inform most of Williams's short fiction, which often features conversations written in "the American idiom," his term for the vernacular language essential to shaping his vision of the American experience. Unconventional in form and episodic in construction, his realistic, and sometimes graphic, stories often juxtapose vivid images from life to convey their messages. Williams received a lukewarm critical reception to his short fiction during much of his career. However, many scholars have since recognized that his stories significantly influenced the development of the short story form in twentieth-century American literature.
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he spent his entire life. During his adolescence, a heart ailment forced him off the sports fields and led him to study literature. Nevertheless, from 1902 to 1906 Williams attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he made lasting friendships with American poets Ezra Pound and H. D. By the time Williams had established his own medical practice in 1910, he had published his first book, Poems (1909). During the next decade, Williams married Florence ("Flossie") Herman in 1912, started a family in 1914, and published two more books of poetry. In the 1920s Williams extended his literary efforts to prose, producing the prose "improvisations" of Kora in Hell (1920), the short novel The Great American Novel (1923), the historical essays of In the American Grain (1925), and his first full-length novel, A Voyage to Pagany (1928). Williams's short stories began appearing in the 1930s. Scholars have surmised that his growing frustration at the mild response to his poetry prompted Williams to write fiction, including the novels White Mule (1937)—his first popularly acclaimed work—and the first volume of The Stecher Trilogy, which is based on the people and the circumstances of his wife's youth. The 1940s and 1950s marked Williams's most productive period. He published two novels, three plays and a libretto, another collection of stories entitled Make Light of It (1950), his autobiography, and many collections of new and previously published poetry, most notably the five-book epic poem Paterson (1946-1958), which is widely considered a masterpiece of American literature, and Selected Poems (1948), which won the 1949 National Book Award. Following a series of heart attacks and a bout of depression from 1948 to 1953, Williams retired from his medical practice, but continued to write. In 1961 he published his final collections of stories, The Farmers' Daughters, and plays, Many Loves and Other Plays. After he died on March 4, 1963, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Pictures from Brueghel (1962) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal for poetry.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Williams, the doctor-narrator in most of his short fiction, believed that the short story form was "a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally." Most of the eleven stories in The Knife of the Times represent Williams's experiences with some of his patients and neighbors during the early years of the Great Depression, showing their fortitude and perseverance while dealing with social and individual suffering. The "knife" in each of these stories refers to more than the hardships of dire economic reversal, often focusing on "couples" and their unions and separations. The title story, for instance, portrays a lesbian relationship between Ethel and Maura, who cope with the "knife" of their homosexuality. "Old Doc Rivers," perhaps the best known story of the collection, relates the anecdotes of a legendary small-town doctor, who "would go anywhere, anytime, for anybody," but tragically succumbs to shifting American cultural values and ultimately to the "knife" of drugs and alcohol. Life along the Passaic River contains nineteen stories about similar themes and situations, but the tone is darker, the focus turned more toward children characters, and the locale assumes significance, reflecting Williams's belief that "In a work of art place is everything." In a series of vignettes that dissolve into one another, the title story offers detailed descriptions of the industrialized riverscape and the people who live there, focusing on the conflict between industry and nature. In "The Use of Force," Williams's most frequently anthologized story, a doctor attempts to diagnose a child's fever, but the child refuses to allow an examination, so the doctor must resort to forceful methods. "Jean Beicke," one of Williams's favorite stories, centers on the life and death of an eleven-month-old girl, including a vivid description of the child's autopsy. Make Light of It comprises the stories from Williams's first two volumes and twenty-one other stories in a section entitled "Beer and Cold Cuts," of which all but two had been previously published. The Farmers' Daughters includes all of Williams's previously collected short fiction and the uncollected title story, which recounts the relationship between two southern farmers' daughters and their doctor. The Doctor Stories (1984) collects several doctor-themed stories from Life along the Passaic River.
The technique and style of Williams's stories have often been compared to that of Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, early Ernest Hemingway, and D. H. Lawrence. The stories of Life along the Passaic River have received the most critical attention, particularly "The Use of Force," which has been interpreted variously in terms of its implications about violence, practical applications in the field of medical ethics, sexual connotations, psychological aspects, and autobiographical factors. Many critics have emphasized the autobiographical quality of much of Williams's work: "His temperament . . . was neatly split between that of a feeling, observing doctor and that of the practicing poet. . . . He was a poet-physician. These two-parted identities stand behind his every word," observed George Monteiro. Most scholars have agreed that Williams's innovations in the short story form were revolutionary. Linda Welshimer Wagner has pointed out that "the apparently effortless telling, the informal (and often unresolved) plot, the emphasis on character presented through salient details, and above all, the reliance on dialogue—these trademarks of a Williams's story occur repeatedly in contemporary writing." James G. Watson has likewise remarked on Williams's contributions to the American short story: "Declining the formulas of tradition and the acceptable contemporary conventions, Williams chose to state frankly the intimate passions and passionate brutalities that he said were flashes struck from the materials of life." Commenting on Williams's literary accomplishments, Wagner concluded that his "short stories may have had as deep an effect on contemporary fiction as his poems have had on modern poetry."
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SOURCE: "The Novels and Short Stories," in William Carlos Williams, New Directions Books, 1950, pp. 187-246.
[In the following excerpt from a detailed assessment of Williams's fiction to 1950, Koch reviews the stories in The Knife of the Times and Life along the Passaic River, indicating their significance in the development of Williams 's career and of the modern American short story form.]
The logic of Williams' allegiance to the quest for a knowledge of localism, for a defining of the American grain, has compelled in his fiction a restriction to American materials. The notable exception to this is his first novel, A Voyage to Pagany. While its subject-matter is ostensibly Europe, the Old World, it is, in reality, an assessment of that world through the eyes of an American, its hero, and thus, in effect, an assessment of America too. The Jamesian pattern of New World meets Old has in Williams' novel a similar function. While this encounter does not always change the two worlds, it nevertheless mutually illuminates their two systems of value. And with Williams (seemingly the last writer in the world to compare on technical grounds with James) the result, as in James, is a judgment of America, a judgment perhaps as ambivalent as James's although disguised by a more visible affection.
The years 1920-23 . . . were dedicated by Williams to a reconsideration of the various aesthetic points of view with which it seemed possible for a writer to identify himself.
His editing of Contact must have sharpened the focus for such revaluation and, indeed, the discussions of policy in the five issues of that periodical reveal an awareness of the choices and, at the same time, an almost fanatical resistance to the contemporary pressures toward aesthetic conformity. The nexus of belief and value from which Williams' fiction has sprung is precisely the same nexus from which his poems, plays and criticism derive.
Perhaps the best measure of Williams' particular development of the concept of "the local" would be to fix its relationship to other formulations of the "American" problem in the arts during his time. The decade 1915-25 (roughly) while witness to a large exodus of writers and artists from the United States to other countries, at the same time, and perhaps for the same reasons, marked an attempt to create an "American" culture. This impulse was crudely nationalistic in many of its manifestations. It could be seen, for example, in the blatant "new localism" of Lindsay dedicated to the wish that smaller American communities might be enabled to survive by creating their own arts and crafts. The regional poetry of Sandburg sentimentalized in heroic terms the achievement of the pioneers and industrial leaders of the West. Robert Coady, in "The Soil," "a magazine of art," sought for an American art in the immediate and familiar. Coady tried, naively, no doubt, to find a native and popular aesthetic for America by drawing on photography, engineering, sports, the dime novel, etc., for his materials. Perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to define the American task in letters was to be found in the pages of The Seven Arts which had on its editorial board writers like Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, and Randolph Bourne who, at distinct levels of intellect and outlook, were all similarly engaged in evaluating the American scene, its past and its future. Bourne's dissident, brilliant, and querulous anti-imperialist, anti-war stand differed sharply from the increasingly conservative, nationalistic orientation of the former expatriate Brooks. The quest for the Grail in each instance is pursued in the spirit not of the Grail but of the man who seeks it.
It is reasonable to assume that Williams could not have been unaffected by the powerful stream of investigation and, more dangerously, wish, represented by this search for the meaning of American experience. The significance of his own search is, as I have suggested, defined by his greater integrity of purpose, his sharper assessment of the problem. In 1928 Gorham Munson could say [in Destinations: A Canvass,] when comparing Williams' interest in American materials with that of his contemporaries, that "Williams differs . . . in that he has observed the limitations of his program and thereby kept it pure, he has confined himself to the strictly aesthetic problems of choice of subject-matter and the fashion of perceiving and handling it." Contact had set forth a program for American writing which stressed the necessity for contact between "words and the locality which breeds them, in this case America." The distance between this kind of localism and that of the mid-western regionalists is, of course, radical. The former stems from a recognition of the relationship between experience and the modes by which it is ordered; that is to say, it recognizes the problem of technique and craft. The latter emphasizes merely the authenticity of the "local" as subject matter; it is essentially disinterested in form. . . .
When Williams' first collection of short stories came out during the days of the Depression, it had a grimly appropriate title. The Knife of the Times, published in 1932, appears to represent the "real" world Dev Williams had gone back to at the end of A Voyage to Pagany. Pagany is no longer an operative ideal in these powerful, often humorously forthright stories of the bleak and sometimes heroic lives of the small people of America, many of whom are the cast-off spawn of that Europe which Dev could not accept.
The social types represented are diverse. Farm-boys, professional men, Negro servant-girls, middle-class housewives, local playboys, school teachers, the range of caste and personality is as wide as the landscape of a semiurban American community permits, although the locale shifts from industrial towns like Paterson, to near-by farm communities, and to unnamed suburban villages. The stories, although various in theme, seem to cluster about two poles: the present, represented by the title piece, "The Knife of the Times," and the past, seen with a nostalgic authenticity of detail, and cherished for its greater fluidity of personality, its slower levelling-down of conduct and individuality. Sometimes, as in "An Old Time Raid" or "The Colored Girls of Passenack—Old and New," the present serves as ironic counterpoint to the freer, more careless style of American life in the early decades of the century.
Williams utilizes, perhaps not at all consciously, three sources for the predominant narrative style in this collection. Gertrude Stein's cadenced, clear, syntactically functional prose is suggested over and over again in the easy colloquial flow of the writing. The brilliantly swift title story is a small masterpiece (under six pages in length) of understatement, dealing with great delicacy of the curious, overpowering love of a middle-aged mother of six for her childhood friend, Maura, also the mother of a family. The lucid, almost transparently simple prose races along with Ethel's mounting lust, without any of the locutions of Miss Stein's later mannered writing, and more in the style of her early Three Lives.
At the time the stories in The Knife of the Times were being written, Williams was carefully studying Gertrude Stein's work, as a magazine piece in which her emphasis on the "play" (or music) of sight, sense and sound contrasts were suggestively compared to that of Sterne's, especially as seen in Chapter 43 of Tristram Shandy. "Stein's theme," says Williams, "is writing." This had, of course, been his own theme in The Great American Novel. Further: "It is simply the skeleton, the 'formal' parts of writing, those that make form, that she has to do with, apart from the 'burden' which they carry." Williams does not deflesh the skeleton, as does Miss Stein in her later writing (this was not her practice in Three Lives and Williams in this article shows that he is aware of it), but instead makes the skeleton compose or bear the burden. A short passage from The Knife of the Times will show how much Williams has learned from the prose of Miss Stein's "Melanctha" (which he calls "one of the best bits of characterization produced in the United States") and how freely he employs it for narrative movement:
Ethel wrote letters now such as Maura wished she might at some time in her life have received from a man. She was told that all these years she had been dreamed of, passionately, without rival, without relief. Now, surely, Maura did not dare show the letters any longer to her husband. He would not understand.
The story moves with a compelling intensity to its surprising denouement in which the passive Maura is swept through sympathy into the vortex of her more aggressive friend's desire. The taut austerity of the style both heightens and contends with the desperately purposive passion of the distraught woman. The title of the story, suggesting as it does, another dimension of social reference for Maura's capitulation to Ethel, clarifies the ironic symbolism of lives, turned by the cruel edge of a mechanical society back upon themselves (upon their own narcissistic love-images) for enrichment and satisfaction.
In "The Sailor's Son," Williams handles the complementary situation to Lesbianism, in the behavior of the docile and dependent Manuel. The plot is clever, although not in the fashionable way. The revelation at the end does not depend on a trick of withheld knowledge for its shock, but derives from the actual opening up of the meaning of Manuel's conduct before the outraged eyes of his employer, Mrs. Cuthbertson. When Margie, the woman whom Manuel plans to marry and who supports him in periods of unemployment, is told by Mrs. Cuthbertson that she has fired Manual because of her discovery of his homosexuality, she completely reverses the direction of Mrs. Cuthbertson's judgment as well as the actual events of the story:
The boy is lonesome up here, said the woman. Why do you keep his friends away? I am engaged to marry him, I don't care what he does. Why should you worry? . . . Finally the fiancée grew abusive and Mrs. Cuthbertson losing her temper very nearly struck her. It was a wild moment. But in the end Manual was fired. And the woman took him back to the city with her where she told him she would pay for a room until she could find work for him elsewhere.
"The Descendant of Kings" is another story whose narrative cadences suggest a close reading of Stein. The process of Stewie's being and becoming are appropriately woven together in a supple, limpid prose. The handsome, summer playboy, Stewie, grows up in ignorance and want under the possessive guardianship of a poetic grandmother who keeps him out of school so that she can remain near her beloved sea. The story for its overtones of inarticulate, almost pathological deprivation stands alongside Sherwood Anderson's memorable portrait in "I'm A Fool" of another American possessed by his social inadequacies. When Stewie, still in his teens, gets out of the Navy up to which time "he had gone on like a straw on the stream of the old lady's will" he faces up to the fact that he knows nothing to do. Aimlessly, he falls for a sophisticated summer visitor, an artist's model, Muriel, who in her wisdom clarifies for him what is to be his role.
When he catches Muriel with another man (the inevitable Yale graduate), he gets the first of a series of singularly ironic blows which he is to get from women—always where it hurts him most. Later Stewie becomes a performer in the local hotel orchestra and his triumphs become almost epical. But the second time Stewie really falls, this time for a pretty schoolteacher, her double-crossing is fatal to his chief excellence. The understatedly symbolic denouement comes in Stewie's curious tussle with a bull in which, injured and bleeding, he finally conquers the animal by a heroic wrench of the nose-ring. It is the first time Stewie has ever tested his strength against another male. The struggle restores his psychic potentials for once again fulfilling his male nature. A revitalization or rebirth has taken place, and we know that Stewie will resume the career destined for him by his motherless, seahaunted childhood. But the wry ending lowers the key of this victory over self, and we see that the protagonist is not immune from time any more than he is from the paradoxes of his own conquests: "For he did get over it fairly well in the end tho' he was never again as able as he had been as a kid—naturally."
Belle, the plump, middle-aged country Venus of "Pink and Blue" is a female Stewie in the fervor and single-mindedness of her pursuit of the opposite sex. But her touching addiction to the outer proprieties of caste, such as clothes, calling cards, and legal titles are seen at the level of a semicomic social criticism, different from the more inward conflict which determines Stewie's downward path to wisdom. For Belle is placidly at peace with herself in the amorous adventures which prove so destructive to the men who love her. Her confusions are merely social in their nature and it is the man who can give her the greatest quantity of matched "outfit" who, in the end, may keep her love. The story is told from the point of view of Mrs. Bandler, the employer of one of Belle's indeterminately numbered husbands. The tone of controlled irony derived from her gracious, kindly and equally caste-conscious viewpoint lends a quiet dignity to the pathetic events of this rural comedy.
"Mind and Body," as the title indicates, is similarly polarized around a conflict in values, a conflict which is finally resolved by the somewhat unsatisfactory deus-exmachina of science, an engine the doctor employs when all other attempts to explain his psychotic patient to herself have failed. His reliance on the findings of capillaros-copy "a study of the microscopic terminal blood vessels," is used self-consciously and with a deliberate obliquity of intention. The woman, a self-described manic-depressive with a background of institutionalization, is a fine study of the conflict between a primitive cultural inheritance and a veneer of the most esoteric sort of book-learning. Brilliant, educated, and miscast in her social and sexual role as wife to a kindly, lame, and womanish little male-nurse, she alternates between superstitious misapprehensions of her own physical condition and learned speculations on literature and philosophy. The factor of suppressed Lesbianism in her personality which the doctor boorishly brings to the surface is appropriately left unresolved.
The sources of her problems in an inheritance from one of the "old country families" with its increment of insanity and pathology are only lightly sketched in. Nevertheless, by the time the rambling story, largely told by the patient herself, is completed we have a bold character drawing of a ruined human potential for social responsibility. These meanings do not lie close to the surface in "Mind and Body" any more than they do elsewhere in Williams' deceptively simple prose.
By now we can see that one of Williams' recurring aims in the short story is to achieve a reversal of values. "The Buffalos" because of its theme of the power-conflict between male and female, its rather explicit symbolism and the way in which the action is narrowed down to a male and female actor (thus intensifying the character of the conflict) reminds one of some of D. H. Lawrence's stories. A love affair between a beautiful suffragette and a man who is at first amused and then bored by her political ardors is brought to its frustrating, almost cruel, conclusion by the careful analogy with which the now disenchanted lover confronts the lady, for he has rightly suspected her motivation. The situation has been completely reversed: the suitor is the victor, but he has suffered a loss in the winning. Similarly, the lady has won her point: she has been theoretically granted the possession of the male privileges she envies. But having been taken at her word, she loses her man.
Two stories in The Knife of the Times reveal a special attempt to come to grips with character as it responds to or stems from American social habit and values. When character is treated on a humorous, anecdotal level as in "An Old Time Raid," the story becomes essentially a study in manners. But in "Old Doc Rivers" the study of a brilliant, hopped-up suburban doctor, one of the richest character drawings of comparable length in recent American fiction, the problem of motivation is more deeply investigated. The social environment is reported, as in "An Old Time Raid," but it is also questioned. In "An Old Time Raid" the result is comedy, while in "Old Doc Rivers," although comic elements are present, the effect is one of tragedy.
In the first story "Dago" Schultz, the professional roisterer and good-time Charlie of a cocky, crude-mannered semiurban culture, expresses the gross animal vitality and instinctive insubordination of a raw, vital people. Dago's death (he was an expert train-hopper), while hopping a train after a drinking bout, is meaningless as "tragedy" but has a cultural significance. As the first-person narrator, commenting on his death, says: "Makes me think of an old man I knew, when they'd ask him how far back he could remember he'd say: I can remember back to when the U.S. was a republic.—That's where 'Dago' Schultz belongs. You know."
But if Dago is seen as a type of socially misdirected energy, still he is essentially part of his community, while Old Doc Rivers, the most able, talented and sensitive man in the New Jersey town where he practises, is shown as a man in conflict with his environment, his profession and his times. His drug-taking, which at first fortifies and then increasingly hampers the execution of his brilliant diagnostic insights, is evaluated by the young colleague who is narrator:
It came of his sensitivity, his civility; it was this that made him do it, I'm sure; the antithesis rather of that hog-like complacency that comes to so many men following the successful scamper for cash.
The crude environment of the turn of the century times "in the provincial bottom of the New Jersey" in which Rivers lived, made it impossible for him to find a release there, although at first he had great popularity and great power.
Rivers' personality is built up through the younger doctor's investigation of old hospital records for evidence of Rivers' medical results, as well as through the various eye-witness anecdotes which he collects from older patients and physicians. The social data are looked into with the detachment of a field sociologist, but the cumulative detail mounts to a profound study of individual character while, curiously, forcing the social implications to a higher level of abstraction. The
awful fever of overwork . . . A trembling in the arms and thighs, a tightness of the neck and in the head above the eyes—fast breath, vague pains in the muscles and in the feet. Followed by an orgasm, crashing the job through, putting it over in a feverish heat. Then the feeling of looseness afterward. Not pleasant. But there it is. Then cigarettes, a shot of gin. And that's all there is to it. Women the same, more and more . . . He had no time, had to be fast, he had to improvise and did—to a marvel.
These are the social terms by which sensitive men like Rivers must live. But as the tempo of the American malady makes deeper inroads on Rivers' interior resources and capacity for rebound, he grows more dependent on drugs. Finally, he makes errors in judgment and eventually whispers of malpractice spring up. But still the humble butchers, the peasant mill-workers and street laborers go to him, for now his name has come to have mythic properties and the visible evidence of his professional defections are discounted. What the people of Creston want is what the unheeded voice of a collective Paterson cries out for in the poem Paterson: "A marvel, a marvel!" Even when he was almost "finished," the town's ritualistic faith in Rivers persists.
Rivers does not die in the gutter, as a conventional oracle might predict, but, what is worse, he is brough before he quits. He is a man robbed of his full scope for action by the slow attrition of his personality through the very means by which it is completed. "Old Doc Rivers" is a self-contained, under-stated, and, perhaps, minor American tragedy. But in the compass of a forty-page story Williams has succeeded by a quiet, almost statistical investigation in piecing together the social meaning of the failure of a superb talent, "a serious indictment against all the evangelism of American life which I most hated."
In his next volume of stories Life Along the Passaic River (1938) Williams confines himself almost entirely to the people who live along its banks. The collection, without being "regional," builds up a solid feeling of community, of place. Written during the Depression years, they reflect some of the curious dislocations in caste and character precipitated by the times. The Poles, the Italian mothers, the wild children, the unemployed, the furtive adolescents, all these aspects of the life of a small industrial town in America are explored with that warm authenticity of observation which sheds clarity and illumination into the disordered areas of the human soul. Many of the stories, like Chekhov's, have quite patently grown out of Williams' medical experience. Of these the best are "The Girl With the Pimply Face," "The Use of Force," "A Night in June," "Four Bottles of Beer," and "A Face of Stone." The last is one of Williams' finest stories, and demonstrates his secure movement in the limpid, Flaubertian prose which he was to consolidate so powerfully in White Mule.
In "A Face of Stone," a busy pediatrician is irritated by the seemingly deliberate obtuseness of a Jewish immigrant couple who come to him for the care of their child. The pattern follows that of Williams' most successful stories—a situation in which a reversal of values is achieved by the slow impact of character upon character. The story opens on a note of annoyance:
He was one of these fresh Jewish types you want to kill at sight, the presuming poor whose looks change the minute cash is mentioned. But they're insistent, trying to force attention, taking advantage of good nature at the first crack. You come when I call you, that type. . . . She, on the other hand, looked Italian, a goaty slant to her eyes, a face often seen among Italian immigrants . . . A face of stone. It was an animal distrust, not shyness . . . She looked dirty. So did he . . .
The patients do not follow the doctor's directions either in the care of their child or in calling upon his services. The overtones of the doctor's distaste for these uncooperative and unattractive people is expressed in terms of "racial prejudice." Yet, in a gradual way, he begins to be involved in their problems. First it is the baby, with "a perfectly happy fresh mug on him" that amuses him in spite of himself. Then he becomes interested in the curious dull flush which comes over the greasy little husband whenever the inarticulate wife's health is discussed. Eventually, he learns that she is only twenty-four, that all her relatives were killed in Poland, and that she had almost no food as a child. The bare, medical description of the woman's physical features builds up the pathos of her deprived past, but yet supports the doctor's wish to hold on to his negative attitudes.
When he learns that the woman herself has recently arrived from Poland he slowly begins to understand her absorption in the baby. As the husband, on the last call, describes how he must dissolve aspirin for her "His face reddened again and 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 doctor's own growth in understanding seems to invade the woman with the face of stone. When he shows her some pills for her rheumatic pains, "She looked at them again. Then for the first time since I had known her a broad smile spread all over her face. Yeah, she said, I swallow him." That is the end of the story. There is no explicit referral to the nature of the exchange. But what has happened, in this restrained narrative, its detail grounded in the natural orbit of the doctor's job, is that a social miracle of a sort has been accomplished. Two opposed sets of impulse, training, and value as represented by the worn, small-town American physician (working in a milieu remarkably like Williams' own Rutherford), and the obdurate, immigrant couple are brought into conflict. The outcome is that each begins to accept something from the other's realm of meaning. The harsh undertones of prejudice on the one hand and mistrust on the other are ruled out of the story by the expansive warmth of the final sentence.
In "The Girl With the Pimply Face" there is a similar struggle between two sets of values. The doctor-narrator, who in reality is the hero of the piece, takes a warm and understanding interest in a Russian working-class family. While visiting their sick baby, the doctor gets interested in a pimply-faced girl of sixteen, the sister, who by her tough, straightforward self-reliance amuses him. He learns that she has left school and advises her on how to care for her face. Later, he meets the family's former physician who tells him they are drunks, on the charity rolls, that they mistreat the baby and that the girl is a "little bitch. Say, if I had my way I'd run her out of town tomorrow morning . . . Boy, they sure took you in." But when the doctor returns he finds the baby improved, the girl's face clearing up and the girl going back to school. There is no attempt to whitewash the people. The doctor, as opposed to his cynical colleague, may have been "taken in." He doesn't know, nor do we. But he has been fulfilling his function as healer. He has cured, and his fulfillment is in his willingness to accept the reward proper to his function, a reward which lies entirely in the curing. It is this type of subtle revaluation of a crass popular morality, which reveals Williams as a writer with the greatest responsiveness to the questions of social ethics.
In "The Use of Force," a very short story, the doctor-narrator emerges as the villain of the piece. The way in which the physician, in spite of his recognition that he is contending with a sick child, is gradually drawn into a violent contest of wills is depicted with honesty and power. The brutality with which the doctor, now in a blind rage, forces open the child's mouth and discovers the nature of the illness is a startling exposure of those subrational wells of impulse which invade the conduct of supposedly disciplined adults.
On the other side of the psychological scale, in "Jean Beicke," is the curiously unexpected love and tenderness which a very ill infant, dying of a seemingly undiagnosable ailment, arouses in the breasts of the hard-boiled doctor-narrator and the attending physicians and nurses. The miracle of human personality is the beautiful center of the relationship. Williams is one of the few writers of fiction who are aware of the dynamics of this force in infants:
Somehow or other, I hated to see that kid go. Everybody felt rotten. She was such a scrawny, misshapen, worthless piece of humanity that I had said many times that somebody ought to chuck her in the garbage chute—but after a month watching her suck up her milk and thrive on it—and to see those alert blue eyes in that face—well, it wasn't pleasant.
The tiny thread by which the potentials of personality develop or are cut off is revealed, at the end, to have been a slip-up in diagnostic procedure for which several interested and capable physicians are jointly responsible.
"A Night in June" is a warmly stated tale of a physician's home delivery of a child to a simple Italian woman who can hardly talk with him. There is profound humility in the doctor's awareness of how his own responses to the woman have changed: "This woman in her present condition would have seemed repulsive to me ten years ago—now, poor soul, I saw her to be as clean as a cow that calves. The flesh of my arm lay against the flesh of her knee gratefully. It was I who was being comforted and soothed." Her child is born, the doctor and the mother jointly assisting the delivery. In the end, the doctor has been strengthened and renewed by his closeness to the woman's experience.
"At the Front," like "Four Bottles of Beer," relies on first-person narrative for a brief and humorously anecdotal tale of World War I. Both this and the series of small vignettes collected in the end-piece, "World's End," seem to have been set down because of Williams' persistent interest in speech patterns as ends in themselves, as well as hallmarks of personality. Several sketches in "World's End" deal with the meaningless but nevertheless deadly violence with which the human and the animal worlds combat one another. The one of the old hospital infested with cats which the internes hunt down and destroy for twenty-five cent bonuses, or that of the laboratory where the clotted blood on slides is eaten overnight by invading cockroaches are curiously moving glimpses of man's vulnerability to physical degradation. These tales grow out of experiences Williams had over thirty years before when interning in the ramshackly, ill-administered Nursery and Child's Hospital in a New York slum district.
In "Dance Pseudo Macabre" in which the reader follows a doctor on his emergency rounds in the middle of the night, Williams defends the use of this kind of material. He defies those who would accuse him of a "shallow" morbidity to prove that health alone is inevitable: "I defend the normality of every distortion to which the flesh is susceptible, every disease, every amputation." Although "Dance Pseudo Macabre" is not one of Williams' successful pieces, others of these tales of death and illness compel us to accept his valuation. These stories do not depress us but instead instruct us in a greater comprehension of the narrow boundaries between living and dying, between health and disease, between reason and impulse. For Williams' sane, compassionate and scientific intellect orders these complex relationships from the uniquely privileged vantage point of one whose profession is equally among the quick and the dead. These stories will prove revealing sources for Williams' future biographers.
The most ambitious story of Life Along the Passaic is "The Dawn of Another Day." The time is the Depression and a young man of background and wealth has, in desperation, left his wife and children who are now living off his mother-in-law, to stay on an old unsaleable yacht. His companion is a chronic drunk, Fred, who drinks his liquor and stimulates him by his undisciplined talk of revolution, and the defections of the class to which Ed, the younger man, belongs. The servants are loyal to Ed's family, even supplying them with food, and Ed himself has his laundry cared for by a young colored woman, Pauline.
On the particular dark evening of the story, the two odd friends are drinking and arguing about Communism on Ed's boat. Finally, Fred falls into a drunken sleep and Ed, going ashore, meets Pauline who has called for his wash. He is grateful and offers to walk her down the road. He is troubled and lonely and begins to talk to her. She, however, is responding on another level and suggests as much. Ed is startled but, nevertheless, attracted by her offer, although earlier in the evening he had warned Fred to stay away from the Negro women living along the river-bank unless he wished to risk a venereal disease. Now Pauline, with a curious dignity, withdraws until she is sure she is really wanted.
The two go back to the yacht where Fred lies in a drunken stupor and the colored woman (who perhaps has had an encounter with Fred) keeps urging that Ed "throw the bum out." Pauline's sexual vitality restores Ed's sense of belief in himself. He tries to communicate to her that it has shaken up his scale of values. "'Do you know where I feel it most?' Ed went on slowly. 'In the head.' She chuckled and moved against him." The "class-consciousness" in which Fred has tried to instruct him is illuminated by his random but meaningful experience with Pauline. As they walk along on her way to her home she again tells Ed to "kick that dirty bum out . . . He isn't in your class." Ed's attitude toward Pauline is grateful but clean-cut: ". . . I'm not getting rid of that guy. That's final . . ." It is clear, too, that he is not going to turn to his family for release from the hard way he has chosen. A victory is implied for Ed, although we do not know precisely what kind. We sense that he has chosen what is, in effect, a novitiate toward a better understanding of life.
The irony of the revelation that Ed has experienced lies, of course, in the fact that its instrument, Pauline, has no consciousness of it. But Ed sees, and this is the point at which the story is relieved from a possible charge of romanticism, that it was the disorganized Fred who led him in the direction of the revolt which Pauline merely symbolically fulfilled.
The weakness of this story is not in its tone which is subtly and beautifully modulated to catch the undercurrents of insecurity and tension between the colored woman and the white man, between the professional has-not and the amateur has-been, but in an inadequate development of the connection between Ed's physical knowledge of Pauline and his implied acceptance of Fred's analysis of society.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287
The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories 1932
A Novelette and Other Prose (novella and prose) 1932
Life along the Passaic River 1938
Make Light of It: Collected Stories 1950
The Farmers' Daughters: The Collected Stories 1961
The Doctor Stories 1984
Other Major Works
Poems (poetry) 1909
The Tempers (poetry) 1913
Al que quiere! (poetry) 1917
Kora in Hell: Improvisations (poetry) 1920
Sour Grapes (poetry) 1921
GO GO (poetry) 1923
The Great American Novel (novel) 1923
Spring and All (poetry) 1923
In the American Grain (essays) 1925
A Voyage to Pagany (novel) 1928
The Cod Head (poetry) 1932
Collected Poems, 1921-1931 (poetry) 1934
An Early Martyr and Other Poems (poetry) 1935
Adam & Eve & the City (poetry) 1936
* White Mule (novel) 1937
The Complete Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1906-1938 (poetry) 1938
*In the Money: White Mule—Part II (novel) 1940
The Wedge (poetry) 1944
†Paterson (Book One) (poetry) 1946
The Clouds (poetry) 1948
A Dream of Love: A Play in Three Acts and Eight Scenes (drama) 1948
†Paterson (Book Two) (poetry) 1948
†Paterson (Book Three) (poetry) 1949
The Pink Church (poetry) 1949
Selected Poems (poetry) 1949
A Beginning on the Short Story [Notes] (essay) 1950
The Collected Later Poems (poetry) 1950
The Autobiography (autobiography) 1951
The Collected Earlier Poems (poetry) 1951
†Paterson (Book Four) (poetry) 1951
*The Build-Up: A Novel (novel) 1952
The Desert Music, and Other Poems (poetry) 1954
Selected Essays (essays) 1954
Journey to Love (poetry) 1955
I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet 1958
†Paterson (Book Five) (poetry) 1958
Yes, Mrs. Williams: A Personal Record of My Mother (biography) 1959
Many Loves and Other Plays: The Collected Plays (dramas) 1961
Pictures from Brueghel, and Other Poems (poetry) 1962
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams. 2 vols. (poetry) 1986-1988
*These works are commonly referred to collectively as The Stecher Trilogy.
†These volumes, together with notes for a proposed sixth book, were collected and published as Paterson in 1963.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5163
SOURCE: "A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)," in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, Random House, 1954, pp. 295-310.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1950, the author comments on the art of the short story.]
The principal feature re the short story is that it is short—and so must pack in what it has to say (unless it be snipped off a large piece of writing as a sort of prose for quality of writing which might be justifiable).
It seems to me to be a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally.
There's "Melanctha" (and there are the Poe stories), a means of writing, practice sheet for the novel one might discover, in it. But a novel is many related things, a short story one.
Plato's discourses: the Republic, a walk up from the port of Athens, the stopping with a friend and talking until morning. Socrates as a hero.
You can't "learn" to write a short story—either from De Maupassant or Henry James. All you can learn is what De M. or H. J. did. Or take a reader of the short story like Charles Demuth—and observe what he did in the way of painting following the texts.
It isn't a snippet from the newspaper. It isn't realism. It is, as in all forms of art, taking the materials of every day (or otherwise) and using them to raise the consciousness of our lives to higher aesthetic and moral levels by the use of the art.
As in the poem it must be stressed, that the short story uses the same materials as newsprint, the same dregs—the same in fact as Shakespeare and Greek tragedy: the elevation of spirit that occurs when a consciousness of form, art in short, is imposed upon materials debased by dispirited and crassly cynical handling. What the newspaper uses on the lowest (sentimental) level, the short story had best elevate to the level of other interests.
This should make apparent that a mere "thrilling" account of an occurrence from daily life, a transcription of a fact, is not of itself and for that reason a short story. You get the fact, it interests you for whatever reason; of that fact you make, using words, a story. A thing. A piece of writing, as in the case of De Maup't, "A Piece of String."
In plainest words, it isn't the mere interest of the event that makes the short story, it is the way it raises the newspaper level to distinction that counts.
This is not easy. At first or perhaps at any time, it won't sell. Hemingway's "Two Fisted" or "Two-hearted River"—was that way. And to make a story of any sort, short or long, we use words: writing is made of words—all writing is made of words, formal things.
We have Kipling's famous short stories, we have Gogol, we have Dickens' "Christmas Carol."
We also have agents who, seeing some spark of novelty (but a big slab of conventionality) in some recent graduate—will teach her to write Ladies Home Journal or Sat. Eve. Post—at the rate of $200 to $2000 a throw. And do it every day, more or less. We also have the picture of an "accepted" writer, someone known by her style, that she will not offend or shock us, who long after her final deterioration (repeating the same stock) will go on selling the Delineator (note the use of "selling") for $50,000. A THROW. (There's a good story with that, the mag saying the price is too high, dropping the serial or whatever and getting another "good" writer to take on the stint for $25,000. The only trouble was that they, the mag, lost money on the deal, made more money by hiring the first lady at $50,000 to write for it. Except that after that experience her fee went up to $75,000. And they paid it!)
I should think, for myself, that the short story is the best form for the "slice of life" incident. It deals with people and dogs and cats, sometimes horses—those creatures who are the commonest sublimation of man's sexual approaches to woman: Big eyes, magnificently curved haunches and slender ankles, the mane, the dilating nostrils—how exquisitely Shakespeare sketched one in the Venus and Adonis—like Dürer at his best. They top monuments and sometimes cathedrals—as at St. Marco in Venice. Kafka and the cockroach.
It is for all that man (as man and woman) from the "Boule de Suif to the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," a trait of some person raised from the groveling, debasing as it is debased jargon, fixed by rule and precedent, of reportage—to the exquisite distinction of that particular man, woman, horse or child that is depicted. The finest short stories are those that raise, in short, one particular man or woman, from that Gehenna, the newspapers, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual. To be responsive not to the ordinances of the herd (Russia-like) but to the extraordinary responsibility of being a person.
Can we not anticipate and look forward with eagerness amounting to despair to the time (past most of our lives) when there will appear those journals, those poems and short stories, being written underground now in Russia as in Ireland of this century by the literary heroes of the future? For it has to be so. And the Russians of all people will be the most persistent, the bravest and the most, I think, brilliant. Any nation that has braved Siberia for eight generations and survived to catch a glimpse of freedom so often dragged, as it has been today, from before their eyes, will be writing the masterpieces of the future.
As we write for the magazines today so they write, officially, for the Politburo. But the real writing, the real short story will be written privately, in secret, despairingly—for the individual. For it will be the individual.
Thus and for that purpose, the great writer will use his materials formally, in his own style, the words, the choice and the mode of his words—like Boccaccio, Stein and Faulkner.
But what right have I who never wrote a successful, that is to say salable, moneymaking short story in my life, to speak to you in this way? I feel like an impostor. I'm just a literary guy, not practical—like a one-time atomic physicist. Even a poet, of all things. What a nerve to come to a going institution of learning to teach you how to write?! Even to sell? Why, you might as well have an Einstein. HE at least can play the violin, this is, fairly well.
There's something to it. And so I object also.
But Hemingway did at first sit at the feet of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. They taught him a lot. And then he went out and capitalized on it—to at least her disgust, so they say. And she had written at least one magnificent short story. Pound not even one. But then again Hemingway's not a bad poet and might have been a better one.
So if they did that may we not, conceivably, do this? I'll go the limit, as far as I know any limit. From me perhaps you'll pick up a point or two and make use of it. At the worst we'll fool the trusting faculties who invited me here while you get a laugh.
Nobody knows who's going to be successful. Moreover nobody knows who's going to be good. Now it's Paul Bowles.
So let's look at short stories and see what CAN be done with them. How many ways they CAN be written, torturing the material in every way we can think of—from that YOU draw what you want to.
The art would be, by the style, to wed the subject to its own time and have it live there and then. Have it live.
Take one of Kipling's best tales. Can we learn anything from it for our use today? Take O. Henry's ending. They are out of date "an O. Henry ending." Obviously not. Take a Gogol story, the woman who ran wild and naked at night baying like a dog on her hands and feet through the country. I speak of this from memory. Take a Kafka story more recently dead—the sliding of consciousness, a lateral slip that stands up to nothing but fantasy and is yet firm.
What is the common quality in all these changing styles? Not a stereotyped snaring of the interest, a filling in of necessary documentary details and a smash finish. That is merely the cheap surface of the ten-cent customers. What about Hemingway's "Short Happy Life"? or Poe's "Gold Bug"?
They all have a frame—like a picture. There is a punch, if you like. But what is that punch? What kind of a punch do you want: philosophic as Plato's Republic and—what in a woman shooting her husband's head off with an elephant gun? What in "The Gold Bug?" Murder is nothing at all but death—and what's new about death? Violence is the mood today. Now it's something if a son cuts his mother's throat as in the Agamemnon. Maybe Plato was a bit fed up on the Sophocles. His endings are arguments: that he did give Socrates the hemlock (and a termagant for a wife) finally: who could even outtalk her.
What today will be the punch paragraph or maybe today we'll shift the emphasis and get a punch from having no punch. Maybe the buildup and the documentation will be merely hinted. The rough stuff (lying usually) or the capitalizing of the Negro comic (so-called) at a dime a throw—to flatter a certain snob sense of fixed values? To flatter a buyer—in good old 6th Avenue style? Oh, but don't let's be so vulgar!
In other words when you begin to write a short story you should really know what you're writing about—because, if you write skillfully enough, sooner or later someone is going to find it out and judge you as a man for it.
Oh, but am I making a mistake? Perhaps all you want is to write a story and not be judged a liar because you lie. I'm really afraid I'm in the wrong bin. I'm taking the art of the short story seriously.
What will it do?
For instance—what was my problem or urge or opportunity for realization of my insights in 1932?
What was going on?
How did I solve it? Why did I choose the short story and how much must it have been modified from a stereotype to be serviceable to me?
(I do not mean to imply that the choice was a conscious one altogether. I mean, looking back upon it, what were the elements involved in my coming upon the short story as a means?)—that is during the Depression?
Answer: The character of the evidence: to accommodate itself to the heterogeneous character of the people, the elements involved, the situation in hand. In other words, the materials and the temporal situation dictated the terms.
I lived among these people. I know them and saw the essential qualities (not stereotype), the courage, the humor (an accident), the deformity, the basic tragedy of their lives—and the importance of it. You can't write about something unimportant to yourself. I was involved.
That wasn't all. I saw how they were maligned by their institutions of church and state—and "betters." I saw how all that was acceptable to the ear about them maligned them. I saw how stereotype falsified them.
Nobody was writing about them, anywhere, as they ought to be written about. There was no chance of writing anything acceptable, certainly not salable, about them.
It was my duty to raise the level of consciousness, not to say discussion, of them to a higher level, a higher plane. Really to tell.
Why the short story? Not for a sales article but as I had conceived them. The briefness of their chronicles, its brokenness and heterogeneity—isolation, color. A novel was unthinkable.
And so to the very style of the stories themselves.
This wasn't the "acceptable," the unshocking stuff, the slippery, in the sense that it can be slipped into them while they are semiconscious of a Saturday evening. Not acceptable to a mag and didn't get into them.
To continue our study:
What sort of a short story must a Gogol have written or a Kipling in India—in their time?
And so, practically speaking, what sort of short story must be written in the U. S. or the Northwest today? I use the word must, I don't ask what you would care to do. Each man or woman is born facing a must. Who will drive it through or even see it? The one who will, will be at least justified and happy in his own eyes doing it. But he will know what he must do.
In other words, to write a short story of parts one must know what he is writing about, see it, smell it—be compelled by it—and be writing what ordinarily one doesn't want to hear.
Is that extraordinary?
We forget the meaning of art. Art means the skillful lie—what doesn't exist—as Aristotle pointed out.
To be an artist, one must deceive, make up a story. One must get the punch in, the shocking punch so skillfully that no one will suspect it. The art covers that. The shock is necessary. Necessary to make them stop, look, listen—in other words, read and say, 1) how awful, and 2) how fascinating. What a wonderful writer!
The artist always has his tongue in his cheek.
It must be so artful with the truth that above and beyond anything else its beauty of style or accurate statement will negate all its petty and thoroughly excusable lies. For its lies, never of statement, originate from its affection.
It must be written so well that that in itself becomes its truth while the deformity informs it.
I say a man must know what he is writing about but the short story, as a form, must be demanded.
Down to your own Jack London: what do Jack London's stories mean?
They mean, as far as I can tell,—take "To Build a Fire," they mean, the impact between civilization and the wild. For, note, that he isn't interested in the pioneer who goes native and survives fairly well. He means (when he is any good at all and not a pure sentimentalist) the terror and lonesomeness of the wilderness in its impact on civilized man. That, as far as I can see, is the best of him.
When he tries to talk big—which reveals no more than his littleness.
So how shall we write today (unpredictable—or to predict the genius who will answer) of what shall we write today? Let us try to predict. What will the short story consist of and what will be its terms?
The hero? Who is a hero? The peasantry? There is none. Men and women faithful to a belief? What belief?
One thing I found out for myself by writing a short story once that almost broke up the faculty of Arizona University and was finally published obscurely in Berkeley, Calif. It is this:
Most of us are not individuals any more but parts of something. We are no one of us "all" of anything. It is too big for us. So why not write of three people as one? That's what my story tried to do, make itself more than one, three in one. Imagine a woman looking at herself three ways. Wouldn't that break up the faculty of any university?
I cannot tell you how to write a short story, I can only tell you how you must write it.
It is not to place adjectives, it is to learn to employ the verbs in imitation of nature—so that the pieces move naturally—and watch, often breathlessly, what they do.
That is the enlargement of nature which we call art. The additions to nature which we call art.
You do not copy nature, you make something which is an imitation of nature—read your Aristotle again.
That is the work of the imagination, as the late Virginia Woolf pointed out. You have to work, you have to imagine the character, which is for your mind to be the creator.
Arrived at that condition, the imagination inflamed, the excitement of it is that you no longer copy but make a natural object. (Something comparable to nature: an other nature.) You yourself become the instrument of nature—the helpless instrument.
You must tell the truth. You can't lie because the moment you attempt to fall off you destroy yourself.
It is nature. I don't think you know in a short story what's coming out. That is the excitement of it.
Take "Death in Venice," take "Boule de Suif," take "Melanctha." They are creations. Natural objects. Not copying. But by housing a spirit, as nature houses juice in an apple, they live.
It is perhaps a transit from adjective (the ideal "copy") to verb (showing process).
There are no beginnings and ends in nature—except birth and death—which are meaningless to us. Religion imitates nature with the imagination—a once moving fable—which we have to know is a lie before we can believe it.
There is only, we might say, flux in nature.
But there is also an apple, a flower and a man.
The artist adds, "There is also a work of art." Now how absurd it is to dwell upon cherries so real that the birds peck at them (I knew a man who had a whole canvas full of cherries in a heap which to him was art). How absurd it is to make a statue so copied that it is mistaken for a woman: The story of Pygmalion and Galatea is merely a best seller—a very second-rate fable for jokesters.
The secret lies elsewhere—in the marble of it. If it is merely mistaken for a woman it is senseless: a copy.
But as an imitation of nature (not a mere woman's body) it becomes something a woman never was, something a woman at her best may imitate—a work of art. A work of man to lay beside nature and enlarge it. Engrandize it. Make a Caesar greater than Caesar or, if not that at least a Caesar, an undying Caesar whose other works have crumbled—a completion of his greatness. It is what the imagination adds to the woman that makes the statue great.
Something of this sort is what Oscar Wilde must have meant when he said, "God created man, then woman, then the child and finally the doll. And the greatest of these was the doll."
Carnal desire for a statue is for adolescents and senility if not the pathological (at least the stupid). But to take decay, despair and elevate the details to an action, to greatness as in "Death in Venice"—to make by an action a thing that is deformed clean, salutory—that is an addition to nature.
To take a lump of fat and transform it by imitating nature—goes beyond copy—to transform a cockroach, the same—into a work of illuminating penetration—gives us a glimpse of the process.
Braque would take his pictures out of doors and place them beside nature to see if his imitations had worked.
So you see how it opens up sculpture, painting and writing. In the Greek tragedies the imitation of the gods.
The short story is no different.
(I didn't say not to copy, not, for instance, accurately to observe conversation. But I did say that that is not the short story. It might be, but only when there is something else as well.) A view, a room with a view, something heard through a knothole—a secret.
Now what are some of the advantages of the short story as an art form—bearing what I have said, in mind.
It should be a brush stroke—as compared with a picture.
One chief advantage as against a novel—which is its nearest cousin—is that you do not have to bear in mind the complex structural paraphernalia of a novel in writing a short story and so may dwell on the manner, the writing. On the process itself. A single stroke, uncomplicated but complete. Not like a chapter or paragraph.
Thus, bearing a possible novel in mind, if you will, you can play with the words as materials. You can try various modes of writing—more freely.
Try all sorts of effects. The short story is a wonderful medium for prose experimentation. You may, economically, try devices—varied devices—for making the word count toward a particular effect. I'd say write a story—as Joyce did. Dubliners to Stephen Hero to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake. I say that it took off from the short story. It makes a delightful Field of Mars—for exercises in the Manual of Arms. I think that's its chief value.
And be careful not to imitate yourself—like how many others. Remember: the imagination! The short story has all the elements of a larger work—but in petto. Dash off a story in an evening—any old way, trying to follow the action of some characters you can imagine. Sit down blind and start to fling the words around like pigments—try to see what nature would do under the same circumstances—let 'em go and (without thinking or caring) see where they'll lead you. You may be surprised—you may even end up as a disciplined writer.
Crawl into the man's head and how get inside a woman's head, being a man? That is the work of the imagination (of which V. Woolf speaks). This is where the imitation of nature takes place. There is no copying here.
You are now nature: given a set of circumstances—a woman: a man—names:
What is there to do?
Now go ahead and do it. Name the actions and perform them—yourself.
This is something that you yourself (as "Jim Higgins") have very little to say about (you become a nonentity, like Shakespeare). You are in the creative process—a function in nature—relegated to the deity.
You have now entered what is referred to as the divine function of the artist.
Let's keep away from frightening words and say you are nature—in action.
It is an action, a moving process—the verb dominates; you are to make.
And who are you, anyway?—with your small personal limitations of age, sex and other sundry features like race and religion?
You, even you are at the moment—the artist, good or bad—but a new creature.
You must let yourself go—release it and be that transcendence (but in control by your technique which you have learned—like the voice of an opera singer) but inside that frame of reference you must release yourself to act.
How, in The Sheltering Sky (a novel) is Bowles going to get the girl undressed. He is going to act to do it.
By setting the imagination to work. WORK. The artist is now a woman, a particular woman. He is therefore bound by her conditions and so he works at it. And in this case what comes out?
The woman is going to be undressed willingly—within a time limitation of a train schedule. She will want to be undressed even while she fights against it—by running out.
So he gets her soaked to the skin. But on a train? in Africa. How?
Read it. Lesson No. 1.
It is the transit to the imagination from the plebeian plodding of ordinary consciousness which is the important thing—the sometimes impossible thing for any of us, the always impossible thing for many of us—or so it seems. To take to the imagination is the first requisite.
How does one take to the imagination? One may recognize its approach in that its first signs are like those of falling asleep—which anyone may observe for himself. It is likewise governed by the conditions of sleep.
At first all the images, one or many which fill the mind, are fixed. I have passed through it and studied it for years. We look at the ceiling and review the fixities of the day, the month, the year, the lifetime. Then it begins; that happy time when the image becomes broken or begins to break up, becomes a little fluid—or is affected, floats brokenly in the fluid. The rigidities yield—like ice in March, the magic month. They coalesce and, finally, merciful sleep intervenes. Sleep is black. But before we awaken it begins again, in reverse—with dreams. Ending in waking and we return to consciousness, refreshed. By the imagination?
That is the way sleep goes. But we are now looking for cues to something else, we are speaking of the resemblance between falling asleep and the awakening of the imagination that sometime impossible step to be taken before the writing begins (tho' it is wavelike and even during the writing, of many qualities, it rises and falls—tho' it remain of the same texture).
Possessed by the imagination, we are really asleep tho' we may awake: it explains much bravery. We do not hear what is said to us, we do not see the danger.
Kenneth Burke once said to me that the way to write or perhaps to learn to write is to sit down and to begin to write. Write down anything that seems pertinent to the subject or to no subject. Get into the fluid state, for unless you do, all you will say will be valueless. Continue to write until you have begun to say what you find to be necessary to the subject. Tear up the first eight to twenty pages and you have made a start!
Arrived! we think on a different plane. All the lines—the complex arrangement of reins lie free in the hand.
What distresses can happen in the effort to let go! to release ourselves to the imagination, with this we are all familiar. It is because we are really afraid. We can be struck to the ground by a realization of how we have been conditioned in our lives. The realization of it may be a terrific blow. In all our conscious lives we stick to what we call standards—to precepts—to those bulwarks against quicksands—so we say. Think of Rimbaud etc.
Then to reverse the process: Where might we not land? What fences we put up in the past are precisely our stumbling blocks now. I once wrote down: How did Shakespeare become great? By begetting twins, abandoning his wife, running away to London and falling in love with men. In other words—to let go the imagination.
I don't especially recommend it. How can I?
I am now stressing the diseases. We get fixed in squirrel cages of thought. Everyone does. Drink, drugs—anything you can think of is practiced to escape. The Yeats story about his London lecture.
All I am trying to point out is that it is all the effort to take that step into the imagination. Queer dress. Nocturnal habits like Balzac who went to bed at 10 A.M. etc. Do not forget the tremendous advantages of prison and far greater Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. The imagination is freed. To raise the beat of the brain to bring it oxygen.
We speak of a man's "mettle"—it might better be metal. It is as with other metals, when it is heated it melts. It is when the metal is fluid the imagination can be said to become active; it is the melting, the rendering fluid of the imagination that describes the mind as entering upon creative work.
It must be melted to create; fluid, unfettered by anything.
The characteristic of being melted is for the object to have lost the form it was in. It can be played with, made into a new form as we desire.
With the short story as with any sort of creation, I am trying to say, the imagination (that is the mind in a fluid state or a melted state) has to be given play.
Now, we know by knowledge of the physiology of the brain that it acts only when it has been supplied oxygen in abundance. So it glows and sweats when it is active—as with anything else.
What is the origin of that heat? Something has stirred us, some perception linked with emotion. We are angry, we are committed to something in our lives, as with the poem. It doesn't matter what it has been—anything. We heat up. This incentive is usually secret, it is guided by our fears perhaps. But we are heated and (if we can get quiet enough, as in jail, or running away—finally) we melt and the imagination is set to flow into its new mold.
What shall the short story be written about. Obviously not, if it is serious, the mere sentimental characters. How write about a poor Wop, a Polish gal in her kitchen, a foreign peasant who is barely articulate.
What then? Something that interests the writer seriously, as a writer (not necessarily a man for in that case the interest would be moral and perhaps best NOT as a short story). It is the way his interests, as a writer, impinge upon the material—graphically told.
The result is life, not morals. It is THE LIFE which comes alive in the telling. It is the life under specified conditions—so that it is relived in the reading—as it strikes off flashes from the material. The material is the metal against which a flint makes sparks.
Anything, thus anything can be used without fear of sentimentality. The THING we are writing, directing all our wit, our intelligence to discovering and setting down—is revealed as it hits against anything at all. That's the modern understanding—and I guess it is pretty hard to realize. Whatever that may be for each man who writes. What good are you? Prove it. Or what do you see, young as you are? Do you think a prostitute is "bad" because she's a prostitute. And yet how shall you show her "good" except by speaking of her in the conditions of her prostitution. By using that material, graphically, specifically you must learn to tell all you want to tell—whatever YOU want to say. That is the art.
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SOURCE: "The Farmers' Daughters: A True Story about People," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 319-24.
[In the following essay, Corman discusses the chief literary qualities of Williams's writing style in The Farmers' Daughters.]
Bill was upstairs. (I was visiting 9 Ridge Road, 1954.) Floss was explaining his nervousness whenever the phone rang. He thinks it's for him, a patient. Few seem to realize that 70% of his life has been given to his practice.
She was implying, perhaps, that writing occupied only part of the remaining 30%. But life, like death, has a funny way of getting round percentages. And to read [The Farmers' Daughters: The Collected Stories of William Carlos Williams], without exception relating, directly or indirectly, to his work as a G.P. in and out of his office (at home) in Rutherford, New Jersey, is to realize rather that writing of this order is an extension, not an escape or evasion or diminution, of a man's days and nights.
These sketches, "verbal transcriptions," histories, anecdotes, tales, are all instances of one man's remarkable capacity for love. Love of people, foremost, but no less—with enduring respect—a love of human expressiveness, of language, particular speech, its trickiness, vivacity, penetration.
If I had to choose which, of all the "pieces," I preferred most, I suppose I'd say: "Old Doc Rivers," for its groping toward understanding, the openness and clarity of its relations, the way the local is a universe and is again itself; "The Use of Force," for all its anthologizing, a beautiful clean thing, prose, direct in its attack, sure in its sense of when to leave off, its language crisp and true, touching; and "The Farmers' Daughters," perhaps the most ambitious work, with its broken chronology, weaving incident and anecdote, perception and experience, with honest feeling, words falling for words, free and fluent and with complete control.
In some of the earliest pieces I have gritted my teeth at the too heavy sense of the "dialect." The writer seems too much "outside" and making a thing up, not wholly with it, not recounting it, trying too hard to impress. The commitment uncertain, off. But with "Mind and Body" the inside opens:
. . . I know people think I am a nut. I was an epileptic as a child. I know I am a manic depressive. But doctors are mostly fools. . . .
(I begin to hear the voice of a "later" poet, Robert Creeley, foreshadowed.)
How often, as here, the good doctor tries to project a woman's sense of things, her involvement in body, person, place, in things and in "relations." "It is life, what we see and decide for ourselves, that counts."
For response to and a gathering-up of language, in the same story, consider this:
. . . When I was talking to the Jesuit, who came to teach me what the church meant, I told him I could not believe that. He said, I should. I asked him, Do you? But he did not answer me. . . .
Set this against Charles Olson's "Pastoral Letter" in his recent Maximus Poems, if you want to see evidence of what Dr. Williams has quietly effected "in the art":
. . . "I don't believe
I know your name." Given.
How do you do,
how do you do. And then:
"Pardon me, but
do you belong to,
may I ask?"
I sd, you may, sir.
He sd, what, sir.
I sd, none,
sir. . . .
The short punched-out speech, sporadic, laconic, easy, but not facile, straight-on. Not exaggerated, for the true is crazy enough and hard enough to hang on to. And as he gradually works his way open, into the open, he is what he is, William Carlos Williams, half Spanish, half English, part Jewish, part this and part that, man and woman, Pater-son, make no mistake, "Doc," and his wife is Floss, and there are the two boys, and there is the neighborhood. And Rutherford-Paterson opens to contain and be contained to brimming. As a flower in fertile soil. Red roses or "white weeds." Jonquils that "want affection," lore, and raspberries, as one learns, to be picked from a roadside and brought "home" to share.
But is it "art"? The question is asked, in and out of school. Sadly. For to express relation with feeling this cleanly, this precisely, without any phoney theatricalism, without resorting to a pompous rhetoric, or a desire to overwhelm with literary machinery, if art is anything, is what this is. There is a glory in people, his glory (as well as ours), the stuff they are made of, we are, stubbornness, indomitability, even within the confines of ignorance, stupidity, poverty. "He was liked," would be the simplest comment one would expect his townsfolk to say, if asked about him. How could he not be? Concerned about payment, on a visit at whatever hour, but not overly concerned, willing to do it for "nothing," for a laugh or a lark sometimes, for a word or a gesture, a look, for the love of it, for the love of them. For the Polish mother who smiled when she lost her "first daughter" at birth, for the Italian peasant who paid him in snuff. For the love of Mike, sentimental! How, if the feeling is accurate. He is guilty and proud, moved and obdurate, sensible and sensitive. "I have found . . . that we must live for others, that we are not alone in the world and we cannot live alone."
". . . What was he going to do? How did he know? Where was he going to stay when it got cold? Whose the hell's business was that? What would he eat? Beans and bananas, chewing gum, caviar and roast duck. With that she left him. And later on it grew cold. . . . " A love for the weak and the strong, respect for the offbeat, for the independent soul, for dignity, for sheer doggedness and spite, for a thin body holding out for life, for candor, for generosity, for care.
Do they get "under"? Does anything that is not there? The majority of these recountings, if not all of them, strike me as probably having been written "at the moment," at the spur; they are so close to event. Yet, as often as not, there is a "history" involved and I see that much more goes on here than meets the eye: a world, inside. The cadences of speech, the speed and the relaxation, the deftness and alertness of ear and mind, bespeak authority.
In "Old Doc Rivers" he can attack and defend at the same time, and he mutes verdicts:
Well, Mary, what is it?
I have a pain in my side, doctor.
How long have you had it, Mary?
Today, doctor. It's the first time.
Climb up on the table. Pull up your dress. Throw that sheet over you. Come on, come on. Up with you. Come on now, Mary. Pull up your knees.
He could be cruel and crude. And like all who are so, he could be sentimentally tender also, and painstaking without measure. . . .
As against practitioners of the "tough guy" school, like Hemingway, say, his language is at once more convincing and accurate, and out of the body, out of the mouth, less manufactured, less "literary." And yet not at all unaware of the problems of what goes, what sticks. He had written, as early as 1932, answering academicism and snobbery:
. . . I cannot swallow the half-alive poetry which knows nothing of totality. . . . Nothing is beyond poetry. It is the one solid element on which our lives can rely, the "word" of so many disguises, including as it does man's full consciousness, high and low, in living objectivity. . . . It is, in its rare major form, a world in fact come to arrest of self realization: that eternity of the present which most stumble over in seeking—or drug themselves into littleness to attain. . . .
The vision, no matter the structure of prose, is a poet's, making poets of us too. Each relation relates one to another. I think any reader will find a coherence; they are all "of a piece." And the "form"? The living speech of a time, a place, a people. All elements of society come to his feast: children, adults, old folk, animals, Polacks, Wops, Jews, the Irish and Scotch and English, the southerner, the negro, lady and bum, the wise-guy and the tease, the professional and the conversationalist. William Carlos Williams. It may be that I recognize a world my own and so feel "at home" and drawn to it. But there's also "more."
It has to do with a man's zest, his brio, his appetite for life, his disgust, or the confrontation of death, an eagerness for detail, a nose, an ear, an unfailing willingness, desire, to know and know more, to encounter "them." He doesn't blink at what he sees either. On the contrary, what he sees is what makes him want to see more, to speak to a "patient" always as a person, as this man or this woman or this child and no other. He makes me want to address my world, wherever I touch it, with equal frankness and affection. Unblinking. Perceiving.
"Down to earth," I'd say. American archaeology, as a friend where I now am staying might say. Not the classical bit of fancy goods and dream-boats, but the bones, the beads, the chipping stones, flints, arrowheads, artifacts of a difficult and often bare existence, a raw country building. Silver-dollars on a skeleton's eye-sockets. Money plastered everywhere. Seen. Faced. Not pandered to or for. A knowledge, I'd say, that the most beautiful vases are also made of clay. He makes the pot and paints it, with earth's colors.
And no slouch is he as a weaver, out of the so-called "common" thread—to show us, we onlookers, how uncommon our lives may be and often are, as in "The Farmers' Daughters," where he moderates lovingly between two women he knew professionally and as friends, throughout a long career, the very image of his career, the poetry of their lives touching his, or his touch lifting them into a world of poetry, a world where what is true shines.
His order is that of disorder, but sensed, grasped, embraced, danced with, released. He says it himself, as of a house of an admired patient:
. . . I have seldom seen such disorder and brokenness—such a mass of unrelated parts of things lying about. That's it! I concluded to myself. An unrecognizable order! Actually—the new! And so good-natured and calm. So definitely the thing! And so compact. Excellent. And with such patina of use. Everything definitely "painty" . . .
"I'm struck by his honesty and concern, the openness of both."
These are love-stories, all, and one of the quietest of them, "Country Rain," speaks for both himself and Floss of their relation and our relation to them, to others. It opens towards the request for it ("commissioned" by the heart):
If this were Switzerland, I thought, we'd call it lovely: wisps of low cloud rising slowly among the heavily wooded hills. But since it's America we call it simply wet. Wet and someone at another of the tables asks if it's going to stop raining or keep it up all day. . . .
To write as simply and fluently and perceptively as that may suggest to some that it's "easy." Don't you believe it. It takes years of listening, of speaking well, of caring to. It requires the mind of a poet.
Perhaps this is more obvious, or will be, in this quote from the end of the same piece. He and Floss, on a wet summer morning gone to pick up the mail for the country house where they are vacationing, find they have "time" and drive on into the old landscape, discussing some the people they have recently met.
I stopped the car in a dark, heavily wooded portion of the road dripping with the rain from the overhanging spruces. Floss looked at me. There was a sharp drop to the left beyond the half-rotten section of a crude guard rail where in the intense silence a small stream could be heard talking to itself among the stones.
What are you stopping here for?
I want to look at a rock. As I spoke I backed the car about twenty feet, drew in toward the embankment and shut off the engine.
The rock day at about eye level close to my side of the road, the upper surface of it sloping slightly toward me with the hillside. Not a very big rock. What had stopped me was the shaggy covering which completely inundated it. The ferns, a cropped-short, dark-green fern, was the outstanding feature, growing thickly over an underlying cover of dense moss. But there was also a broad-leafed vine running lightly among the ferns, weaving the pattern together.
That wasn't all. The back portion of the rock, which wasn't much larger than the top of an ordinary dining-room table slightly raised at one side and a little tilted, supported both the rotten stump of a tree long since decayed but, also, a brother to that tree—coming in fact from the same root and very much alive, as big as a man's arm, a good solid arm—a ten-foot tree about whose base a small thicket of brambles clustered. Ferns of three sorts closed in from the sides completing the picture. A most ungrammatical rock.
Isn't this magnificent! Let's bring the two school teachers out here for a ride tomorrow, said Floss. They'd love it. Have you ever talked to them? she added. They're sweet.
No, I said, observing the woods ascending the hillside in the rain, but their situation among the dones, the aints and the seens amuses me. I've been wondering what they are thinking.
Don't worry, said Floss. They know what it's all about.
Look, I said, after we had rolled forward another half mile or so, do you see what I see?
Oh, said Floss, raspberries!
We stopped again, it was still raining, so I told her to stay where she was while I got down to pick some of the fruit, the remainder of what I could see had been an abundant crop recently growing at the side of the road sloping toward the stream.
Oh, taste them! said Flossie when I had brought them to her in my hand. They're dripping with juice. Anyone who would put sugar on such berries, well, would be just a barbarian. Perhaps we could stop again here tomorrow and pick enough for everybody.
A steady, heavy rain, she added. The farmers will like that. And then as an afterthought: Do you think Ruth will ever marry?
Why? I answered her.
I'd be a barbarian to add more. But I can't refrain adding a bit from the beginning of the next story "Inquest" and let that be it:
What we save, what we have, what we do. No matter. That which we most dearly cherish, that we shall lose, the one thing we most desire. What remains?
To be and remain interesting—with reservations—perhaps. . . .
Stones? Yes: "a world in fact come."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
Baker, William. "Williams' 'The Use of Force'." Explicator 37, No. 1 (Fall 1978): 7-8.
Suggests that "the power of the story is its sense of urgency and its brevity."
Bell, Barbara Currier. "Williams' 'The Use of Force' and First Principles in Medical Ethics." Literature and Medicine, Vol. 3, edited by William Claire, pp. 143-51. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.
Demonstrates the value of "The Use of Force" to the field of medical ethics.
Breslin, James E. "The Fiction of a Doctor." In his William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, pp. 125-67. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Surveys Williams's fiction of the 1930s, including his short stories.
Deutsch, Babette. "Gusty Tales from over Passaic Way." New York Herald Tribune Book Review 27, No. 16 (December 3, 1950): 5.
Asserts that Make Light of It "helps us to realize the distinguishing features of [Williams's] contribution to American writing."
Gott, Peter H. A review of The Doctor Stories, by William Carlos Williams. Saturday Review 10, No. 2 (November/December 1984): 76-7.
Mixed review, claiming that "as sociological studies, the stories have merit."
Graham, Theodora R. "A New Williams Short Story: 'Long Island Sound' (1961)." William Carlos Williams Review VII, No. 2 (Fall 1981): 1-3.
Provides brief background information about the story, featuring the entire text.
Halsband, Robert. "'I Lived Among These People'." The Saturday Review of Literature 33 (December 9, 1950): 14-15.
Assesses Make Light of It, suggesting that "whatever his ultimate reputation will be, [Williams] is one of the hardiest and healthiest shrubs on the landscape of American writing."
Pearson, Norman Holmes. "Williams Collected." The Yale Review LI, No. 2 (December 1962): 329-32.
Positive assessment of The Farmers' Daughters, emphasizing the "local color" of Williams's stories.
Sorrentino, Gilbert. "Polish Mothers and 'The Knife of the Times'," in Man and Poet, edited by Carroll F. Terrell, pp. 391-95. Orono, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1983.
Investigates the linguistic patterns of "The Knife of the Times."
——. "A Dose of Strong Medicine." The New York Times Book Review 89 (October 21, 1984): 9.
Favorable review of The Doctor Stories, remarking that "Williams was not so much telling stories as he was making forms."
Wagner, Linda W. "Williams' 'The Use of Force': An Expansion." Studies in Short Fiction IV, No. 4 (Summer 1967): 351-53.
Studies "The Use of Force" in the context of Williams's other writings.
Additional coverage of Williams's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 34; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 5, 9, 13, 22, 42, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4,16, 54,86; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Poets Module; Major 20th-century Writers; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2164
SOURCE: "Connotations of Rape in 'The Use of Force'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 4, Summer, 1966, pp. 446-50.
[In the essay below, Dietrich analyzes sexually suggestive aspects in the language and tone of ''The Use of Force. "]
It is difficult to pick up a collection of short stories these days without finding William Carlos Williams' odd little story "The Use of Force." Its ubiquity in college anthologies is not surprising, really, in that it simply, quickly, effectively illustrates many of the conventions of short story writing, and thus provides easy means for the instructor's first assault on the elements of fiction. Readily identifiable in this thesis story are theme, conflict, character, tone, point of view. The freshman or sophomore feels secure in his mastery of at least this simple little story, however muddy things may get later on. Sadly, however, such undergraduate confidence is unfounded, for the art of this story is more complex than at first seems the case.
My title advertises rape, but it is perhaps best to begin more innocently, as does the tone of the story, and save the sex for later. The physician who tells the story in a very casual and frank manner fashions himself in the familiar image of the family doctor, who of course achieves great villainy only when he collects an exorbitant fee. As for any pain that a physician might cause, we reason that it is but the necessary prelude to health, and we freely forgive him for it. And we have a rather settled image of our doctor: he is supposed to be cool and calm on all occasions, disciplined to evince only one emotion—sympathetic cheerfulness. When children refuse to open their mouths, he is supposed to make a funny face, and, abracadabra, the innermost depths of Johnny's being are exposed to view. The reader expects as much of the physician of this story, and certainly the tone of his voice is reassuring.
As the doctor begins telling his story, there is no indication of anything out of the way. The doctor-patient relationship is established in a rather wry manner, but the situation perhaps calls for it. He is new to the Olsons, making them a bit nervous and distrustful. They proceed on the assumption that since he is the physician he should tell them what is wrong, not vice versa. The narrator counters with the time-honored tradition of the bedside physician. He attempts to coax Mathilda into opening her mouth, and Williams phrases the girl's response in comic tones—"nothing doing." The mother then helpfully promises that the doctor won't hurt her, and at this false promise the doctor grinds his teeth "in disgust." This is the first indication of an excessive response on the part of the doctor, and as if to balance it he insists that he did not allow himself "to be hurried or disturbed." He spoke "quietly and slowly" as he approached the child again.
But the physician's calm rationality encounters a rather unexpected obstacle—the girl knocks his glasses off; and when the mother admonishes her and tells her what a "nice man" the doctor is, the doctor responds in a most curious way. He sees that he is not at all a nice man to her and that her having diphtheria and possibly dying of it is not the real issue ("nothing to her."). There is something more important at stake here than merely dying.
The physician does not suddenly abandon all reason. He sees that "the battle" is on, but he explains quite coolly and professionally to the parents the alternatives. It was entirely up to them. "He would not insist upon a throat examination so long as they would take the responsibility." At the mention of responsibility, the mother threatens the girl with going to the hospital, thus putting it back upon the physician, whose attitude now takes another strange turn. He scoffs at the mother's threat ("Oh yeah?") almost in words the child her self might have used. An identification has begun to take place, not with the adult world, as represented by the parents, for they were "contemptible" to him, but with the irrational world of the "savage brat." He responds to the challenge of the girl in a quite elemental fashion, scorning the parents, who in the ensuing struggle "grew more and more abject, crushed, exhausted. . . . " They are crushed by the vital powers of unreason, in which the physician strangely finds only glory. As he says, "she surely rose to magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bread of her terror of me." The manner in which he responds to this "fury" is seldom recorded in medical journals. He begins to attack the inviolable throat, with the father as a weak and ashamed accomplice, until the doctor "almost wanted to kill him" for always releasing her at the critical moment when he had almost achieved success.
The parents are now beside themselves with shame and "agony of apprehension." Part of their adulthood lies in their being tamed and disciplined in the expression of emotion. The assumption of reason has only made them timid. Violent, unashamed expressions of emotion produce in them the discomforts of embarrassment, since only the pathetic and the sentimental are socially allowed in the adult world. Such scenes of passion remind the adults that they have been cast out of the child's garden of spontaneity, with the curse of shame as the penalty for their original sin. The physician quite spontaneously "had grown furious at a child," but the parents know only one response to fury. "'Aren't you ashamed,' the mother yelled at her. 'Aren't you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?'" Especially in front of the doctor, who is the human symbol of that discipline which is at once the idol-god and the frustration of the ordinary, civilized adult, and nothing is more unseemly, more shameful, than to express the fundamental unreason of humanity before this correct and condescending god. "'Aren't you ashamed,' the mother yelled at her . . . ?"
But this is no ordinary physician, or at least he is not behaving in the conventional manner. The encounter with the vital, screaming denial of his symbolic status loosens the hold of his medical code and renews the admiration for that vital force that was and always is the primitive antagonist of man's pretensions of rationality, the antagonist before which the ordinary adult is merely cowed. Thus the physician lends himself to the immortal struggle, with respect for the enemy and scorn for those who surrender meekly to it.
Or so it seems. At least this is the way the physician would have us see it. And the casual, confident tone of the story-telling is almost enough to make us see it that way, too. But then we begin to notice something. It is all right to speak of "immortal struggle" on the heroic plane, but objectively we still must face the fact of a full-sized, furious adult brutally handling a small, sick child. The doctor in understanding the elemental nature of their conflict has allowed its emotional power to sweep him along in some obsession. He is rationally aware that he is contending with a sick child and at the same time allows himself to be drawn into a violent contest of wills. His brutal methods in discovering the nature of the illness expose with rare honesty how a supposedly disciplined adult can be overwhelmed by the subrational wells of impulse within him. The casual tone of the story is achieved by the physician's ironic awareness of his own lapse of discipline. He too "had got beyond reason." And "a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end."
"The end" is nothing so glorious. The sickness of her inner physical being now bared to the world, the girl is initiated into the world of shame. She had only been trying previously to protect herself, to keep from knowing the shame; but now that she has been violated, defense is useless, and she can compensate for her loss of innocence only by a hateful revenge upon her conqueror.
This leads us to notice certain overtones of the language of the story. The choice of words at crucial spots is highly suggestive of a sexual encounter. The physician-patient conflict seems to have been subverted by a more primitive conflict—that of male-female.
When the doctor first sees the child, he notices that she "was fairly eating me up with her cold, steady eyes," indicating immediate recognition of a basic antagonism. The doctor thinks that she is "an unusually attractive little thing, and as strong as a heifer in appearance." We need not make too much of the obvious parallel between a heifer and the virginal Mathilde, but it does suggest the basis of his attraction to her. Further, in the attack, "her face was flushed, she was breathing rapidly," symptoms of disease of course but also symptoms of sexual excitement. The doctor is quite honest in his emphasis upon her physical attraction, being well aware that she has "magnificent blond hair, in profusion." The girl cannot take her eyes off him, in this almost Strindbergian encounter.
The intensity of the love-hate conflict heightens after the girl knocks his glasses off. The glasses, which enable him to "see," (i.e., to reason, to understand), as a product of civilization are symbolic of the artificial devices that stand between the "savage brat" and the physician. As Williams describes it, "with one catlike movement both her hands clawed instinctively" for his glasses. A cat clawing instinctively connotes a female-like reaction against a male aggression. Then "her breaths were coming faster and faster" as the struggle surges to a climax. The physician sees that he "had already fallen in love with the savage brat."
He then makes the parents accomplices to his "assault." The girl sereams in hysterical negation. It is possible, I suppose, to speak of the attack upon the "mouth cavity" with the wooden spatula in sexual terms, although an apocryphal story has it that even Freud put his foot down when someone pointed out to him that the cigar he was enjoying was a phallic symbol. But if one wishes to go that far, then we might as well notice that the girl reduced the wooden blade to splinters, thus calling into use a "smooth-handled spoon of some sort." The result is that the girl begins to bleed. At this point the doctor decides it would be best to go away for an hour or so before trying again. But the obsession has control of him. Williams puts it very graphically: "I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it." The connotations of rape are unmistakable. The girl is "overpowered" as the physician forces the spoon down her throat, thus exposing the "membrane" that is her secret.
Well, what does all this mean? Is the sexual antagonism cause or effect of the doctor-patient conflict? Is the physician a villain? Or is he simply more perceptively aware of a usual relationship than most physicians are supposed to be?
At this point it is always good to reassure the undergraduate that the girl was not "really" raped, despite the suggestive language. Rather the prevalence of sexual connotation is simply testimony to the animal nature of this conflict. The sexual connotations are there because they express the savagery in human nature that, lying so close to the surface, can erupt at any moment in a flow of irrational behavior, especially in moments of crisis, moments when primitive force is required to achieve some civilized end, as in preventing diphtheria. There is no more revealing use of force, I suppose, than sexual aggression to show how close man lies to the savage within himself. Williams has seasoned his story with suggestive language to bring out the deeper flavors of life, the strong taste of life in the raw.
What of the curious tone of the story? The whole affair is treated as a momentary lapse of an eventually restored discipline, the event reflected upon with an ironic eye; but there are other, modifying tones. It is important to keep in mind that everything is presented from the doctor's point of view. Perhaps this event is not as casual as the physician has tried to make it seem. Perhaps it did permanent damage to his conventional role, and so the ironic reflection is tinged with a bit of awe, the wry tone and comic effects merely an attempt to gain control of an overpoweringly emotional experience, as with Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Certainly the understanding that one has within oneself the potential of savagery breeds new respect for the powers of darkness.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6709
SOURCE: "William Carlos Williams and the Modern Short Story," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1968, pp. 647-64.
[In the essay below, Slate relates Williams's theories about writing short fiction to the stories themselves, demonstrating the modern qualities of Williams's thought and practice.]
William Carlos Williams' "The Use of Force" needs no defense in academic circles. Endorsed by the critics and teachers who print it in anthologies, "The Use of Force" now indisputably belongs. Though the other fifty-one stories in Williams' largest collection are still relatively unknown, fifteen years in the right circles have established this single piece of fiction. Success is always paradoxical for an artist, but Williams' success with "The Use of Force" contains an especially sharp self-contradiction: Williams was an esthetic revolutionary who never stopped thinking of himself as a dangerous outsider or—at the very least—a subversive agent. He usually wrote to attack academic assumptions about the short story and continually questioned the premises of successful fiction.
"The Use of Force" conceals Williams' intentions better than his other stories; and it is not surprising that Williams' destructive role escaped notice, for he often pretended sympathy for the intellectual establishments in order to undermine them from within. When they finally listened to him, though never as they had listened to T. S. Eliot, he was happy to speak to groups of young writers about the need for formal revolution. His lecture at the University of Washington published in 1950 as A Beginning on the Short Story, is typical in its contrast between the classic, which aspires to the timeless, and the modern, which formally reflects its own time. Although his words openly urged undergraduates to revolt, they were either ignored or misunderstood, because "The Use of Force" was enshrined in a college text that same year.
The brief analysis of the story in Robert Heilman's Modern Short Stories ignored Williams' theories but was notable for its refusal to categorize Williams as a primitive or proletarian writer. This error had been encouraged by Williams himself, who not only published five of his best stories in a magazine called Blast: Proletarian Short Stories but also acted as its advisory editor. Nevertheless, even in 1934, the idea of Williams as a primitive was so ridiculous that Ezra Pound could enjoy the irony of naming him "the Communists' white-haired boy" while reporting that one story had been rejected by a doctrinaire Communist magazine as lacking in class consciousness. "One of the editors pointed out that the 'doctor' seemed unaware of the implications of giving the girl a prescription that would cost not less than fifty cents, when her father was receiving ten dollars a week."
Philip Rahv knew better than to expect party orthodoxy of Williams, but he, too, missed the point when he reviewed the collection containing these stories in 1938. He described Williams as the kind of writer who rejects all ideas ("thought is proscribed as anti-aesthetic") and merely wants to record facts ("the relations, social and historic, that might unify these facts and significate them on a higher plane beyond sensation or nostalgia or pathos he has no mind for"). By 1950 the ideas implicit in Williams' "facts" were beginning to emerge, so that Heilman stressed the "symbolic value" of "The Use of Force." Yet its values for him turn out to be moral rather than esthetic and not at all revolutionary. Although "it would be a mistake . . . to read the story as a treatise against the use of force," it illuminates "the kind of hostility, love of conquest, and madness that the use of force brings into play, whatever the apparent justification for vigorous action." As a matter of fact, violence has no more moral value than it has political meaning in Williams' world, though its broad metaphoric use makes it a valuable key for discovering what sort of esthetic blast Williams wanted to set off with stories like "The Use of Force."
In Williams' Beginning on the Short Story, the basic problem of the writer in twentieth-century America is clearly articulated. "How shall we write today? The hero? Who is a hero? The peasantry? There is none. Men and women faithful to a belief? What belief?" In the past there were heroes, whole men, and traditional systems of values; but today, and especially in America, "we are no one of us 'all' of anything." We are still too new to have inherited any of the old values, yet we are too frightened by our new world to live independent of the past. In art we still value the old forms for the stability implicit in them, paying the commercial artist to produce familiar shapes. But if our world is actually new—modern, American, or both—we must face the terror of the unfamiliar and find our values in it rather than in the past or in distant places. Valueless, offering as yet no perfect art, the new world is all we have that is truly ours.
In the new and terrifying world of the imagination, cut off from the comfortable certainties of the past, the serious artist creates in the fullest sense of the term. "You do not copy nature, you make something which is an imitation of nature," Williams told the Washington students. In the imagination, the artist, like nature, evolves new forms out of his new material; or, in terms closer to the center of Williams' theory, the artist faces the poverty and isolation of his world and embraces it violently, shaping it formally in its own terms while rejecting the alien and the old.
The distinction between copying and imitation appears as early as 1925 in the contrast between Hawthorne and Poe developed in Williams' American Grain. Despite Hawthorne's "willing closeness to the life of his locality in its vague humors; his lifelike copying of the New England melancholy; his reposeful closeness to the town pump," his tales are formally too old to have much value for a new world. Poe, Williams argued, is actually much more valuable, though he might at first seem to have fled the scene before him by refusing to write about "trees and Indians." Poe not only used new materials—his language was American, not English—and expressed the terror of life in a new world over and over again, but he also kept in mind "a beginning literature . . . that must establish its own rules, own framework." Behind the appearance of a wealth of new material, an illusion which trapped most of his contemporaries, Poe recognized a world lacking in value but so stubborn and savage in character that only the greatest formal skill, employed with imitative savagery, could allow the artist to survive and create. Williams imagined Poe as a frontiersman who survived by refusing to trust "the great natural beauty of the New World," by relying on his murderous skill as Boone had done, and by losing his alien ways in the violence of our new world. Because Poe understood the need for violence, "in all he says there is a sense of him surrounded by his time, tearing at it, ever with more rancour, but always at battle, taking hold."
Williams' new world is as violent as Poe's because it is still a wilderness violently resisting all efforts to cultivate it, and because, in its violently accelerated change, it is even more difficult to grasp than before. For Doctor Williams, daily faced with poverty-stricken patients too ignorant to help themselves, the available material was indeed raw. Instead of complete actions he found isolated moments; instead of whole persons he found unrelated parts. These materials and the temporal situation, he says, "dictated the terms" in which they must be shaped, while the short story specifically had to "accommodate itself to the heterogeneous character of the people, the elements involved, the situation in hand."
Inventing truly new forms demands involvement in our time. Writing what Pound called "histoire morale contemporaine,'" Williams was so deeply involved in his time that his active political concerns could have no place in his short stories: to him, being a "proletarian writer" meant imitating the antisocial attitude of the deprived citizen, a man who clings to the myth of the self-made man so stubbornly that he cannot conceive of a revolutionary social movement which will not threaten his freedom. The central idea of the story and the collection called Life Along the Passaic River is "Nobody's gonna teach it to you; you got to learn it yourself." This is a significant statement of Williams' artistic creed made more significant because it is spoken with the accents of the poor. He is so determined to save them from cultural poverty that he becomes them, sharing their language and its limitations, their stubborn ignorance and their violence.
In theme, language and physical detail, "The Use of Force" is unquestionably modern, reflecting its time exactly as Williams' theory demands. Its broad outlines, however, are more classic than modern, and this fact explains why the story has been more popular with critics than with Williams himself, who identified another story written the same year as his favorite. "The Use of Force" suggests classical tragedy, as one 1965 textbook explains, because the protagonist fights against overwhelming forces so well that her courage and determination take on values which outlast her ultimate defeat. Even though Mathilda Olson is not Antigone but a little girl lacking in real tragic stature, there is enough of the heroine in her to make the doctor into a kind of scientific Creon: his sense of social responsibility and his personal passion combine in a familiar pattern. Yet the story is more than a miniature tragedy in modern dress. In "The Use of Force" classical form is joined—though not successfully in my opinion—to a number of modern themes which, like violence, are characteristic of Williams' fiction in general. Ironically, the presence of the classic formula does not prevent the story from functioning as a good introduction to Williams' theory of modern fiction.
In all Williams' fiction, but most fully in his novel White Mule, children and childish adults represent modern or American man. As in "The Use of Force," the child's helpless struggle to retain her independence often generates admiration and other powerful emotions, but her character remains incomplete, material too raw to be valuable in itself. The central figure of "Jean Beicke," Williams' favorite story, is an infant resembling Mathilda in her resistance and her hidden disease. "A worthless piece of humanity," Jean dies despite the affection of the nurses and the intense professional interest of two good doctors. They attempt to make sense out of the child's condition but are left "dumb," defeated by their lack of knowledge and of words to express their feelings.
Jean, Mathilda, and the Flossie Stecher of White Mule share a capacity for self-destruction, irrational behavior, and violence. Jean's death spurs the narrator to say, "Vote the straight Communist ticket," suggesting—among other things—a revolutionary new view of life; and the little girl called "white mule" or moonshine is irrationally stubborn and as violent as a shot of raw whisky. Commenting on White Mule, Williams said, "I was crazy about babies, the contempt that all babies have for adults. They don't give a damn what goes on." In other words, the emotions associated with children are in themselves not only worthless but even self-destructive; yet these violent emotions are all we as new or unformed men have to give. The artist's social function is to invent forms for these emotions, to arrest the suicidal movement and to give the subjective emotion objective value.
Just as the child replaces the whole man or hero in Williams' fiction, circular movement or anticlimax often replaces a classical resolution of the plot. The last paragraph of "The Use of Force" imperfectly illustrates the difference, for after the doctor finally defeats the child and seems to resolve the conflict, the child attacks him again as if to renew the struggle. To invent a new ending suitable for his time, Williams has to make the ending a beginning, returning the plot from the moment of peace—a kind of death—to violence and life. Because defeat and death are the major premises of classical tragedy, the new form must go beyond it, suggesting a larger view in which life, though lacking in real value, goes on.
In his lecture on the short story Williams declared, "Murder is nothing at all but death—and what's new about death? Violence is the mood today." He sincerely admired the classic use of death as a means of defining life and intensifying human values, from Aeschylus ("a son cuts his mother's throat") to Hemingway ("a woman shooting her husband's head off). But he suspected this was already old to the Hellenistic Greeks. "Maybe Plato was a bit fed up on the Sophocles" and invented the new form of the dialogue as a way of replacing murder with verbal violence. Williams notes that Plato's dialogues have arguments rather than deaths for endings, though he finally gave Socrates, his hero, the hemlock as well as a wife who could outtalk him.
In one of Williams' earliest stories, first published in 1920, art opposes death exactly as verbal violence opposes murder in the dialogues. "Danse Pseudomacabre" criticizes the traditional literary form, the dance of death, for putting its emphasis on death rather than dance, for the work of art can outlive death. In one part of the story death is imaginary—a childish man with erysipelas calls the doctor to witness his will—and in the other a baby twitches in agonies that are coldly final. The doctor finds death the abstraction in both scenes but is searching for something more nearly like life, a way of defeating death. "Either dance or annihilation," the theme of this story, might well be the motto of all Williams' stories involving doctors and patients. In them the doctor is always reluctantly embracing his worthless material, moving with it in constantly changing patterns in order to rescue it from lifeless insignificance.
Another early story, "The Accident," published in 1921, further developed the distinction between death and violence. In it Williams says, "Death is difficult for the senses to alight on. There is no help from familiarity with the location. There is a cold body to be put away but what is that? The life has gone out of it and death has come into it. Whither? The sense has no footspace." Violence is not only sensuous and therefore easier to grasp, but it is also capable of singling out moments in the stream of time and individuals in the mass of humanity without finishing the action or killing the individual. However, violence loses power if not apprehended as immediate experience. The newspapers give us violence enough but fail to present it in its own terms; adding nothing to life, the news actually debases it. In Washington, Williams declared that "the finest short stories are those that raise, in short, one particular man or woman, from that Gehenna, the newspaper, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual."
Not surprisingly, the metamorphosis of Mathilda in "The Use of Force" follows this pattern. The girl's beauty is at first seen in stereo-typed images: she's "one of those picture children often reproduced in advertising leaflets and the photogravure sections of the Sunday papers." But her snatching of the doctor's glasses not only begins the process of making him "blind" with fury but also forces him to look at her with new eyes, raising her out of the exploiter's reach. Finally, when her hidden violence has become overt and she is understood in her own terms as a "savage brat," the doctor sees as an individual.
Impersonal violence, represented chiefly by war rather than by newspaper stories, has been a major problem for writers of the last hundred years. For Williams, the formal treatment of the inhuman event contained the solution: the artist captures the initiative from impersonal violence if he is able to imitate its destruction creatively, in the imagination. There the impersonal event—even war—can be given human meaning, though it may be imperfectly disciplined. Williams was close to the dadaists in 1914-16 and to the surrealists in the early forties when the wars of Europe brought refugees and violent new forms to New York; but his greatest productions of new prose forms coincide, not with international wars, but with the violent influenza epidemics of 1917-18 and 1929, and with other localized battles. He grasped violently new forms such as dada or invented his own—the Improvisations are a good example—to fight his enemy, impersonal violence.
Mathilda, too, attacks all the impersonal forces of society. Like the writer, she gains a temporary victory for humanity by her instinctive and ignorant seizure of the initiative from the one who threatens to expose her secret. She can do this and succeed, temporarily, because death as yet holds no fear: "that's nothing to her." But she ultimately fails: she acknowledges death in her scream, "You're killing me," and—under still greater force—her open mouth makes her secret public. In this context Mathilda's attack in the last lines of the story becomes a pitiful attempt to seize the initiative again. She will fail, no longer acting in self-confident ignorance, because successful new violence requires clear insight and technical skill, but her eyes are blind with tears.
The relationship between doctor and child, between passion and skill, between raw and formal violence, is obviously the central theme of "The Use of Force." The interaction of the two, and not the superiority of one over the other, is the point. The doctor's objectivity, his sense of social purpose and his accumulated knowledge are all modified in the course of the action, so that his violence is affected by that of the "savage brat." Her all-too-human violence, in turn, is beaten by the greater forces of time and death; only in the shape of the story does her formless passion take on meaning. Only in art does modern life have coherence, Williams implies.
In 1917-18, in the chaos and violence of the great epidemic, Williams met death's impersonal violence with the distorted forms of the short prose pieces later collected as Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Their relationship to the short stones exists on several levels, but their commitment to violence is the most easily demonstrated connection: "Richard worked years to conquer the descending cadence, idiotic sentimentalist. Ha, for happiness! This tore the dress in ribbons from her maid's back and not spared the nails either; wild anger spit from her pinched eyes! This is the better part. Or a child under a table to be dragged out coughing and biting, eyes glittering evilly. I'll have it my own way! Nothing is any pleasure but misery and brokenness. THIS is the only upcadence." Techniques from the past, such as the metrical problem preoccupying Richard, have only a "sentimental" relevance to the violence and fragmentation of life today. But wild scenes reminiscent of "The Use of Force" and other short stories offer a solution for the modern artist: deformity, insanity, wounds, amputation, disease may be clues to the shape of new forms. This argument is continued in "Danse Pseudomacabre," where the narrator asserts "the normality of every distortion to which flesh is susceptible, every disease, every amputation." Like violence, disease is normal in its opposition to death; unlike violence, disease is what Williams called "the illuminating element."
In "The Use of Force" all three Olsons are called "patients" because all their secret lives are illuminated by the child's disease. The story's action centers around force or violence, and a secret is literally forced out of each character in the story. But violence, like the idea or suspicion of disease, has been present in them from the beginning.
It is insubstantial until it breaks into the open and makes itself fully concrete in the membrane on the child's tonsils. The meaninglessness of violence without disease, of emotion without its image, lies at the basis of the dramatic poem "The Raper from Passenack," published the same year as Life Along the Passaic River.
This poem focuses on the victim's attempts to understand the act of violence:
Only a man who is sick, she said
would do a thing like that.
It must be so.
No one who is not diseased could be
so insanely cruel. He wants to give it
to someone else—
to justify himself.
She comprehends something of his motives but "can't yet understand / it" in terms of herself, because not even the experience of personal violence is self-illuminating. So she creates a disease, an explanation, just as the artist creates an image to match his emotion. But in her ability to see how the violence might in simpler times have contained the seeds of life ("I'd rather a million times / have been got pregnant") she fails to understand the need to make disease breed life rather than death:
if I get a
venereal infection out of this
I won't be treated.
I refuse. You'll find me dead in bed first.
Without art violence failed to find its proper image, its "right" disease, and the result was "hatred of all men /—and disgust."
Rejecting the symbol in favor of the image, its modern counterpart, Williams necessarily rejects the values familiarly attached to disease. Eliot's assertion in "East Coker" that "Our only health is the disease / If we obey the dying nurse" finally depends on these old, familiar associations even though its emphases, such as the insistence on the savior's imperfection, are modern. Eliot gives the classic symbolism of disease a new twist which allows the past to offer an ironic contrast with the present, while Williams attempts to use disease objectively, giving it only an esthetic value as "the illuminating element." "The Knife of the Times," one of many Williams stories dealing with sexual perversion, presents disease in precisely this objective manner. A knife cuts objectively, regardless of the patient, to reveal the truth; this knife is doubly objective, for the times—our modern times—do not treat the disease of homosexuality with traditional horror, nor do these times have any values to impose upon the truth they reveal. The knife of the times enables an ordinary woman to discover the "disease" in her best friend and then in herself; facing the possibility of a new, though "abnormal," life, she asks, "Why not?" The diseased world of Lesbian love offers no basis for horror, and after all, she has nothing else. The disease, radiating its own objective truth, has no more moral significance than the knife which lays it open: both are images of art rather than morality.
All the world is a hospital to Williams as much as to Eliot, yet Eliot's institution, a kind of purgatory, specializes in the curing of souls, while Williams' corridors have no surgeons in them and he minimizes the importance of cures. "Any worth-his-salt physician knows that no one is 'cured,'" Williams says in his Autobiography. Ignorant of this simple fact and living in the old world of absolutes, his patients demand bigger and better cures, "home runs, antibiotics to cure man with a single shot in the buttocks." "It is noteworthy," he says, "that the Sulfonamids, penicillin, came in about simultaneously with Ted Williams, Ralph Kiner and the rubber ball." Without scorning humanity's weakness for absolutes, he treats us as children who will get, not what we want, but what is good for us in the way of art. Just as the doctor is obliged by social expectations to strive toward a total "cure" or immortality, the artist is obliged to aspire toward completeness and a final fixed form; but Williams secretly believes that "discovery is the great goal."
"There is only, we might say, flux in nature." If this is true, as Williams asserts in A Beginning on the Short Story, movement and change characterize life, while death, in essence, is fixity. By analogy, a cure, as a moment of pause in the course of a disease, is a kind of death. In the realm of art, as in medicine, some temporary fixing of life is necessary, but concentration on the end rather than the means leads directly to denial of movement and change, to dead form. Gazing too long at the still beauty of perfection, an artist forgets his humanity, his ultimate commitment to change. To counteract this Williams recommends "Drink, drugs—anything you can think of to free the artist's mind from fixity, especially from past forms embodying values irrelevant to our times. Like the doctor in "The Use of Force," the artist needs release from rational restraints before he can begin to see the values inherent in his crude materials. He must be willing to come down to their own level, where abnormality, disease and violence are expected. And the familiarity of violence to us, for whom it has been called "idiomatic," makes old literary treatments of such material less truthful than nonliterary ones.
Freedom being as essential to fictional technique as to the basic imagination, Williams suggested to his audience in 1950 that "release" be followed by improvisation. "Sit down blind and start to fling the words around like pigments . . . let 'em go and (without thinking or caring) see where they'll lead you." The words, freed of their habitual and traditional uses, become concrete objects rather than ideas and the shape of the entire work is deformed by the violence of the method. Its deformities, both surface roughness and structural imperfection, deny its own completeness, sacrificing wholeness for connections with life as an ongoing process and with our unformed and incomplete new world. It is writing rather than literature.
Viewed from a different position, deformities are the memories of violence made permanent, testimony to the violence of the creative act. The woman with the broken nose in episode 17 of Paterson is "marked up / Beautiful Thing / for memory's sake / to be credible." In the last word Williams puns on credit, the nation's self-created wealth, to suggest that the values of art, after all, constitute our least tangible and yet our only true source of wealth. Here, and in many other passages, he insists on retaining the physical marks of the process by formal invention rather than by freedom from form. Although techniques of improvisation cannot be perfected and still remain improvisatory, those techniques may be improved by closer imitation of the violence and deformity of our daily life, constantly reinventing forms nearer and nearer to the truth about us. The truth about the modern world does not exist except in its art, so that the responsibility for writing truthfully ultimately becomes the responsibility to write well. The short story, Williams says, "must be written so well that that in itself becomes its truth while the deformity informs it."
In fiction, truth is always reached by means of a life. In this sense, all fiction must be deformed. Williams' emphasis on deformity, however, forces him to emphasize the lie to an unusual degree. His Autobiography tells of a libel suit rising out of a short story, which he was happy to settle out of court for $5000, though every word in the story was factually true. Williams seems to offer this incident as a parable: since he was writing fiction, he was indeed guilty, both of lying and of telling the truth. He was happy to pay the price to go on writing fiction. But he was also paying for the privilege of producing an unsalable lie, telling a truth so unpleasant and so crudely disguised that it was certain to be offensive. The ignorant citizen of the new world prefers a familiar kind of lie and also has spirit enough to aspire toward perfection, if it is only a mechanically perfect technique in the fiction he buys. The new world is sensitive enough to resent seeing its own deformities made public and seeing its lack of refinement reflected in its art, for it childishly wants to deny its own newness.
Among Williams' stories, "Frankie the Newspaperman" probably puts the motives of vanity, ignorance, and a pitiful aspiration together in the neatest structure. In high school English, Frankie Weber, the bright son of a washerwoman, is always in trouble. Most recently, he made a fool of his teacher by a crudely inventive twist of colloquial speech: everybody should chip in a dollar and take up a collection for the teacher "because she is so flat busted!" But the cruel joke, puncturing the teacher's vanity, is on him, too: the newspaper writing he aspires to will inevitably lack the pleasure and force of his improvisation and lack the basic American crudity that permits the joke to flash the truth about him, his teacher, and their world—that all are culturally indigent, "flat busted." Newspapers function similarly in "The Use of Force." Mathilda's apologetic parents, acutely self-conscious and aware of their lack of refinement, cannot help being upset when the doctor's first impression of their daughter, as "one of those picture children . . . of the Sunday papers," is quickly destroyed. The crude behavior of the child forces them into the open, turns them "inside out" just as most newspaper facts, if twisted or otherwise deformed, can be forced to reveal their implicit truths.
Referring to his libelous story, Williams said with his usual false naïvete that pressures of time and place kept him from refining it: "I planned to change the names later." Conditions prevented him from protecting his readers from the truth about themselves, forced him to use "real names" and made his crude failure more significant than a slick success. Once again, "The Use of Force" may be read as a dramatization of a critical principle. Mathilda's lies about her throat fail, forcing her to violence that reveals her true worth; the doctor's false smile—in his "best professional manner"—fails, forcing him also to violence. However, he would still prefer to achieve his goal in some less physical manner, and his familiarity with successful lies makes him furious with Mrs. Olson's unsuccessful "He won't hurt you." "If only they wouldn't use the word 'hurt' I might be able to get somewhere." Of all the characters, only Mrs. Olson fails to realize that her lies are lies, so that she remains ignorant to the end and refuses to give up her interjections of "nice" and "kind" for the crude action which is an admission of failure and a deformed kind of success.
"I lived among these people," Williams said of the patients who were the chief characters of his stories. "I was involved." Involvement, of course, meant lack of esthetic distance or a point of view, a technical deformity Williams was conscious of almost to the point of "shame." But as usual, he attempted to exploit this flaw, to make the deformity inform his work. Since the fictional narrator belonged to the past and a modern substitute had not yet appeared, he had nothing from which to invent a new form except his own shameful involvement. Thus "The Use of Force" and most of Williams' other stories might be described as fictions in which Williams involves himself as the narrator; but they are more accurately stories in which the point of view is missing, formal structures in which the flaw functions as a part of the whole, giving it its meaning. His closeness to the action of the story must appear as a deformity, a failure to invent, until the meaning of the story becomes radiantly clear. Then the form is seen as new rather than old and the imperfection becomes a kind of refinement.
The technical refinements in Williams' stories like "The Use of Force" are so new that they can seldom be described except in terms of the old. In language, for example, Williams' stories appear careless, crude or unfinished. One, called "Verbal Transcription: 6 A.M.," pretends to be nothing more than a crude set of notes, and its material, like Frankie's joke, is often cliché. But the language is not copied; instead, it imitates the rough talk of the new world, recreating that world in its own terms. The careless effect of the first paragraph of "The Use of Force" comes from two sentences combining inaccurate statement with loose and illogical connections of ideas. And although one sentence is spoken by one of the Olsons and the other by the doctor, the speaker's individuality seems to be denied by the stylistic flatness of both. Yet in the end, we see that the whole family are patients, that the two speakers are close-knit in speech because they are related in several significant ways, and that subtle distinctions between parental nervousness and professional calm are present in the two speeches. [The critic adds in a footnote: "Punctuation divides each sentence into two major units. Of the paragraph's four units, the first and the last are single phrases of minimum length grouped around a single primary stress, the repetition functioning to call attention to the similarities and differences in the two middle units, which subdivide into two parts. These differ so clearly in pauses and primary stresses that the doctor's slower and the parent's more rapid speech can be distinctly heard."]
Similarly, the diction of "The Use of Force" appears flat and its metaphors seem clichés. The words and phrases describing Mathilda—eating me up, strong as a heifer, with one cat-like movement, clawed, savage, wild, damned—do not call attention to themselves; lacking commercial beauty or obvious newness, they generate meaning through their arrangement within individual sentences and within the story. Damned, the climactic word, is probably the best of all the calculated failures. It does, of course, fail to convey the doctor's frustration or his need to express himself violently; a banal blasphemy, it expresses only failure. But attached to a child who contains all the new world, it takes on the solid new meanings of doomed and lost.
Looking back, Williams said of his stories, "I kept the literary thing to myself. No one knew I felt that the stories might be literary." It is this attitude which distinguishes Williams from his contemporaries, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway, each of whom shared some part of his theory of modern fiction. All these others refined their materials in the classical manner: their writing quickly became independent of its sources in everyday diction, the rhythms of the spoken language, the mind of the nonliterary and anti-intellectual citizen. Hemingway, Williams complained to Pound in 1928, misused the formal qualities implicit in conversation: "I am afraid Hem doesn't at all understand, since it is rarely as expressive as he makes it and twice as succinct." Later Williams returned to the same point to say "Hemingway's not a bad poet and might have been a better one." Both comments seem to be references to the techniques of refinement which made Hemingway a successful and even salable writer. Prose so obviously patterned that it became poetic was for Williams a betrayal of the new and its inherent deformity; it was neo-orthodox writing, the old masquerading as something new.
Like Williams' famous but misunderstood criticism of T. S. Eliot's neo-orthodoxy, his opposition to Hemingway's style was an outgrowth of his theory more than it was jealousy of one more successful than himself. Williams' theory of the new could not accommodate a successful writer, even one whom he had helped and who had arrived only after years of neglect. Williams assumed the existence of a new world always new and therefore never wholly conquered; its writers must always be on the way, in the midst of their work, and never in a position of having arrived. Furthermore, Williams' world of perpetual change claims the artist's whole attention, leaving him no time to compare himself with the great men of the past as Hemingway was so fond of doing. For all these reasons, Williams' approach will appeal strongly to the young or unsuccessful writer even where its appeal to basic American prejudices does not touch him. It was entirely appropriate that Williams' fullest statement of his theory of fiction be made to college students, and that it be called A Beginning on the Short Story.
William Carlos Williams demanded so much of the modern artist that he could not always satisfy his own demands. A few of his stories, like "The Dawn of Another Day," cannot be distinguished from the commercial formulas he said he was attacking; a great many more, like the ones mentioned through this essay, are fascinating attempts to make the deformity inform the modern short story. "The Use of Force," however, stands out. Its critical and commercial success calls attention to its failure as a modern work, its failure to deal with the people and the times completely in the contemporary patterns of deformity and failure.
The deficiencies of "The Use of Force" as a modern short story become apparent when it is contrasted with a more anecdotal fragment like the following narrative from Williams' Autobiography. "One day I was examining a fifteen-year-old white girl—a cute kid who had been brought into the clinic for diagnosis by her mother who wanted to know what made her belly so big. The kid was not dumb and fought us every step of the way. Finally after threats by her mother and persuasion on my part, we got her dress off, but at that point she flew at us all and in her underwear dashed out the door and up the street like a young doe. That's the last I saw of her." Like some of Kora in Hell: Improvisations and all of the miniature narratives that make up the story "World's End," this expresses the fragmentary nature of Williams' world more clearly than "The Use of Force," as well as avoiding the suggestion of any classic pattern. Her escape is not the comic success of the underdog, for her secret can be concealed even less successfully than Mathilda's; and her deformity is full of human meaning which has no relationship to her rather temporary escape. In escaping the doctor's clutches, she is also life escaping the artist no matter how many times he tries to bring his work to perfection. The diagnosis is incomplete and the "cure" for pregnancy is such an unlikely possibility that it is not mentioned in the narrative.
As this example suggests, Williams' theory and practice both make it necessary to redefine the term fiction, at least for him, to include almost all his prose: novels, short stories, improvisations, autobiographical works. R. P. Blackmur called In the American Grain and The Great American Novel fictions; they are certainly not essays and ought to be read as fiction if not as poems. And it might even be useful to extend the term to include Williams' peculiar alternating form of verse and prose—exemplified in Spring & All, The Descent of Winter, and Paterson—if this would, as I believe, increase the appreciation of his art. Along with such a redefinition, the fact must be faced that Williams' critical essays, like Poe's, are absolutely essential for reading his work, because the real subject of it all is art and his critical statements are the best keys to what he was attempting to do.
The critical problem of Williams' basic assumption of a perpetually new world, of course, remains, for understanding of the importance of the assumption to him should precede any attack on this problem. It is certainly far from the simple primitivism which a number of critics have claimed. I have tried to show how much misunderstanding exists in spite of Williams' coherence and consistency. I have been especially eager to correct the confusion between traditional morality, for which Williams has no artistic use, and the morality of art that operates in all of Williams' work. His dedication to art was as single-minded as that of his "saint" Edgar Allan Poe, and his dedication to the new world was as great as that of his other guide and patron, Walt Whitman.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4502
SOURCE: "On the Ground," in William Carlos Williams, Twayne Publishers, 1968, pp. 97-118.
[In the excerpt below, Whitaker gives a thematic overview of Williams's short fiction.]
Though Williams had written short stories during the previous decade or so, not until the 1930's did this form become of major importance to him. In the people among whom he worked, the Depression was now revealing qualities that demanded a brief narrative form: "brokenness and heterogeneity—isolation, color." Temporary uncertainty about his direction in poetry also led him to prose—as a "laboratory for metrics" in which he could listen to live speech, hoping to discover the new. And behind these immediate reasons there was, I think, his increasing need to explore more intensively the minute particulars of that ground to which Dev Evans had returned—that ground on which Williams walked daily. Indeed, the primary stylistic meaning of these stories results from their movement beyond what he had called in 1927 "my formerly important irritability, diffuseness," toward annihilation of the self-regarding ego and a clearer acquaintance with the ground. This movement required a difficult honesty: "In order to be plain myself I must be assured that I am speaking true. That is the style, true to the sharpest, firmest present vision of which I am capable."
The stories collected in The Knife of the Times (1932) sometimes recall Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, and D. H. Lawrence, for Williams employs an oral style that relies heavily upon rapid and generalized narration and upon strategic focus on a few banal but authentic details. In understated sketches ("The Knife of the Times," "The Sailor's Son") characters reach blindly toward some fulfillment, their need answered half-comprehendingly perhaps by another. More extended studies ("A Descendant of Kings," "Pink and Blue") balance pathos and comedy as they move toward a grotesque inflation made possible by their anecdotal mode.
The accurately heard speaking voice is a key to greater intensity in "An Old Time Raid," where the first-person narration stylistically renders the theme—a vacuous violence, without self-comprehension, born of hidden frustration. In this instance, an anecdote widens to become a character study and a study of an entire deformed milieu. A similar intensity charges "Mind and Body," in which a neurotic patient reveals her complex rhythm of being through her own lengthy utterances. Here too appears another device of great importance in later stories: Williams focuses upon a human predicament through the doctor-patient relationship, allowing the shadowily present doctor to serve as explicit or implicit locus of observation. The deepest meaning of such stories may be found less in the predicaments observed than in the difficult but unself-conscious openness of the doctor's attention. The conclusion of "Mind and Body" itself points ironically to that fact: pressing for a somatic diagnosis, the woman invites from her doctor a drastic reduction of that total human interpretation implicit in his arrangement of the story's details.
The major piece in this volume is the long story "Old Doc Rivers." In it, a doctor-narrator's inquiries combine with related anecodotes in a progression d'effet which leads into a complex awareness of both Old Doc Rivers and his provincial environment, with its walling-in and its limited releases. The opening paragraph plunges us into the rhythm of the narrator's repeated drama of sudden discovery and ruminative assessment: "Horses. These definitely should be taken into consideration in estimating Rivers position, along with the bad roads, the difficult means of communication of those times." As the story proceeds through neatly fitted blocks of material, the meanings of "horses" and "bad roads" widen to include Rivers' pride in occupation, his dashing readiness and fevered rush, his isolation and need for release—and, with a sardonic modulation, his final doped decline amid changing times. We last see him as owner of "two cars always ready for service," riding out on calls with one of his wife's Blue Pomeranians on his lap; "for in those days he himself never sat at the wheel."
Between that opening and that close, the story follows a seemingly devious but subtly direct line of understanding. First, there are glimpses of Rivers' practice and of his drive across the County Bridge toward some release in the "dark spring night." Then follows the narrator's inquiry into hospital record books, where he characteristically finds at first "something other than the thing desired" but with unexpected relevance: data about the human occupations, misery, and fatalities of the time, among which he slips new information for us about Rivers, "dead surely of the effects of his addiction." The story then moves (by way of alcoholism as a ledger entry) through exploration of Rivers' use of dope, inquiries of surgeons who had assisted him, and the narrator's own memory of the two occasions on which he had helped Rivers with an operation.
By now our distance from the narrator has decreased—as has his own distance from the past that he is exploring. We may thus join him in searching the meaning of Rivers' tenderness and cruelty, carelessness and painstaking attention. Then, with the outlines of a character and a predicament before us, we can actually follow Rivers on those drives away from town: toward the Jeannette Mansion, toward the Maine woods and the North Jersey mountains, and (after another "digression," telling of his stays in the Insane Asylum and his marriage, and locating us in the consciousness of a youthful eye-witness) toward that most important of "favorite places," the isolated farm where a woman provided—in her own abandonment—a more necessary asylum.
As the friend tells of those visits (appropriately beginning with the inclusive phrase, "You know how it used to be," and incorporating a running account of his own youth), it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish his voice from that of the narrator. And in a sudden detail—"Killy-fish rippled the road ditch, a diminutive tempest, as the carriage and the hoof beats of the horses slightly shook the ground in passing"—we are momentarily swept through the minds of narrator and informant into that of Rivers himself, as we now fully sense the meaning of that drive across the County Bridge. Williams has led us back into what James called a "visitable past," a past that is also ours.
In doing so, Williams has given the larger meaning of Rivers' predicament: a complex nature hemmed in by a "crude environment," a "refinement of the sensibilities that made him, though able, the victim of the very things he best served." Rivers was "by natural endowment the ablest individual of our environment"; and—unlike most in the cities who "have lost touch" with themselves, "have become indeed not authentic persons, but fantastic shapes in some gigantic fever dream"—he had "the courage to break with it and to go."
As the story tails off with anecdotes of decline and of legendary competence (rendering the despairing faith of a population which, as in Paterson, seeks a "marvel"), we find two summary statements casually included among other data. The first: "A cure for disease? He knew what that amounted to. For of what shall one be cured? Work, in this case, through sheer intuitive ability flooded him under." Ironically enough, Rivers' own amazing diagnostic ability makes him a focus for the ills of his time, which take in him a peculiarly revelatory form. And the second statement: "He was one of the few that ever in these parts knew the meaning of all, to give himself completely." We suddenly recognize—in and through the distortions of temperament and time—a spiritual descendant of Rasles and Boone—and a true colleague of the writer himself.
Life Along the Passaic River (1938) continues the double interest in people and place, and also focuses on that overwhelming question: "Of what shall one be cured?" Through the panoramic sketch ("Life Along the Passaic River"), the neatly plotted episode ("The Dawn of Another Day"), the series of vignettes ("World's End"), and the character drawing ("Under the Greenwood Tree"), Williams explores the blockages and perversions of the time and implies a cure: attentive acceptance. One of several earlier pieces collected here—"Danse Pseudomacabre" (1920)—presents a rather strident version of such acceptance. But other stories, relating encounters of doctors and patients, more firmly realize both disease and cure.
In "The Girl with a Pimply Face" the "hard, straight thing" that the doctor-narrator admires in the girl appears also, complicated and refracted, in his own attention to her warping milieu. We accept his compassion for the alcoholic mother partly because it is one genuine emotion among others—puzzlement, irritation, inarticulate rage, enthusiasm. Hence in its closing dialogue the story can accomplish the very difficult task of allowing both narrator and fifteen-year-old girl to emerge as implicit signs of life in a venal and oppressive environment.
In "The Use of Force" the same frank acknowledgment of what is allows the doctor to move from impatience to love, to pleasure in his own fury, and on to self-recognition: "The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end." This doctor's curative insight is, among other things, an awareness of how he shares in those desires which, uncomprehended, make for conflict and tyranny.
In "A Night in June" the burden of self-knowledge for such a doctor emerges unobtrusively in the midst of an early morning delivery of a child to an Italian immigrant woman. The first sentences of the story establish an ironic point of reference by alluding to the delivery of her first baby (eighteen years earlier) when the narrator was "a young man . . . full of information and tenderness." The story has about six pages of detail concerning the routine preparations for the present delivery in order to render the quality of experience of a man honestly aware of his own sources of gratification—a man for whom the self-conscious imparting of "information and tenderness" are signs of youth.
After this preparation we can approach a statement that would otherwise be quite misleading: "With my left hand steering the child's head, I used my ungloved right hand outside on her bare abdomen to press upon the fundus. The woman and I then got to work. Her two hands grabbed me at first a little timidly about the right wrist and forearm. Go ahead, I said. Pull hard. I welcomed the feel of her hands and the strong pull. It quieted me in the way the whole house had quieted me all night." He recognizes that it is he who is "being comforted and soothed." But the story must continue even beyond this climax for another page—through a variety of medical concerns and family reactions to the final question from the sister-in-law: "What shall I do? Put a little boric acid powder on the belly button to help dry it up?" Only amid equal attention to details of this kind can such gratification or release be of another order than Rivers' dope or the use of force.
The very different doctor-narrator of "Jean Beicke" projects in his rambling discourse a mask of callousness, verve, curiosity, and wry humor through which tenderness emerges only obliquely or in disguise. The story's most striking device is its limiting of the baby Jean's hospital life to a three-page block in the middle of some eight pages. The long introduction establishes the tonal complexity of the narrator's voice against a background of human deprivation and a range of simpler attitudes toward it: the "doctor who has given the parents a ride," parents who were habitual drunkards ("No fault of theirs maybe"), and nurses who "break their hearts over those kinds, many times, when I, for one, wish they'd never get well."
But why should Williams inform us of Jean's mastoiditis and death and then go back through the details of the autopsy that had revealed the nature of her illness? By eliminating suspense, he enables us to join the narrator in focussing with equanimity upon the medical details—against a background, once more, of simpler and more extreme human responses: the mother's sorrow and her sister's sense of relief. Sharing both impulses, the narrator yet proceeds with what needs to be done. However, the final interchange with the "ear man" points beyond the narrator for the full meaning of a normative awareness:
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.
The human condition requires a more delicately vulnerable witnessing than the narrator's own armor of defensive abstraction and sardonic solutions may allow. But the difficulty of such witnessing is also part of the meaning of little Jean herself: "She was just skin and bones but her eyes were good and she looked straight at you. Only if you touched her anywhere, she started to whine and then cry with a shrieking, distressing sort of cry that no one wanted to hear." In Jean, as in all the adults of the story, potential awareness has been crippled as a raw sensitivity defends itself.
The use of a doctor-narrator is most striking in "A Face of Stone." There the narrator himself begins with responses to experience that are habitual and self-enclosing. In the opening description of the couple who seek his help, his irritation and prejudice are manifest: "He was one of these fresh Jewish types you want to kill at sight, the presuming poor whose looks change the minute cash is mentioned. But they're insistent, trying to force attention, taking advantage of good nature at the first crack. You come when I call you, that type." The tone is convincing: this narrator is a man whom the author thoroughly understands.
Turning from one half-projected mode of defensiveness to another, the doctor describes the woman, who "stood beside her smiling husband and looked at me with no expression at all on her pointed face, unless no expression is an expression. A face of stone. It was an animal distrust, not shyness. She wasn't shy but seemed as if sensing danger, as though she were on guard against it." There is danger, of course, which the narrator does not see because it is in himself.
Toward the end of the story, as he realizes the woman's suffering and the nature of the husband's devotion to her, his view of the couple begins to alter: "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." His own stoniness is explicitly dissolved; but the fuller meanings of that process are only implied by the woman's response as he explains the medicine she is to take: "Then for the first time since I had known her a broad smile spread all over her face. Yeah, she said, I swallow him." What the narrator does not know, or at least cannot say, is the fact that his own new condition has enabled in the woman a comparable opening, of which her words are symptom and symbol. "Of what shall one be cured?" This story dramatizes with firm and tactful detail the narrator's movement toward re-acquaintance with not merely a local but a spiritual ground.
Williams' awareness of this meaning is evident from a canceled preface, written during a moment of doubt over the clarity of the story's structure:
What shall I say? The truth only, of a life tortured, but no more than others, and unfeeling. It is even somewhat shameful to speak of these things. . . . Of what is there to confess? Loss of love? Why pretend a love that doubtless never quite existed? . . .
How shall I say it? I who have wished to embrace the world with love have succeeded only in binding to myself a wife and children . . . ? I who wished, in a general way, to die for love have suffered only the small accidents of fatigue, bewilderment and loss? . . .
Who feels enough confidence to say anything? All I know is that no matter what we have dreamed or desired it slips away unless by a supreme effort we struggle to detain it. And often, in spite of all that we can do, it is to someone else we owe the little we can hold. . . . I want to explain, for once, not only the story, but to go besides outside it and stress what it means to me—returning to a life as I had planned it.
It is only a story, good enough, and there is a desperation in the very triviality of situations, since we know well what they signify but being unable to quite convince ourselves of their importance we allow them to pile up . . .
And in this earlier draft, Williams included a more explicit account of the narrator's feeling toward the husband:
There is in a defenseless thing something that infuriates us. . . . We find ourselves beaten by the meanness of our own lives, the squalor of it, the grossness, the moral weakness. And not daring, out of cowardice, to attack the real enemy, ourselves, we wreak our vengeance on the meanest thing before us.
Even knowing I was cruel, cowardly, I couldn't stop myself. There was a pleasure in it. . . . That pity, even tenderness could at the same time be alive seems impossible, yet it is so. But once the attack is launched, even against reason, against desire, the object of our hatred becomes fixed and we go on to the bitter end. Only a deeper power, as I will show, can wake us finally to all that life can mean—and save us.
Though, as autobiographical statements, these are moving in their tortured honesty, Williams was right to omit them. His narrator enacts a process that he cannot (without self-contradiction) fully articulate. "A Face of Stone" stands firmly as it is: a rendering of that "deeper power" and that "waking."
Make Light of It (1950) includes many brief sketches that are important mainly as reflecting Williams' search for the illuminating detail and the cadences of live speech. But several stories are more difficult contrapuntal structures, rendering a hitherto unrecognized order. In "The Burden of Loveliness" a central anecdote appears in a seemingly digressive context that is really "conversation as design." The result is a subtle exploration, through interlocking trivial situations and obliquely symbolic detail, of what happens to esthetic appreciation and sexuality in a market economy. No doctrinaire diatribe, it is a sympathetic presentation of the human costs borne by those who buy or sell or try to do neither.
In "Country Rain" the meaning expands mainly through symbolic details and characters. The relationship of Helen and her friend Ruth, who have left city and men for an unconventional new start as operators of a country inn, is counterpointed by that of two lady school teachers and that of the narrator and his wife. Early drafts treated at some length the repressed school teachers' obsession with grammar, their conservatism and prejudice, and their readiness to discover political subversion. But Williams reduced such material to brief hints and to a closing symbolic comment, which juxtaposes "their situation among the dones, the aints and the seens" and an "ungrammatical rock." The richly regenerative details of that rock summarize what we have seen beneath the neat surfaces of Helen's and Ruth's life together. The story ends with another counterpoint—Floss' question, "Do you think Ruth will every marry?" and the narrator's counterquestion: "Why?" Growth here does not result from insistence upon some grammar—linguistic, political, or sexual.
The most successful story of this kind, however, is "Comedy Entombed." Central in it is the doctor's response to the woman and the mode of life in the house: "There was nothing properly recognizable, nothing straight, nothing in what might have been called its predictable relationships. Complete disorder." But he comes to see it as an "unrecognizable order" and implicitly discerns the meaning of its resemblance to the woman, with her smiling ease amid fifth-month contractions. The final page, through conversation alone, subtly rounds off a double pattern: the comedy entombed alive in the woman herself (by oppressive environment and unwanted child) and the further entombing which results from it:
It was alive when it was born though, she said. I looked and I could see it open its mouth like it wanted to breathe. What is it, Doc, . . . a boy or a girl?
Oh, boy! said the husband, have I got a bellyache tonight. She laughed. Guss he's having a baby. He's worse than I am. . . . Say, Doc, she continued, you haven't told me. What was it? . . .
I looked. Yes, it would have been a girl.
There, she said, you see! Now you've got your girl. I hope you're satisfied.
I haven't got any girl, he answered quietly.
I'm hungry, yelled a sleepy voice from the other room.
Shut up! said the father.
The narrator's attention has focused a family pattern of conflicting "hungers" or desires to "breathe" which lead to frustration, shutting up, entombment. . . .
A late story, "The Farmers' Daughters" (1957), may remind us where Williams' strengths lie; for it avoids the dangers that attend dramatic action and also those of the writer's egocentric involvement. Though the story may seem a random sequence of glimpses, it is really a firm composition of selected narrative blocks. The narrator, an anonymous member of the community, is little more than a voice. Through him we share the story's real point of view: that of the doctor who is friend and confidant of the two lonely women, Helen and Margaret. The doctor, however, is no center of conflict, nor does he search into the meaning of the events he witnesses. Often no more than implicitly present, he is at most a shadowy figure. Yet for that reason he gradually focuses the story's most important meanings.
The first seven narrative blocks suggest the frustration and violence in the women's past and their continuing loneliness and self-destructiveness. We see, however, that, while Margaret is still victim of a compulsive sexuality, Helen is pulling out of her similarly compulsive drinking. We also see that the doctor's mere attention to Helen—his good-humored, sympathetic, and honest response—has been an important curative force. After brief description of the developing friendship between the two women, the next five blocks bring the story to its first climax. We see Helen's home situation more fully—including her intense yet obliquely expressed love for the doctor. The doctor's response appears in his reaction to the photograph she gives him: "The trees blossoming with ice seemed to them both a triumphant thing; it made their hearts sing, therefore he was grateful to her for the picture, wanted to keep it where he could see it when he was depressed." We then follow corresponding material concerning Margaret—including her growing desperation and her imperfectly acknowledged affection for the doctor. Here too we find hints of his own fascination. The last block of material, spanning several years, moves with stark swiftness from the symbolic Thanksgiving celebration with the doctor ("a love feast, . . . a despairing avowal and celebration") into the first major crisis: Margaret's drunken fracas, her attempt to kill herself and her children, and her flight with boyfriend Mac.
In the next section—another twelve blocks—this established rhythm is expanded. With minor variations, we move through Helen's situation and then through Margaret's. Again the last block moves swiftly from a kind of domestic felicity into catastrophe: the shooting of Margaret by her new husband. Two other blocks provide a coda on the meaning of human relatedness. First, Helen's hysterical reconstruction of the murder, concluding with her plea to the doctor: "Take good care of yourself 'cause I can't afford to lose you. When she [Margaret] died, I died too, you're the only one I have left." Second, the dry account—after the inquest—of the trajectory of the bullet.
Many details in this half of the story have developed its central triangular relationship. There are little parallels: Helen yearns toward her china doll as the doctor implicitly does toward Helen—with her "Dresden china blue eyes blinking at him above a house-coat of mixed colors and faded blue slacks." Yet such pathetic attempts to overcome isolation have their beauty: "You're not the one to judge: when you talk about that doll you're beautiful." There is even something curative and pastoral in the doctor's relation to Helen, as there is not in the visit made by the Episcopal minister or in the baptism which she recalls. Their mutual need is doomed, however, to imperfect manifestations—even as the doctor says "all the great dramas with love as their theme are tragedies."
Indeed, the murder of Margaret itself arises from a more frenzied acting out of this very need to love and be loved, as the doctor's comments on her vulnerability to exploitation may suggest: "You'll do it all over again and nobody can stop you. You've done things to us which are inexcusable. And yet . . . I don't blame you. That's a trait that people like you exhibit—to our envy—and despair—a sort of power that you have over us. I still believe in you, that you are not guilty. . . . Not only that, but in many ways you are the best of us, the most direct, the most honest—yes, and in the end, the most virtuous." Each of these three persons is partly mirrored in the others, and in the trees blooming in ice, the roses, and the jonquils. Yet each sums up one facet of their common predicament: in Margaret, the most desperate and naked loneliness; in Helen, a more vigorous if precarious thriving despite that loneliness; and, in the doctor—imperfectly manifest through his own need—that non-possessive love which might cure the alienation from which all suffer.
Emphasizing the doctor's role in this way, I have necessarily shifted the apparent focus of the story. Its own narrative tact makes the doctor hardly more than a mode of relating. ("Nothing like careful snipping," advised Williams, "for the bringing out of the profile.") The story thus avoids the pitfall of self-indulgence that awaits any fuller attempt to dramatize such a figure. And that tact also requires that the doctor not search for meaning but merely be attentive to what unfolds—and vulnerable to it. The narrative structure causes us then not to look at him so much as to see with his eyes. We find ourselves not driving toward some goal of understanding but merely paying attention—now to Helen, now to Margaret. But "attention" is a pale word to describe what is happening as we share in the partial failure of love—the story's tragic burden.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6716
SOURCE: "The Shape of Men's Lives'," in The Prose of William Carlos Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1970, pp. 104-20.
[In the following essay, Wagner surveys Williams's short fiction, relating its subjects and techniques to those of other contemporaneous writings.]
Williams' short stories may have had as deep an effect on contemporary fiction as his poems have had on modern poetry. Denis Donoghue feels that "his stories will wear better than his poems, because the stories keep him rooted in the particular incident" [Connoisseurs of Chaos, 1965]. Many modern writers, ranging from Flannery O'Connor to Robert Creeley, share this view. The apparently effortless telling, the informal (and often unresolved) plot, the emphasis on character presented through salient details, and above all, the reliance on dialogue—these trademarks of a Williams' story occur repeatedly in contemporary writing. Yet mere copying of one stylistic device or another has never insured success, as many imitators of the supposed "Hemingway" style or "Faulkner" style have discovered. There are two primary difficulties in discussing Williams' short stories: first, the great variety of them; and second, the poet's insistence that a story is an amoral art form, that—as the most free of art forms—it has no responsibility to be anything other than a "formal" arrangement of words. Because the tradition in the American short story is didactic (Hawthorne instructed, whereas Poe only bewildered), critics have attempted too often to find explicit messages in stories which Williams intended rather as "a good medium for nailing down a single conviction. Emotionally" ["A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)," The Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, 1954]. As he explained in 1950,
What shall the short story be written about?. . . . Something that interests the writer seriously, as a writer (not necessarily a man for in that case the interest would be moral and perhaps best NOT represented as a short story). He writes about the way his interests, as a writer, strike upon the material, of some event, graphically presented.
The result is life, not morals. It is THE LIFE which comes alive in the telling. . . .
[A Beginning on the Short Story, 1950]
Warren Tallman discusses the problem of reading contemporary fiction in his perceptive introduction to New American Story, an essay which begins with praise for Williams and Stein as two "battlers" for new American writing:
Change forces other changes, and as a direct result of these efforts to rediscover the sources of vitality the longtime ascendency over fiction of chronological continuity weakens as markedly as representational form had already weakened in painting. Obviously, you can't make it down to more primary levels of consciousness by walking in the same old ways down the same old streets. Consequently, the firm progress from a beginning to a middle to an end gives way to stream of consciousness, free association, improvisation. And this shift to a circling, side-winding, wandering progression opens out liberating possibilities for the man of words. However, the consternation among readers who couldn't stand to ride on a novel without a plot track was at least as great as had been the consternation among viewers who refused to look at a painting unless they could find a picture. Because this consternation was shared by readers and critics alike, a mistaken generation focused attention not upon the new energy and variety in the writing but upon unpuzzling in the old ways the new works that emerged. Works that should have been studied in light of their linguistic potential were studied instead in light of their semantic potential. The consequences go on to this day in the vast collection of explications and interpretations that have plowed through the masterworks of our century in attempts to turn up Truth, Wisdom, Reality and Morality. Patient and praiseworthy as the best of these attempts have been, the general effect has been to conceal the new art that has emerged by handing it over to the old Jehovahs.
But if the semantics of the works ("the science of meanings") carried the critics and the colleges, the syntax ("the ordering of word forms") carried the writers. For critics, stream of consciousness, free association and improvisation have been so many twists and turns that lead—once straightened out—straight home from at sea. But for writers these leaping, crisscross and erratic—because pathless—pacings open out new beauty, variety and power in the language. No man can ever go beyond that form of writing life which leads to words. . . .
The chief difference, then, between the older American writing and the new is that between writing considered as a means to an end, sentences used as corridors leading to further rooms, and writing considered as an end to itself. The latter will seem limited only to readers who fail to realize that books contain not persons, places and things but words. . . .
Just as Williams had, throughout the 1920's, berated authors who considered writing as philosophy or theology instead of as literature, so he continued his attempts to do "something new with the words" ["A Note on the Recent Work of James Joyce," Selected Essays]. His admiration for the techniques of Stein and Joyce directed his fiction, his own work in their media. Yet Williams was honest enough to maintain his own discipline: art must never copy anything, even other successful art. He had to find his own way—a way likely more simple and direct than Joyce's and yet richer and more humane than Stein's. The results of his experiments in writing short stories show that Williams was as apt in using organic form here as he was in poetry. They also show that, for Williams, "the life" that most often comes alive in the telling is of a person he understands, admires, or even loves. Although many of his stories were written during the 1930's, most of them are neither cynical nor dispirited. More of them reveal what the poet was to declare a decade later [in "To All Gentleness"]: "damned if I do not believe you find the greatest tenderness only among the most coarse."
Despite much talk of Williams' easy use of autobiographical elements in his fiction, his earliest stories are strained and self-conscious. The doctor-poet who appears frequently as narrator or participant is not the Williams we have come to expect. In later writing the doctor is comparatively unobtrusive; in contrast, the use Williams makes of that persona in his first published fiction, Three Professional Studies (1919), which opens with "The Doctor":
I go in one house and out of another practicing my illicit trade of smelling, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, weighing. . . . I am a young man, I am in perfect health, I am agile, good-looking. I do not smoke since it drugs the intelligence; I want all my reactions. . . .
After declaring that he needs no "courage" to write and to practice medicine, Williams next describes two cases, two "everyday" problems of which he makes both literary use and medical (the "professional" of the title can well be ambivalent). "Mrs. M." and "Something" describe women who do show courage of a sort; yet that is not the connection Williams makes. His emphasis is on the doctor's reactions to these women and their situations—and in 1919 his reaction is one of near disgust:
The children dig into the mush and chew it off the spoons. The largest boy age eight glances sidewise, sees mother is not looking, shovels out a spoonful from brother's dish. My God do they like it? Haven't they enough? Screams. Mother rushes at him, slaps his face. The children do not even know I am in the room.
Perhaps a more pervasive impression is that of Williams' self-consciousness. Attention is on the doctor, not the patient, as the ending of the last sketch indicates: "I walk out of the back door, I lift my nose. I smell the wind."
"Danse Pseudomacabre" (1920) followed a similar approach: two brief anecdotes of death, connected only through the doctor's use of them as material. The transitory paragraph between the two echoes a passage from Kora in Hell, the idea of life as a dance, here subverted to the deaths as "danse." The second vignette, much the stronger of the two, concerns a baby dying from meningitis. Instead of focusing on the doctor, this story ends with the ironic revelation of the probable cause of the child's disease, its baptism. In its use of understatement and the rhythms of actual speech, this closing paragraph foreshadows much of Williams' later fiction:
It is an infection?
My wife is Catholic—not I. She had him for baptism. They pour water from a can on his head, so. It runs down in front of him, there where they baptize all kinds of babies, into his eye perhaps. It is a funny thing.
In 1923 Williams published "Three Letters," another story with an episodic structure, and "The Accident," which, although it begins with a death, assumes as subject a much less weighty incident. The latter is in many ways the beginning of Williams' concentration on unimportant but real happenings. As he was to write [in "A Beginning on the Short Story"],
a mere "thrilling" account of an occurrence from daily life, a transcription of a fact, is not of itself and for that reason a short story. You get the fact, it interests you for whatever reason; of that fact you make, using words, a story. A thing. A piece of writing.
In "The Accident," the setting is spring. A child falls down. The sympathy evoked by his dirty face brings six factory workers into the story. But, again characteristic of Williams' avoidance of "moral," this sympathy in no way changes the child's world. Neither does it unite the observers. It simply exists, and the child recovers by himself.
In most of his earliest stories, Williams as doctor-poet is himself the narrator. But as he writes more fiction, he begins to use other points of view. His employment of a narrator other than the doctor becomes an important device: it allows him to avoid either a conventional moral judgment or a reaction consistent with the doctor's persona. It also gives him the chance to use various idioms, a means to display what he has learned from his years of "listening." Most important, the interplay between patient and doctor serves a valuable function in itself, that of supplying a wider social context for the story proper. One of Williams' primary concerns in his fiction is presenting a full story. Although he defines the story form as that which raises "one particular man or woman . . . to the distinction of being an individual" ["A Beginning on the Short Story"], he criticizes Gertrude Stein's "Melanctha" (even while admiring it immensely) because it does not include a sense of the whole:
"Melanctha" is a thrilling clinical record of the life of a colored woman in the present-day United States, told with directness and truth. It is without question one of the best bits of characterization produced in America. It is universally admired. This is where Stein began. But for Stein to tell a story of that sort, even with the utmost genius, was not enough under the conditions in which we live, since by the very nature of its composition such a story does violence to the larger scene which should be portrayed.
In many of his stories, Williams succeeds in this wider purpose. Whether his sense of the times and conditions comes from his inclusive detail ("two large iron double beds standing there as if they had been two boats floating in a small docking space, no carpet, no other furniture"); from his rare understanding of people ("What you gonna do to my mother? the boy asked"); or from his constant use of seemingly real speech ("Oh, he makes me tired. He says it's all my fault"), Williams does quickly establish setting and cultural level. The narrator is not only a vehicle for getting a story told but an integral part of the circumstance which has produced the story. It is not surprising, then, that the story itself can often be told very briefly because Williams has already provided much background for the characters to come and for their behavior.
The Knife of the Times
That this collection of short stories was published in 1932 gives some explanation for its title. Williams' patients were particularly hard hit by the Depression; he is to write his most socially aware prose and poetry during this decade. "The plight of the poor in a rich country, I wrote it down as I saw it. The times—that was the knife that was killing them" [I Wanted to Write a Poem, 1958]. In Williams' 1949 lectures on the short story, he describes in detail his own impetus toward writing stories on more than an accidental basis. In 1932, he recalls [in his Selected Essays], the story form seemed viable because of "the heterogeneous character of the people":
I lived among these people. I know them and saw the essential qualities (not stereotype), the courage, the humor (an accident), the deformity, the basic tragedy of their lives—and the importance of it. You can't write about something unimportant to yourself. I was involved.
That wasn't all. I saw how they were maligned by their institutions of church and state—and "betters." I saw how all that was acceptable to the ear about them maligned them. I saw how stereotype falsified them.
Nobody was writing about them, anywhere, as they ought to be written about. There was no chance of writing anything acceptable, certainly not salable, about them.
It was my duty to raise the level of consciousness, not to say discussion, of them to a higher level, a higher plane. Really to tell.
Why the short story? Not for a sales article but as I had conceived them. The briefness of their chronicles, its brokenness and heterogeneity—isolation, color. A novel was unthinkable.
And so to the very style of the stories themselves.
"My duty," "involved," "maligned," "falsified"—Williams leaves no question about his motives for writing these stories. Feeling so deeply as he does about many of his subjects, the amazing thing is his ability to avoid the maudlin or proletarian literature which permeated the 1930's. Williams' devices for objectifying the story (a variety of narrators, the seemingly tough doctor and tougher milieu, the sharp focus and usually brief narration) and his preference for the telling episode over the merely exciting help him avoid most of the common traps. But it is interesting that, of Williams' three story collections, The Knife of the Times is the most slanted toward evoking a reader's sympathy for the situation of its characters.
The title story, for example, describes a Lesbian relationship. As lead-off story, such an episode will receive disproportionate emphasis and falsely leads critics such as J. E. Slate to conclude that "many Williams stories deal[ing] with sexual perversion," when very few do ["William Carlos Williams and the Modern Short Story," Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer 1968]. The title implies that circumstances affected Ethel and Maura's behavior; yet such inference is false. They have sufficient money; in fact, they meet as Ethel comes to New York to join her sister, who has been abroad. Told in third person, the story is less immediate than most of those in the collection. Williams recalls the impetus for this story [in I Wanted . . .]: "to find a woman telling me about her experience intrigued me. She was not shocked, just amazed." Similar weaknesses plague "The Sailor's Son," the story of homosexuals. Again told to the doctor by a woman, the tale of Manuel is also fragmentary. Perhaps the best of these sexually oriented stories is "A Descendant of Kings," the somewhat ironic account of beachboy Stewie, who has been reared by his fierce grandmother to be a stud. "There was damn little for him to do," never having finished the eighth grade, being used by numerous women until his sexual prowess ended. Williams uses an omniscient point of view here, to make the boy more understandable. In many respects Stewie is a victim of "the knife of the times."
More typical of Williams' later stories, and more compatible blendings of technique and theme, are "Mind and Body," "A Visit to the Fair," and "Pink and Blue." In the monologue and dialogue of the first story Williams characterizes Ingrid, the Norwegian woman whose identity comes to us through the physical symptoms of her illness as well as through her speech. Her reminiscence and philosophy show a complex woman, seemingly at great variance to her deformed husband. Much like Corydon of Paterson IV, the woman has few appealing qualities. Because her depiction is important to Williams (he refers to a similar character in the Autobiography and also in Paterson V), she presents an interesting artistic problem. How to draw an unsympathetic person so that she attains dignity? As he did so often in other writings, Williams relied on Ingrid's speech: "I have found," she says with surprising gentleness, "that we must live for others, that we are not alone in the world."
In the friendship of Bess and Mr. Tibbet lies an illustration of this same need. "A Visit to the Fair" is one of Williams' strongest arguments for people to enjoy life, to be treated as though they have value. Again, the camouflage of woman as narrator; again, the possibly objectionable situation, one man escorting another man's wife; again, the sense of the poverty of the 1930's.
"Pink and Blue" continues the depiction of the times, here with brides like Belle Tompkins whose simple depravity leads her from husband to husband in search of social approval. Again using an observer-narrator, Williams manages to depict lonely people in their misdirected search for love (Cupid's Clubs, violence, sex). The poverty here is personal, spiritual, as well as financial.
The best story of this first collection, perhaps Williams' "Melanctha," is the longer "Old Doc Rivers." For one of the first times in this period of his fiction, Williams narrates the story himself. He knew Doc Rivers and in him saw much to admire—dope, junkie, drunk that he became. As Williams presents him, "confident, a little disdainful, but not unfriendly. He knew them all," Doc Rivers' life was his work. He would go "anywhere, anytime, for anybody." Yet something was missing, and Rivers became the victim of the culture he was ostensibly saving. In a description much like his view of Poe, Williams summarizes:
He was far and away by natural endowment the ablest individual of our environment, a serious indictment against all the evangelism of American life which I most hated—at the same time a man trying to fill his place among those lacking the power to grasp his innate capabilities. . . .
Intelligence he had and force—but he also had nerves, a refinement of the sensibilities that made him, though able, the victim of the very things he best served.
A fitting conclusion to the collection in that Rivers represents the best of men cut down by the times, this story is also Williams' attempt to portray that life with which he too was involved. In his various methods of characterizing the older doctor, he is able to include the operations they shared, patients they had in common, and the social milieu which surrounded them both. Understanding Rivers is easy for Williams because he too can feel the waste, the impact of city life ("we have lost touch with ourselves"), and "the awful fever of overwork."
Williams tries hard to create sympathy for Rivers. He draws from actual medical records, conversations with other doctors and patients, and his own knowledge, always creating scenes painstakingly to give us the rough yet kindly doctor. "He was one of the few that ever in these parts knew the meaning of all, to give himself completely." And yet the story is in no sense a paean. For, once well into his dope habit, Rivers is a real danger to his patients. It is then that his society deifies him, reacting to the legends and the wild charisma rather than to his formerly valuable qualities ("always the wrong reasons," as Williams said about Poe's acceptance).
A "pure product of America" like Elsie of the 1923 poem, Doc Rivers went "crazy" in his own way, and Williams closes the long narrative with an image reminiscent of the ending of "To Elsie." The story of Rivers has begun with the one-word sentence, "Horses." Williams emphasizes then the satisfaction a man received from his dependence on the horse and how quickly changed was that simplicity with the coming of the car. The story ends, ironically, with Rivers being driven out in his car, holding one of his wife's Blue poms on his lap, "for in those days he himself never sat at the wheel." Rivers was a man, yes, but a man out of control.
Life Along the Passaic River
Williams' strongest collection of stories is the second, published in 1938 after Blast had used many of the stories in 1934 and 1935. Using an episodic narrative structure much like that of "The Colored Girls of Passenack—Old and New," Williams relishes the anecdotes and details of that life both in the opening title story and in "World's End," the closing piece. Most of the other stories—"Jean Beicke," "The Girl with a Pimply Face," "A Face of Stone"—treat individually the same kinds of character in the doctor-oriented narratives that are Williams' forte. It is as if only the size and shape of the story determined its structure, whether it fitted into the longer sequences as an episode or stood on its own as a full story. As Williams wrote [in A Beginning . . .], "The short story consists of one single flight of the imagination, complete: up and down."
The tone of these stories, and of the collection as a whole, differs radically from that of The Knife of the Times. "Colored Girls" is one of the few stories in the earlier collection that do not berate the culture of the 1930's. Life Along the Passaic River, for the most part, uses understanding rather than vindication as its dominant tone. The role of the title story is to establish the kind of life in question; the subsequent stories illustrate the bravery or humor or solidarity of that life; and the closing story summarizes it all, with a tweak of the nose for the traditional source of strength in a culture like this, its religion.
Like the scenario for a movie, "Life Along the Passaic River" zooms in on "a spot of a canoe filled by the small boy who no doubt made it . . . west of the new Third Street Bridge, midstream." Williams is at home here, in the details of the town bordering the river, the description of the young boy and others like him. He moves to the men lined up, waiting for work; and then picks out a few and gives us dialogue from the hitchhiker and the tough six-footer. Next he swings to describe the young suicide at the morgue, five months pregnant with twins. "If you can make sense out of that, go to it. It's all right to be wise, but you got to watch that too. There's no way to learn it easy."
Williams' compassion colors the portraits of this life that he knows so well. He has dropped the device of having someone other than the doctor narrate the story, perhaps because he is following the same pattern he has taken in poetry: maturity and command of techniques enable him to use "I" effectively, with no hedges, no subterfuge. This is truly the doctor's view of his people. The tone is lightly ironic, almost sardonic. "Further downstream at the Country Bridge," the story progresses, and Williams remarks none too slyly, "It's an eye opener what you have time for these days." Each character we meet is out of work, lost, involved in crime because there's nothing else; yet in the mass of these men, Williams finds those of nobility and honor.
The persona's language is an apt cover for his reactions to the characters. "Swell looking muscles. What for?" "All you gotta do is rake in the old coin. Is that so?" The question undercutting the initial assumption, the reliance on vernacular (but rarely on slang), the short statement—all contribute to the terse idiom that seems to characterize the narrator. Such an idiom is, of course, highly effective when broken.
"A Night in June" illustrates a turn from the brusque to the gentle. The tired doctor, delivering a child to a woman he hasn't even remembered as a former patient, is brought through a long night to this realization:
With my left hand steering the child's head, I used my ungloved right hand outside her bare abdomen to press upon the fundus. The woman and I then got to work. Her two hands grabbed me at first a little timidly about the right wrist and forearm. Go ahead, I said. Pull hard. I welcomed the feel of her hands and the strong pull. It quieted me in the way the whole house had quieted me all night.
This woman in her present condition would have seemed repulsive to me ten years ago—now, poor soul, I see her to be as clean as a cow that calves. The flesh of my arm lay against the flesh of her knee gratefully. It was I who was being comforted and soothed.
After this profession of love for the experience, Williams again avoids the sentimental by returning quickly to the business at hand, putting drops in the baby's eyes, burying the afterbirth, taking count of the other children. The closing scene similarly rests on that objective detail which draws attention away from the doctor:
How many is that? I asked the other woman. Five boys and three girls, she said. I've forgotten how to fix a baby, she went on. What shall I do? Put a little boric acid powder on the belly button to help dry it up?
This particular story, one of the most direct recountings of Williams' experiences as a doctor, cannot help but suggest the 1919 "Something." We are struck with the difference in Williams' attitude toward the suffering women. The woman of the earlier story he described as if she were a block of wood, a "thing" as the title suggests: "Oh. Agh. Ah—Hold this. Hold her head. She subsides into bovine passivity. Trembles a little like a cow about to be slaughtered. . . . What is this woman?" No later story except "A Face of Stone" approaches this tone; but since it is a study of the doctor's gradual initiation into understanding, there are more differences than similarities.
"Four Bottles of Beer" is another central story, important thematically and technically. Much in keeping with the doctor's attitude in "A Night in June," the narrator-doctor admires the woman whose child is ill. Like the later Clara in Many Loves, this mother questions the doctor about his personal life ("Does she cook for you? / Yes. / And you eat it? / Why yes. / I couldn't eat nigger cooking"). Williams likes the openness of the young Polish woman. He leaves after his call with the four bottles of home brew and the accomplishment of having used only dialogue throughout the story. Even the opening is the woman's greeting, "He's asleep." Stories such as this give credence to Williams' description of his stories as being "written in the form of a conversation which I was partaking in."
Several other stories from this second collection are entirely dialogue. Often, these are the particularly short accounts, similar in effect to the group of short poems collectively titled "Detail." Long interested in the language as spoken, Williams creates a variety of effects by changing narrators—his mother, an ex-serviceman, the many patients. True to his belief that a man's language is a way into his character, Williams shapes some stories around the conversation: the story opens with "Hello" and closes with "Goodbye." Structurally, Williams can do little more to stress the importance of the characters' effects on one another.
For Williams, fiction was a way to re-create a genuine existence, perhaps his own as well as that of the other characters in his stories. As he reminisced [in I Wanted . . .] about the 1938 collection, "The subject matter is the same as that of the earlier stories but I had matured as a writer. I was much freer. I could say what I had to say." And what Williams "had to say" was about his "townspeople." He no longer considered himself an oracle to his patients; he too had learned humility. As he wrote in his Autobiography:
They had no knowledge and no skill at all. They flunked out, got jailed, got "Mamie" with child, and fell away, if they survived, from their perfections.
There again, a word: their perfections. They were perfect, they seem to have been born perfect, to need nothing else. They were there, living before me. . . .
Jack O'Brien in "Under the Greenwood Tree" is a good illustration of Williams' admiration. A handyman, usually down and out, O'Brien wins the doctor's respect because he "lives uncomplaining. Self respecting. . . . It's the way he rides evenly over the times. The way he takes the weather." O'Brien's story is one of the few Williams prefaces with explanation, a paragraph interesting for its statement about both Williams and O'Brien:
The chief cultural influence in a community is not always self apparent. If, as Keyserling says: localism alone can lead to culture (and this I give my life willingly to experience and to prove) Jack O'Brien is to me one of the princes of the world that I know.
Time and time again Williams' stories praise the characters who swim against the current. The "savage brat" of "The Use of Force," Belle Tomkins in "Pink and Blue," Margaret and Helen from "The Farmers' Daughters," "Jean Beicke," "The Girl with a Pimply Face," and many others share the quality Williams once described as "Toughminded. Tough. To be able to take it," with a quick qualification that the best way to take it is to be "soft enough, yielding enough."
Technically, emphasizing character tends to strip much material from the episode. In Williams' stories there is seldom any preliminary description: a patient enters, the phone rings, the doctor enters a house. The conflict is identified early, that the labor is difficult or the patient, hostile. Description of even the central character is minimized; in one case we hear about "ugly bunches of varicose veins" rather than about a face. Most stories move quickly to the end because Williams focuses on single episodes (a "brush stroke" rather than a picture). Often, endings are incomplete. They answer the central conflict rather than including all the implied points.
Mona Van Duyn takes her cue from the title Williams first gave his collected stories, Make Light of It She relates the title to his prose technique, "The actual direction of the stories is almost always 'made light of and this offhand effect is accomplished through . . . the causal dropping of the crucial insight along the way, while the story hurries on to end in non-symbolic detail." She also points out Williams' "cutting across the main line of the story with both seemingly and genuinely extraneous detail" ["To 'Make Light of It' As Fictional Technique," Perspective, Vol. 6, Autumn-Winter 1953].
Beer and Cold Cuts, the third group of stories Williams included in his 1950 collection, contains several major pieces and a number of fragmentary glimpses of the people he loved. "Ancient Gentility" describes the old Italian migrant sharing his innate dignity with his snuff. "Comedy Entombed" refers to another spirited woman, this one undergoing a miscarriage. Several of the stories are as much "Exercises in the Variable Foot" as his late sequence of poems: "Above the River," "In Northern Waters," "Frankie," "The Final Embarrassment," "The Good Old Days," and particularly "Verbal Transcription—6 A.M." The latter story is a one-page masterpiece of a wife's monologue after her husband has suffered a heart attack. Another impressive story is "The Red Head." "I'm going to have a baby!" the twelve-year-old girl repeats. "And then she'd sob and blow her nose and they'd walk on and on, round and round the block . . . the two girls in front and the two boys a few paces back of them." The terror in the scene is framed by society's view, "They're so cute," and underlined by the doctor's concern. "Where can they turn for advice if we cut them off?" In two pages Williams evokes a convincing picture of the trapped adolescents—and their unresponsive culture.
That some of Williams' late short stories do not reach the quality of those written in the 1930's suggests, more than any technical deficiency, his change of emphasis. After 1938, short fiction is less interesting to him because most of his energy is going into the Stecher novels, the plays, and Paterson. Just as Williams' short poems were try pieces for his late longer work, so the short story led him to the more inclusive shapes to come: as he saw Joyce's progress, "Dubliners to Stephen Hero to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake. I say that it took off from the short story. It makes a delightful Field of Mars—for exercises in the Manual of Arms. I think that's its chief value" [Selected Essays]. Yet the techniques of these stories were to serve Williams well in his later work, largely because his rationale for fiction was so expansive.
In 1949 he defined the objectives of the short story: "The art would be, by the style, to wed the subject to its own time and have it live there and then. Have it live" [Selected Essays]. Reminiscent of Henry James's concept of freedom in the novel, this suggestion is detailed by correspondingly free corollary principles. Speaking of Kipling, O. Henry, Kafka, Poe, and Hemingway, Williams asks, "What is the common quality in all these changing styles?" In answer, he refutes the usual assumption of "plot" ("not a stereotyped snaring of the interest, a filling in of necessary documentary details and a smash finish") and goes on to list two particulars of the structure he admires: (1) "They all have a frame—like a picture" and (2) "There is a punch, if you like. But. . . maybe today we'll shift the emphasis and get a punch from having no punch. Maybe the buildup and the documentation will be merely hinted." The object of the form of a story is to be "natural," Williams contends.
In these remarks, Williams emphasizes action rather than description: "It is not to place adjectives, it is to learn to employ the verbs . . . so that the pieces move naturally—and watch, often breathlessly, what they do." As illustration Williams recalls Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," a story more passive in its apparent plot structure than most; "to take decay, despair and elevate the details to an action, to greatness"—that act had Williams' admiration.
"Try all sorts of effects," advises Williams the craftsman. "You can try various modes of writing—more freely. . . . The short story is a wonderful medium for prose experimentation." Once again coming to the heart of his approach to literature, Williams suggests that the writer "try to follow the action of some characters you can imagine. . . . Crawl into the man's head and how get inside a woman's head, being a man? That is the work of the imagination." Actual dialogue is important in re-creating the character, as is a thorough knowledge of the subjects. But as for any preconception about what kind of characters should be the subject for fiction, Williams only questions, "The hero? Who is a hero? The peasantry? There is none. Men and women faithful to a belief? What belief?" Williams was also concerned with the writer's tendency to oversimplify character. In several of his later stories he experimented to show the complexities of characters who could have been one-dimensional. Helen and Margaret, "The Farmers' Daughters"; the hitchhiker in "Around the World Fliers"; the unnamed woman in "Inquest." Of the latter story Williams noted,
Most of us are not individuals any more but parts of something. We are no one of us "all" of anything. . . . So why not write of three people as one? That's what my story tried to do, make itself more than one, three in one. Imagine a woman looking at herself three ways.
The woman waiting for the bus prompts three characterizations, one of a factory worker, another of an instructor in philosophy (a little drunk), a third of a dancer—all women somewhat less than virtuous. The last two pages present the woman's relationship with "good old Doc" who advises her to "quit it" but does what he can to help her out of her promiscuity.
"The Burden of Loveliness" dwells on the same need, of a woman to give her sex freely. These stories of the 1940's point increasingly toward Williams' concern with the virgin-whore distinction of Paterson V. What constitutes virtue, the giving or the withdrawing? [In the introduction to William Carlos Williams Readers, 1966] M. L. Rosenthal describes this recurring theme as Williams'
special interest in women—what they are really like, how they grow into their maturity, their sources of strength and weakness, their real relationship to the oversimplified visions of male sexuality. . . . It is at once a matter of the normal erotic range of interest and of curiosity and of something else, a romantic sense of mystery pursued through the unorthodox methods of the realist.
Striking evidence of this interest, I think, is the fact that "The Knife of the Times" and "The Farmers' Daughters," those stories which open and close the collected stories, are much the same. Two women, incapable of being understood by the men who love them, find solace in each other. That the lesbian relationship in the earlier story has given way to a limitless friendship in the later suggests Williams' move away from the sensational elements in his culture. In "The Farmers' Daughters," Helen's love for Margaret is in no way selfish. Helen gains nothing but sorrow for her affection. Both the doctor and Helen admire the whore, for, as the doctor tells her, "in many ways you are the best of us, the most direct, the most honest—yes, and in the end, the most virtuous." Murdered finally by her young husband of four months, Margaret was Williams' last short-story character. He had worked fifteen years on the long story, retitling his collected stories after the final version. In it, he seemed to have unified many single impressions of the shorter sketches through the years. In the stories of Helen and Margaret—first written separately, and then in several different versions of the final—we surely find the evidences of "the knife of the times"—a times that Williams found, to his sorrow, went beyond the physical poverty of the Depression and into the spiritual poverty of the prosperity to come. In what kind of culture, the story asks, can a man shoot his wife in the back and have the death be labeled "accidental"? And, more important, in what kind of culture can a man shoot his wife in the back?
"No one came to the funeral but her family and me," Helen tells the doctor after it is all over. "They didn't open the casket. There were no flowers beside the bunch of red roses I'd sent her."
A letter from Margaret has stated earlier, phrased with Williams' sad irony, that "New Orleans was beautiful, so much better than New York to live in." This suggestion of the betrayal of place, one of Williams' principal tenets, brings to mind his early praise of Kenneth Burke's stories. They were effective, Williams thought, because Burke was writing from his own knowledge, his own location: "From the shapes of men's lives imparted by the places where they have experience, good writing springs" ["Kenneth Burke," Selected Essays]. Or, as Faulkner, another writer Williams admired, once phrased it [in The Faulkner-Cowley File, 1944-1962, 1966]: "Art is simpler than people think because there is so little to write about. All the moving things are eternal in man's history. . . ."
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SOURCE: "Further Freudian Implications in William Carlos Williams' The Use of Force'," in The CEA Critic, Vol. 34, No. 4, May, 1972, pp. 20-1.
[In the essay below, Gallagher identifies the characters of the child, the doctor, and the parents in "The Use of Force" with the function of id, the ego, and the superego in the human psyche.]
In his interesting article on William Carlos Williams' "The Use of Force," R. F. Dietrich points out the sexual connotations of the story that "are there because they express the savagery in human nature that, lying so close to the surface, can erupt at any moment in a flow of irrational behavior . . ." (Studies in Short Fiction, Summer 1966). The interpretation of the doctor-child conflict in terms of a sexual encounter does indeed appear to be valid when one considers the sexual overtones of the language of the story as Dietrich does. However, I would like to suggest a further interpretation based upon Freudian theory. I believe that the three sets of characters in "The Use of Force"—the doctor, the parents, and the child—are motivated by the three zones of the human psyche, the ego, the super-ego, and the id, respectively, and I also believe that the doctor, at first governed by the ego, permits his id to dominate him during his encounter with the child.
It is evident that the child, in her unrestrained passion and aggression, is acting entirely according to the dictates of the id, which Freud describes in his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis as "striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle." The aim of the id is to seek pleasure and to avoid pain, functioning without regard for the conventional restraints of society or morality, and even without regard for self-preservation. The id, as Freud remarks, "knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality." Mathilda's blind fury and her instinctual, hysterical attack on the doctor, when he moves closer to examine her, indicate that she is completely unconcerned about the doctor either as someone capable of helping her or in his role in society as someone to be respected. Describing her as lunging at him with "one catlike movement" while "both her hands clawed instinctively" for his eyes, the doctor emphasizes Mathilda's instinctual, animal-like aggressiveness, characteristic of an individual governed by the id. In other words, the child appears to be dominated by the id, and reason or conventional morality (the ego and the super-ego) form little part of her psyche.
According to Freud, the instinctual aggressions and passions of the normal adult psyche are regulated and repressed by the reason (the ego) and the conventions of society and morality (the super-ego). As Mathilda's behavior would seem to indicate that she is dominated by the id, the control and repression of her untamed aggression must be supplied from some external source. Freud points out that "young children are amoral and possess no internal inhibitions against their impulses striving for pleasure. The part which is later taken on by the super-ego is played to begin with by an external power, by parental authority." In their physical attempt to hold their daughter still so that the doctor can examine her throat, the parents are, in effect, attempting to repress her passion and aggression. In Freudian terms the super-ego is attempting to repress the id. In regarding the parents as the super-ego, I think it is worth noting that their reaction to Mathilda's behavior is not one of anger, but rather one of extreme embarrassment and mortification. At the child's first attack on the doctor, "both the mother and father almost turned themselves inside out in embarrassment and apology." The father releases her at the critical moment because of his "shame at her behavior and his dread of hurting her." When Mathilda reduces the wooden spatula to splinters, her mother asks her: "Aren't you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?" Rather than considering the doctor as one who can help their child, the parents seem to regard him as one socially superior to them because of his professional status. This is why they are embarrassed rather than angered at their child's behavior. And this display of embarrassment on the part of the parents is indicative of the feelings of guilt associated with the super-ego.
Whereas the parents are governed by the super-ego, the doctor, understanding the practical nature of the problem, is governed by the ego, which, Freud says, "stands for reason and good sense." The physician realizes that he "had to have a throat culture for her own protection." He is annoyed with the mother when she refers to him as a nice man. He realizes he has a job to do: "For heaven's sake, I broke in. Don't call me a nice man to her. I'm here to look at her throat on the chance that she might have diphtheria and possibly die of it." This is the reasonableness of the ego opposing the super-ego's concern with social convention.
No change occurs in the behavior of the parents or the child. Throughout the story the parents remain dominated by the super-ego, and Mathilda is governed by the id. But there is a remarkable change in the behavior of the physician. He loses control of himself, or, in Freudian terms, he permits his id to dominate the ego. As he first encounters the patient he behaves with reason and circumspection. He is annoyed at the stupidity of the parents and is determined to obtain the necessary throat culture. After the second fruitless assault, the doctor reasons with himself whether he should continue or try again later. But he realizes the urgency of the situation and tries again to force open the patient's mouth. Up to this point the doctor is controlled by the ego, and even in the motivation for his final forceful attempt to obtain the throat culture he is behaving rationally, for he realizes the necessity of force under the circumstances. But, in the use of force, he loses his ability to reason as he attacks the girl with the same blind fury with which she resists him: "But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her." So in a "final unreasoning assault" the doctor manages to force open Mathilda's mouth and examine her throat. But, in so doing, he loses his ability to reason and permits his passions and aggressions to govern him. The doctor's ego submits to the id as he enjoys the momentary release of instinctual aggression. It should be noticed here, however, that this is not a total domination of the ego. For if the doctor were totally governed by the id, he would have probably merely struck the girl in blind fury. Perhaps it was Williams' intention here to demonstrate the usefulness of force in such a crisis. Without the use of force, it would not have been possible for the doctor to obtain the necessary throat culture. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the doctor derives pleasure from his attack, even if only for a moment.
According to Freud, in the normal individual the ego acts as a mediator between the id and the super-ego. At the beginning of "The Use of Force" the doctor, governed by the ego, serves as the intermediary between the parents dominated by the super-ego and the child controlled by the id. Thus, as we should expect, the physician is the one who acts with reason and circumspection. But in the process of examining his patient he, too, becomes momentarily unbalanced. Therefore, "The Use of Force" deals not only with the conflict between doctor and patient, but also with the inner conflict between the psychic forces of reason and aggressive passion, between the ego and the id.
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SOURCE: "'The Use of Force' and the Dilemma of Violence," in The Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 59, No. 4, Winter, 1972-73, pp. 617-25.
[In the following essay, Schwartz offers a psychoanalytic reading of "The Use of Force, " focusing on Williams's representation of violence in the story.]
My subject is a very short story by William Carlos Williams called "The Use of Force," about a doctor who forces a spoon into a little girl's mouth to reveal diphtherial membranes that she has been hiding for three days. But, as so much else in Williams' art, it also represents the dynamics of violence, the convergence of motive and situation which transforms the apparently ordinary into the revelation and partial recognition of sadistic desire enclosed by it. In this condensed expression of a critical incident in the life of a doctor we see the precarious closeness of therapeutic and destructive motives. I want to subject the story to a detailed psychoanalytic reading, to identify its core fantasies, to explore the relationship between manifest and unconsciously acted roles, and to suggest some explanations of its violence. In spite of its brevity, "The Use of Force" brings together central aspects of our current concern with the psychodynamics of aggression. It provides the literary critic with an opportunity to relate careful textual analysis to the more comprehensive concerns usurping our energies.
A doctor, who remains anonymous, is called to the house of "new patients" named Olson. He enters an atmosphere which he perceives as distrustful. In the kitchen he attempts to examine the throat of the daughter, named Mathilda. The girl refuses to open her mouth. Fearing the presence of diphtheria, the parents and doctor coax, threaten, and finally overpower the child, who resists violently, tearing at the doctor's eyes, crushing his tongue depressor and, finally, lunging at him after the exposure of her throat is complete. The doctor himself oscillates between his professional role, with its emphasis on social welfare, money exchange, and controlled authority, and his more basic impulses. He "fall[s] in love with the savage brat," finds "pleasure" in attacking her, grows furious. The girl's parents act in collusion with the doctor's wishes, and in the short space of five pages all four characters regress to levels of behavior which the doctor-patient relationship is usually designed to defend against.
The story deals with the breakdown of what is typically a highly ritualized situation. Doctors are called when the capacities of real parents (known by the child) are inadequate to meet the real demands of a situation. They are bound to be seen, on one level, as rescuers embodying both maternal (nurturing) and paternal (prescriptive, authoritarian) powers, and as surrogates for the parents (specifically, in the story, the mother). As surrogates who take up the nurturing task where the parents leave off (in the story, the mother's giving "don't do no good"), they are bound to be viewed ambivalently by both parents and child, for in seeking recourse to the doctor's mysterious powers, the parents become symbolic children. The burden of ritualization is very great, partly because the doctor represents a "pseudo-species," a class of intimate strangers who rescue us from disease or death, like "gods." Ritualization regulates the power over others and the gratification of unconscious aims which can be exercised or derived from a situation. Anyone who has been treated by a doctor who does not speak his language will realize the potential for anxiety generated by the situation over and above the dangers presented by the disease. It is no accident, then, that the father in the story asks the doctor to "come down" to them, and that the parents seem to view him both as a figure beyond reproach and as a repository of true words which they will buy for money. For them he is depersonalized; for him, they are "patients."
In the course of the examination, the boundaries which regulate the situation are violated, so that the role difference between parent and child, doctor and patient, fails to defend against underlying erotic and aggressive impulses. The reader is made to experience the conflict in the doctor between the wish to preserve psychic distance and the wish to make the girl an object of his own violent, libidinal desires. Professional defenses and techniques become instruments in the service of id aims they are meant to control. The result of the doctor's regressive response to the girl's violence is reciprocal violence, the behavioral opposite of ritualized cooperation. The characters become identified in violence and through violence. Sadism replaces the professional mask of caring, and parental collusion replaces autonomy.
Given this situation and this collective regression, how can we account for the specific form of these violent events? In a partial Freudian reading of the story, R. F. Dietrich observes that a close examination of the text reveals "connotations of rape." The girl is "flushed" and "breathing rapidly;" as the "battle" begins, "her breaths were coming faster and faster." The doctor "tried to hold [himself] down but [he] couldn't." When he inserts the tongue depressor, "she reduced it to splinters before [he] could get it out again." The girl begins to bleed, grows "hysterical," and a "heavy silver spoon" exposes the membrane, which is called her "secret." Certainly, the accumulation of language appropriate to disease and sexuality seems to revolve around a fantasy of rape. Not only does the story convey violence through genital symbolism, it mobilizes (at least in this reader) castration anxiety, fear of the mouth as a displacement upward of the vagina dentata, ambivalence toward the brutal act, and a wish both to subjugate and to glorify the object of sadistic attack. But if Dietrich points out the symbolic weight of Williams' language, he stops short of the story's psycho-analytically accessible meaning. It is not enough to say, "The prevalence of sexual connotation is simply testimony to the animal nature of the conflict." Animals do not confuse sexuality and violence. Besides, the girl is described as a "heifer" before the doctor attacks her. The degradation is a prelude to the "rape."
If the fantasy of rape organizes Williams' representation of the violent encounter, why is this fantasy provoked by the doctor's situation? And does the latent desire to possess the girl sexually adequately explain the doctor's treatment of her? I think not. The prevalence of sexual connotation in the story is symptomatic of a more basic crisis of identity and identification than the idea of the return of repressed sexual impulses suggests. Here is the doctor's description of the girl:
The child was fairly eating me up with her cold, steady eyes, and no expression on her face whatsoever. She did not move and seemed, inwardly, quiet; an unusually attractive little thing, and as strong as a heifer in appearance. But her face was flushed, she was breathing rapidly, and I realized that she had a high fever. She had magnificent blond hair in profusion. One of those picture children often reproduced in advertising leaflets and the photogravure sections of the Sunday papers.
The emphasis here is on the visual attraction of the girl; she is like a picture, to be taken in with the eyes. Yet she is paradoxical and threatening, at once a "little thing" and "as strong as a heifer," someone who seems to be "eating [him] up." Even as he first encounters the girl, the doctor describes her more as an image than as an independent person. We may find phallic significance in her profusion of hair, but symbolic labeling misses another, more significant aspect of her presence. He experiences her as powerful, perhaps threatening, but she is excluding him. She is blank, cold, a depersonalized surface. The doctor imagines this inaccessibility as a form of incorporation, as if the boundary between them were jeopardized not by the experience of fusion but by the perception of unbridgeable otherness. The violence in the story has its genesis in this motionless inaccessibility.
It is not surprising to find the story filled with language whose psychological referent is the oral phase of childhood. The story's visual and oral language emphasizes the failure of basic trust and its replacement by suspicion and shame. We are located in a "warm" kitchen meant to protect the girl, a place obviously associated with nourishment. The parents are "eyeing [him] up and down distrustfully." The doctor, they think, should "look her over." Twice he asks the girl to let him "take a look." "Just open up and let me see." As the professional smile gets nowhere, the mother prods the girl with, "He won't hurt you," and the doctor's response suggests controlled oral aggression: "At that I ground my teeth in disgust." (Disgust: an appropriately oral word.) In their habitual language the parents regard sight as a moral category: "Look how kind he is to you." "Look what you've done." Taking things in, visually or orally, has become an activity bound up with superego inhibitions, not an activity of pleasure. As often in scoptophilic people, the eye has become an organ which admonishes or robs or eats. Ocular control comes to replace ocular pleasure. The girl's fixed stare may be an unconscious attempt to ward off or take in threatening others (or, perhaps, an attempt to ward them off by taking them in), a strategy designed to prevent their attempts to take her in with words. ("'Look here,' I said to the child, 'we're going to look at your throat.'") When her eyes fail in their magic, when she is immobilized by the men, she "shriek[s] terrifyingly," and in the end "tears of defeat [blind] her eyes." We move anxiously from eyes to mouth to eyes as the psychological and physical space between her and the doctor closes to penetration. Psycho-analytically, the dominant loci of gratification in early infancy are experienced as focal regions of pain. No defense supports trust, and distrust supports the permission of the will which releases violence.
In the course of the story, the doctor tries to approach the child with coaxing words, with his best professional smile, with a display of harmless intentions. But as he moves closer she attacks like a cat, clawing at his eyes and knocking his glasses off. She would rather have her private disease, it seems, than be penetrated in any sense by the adults in her world. Her attempt at symbolic castration evokes guilt-inducing words from the mother. When the mother threatens to send the girl to a hospital, the doctor's response expresses his perception of the psychological structure of the situation; by now he has abandoned the pretense of a formalized doctor-patient relationship:
Oh yeah? I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat; the parents were contemptible to me. In the ensuing struggle they grew more and more abject, crushed, exhausted while she surely rose to magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bred of her terror of me.
"Oh yeah?" reveals a childish defiance of separation. Now that the child has been provoked, and has provoked him, he does not want to lose her. Having projected responsibility onto the parents, they now become impotent participants in the sadistic love affair, and, in his mind, the child gains the potency they lose. When the girl's blankness gives way to violent exclusion, the doctor moves from professional gesture to an imaginary relationship of love in which the girl is given an identity by him. Now she is seen as actively different from him ("the savage brat"), and her excitement is perceived solely as a function of his power: "bred of her terror of me." Is there not an implication in this phrase that she is his creation, the product of his omnipotence? In the face of exclusion the doctor is affirming in fantasy his conception of himself as godlike and his conception of the girl as "savage" and, a few paragraphs later, as a "damned little brat." When the ritualized situation designed to prevent violence fails, the doctor fills the vaccum with a structure of relationships based on reciprocal violence, as if his violence could create her or rescue her from death.
In the forced penetration which follows the girl's repeated efforts to escape examination, the doctor's instrument is described first as a "wooden tongue depressor," then as a "wooden spatula," and finally as a "wooden blade," a progression (or regression) which suggests increasingly aggressive genitalization. The blade is "reduced to splinters," an exaggeration which reinforces the reader's anxiety and emphasizes the regressive loss of differentiation between professional and sexual objects. While the violence escalates, the father's participation is confined to a role of sheer force (he pins her to his lap) and the mother is reduced to rhythmic futility, "raising and lowering her hands in an agony of apprehension." The confusion of identities claims them all; the parents are not the only ones turned "inside out."
"The Use of Force," then, reaches down to the level at which identities are formed and dissolved, and it depicts the doctor's attempt to act in accordance with and then to reclaim his professional identity by answering his patient's inaccessibility and violent exclusion of him with a violent attack of his own. He mirrors the "savagery" he finds in the girl. First he rejects the possibility of delay, although he sees delay as a positive moral alternative:
Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better.
Then he utterly depersonalizes his relationship with the girl:
But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again.
To "get a diagnosis" is a far cry from concern for the girl. The doctor pretends rationality to butter his illegitimate pleasure. As Freud recognized, depersonalization leads to a split in the ego, and the professional rationalization is immediately followed by a confession of pleasure in attack:
But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.
The girl's attempt to negate him, expressed in imagery of incorporation and castration, elicits his reciprocal negation of her as an independent person, also expressed in imagery of castration and sexual arousal. The collapse of social differentiation (the doctor-patient relationship) and familial differentiation (parent figure and child) reduces the doctor and the girl to an identity; each is furious and each is blind. The reciprocal incorporation of one personality by another here takes the paradoxical form of mutual repudiation, each by the other. In the structure of their violence, the more the doctor finds himself appealing to differences based on social role and professional self-esteem ("I know how to expose a throat for inspection"), the closer he comes to a premoral and prepersonal assault, and the more bound they become as mirror images of one another. First she attacks, then he attacks, then she does.
In the telling of the story Williams sharply separates the "higher" forms of self-justification from the "lower" drive for release:
But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.
The doctor himself has become a kind of reflex mechanism. His shame accompanies the symptoms of sexual arousal, but sexual arousal does not account for it fully. As the psychoanalyst Heinz Lichtenstein has shown, the sense of shame is more fundamental than the feeling of sexual exposure it often accompanies or hides. Although the story's pervasive visual emphasis and the exposure of a hidden, "secret," and diseased membrane point to the fantasy of a sexual revelation, shame can be interpreted in a more extensive sense "as the breakdown of the capacity for identity maintenance, carrying with it the threat of metamorphosis" [H. Lichtenstein, "The Dilemma of Human Identity," Journal of the Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. II, 1963]. The doctor's assault can be seen as a desperate attempt to reconstitute his identity by abandoning it.
Shame occurs in such situations where the burden of identity and separateness, the loneliness of autonomy has become unbearable: the temptation to abandon it, to give up one's will, to become a slave, a physical thing, triumphs over our defenses.
As he "creates" the object of his attack, the shock of physical contact seems to validate his image of her as a "valiant" antagonist, and her violence and disease seem to validate his need for confirmation and release. The longing for motor release which breeds shame becomes in the assault on the girl the doctor's means of reconfirming his professional ego. He does get an accurate diagnosis. Like the release provided by festivals or orgies, the violence in the story becomes a way back to the identity it threatens to subvert. The articulation of motives for restraint becomes a way of neutralizing the power of those motives to restrain. The deritualization which collapses hierarchy orients each antagonist toward a rival who exposes his (or her) secret.
But a secret may be exposed without its implications recognized, and in the final lines of the story Williams focuses almost completely on the girl. It is she who has been hiding her "secret," the secret of disease and, on an unconscious level, the secret of her sexuality. It is she who is blind with fury. It is she who lies to her parents to avoid the disclosure of her disease. The doctor's massive projection of guilt and responsibility is made possible by the actual presence of diphtheria. Inaccessible as a person, the girl becomes humanized as the projected embodiment of what is denied in the shame of adulthood, at once "magnificent" and "insane." And the doctor's violence seems for the moment to be vindicated. "The sadistic act," Fenichel writes [in The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 1945], "not only means, 'I kill to avoid being killed,' but also, 'I punish to avoid being punished,' or, rather, 'I enforce forgiveness by violence.'" Certainly the compliant parents in the story will forgive his violence, even if he retains his contempt for them. He has saved the girl's life.
At a price. Mathilda, whose name means "might and battle," does not forgive him, and the story ends in her violent reaction to defeat. She is an embodied creature, displaying no capacity to differentiate intention from experience or action from meaning. For her the examination can only be experienced as a sadistic impingement on her private space. In defeat, she too would reclaim her identity through violence. As the story ends, we have come full circle in this pattern, this antidance of violence. The dilemma of violence is that it restores autonomous identity only at the expense of the other. Reciprocal violence excludes the possibility of mutuality.
Williams tells the story in the past tense, a technique which permits clarifying distinctions among motives that were merged in the event. Written in 1932, during the depression, "in white heat," perhaps as a means of mastering the anxiety associated with an actual episode in his life as a doctor, "The Use of Force" provides us now with more than the experience of the pleasure-pain of its fantasies. It crystallizes an interaction of drive and defense, intensifies the antithesis, in such a way that we are made to see the components of its violence with retrospective precision. The boundaries ruptured in the experience are again demarcated by language. Finally, if Williams the doctor sought to vindicate himself through violence, Williams the writer sought a more therapeutic action. For Freud the beginning of catharsis consisted in putting affects into words. For Williams this was the use of imagination.
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SOURCE: "The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams," in The Georgia Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1980, pp. 840-53.
[In the essay below, Perloff examines psychosexual aspects of the doctor-patient relationships in several medical stories from Life along the Passaic River.]
In one of William Carlos Williams' autobiographical sketches about the world of the big city hospital, a story called "World's End," the doctor-narrator recalls a particularly difficult little girl about six years old who was brought to the hospital kicking and screaming so violently that she could not be placed in a ward. The doctor decides to see what he can do: he takes the child to his office where she promptly bites him in the thigh, knocks off his glasses, and carries on like a wild little animal. Finally, not knowing what else to do, the doctor opens his desk drawer, takes out some crackers, and starts to chew on one. Here is the sequence that follows:
The child quit her tantrums, came over to me and held out her hand. I gave her a cracker which she ate. Then she stood and looked at me. I reached over and lifted her unresisting into my lap. After eating two more crackers she cuddled down there and in two minutes was asleep. I hugged her to myself with the greatest feeling of contentment—happiness—imaginable. I kissed her hot little head and decided nobody was going to disturb her. I sat there and let her sleep.
The amazing thing was that after another half hour—two hours in all—when I carried her still sleeping to the door, unlocked it and let the others in—she wakened and would let no one else touch her. She clung to me, perfectly docile. To the rest she was the same hell cat as before. But when I spoke severely to her in the end she went with one of the nurses as I commanded.
This little incident provides us with a paradigm for all the medical stories collected in the volume called Life Along the Passaic River (1938). Consider the following points: (1) the patient, whether a child as in this case, or a teenager as in "The Girl with a Pimply Face," or an adult as in "A Night in June," is always female. In only one instance, "A Face of Stone," is the baby a boy, and then Williams, who, by his own account [in I Wanted to Write a Poem, 1968], wrote these stories "at white heat" and "seldom revised at all," makes a remarkable slip:
The man turned to his wife. Gimme the baby he said. . . . Give him to me. . . .
I hold her, the woman said keeping the child firmly in her arms.
(2) The doctor-narrator, Williams' projected image of himself, is regularly presented as a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact type; if, in "World's End," he takes great pains for the little girl, he is also remarkably unflappable—a man who knows what needs to be done and does it. On the other hand, (3) although the doctor keeps his distance in the proper professional way and is designated throughout the Passaic stories as a married man whose emotional life lies elsewhere, his references to the treatment of the female patient are regularly couched in sexual language: in this case, he lifts the little girl "unresisting" into his lap where she "cuddled down," and he recalls that "I hugged her to myself and "I kissed her hot little head." (4) In keeping with this subliminal erotic response of doctor to patient, the success of the "treatment" induces a sense of elation or victory that seems quite in excess of the actual event: "I hugged her to myself with the greatest feeling of contentment—happiness—imaginable." At the same time, (5) the patient is wary of all other doctors, which is to say of men who would or could have similar power over her. When the little girl wakens, she "would let no one else touch her. She clung to me perfectly docile. To the rest she was the same hell cat as before." Only his "severe" words can make her finally go with one of the nurses "as I commanded."
Critical commentary on these medical fictions has tended to rationalize their sexual component more or less as follows. Williams, both in his life and in his art, so the reasoning goes, was unusually sensitive and responsive to the human condition—especially to the condition of the ordinary poor people, many of them immigrants, who came to him as patients in his native Rutherford, New Jersey. His stance toward these people who become the characters of his short stories is, in James Breslin's words, at once "tough and sympathetic" [William Carlos Williams, 1970]. Williams does not sentimentalize their plight, yet he can see—in even the homeliest woman in her ninth month of pregnancy or in the "girl with a pimply face"—a glimpse of what he calls "the hard straight thing in itself," the "Beautiful Thing" he was to celebrate in Paterson. Williams' unillusioned toughness and direct treatment of the thing gives the short stories their air of remarkable "authenticity." Or, as J. Hillis Miller has suggested [in Poets of Reality, 1965]:
Williams' fiction is based on the power to put oneself within the life of another person and make him comprehensible by an objective report of his speech, movements, and facial expressions. There is none of the problem of knowing others which has long been a thematic resource in fiction—all that play of perspectives and points of view, product of the assumption that each man is locked in the prison of his consciousness. . . . Williams' characters, like those of Virginia Woolf, penetrate one another completely and are known by a narrator who has transcended point of view so that he stands everywhere in his story at once. His fiction, like that of the French "new novelists," is evidence of a Copernican revolution in the art of the novel. . . . Williams' people are not fixed personalities persisting through time, but are flowing centers of strength, polarizing themselves differently according to each situation.
But how does the poet enter the lives of those around him? "The reaction which gives Williams possession," Miller observes, "is strongly sexual." But since, in the Williams universe, one knows human bodies in the same way that one penetrates the life of flowers or fish, the sexual, Miller would argue, is more or less equated with the larger vitalistic, erotic pulse of the universe, the spirit celebrated from Kora in Hell to Paterson and beyond. In this context, Williams' ecstatic participation in the birth process of his patients (as, for example, in "A Night in June"), is read as emblematic of the poet's sense of creation, perpetual beginning. Birth is the opening of the field; the poet's mission is "to make a start out of particulars."
No doubt Williams wanted his fiction to be read in this way. In his remarkably evasive Autobiography, Williams plays the role of genial innocent, the good fellow who has never quite figured out what, in his own words, makes women "tick." "I was an innocent sort of child," the first chapter begins, "and have remained so to this day. Only yesterday, reading Chapman's The Iliad of Homer, did I realize for the first time that the derivation of the adjective venereal is from Venus! And I a physician practicing medicine for the past forty years! I was stunned!" But this "gee-whiz!" tone gives way, at moments, to its opposite: a cocky reminder that this poet-physician has been around. Consider the following passage in the Foreword:
I do not intend to tell the particulars of the women I have been to bed with, or anything about them. Don't look for it. . . . 1 am extremely sexual in my desires: I carry them everywhere and at all times. I think that from that arises the drive which empowers us all. Given that drive, a man does with it what his mind directs. In the manner in which he directs that power lies his secret. We always try to hide the secret of our lives from the general stare. What I believe to be the hidden core of my life will not easily be deciphered, even when I tell, as here, the outer circumstances.
This is, as Herbert Leibowitz notes in a fascinating new essay on the Autobiography, "at once a warning and a challenge to the reader," as if to say, "keep your distance. Don't expect an easy intimacy with me" ["You Can't Beat Innocence: The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams," American Poetry Review]. In a later chapter of the autobiography called "Of Medicine and Poetry," Williams dangles the same key to his "secret life"—the "secret life I wanted to tell openly—if only I could"—in front of our eyes when he remarks:
. . . my "medicine" was the thing which gained me entrance to these secret gardens of the self. It lay there, another world, in the self. I was permitted by my medical badge to follow the poor, defeated body into those gulfs and grottos. And the astonishing thing is that at such times and such places—foul as they may be . . . just there, the thing, in all its greatest beauty may for a moment be freed to fly for a moment guiltily around the room. In illness, in the permission I as a physician have had to be present at deaths and birth . . . just there—for a split second . . . it has fluttered before me for a moment, a phrase which I quickly write down on anything at hand, any piece of paper I can grab.
This astonishing passage is not just another account of the coming of the privileged moments that yield poetic vision. For the key word here is surely guiltily: "the permission I as a physician have had to be present," the poet's "medical badge," are what give him access to the "secret gardens of the self," but such access is perceived as somehow guilty. The medical metaphor, in other words, allows the narrator to present his true feelings about women in the guise of safety and respectability. It would seem, then, that this narrator has not so much "transcended point of view," as Miller suggests, as he has carefully displaced it. In hugging the little girl who has finally stopped screaming and kicking, the doctor is, after all, behaving not abnormally or inappropriately; his gestures are, in his own words, "not easily deciphered," and so the "hidden core" of his life is not violated. Indeed, it is the poet's peculiar oscillation between "normalcy" (another routine house call with its trivial incident and predictable dialogue) and the pressure of desire, a desire neither acted upon nor fully understood, that gives the short stories of the thirties their particular poignancy.
"The Girl with a Pimply Face," for example, begins on a matter-of-fact note:
One of the local druggists sent in the call: 50 Summer St., second floor, the door to the left. It's a baby they've just brought from the hospital. Pretty bad condition I should imagine. Do you want to make it? I think they've had somebody else but don't like him, he added as an afterthought.
Challenged by his "afterthought" which presents him with an unknown rival, the physician-as-knight sets out on a quest to rescue, ultimately, three damsels in distress: baby girl, mother, and surrogate patient in the person of the baby's sister—"a lank haired girl of about fifteen standing chewing gum and eyeing me curiously from beside the kitchen table." The narrator's immediate response to this girl is "Boy, she was tough and no kidding but I fell for her immediately." And after some desultory talk about the baby's diarrhea, he notes: "This young kid in charge of the house did something to me that I liked. She was just a child but nobody was putting anything over on her if she knew it."
Although, or perhaps perversely because her legs are covered with scabby sores, her feet with big brown spots, and her face with terrible acne, the unnamed girl attracts the doctor and he mentally undresses her: "But after all she wasn't such a child. She had breasts you knew would be like small stones to the hand, good muscular arms and fine hard legs. . . . She was heavily tanned too, wherever her skin showed." The physician's sensible advice as to what soap the girl should use for her face, and his gentle reprimand that she should be in school must be seen in the context of these fleeting thoughts about her breasts and legs; she is not just any patient but an ignorant, helpless girl to whom he can minister in the role of masterful, efficient male. Imagine Williams' story as "The Boy with a Pimply Face," and the point will become clear.
When the baby's mother finally arrives and the doctor examines the real patient, he finds that the infant has a severe congenital heart defect. Calmly and professionally, he notes that "she was no good, never would be," but he prescribes formula, calms down the mother, and writes out a prescription for "lotio alba comp." for the teen-age girl's acne. "The two older women looked at me in astonishment—wondering, I suppose, how I knew the girl." To them, he evidently appears as a miracle worker. It is a response nicely balanced in the story by the tolerant skepticism of the doctor's wife:
What's it all about, my wife asked me in the evening. She had heard about the case. Gee! I sure met a wonderful girl, I told her.
Some tough baby. I'm crazy about her. Talk about straight stuff . . . And I recounted to her the sort of case it was and what I had done. The mother's an odd one too. I don't quite make her out.
Did they pay you?
No. I don't suppose they have any cash.
Sure. Have to.
Well, 1 don't see why you have to do all this charity work. Now that's a case you should report to the Emergency Relief. You'll get at least two dollars a call from them.
There is a fine irony in this last speech, for the wife cannot understand—as the reader does by this time—that her husband is getting much more than "two dollars" for his "charity work." He too is in need of a kind of "emergency relief." Indeed, the doctor is, in his own words, so "keenly interested," that even a colleague's account of the case—his warning that the mother is an alcoholic, the father a liar who pretends to have no money, and that the "pimply faced little bitch," as he calls her, has "a dozen wise guys on her trail every night in the week" and deserves to be run out of town—cannot alter the narrator's feelings. And in an oblique way, his "sympathy game," as the other doctor calls it, is rewarded. Here is Williams' conclusion:
The last time I went I heard the, Come in! from the front of the house. The fifteen-year-old was in there at the window in a rocking chair with the tightly wrapped baby in her arms. She got up. Her legs were bare to the hips. A powerful little animal.
What are you doing? Going swimming? I asked.
Naw, that's my gym suit. What the kids wear for Physical Training in school.
How's the baby?
She's all right.
Do you mean it?
Sure, she eats fine now.
Tell your mother to bring it to the office some day so I can weigh it. The food'll need increasing in another week or two anyway.
I'll tell her.
How's your face?
My God, it is, I said. And it was much better. Going back to school now?
Yeah, I had tuh.
This is not the inconsequential ending it appears to be. For the implication is that, consciously or unconsciously, the girl goes back to school in response to the doctor's wish. The baby is getting better, the mother is placated, the girl's skin is clearing up. Thus the "powerful little animal" with the bare legs has responded to the doctor's power.
To read "The Girl with a Pimply Face" as a story about the beauty, vitality and strength latent in even the most "venal and oppressive environment" is, I think, to sentimentalize it. Like "The Young Housewife," in which the poet compares the woman to "a fallen leaf and then declares, with humorous asperity, "The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling," this short story is a fantasy of sexual possession. But it is important to note that unlike the fictions of such postmodern writers as Coover or Sorrentino or Kozinski, Williams' story is firmly wedded to the mimetic convention. The narrator, that is to say, is not about to engage in kinky sex with the pimply-faced girl. Rather, the focus is on the disparity between the doctor's external manner—so composed and matter-of-fact—and his sexual urges.
Another interesting variation on the paradigm I have described is found in "A Night in June." Here the doctor's quest romance takes him across town to deliver the ninth baby of an Italian woman named Angelina. He approaches the prospect of the delivery (he has brought all but one of Angelina's children into the world and remembers with grief her first baby which he lost) as one would contemplate a love affair. Fondly, he prepares his instruments and puts them in an old satchel; lovingly, he sets out into the "beautiful June night." All is peaceful and still: "The lighted clock in the tower over the factory said 3:20." At the house, there is much to do and the doctor once again becomes his efficient self, selecting artery clamps and scissors, preparing the hot water, ordering an enema, and so on. Labor has not yet begun and he sleeps briefly, awakening to "the peace of the room" that strikes him as "delicious." Later, he gives Angelina a dose of pituitrin; "She had stronger pains but without effect." Here is the poet's reaction:
Maybe I'd better give you a still larger dose, I said. She made no demur. Well, let me see if I can help you first. I sat on the edge of the bed while the sister-in-law held the candle again glancing at the window where the daylight was growing. With my left hand steering the child's head, I used my ungloved right hand outside on her bare abdomen to press upon the fundus. The woman and I then got to work. Her two hands grabbed me at first a little timidly about the right wrist and forearm. Go ahead, I said. Pull hard. I welcomed the feel of her hands and the strong pull. It quieted me in the way the whole house had quieted me all night.
This woman in her present condition would have seemed repulsive to me ten years ago—now, poor soul, I see her to be as clean as a cow that calves. The flesh of my arm lay against the flesh of her knee gratefully. It was I who was being comforted and soothed.
Here delivery becomes deliverance. The physical ritual of the birth process becomes, in Williams' account, a variation on the act of love—the welcome feel of the woman's hands, the pressing down, the strong pull, the relief and relaxation: "The flesh of my arm lay against the flesh of her knee gratefully." By such contact, the doctor is "comforted and soothed." And yet this erotic experience is "permitted by the poet's medical badge" and hence domesticated, made safe. Within minutes, he is worrying about putting drops into the new baby's eyes and getting rid of the afterbirth. Again, he asserts his down-to-earth, "sensible" role as doctor, prescribing boric-acid powder to dry up the belly button. Even this new belly button, I might add, belongs to a baby girl.
The medical metaphor thus provides Williams with a plausible evasion of a persistent problem. For curiously, in the rare stories in which the challenge becomes real, as it does in "The Venus" (the story originally at the center of A Voyage to Pagany which Williams removed, presumably because the publisher found the manuscript too long), the self-assurance of the narrator dissolves. Here is the reaction of Dev (the protagonist of Pagany who is a thinly disguised version of Williams himself) to the German girl he meets on an outing to Frascati:
This day it was hot. Fraülein von J. seemed very simple, very direct, and to his Roman mood miraculously beautiful. In her unstylish long-sleeved German clothes, her rough stockings and heavy walking-shoes, Evans found her, nevertheless, ethereally graceful. But the clear features, the high forehead, the brilliant perfect lips, the well-shaped nose, and best of all the shining mistlike palegold hair unaffectedly drawn back—frightened him. For himself he did not know where to begin.
On Roman soil, stripped of his medical props and defining role, the Williams hero is like a knight stripped of his armor and his magic talisman which will open the gates to the castle. Face to face with a beautiful woman who has no reason to be dependent on him, he is frightened. "Not knowing what else to do or to say, he too looked (as the tram went through some bare vineyards) straight back into her clear blue eyes with his evasive dark ones." Confronted by this Venus who keeps asking him what America is like, the poet-doctor retreats. For to be an American is, as Williams knew only too well, to fear eros even as one is obsessed with it. America, he tells the Fraülein, "is a world where no man dare learn anything that concerns him intimately—but sorrow—for should we learn pleasure, it is instantly and violently torn from us as by a pack of hungry wolves so starved for it are we." But when the German Venus then asks him why, given his attitude, he should want to return to America, Dev replies: "It is that I may the better hide everything that is secretly valuable in myself, or have it defiled. So safety in crowds."
Here again is the guilty secret to which Williams alludes again and again. The "pagan grove" of Frascati is too openly erotic; Dev's last words to the German girl are "come on . . . let's get out of this." And we recall that it is "medicine" that gives him entrance to the "secret gardens of the self."
Indeed, the failure of medicine is oddly equated with the failure of desire. The very short story "The Accident," written as early as 1921 but included in the Passaic volume, begins with the sentence, "Death is difficult for the senses to alight on." The surprising word here is "senses" where we would expect "mind" or "heart." The narrator now explains: "After twelve days struggling with a girl to keep life in her, losing, winning, it is not easy to give her up. One has studied her inch by inch, one has grown used to the life in her. It is natural." From this deathbed image, the story now cuts abruptly to the following morning, a morning of spring sunshine in which the poet is driving somewhere with his baby son. Having so recently witnessed the girl's death, his mood is one of unrelieved sexual tension:
What are you stopping here for! To show him the four goats. Come on. No? Ah! She blushes and hides her face. Down the road come three boys in long pants. Good God, good God! How a man will waste himself. She is no more than a piece of cake to be eaten by anyone. Her hips beside me have set me into a fever. I was up half the night last night, my nerves have the insulation worn off them.
In the Laurentian sequence that follows, the doctor converts his sexual energy into some "harmless" play with the goats; he tries, for example, to back the smallest goat "around the tree till it can go no further," whereupon the goat "tries to crowd between me and the tree." The doctor wins this particular struggle and lets the baby touch the goat's "hairy cheek" and stroke its flanks. We read: "The nozzle is hairy, the nose narrow; the moist black skin at the tip, slit either side by curled nostrils, vibrates sensitively." Here it is, of course, the father rather than the child who finds relief. Accordingly, when (on their way back to the car) the baby stumbles and "falls forward on his hands," his face in the dirt, the doctor-father is struck with guilt. For why did he bring the child here in the first place? And although the baby's fall is in fact a pure "accident," the narrator's guilt is oddly confirmed by the response of the "six women" whose heads appear, suddenly and mysteriously, "in the windows of the Franco-American Chemical Co. across the way." "They watch the baby, wondering if he is hurt. They linger to look out. They open the windows." The eyes of these strange women seem to penetrate what Williams calls the "hidden core" of his life; it is as if they challenge his erotic fantasy. But then, in a sudden transformation that recalls Surrealist film, the women are transformed: "They laugh and wave their hands." And indeed life, seemingly cut off by the death of the little girl as well as by his own baby's accident, goes on:
Over against them in an open field a man and a boy on their hands and knees are planting out slender green slips in the fresh dirt, row after row.
We enter the car. The baby waves his hand. Good-bye!
To read a story like "The Accident" is rather like looking at a relief map of what appear to be flatlands, only to see little mountain-shapes well up from beneath the surface and create peculiar irregularities. But before we can take the measure of these new mountains, canyons, and watercourses, the map collapses from somewhere within and flattens out once again. So in "The Accident," the baby's waving of the hand and the word "Good-bye" break the spell; the narrator's desire is once again enclosed in its secret chamber and "normalcy" is restored.
But what happens when the map undergoes no such transformations, when the tension between desire and the need for safety disappears? In such later fictions as "The Farmers' Daughters" (1957), the medical paradigm I have been describing undergoes some curious changes. The patient or patients are, as always in Williams, female: in this case, Margaret and Helen—both lonely and self-destructive women who turn to the doctor (here presented in the third person) for help. But this doctor is not called upon to deliver babies; rather he gives vitamin shots, advises the persistent Margaret on how to improve her breasts, and counsels Helen on her alcoholism. More important, the doctor of this story is no longer the tough but sympathetic narrator of "The Use of Force" or "A Face of Stone"; he is, on the contrary, deeply involved in the lives of the two women, even though he is himself safely married.
Throughout the story, there are allusions to his lovemaking, whether or not it is fully acted out, with both women, and especially with Helen, the stronger of the two, who turns out to be the survivor. Interestingly, in this story where the doctor's sexual interest in his patient becomes quite overt, there is never the moment of satisfaction that occurs in "A Night in June" or in "World's End"—the moment of bliss when the doctor finds the proper "treatment" for the patient. It is as if Williams needed to hide what he calls the "inner core" of his life, to keep the "Beautiful Thing" buried in the recesses of his being. When, as in "The Farmers' Daughters," the sexual encounter moves from the realm of fantasy to reality, a curious apathy—a kind of post coitum tristia—occurs, an apathy coupled with a new irritatingly patronizing tone toward women. Consider this passage:
The doctor had a climbing rose in his garden named Jacquot which his wife and he both very much admired. It was a peachpink rambler, the petals fading to a delicate lavender after the first flowering. More than that, the rose throve in their garden against odds thought by the man who sold them the plant to be overwhelming. . . .
In spite of that its vigor was phenomenal, you couldn't kill it. It covered the trellis with a profusion of blossoms that in early June were a wonder to see. In addition it was delicately scented so that their whole yard smelled of it when it was in bloom. He had never encountered it in any other garden.
Once he spoke of it to Helen and invited her to come over and see it and whiff its odor during the flowering season.
They gave her a layered shoot; she planted it and it took hold at once.
So the doctor keeps the rosebush for his wife but gives a shoot to Helen: he has his cake and eats it too. Both Margaret and Helen have had lovers and husbands, but they constantly assure their doctor that he is the only man they can really love and trust, their only friend and confidant. He is the recipient of Helen's favorite photograph, of Margaret's post-Thanksgiving banquet ("a poetic occasion, a love feast"). It is he who yearns for Helen's "Dresden china blue eyes," just as she yearns for her little Dresden china doll—he who tells Helen, "When you talk about that doll you're beautiful." Again, when Margaret decides to leave town in search of new adventure, he chides her gently but tells her: "in many ways you are the best of us, the most direct, the most honest—yes, and in the end, the most virtuous." Hearing these words, Margaret predictably "wrapped her arms around his neck, curled up on his knees and sobbed quietly." Finally, after Margaret's terrible death (she is murdered by her most recent fly-by-night husband), Helen tells the doctor:
No one came to the funeral but her family and me. They didn't open the casket. There were no flowers beside the bunch of red roses I'd sent her, her favorite flower.—How are you, my sweet? Take good care of yourself 'cause I can't afford to lose you. When she died, I died too, you're the only one I have left.
In his discussion of "The Farmers' Daughters," [in William Carlos Williams, 1968] Thomas Whitaker concludes that each of the three characters sums up one facet of their common predicament: "in Margaret, the most desperate and naked loneliness; in Helen, a more vigorous if precarious thriving despite that loneliness; and in the doctor—imperfectly manifest through his own need—that non-possessive love which might cure the alienation from which all suffer." This is, I think, to sugercoat the pill. For the doctor's "love" is not as nonpossessive as all that: he is, after all, charmed and titillated by the attentions of Margaret and Helen, by their openly declared love, their kisses and embraces. As opposed to the two women who are, in their different ways, losers, the doctor (however unfulfilled some of his yearnings may be) retains his position and his equilibrium; he is left, finally, with bitter-sweet and tender memories—memories that form the substance of the fiction itself.
Whitaker rightly points out that the doctor in this story is not the real focus of attention, that he is "hardly more than a mode of relating. . . . The narrative structure causes us . . . not to look at him so much as to see with his eyes." But it is precisely this narrative stance that makes "The Farmers' Daughters" problematic. For whereas the earlier fictions delineate the quandaries attendant upon a dimly understood sexual tension, "Farmers' Daughters" is, as it were, carefully censored so as to give the reader no choice but to accept the narrator's overt evaluation of himself and of his two "patients." Unlike the protagonist of the earlier story, "The Use of Force," who suddenly remarks: "I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her," this doctor is careful not to drop his guard. Indeed, he resembles the speaker of "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower," who believes he can justify his countless infidelities to his wife by telling her:
Imagine you saw
a field made up of women
What should you do
but love them?
It sounds so simple, so earthy and natural. But as the recently published manuscript called "Rome" (the first version of Voyage to Pagany) reminds us—and as Williams' best work makes clear—the Man who Loved Women never had quite so easy a time of it. For the "beautiful thing" flies only for a moment "guiltily about the room." Or, as Williams put it in a cancelled preface to "The Girl with a Pimply Face":
How shall I say it? I who have wished to embrace the world with love have succeeded only in binding to myself a wife and children . . . ? I who have wished, in a general way, to die for love have suffered only the small accidents of fatigue, bewilderment and loss?
Who feels enough confidence to say anything? All I know is that no matter what we have dreamed or desired it slips away unless by a supreme effort we struggle to detain it.
It is this "struggle to detain" what "we have dreamed or desired" that gives force to Williams' finest stories, such as "The Accident" or "A Face of Stone." And the younger Williams knew, as perhaps the mature poet no longer cared to admit, that such struggle was a bloody business. In the ecstasy of the "guilty" moment, the poet's "medical badge" could become a kind of "open sesame." But, as Dev tells the beautiful Fräulein in "The Venus": "To me it is a hard, barren life, where I am 'alone' and unmolested (work as I do in the thick of it) though in constant danger lest some slip send me to perdition."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4175
SOURCE: "The Doctor's Black Bag: William Carlos Williams' Passaic River Stories," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 77-84.
[In the essay below, which originally was presented as a paper at the Eastern Comparative Literature Meetings in May 1980, Monteiro shows how Williams's own identity as "poet-physician" informs several of his doctor stories.]
All day long the doctor carries on this work, observing, weighing, comparing values of which neither he nor his patients may know the significance. . . . He is half-ashamed to have people suspect him of carrying on a clandestine, a sort of underhand piece of spying on the public at large. . . . His only fear is that the source of his interest, his daily going about among human beings of all sorts, all ages, all conditions will be terminated. That he will be found out.
William Carlos Williams, Autobiography (1951) Black bag (adj., as in black bag jobs): illegal, surreptitious, undercover operations with the purpose of securing information, such as warrantless wiretaps, break-ins, and mail-openings.
William Carlos Williams was luckier than most people. He seemed always to know what he was about. Or at least, writing at the age of sixty-eight, he knew what he had been about. "As a writer, I have been a physician, and as a physician a writer," he said simply in the "Foreword" to his Autobiography in 1951.
Although it is accurate to say that William Carlos Williams' stories are a doctor's stories, saying that does not indicate that they are to be judged less strictly or rigorously than are the stories of, say, Stephen Crane or Henry James. The point in calling them a doctor's stories is that at their best they draw essentially both from the doctor's quotidian experiences and upon his embodied conflicts between his learned professionalism and his affective impulses. His practice was his avenue to particular kinds of sociological experience that would otherwise have been unknown to him. His profession, however, placed him in a peculiarly vulnerable position as a participant-observer. His temperatment, moreover, was neatly split between that of the feeling, observing doctor and that of the practicing poet. He was a doer and a maker. He was a contemplator and an actor. He was a poet-physician. These two-parted identities stand behind his every word.
Such complementary/conflicting identities shape the substance of his "doctor" stories, four of which I shall examine here: "The Use of Force," "Jean Beicke," "A Night in June," and the superb late tale, "Comedy Entombed: 1930." Spanning Williams' entire career as a writer of fiction, these four stories, taken as a block, are representative of Williams' interests and techniques.
"The Use of Force" was first collected in Life Along the Passaic River (1938). Readings of the story frequently conclude that the doctor-narrator's encounter with his young female patient, understood psychoanalytically, evolves into an adventure in displaced sexuality. But the story can also be read in terms of affective neutrality, which sociologist Talcott Parsons defines as the encouraged capacity within a physician to set aside normal human emotions and to depend instead upon medical training and learned technique to guide professional behavior. That control, in turn, enhances the possibility that his procedures will be technically successful. Paradoxically, the practice of medicine, seen by many as an art in the service of humanity, calls for a practitioner to put aside, indeed to suppress even the possibility of his ever feeling emotion toward a patient. "The Use of Force" explores on a small scale the human consequences of the physician's having to live with this paradox.
The story starts out quietly enough. The narrator (a doctor) reports having smiled at his "new" child-patient in his "best professional manner." The smile leads to other "professional" devices. Mixing questions with suggestions, he asks the child to tell him her given name; he asks her to open her mouth; and when she does not immediately accede, he gently coaxes her. All to no avail. So far the doctor is still in control. Careful as he has been, however, he has already slipped up once. He has not taken the child's parents into account and the failure to do so begins to affect his relationship with the child. First, the well-meaning mother tells the child that the "nice man" will not "hurt" her. "At that I ground my teeth in disgust," reports the doctor. "If only they wouldn't use the word 'hurt.'" After further futile efforts at getting the child to open her mouth, during which she knocks the doctor's glasses off, the mother again takes the initiative, shaking her by one arm and chastising her for her bad behavior towards "the nice man." This time the doctor turns on the mother. "For heaven's sake," he breaks in. "Don't call me a nice man to her." There is nothing "nice" in what he is there to do, he insists. It is a matter to be handled with professionalism. "I'm here to look at her throat on the chance that she might have diphtheria and possibly die of it." Another direct appeal to the child fails. This is followed by the doctor's rather unprofessional threat to shift the burden for the child's safety to the parents. "Then the battle began. I had to do it. I had to have a throat culture for her own protection," he insists. "But first I told the parents that it was entirely up to them. I explained the danger but said that I would not insist on a throat examination so long as they would take the responsibility." (Emphasis added).
Again the mother admonishes the child. "If you don't do what the doctor says you'll have to go to the hospital." By this time, much too emotionally involved in the conflicts, the doctor admits that while "the parents were contemptible" to him, he had already "fallen in love with the savage brat." In the ensuing, accelerating struggle, the doctor loses more and more of his professional neutrality. With a start he realizes that he has "grown furious" and, worse, that his fury is directed at the child. Fury at a child, in an adult, is ugly enough. Fury at a child who is also a patient, in a doctor, is, of course, professionally inexcusable. Worse still, although he recognizes his behavior for what it is, he can do little about it. "I tried to hold myself down but I couldn't," he admits. His continued efforts to force her mouth open with a wooden spatula have cut her tongue and caused her mouth to bleed. At that moment he realizes that perhaps he should have desisted and come back in an hour or so, that is to say, when, perhaps, both the doctor-adult and his patient-child had cooled off. But he rationalized his need to gain his clear-cut immediate victory over the child by observing that he has already "seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases." The rub, however, is that he "too had got beyond reason." Indeed, he "could have torn the child apart" in his "own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her." His rationalizing continues. "The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy," he begins righteously, adding, in a moment of great self-knowledge, or so "one says to one's self at such times." To this he adds a saving professional rationalization: "Others must be protected against her. It is social necessity. And all these things are true," he insists. But it is neither professional duty nor objectivity that is now operative. "But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives." All ideals and duties aside, "One goes on to the end." The child is then over-powered in a "final unreasoning assault." And sure enough, the doctor has his victory and his discovery of the child's "secret." The tonsils are "covered with membrane," the child does have a sore throat, and the diagnosis is diphtheria.
"The Use of Force" tests the doctor's ability to function as a professional. There is a "best professional manner," as Dr. Williams well knew, and it goes beyond the possibilities inherent in a friendly smile. But in "The Use of Force" he presents us with a self-contained segment in which a medical practitioner willfully permits first the erosion and then the collapse of his own affective neutrality. Faced with a situation that calls only for a rather simple diagnosis, the doctor all too quickly succumbs to his own feelings. In his emotional reactions to the parents who, it is immediately obvious, remain ineffective before the child's obstinacy and his anxious willingness to redefine his physician's role into that of antagonist to his patient, the narrator allows his own emotions precedence over professionalism. Williams' account of the doctor's impetuous and dogged struggle with his young patient renders brilliantly the fragility of that professional's affective neutrality by which the physician would do his life's work.
In "Jean Beicke," a second story from his collection Life Along the Passaic River, the relationship between the physician and his patient is all on the side of the physician. Perhaps the best place to begin discussing "Jean Beicke" is the end of the story: the account of the autopsy. The child with the too long legs, with an omniverous appetite that compelled her to eat everything given her, has succumbed at last, having first won the emotional support of her nurses and doctors. So much so, in fact, that her nurse, despite the doctor's attempts, has not gone down to the postmortem. "I may be a sap, she said, but I can't do it, that's all. I can't. Not when I've taken care of them. I feel as if they're my own." It is important that we hear this, for the nurse's behavior, with her attendant explanation, serves as a necessary prelude to the doctor's account of the autopsy.
I was amazed to see how completely the lungs had cleared up. They were almost normal except for a very small patch of residual pneumonia here and there which really amounted to nothing. Chest and abdomen were in excellent shape, otherwise, throughout—not a thing aside from the negligible pneumonia. Then he opened the head. It seemed to me the poor kid's convolutions were unusually well developed. I kept thinking it's incredible that that complicated mechanism of the brain has come into being just for this. I never can quite get used to an autopsy.
The first evidence of the real trouble—for there had been no gross evidence of meningitis—was when the pathologist took the brain in his hand and made the long steady cut which opened up the left lateral ventricle. There was just a faint color of pus on the bulb of the choroid plexus there. Then the diagnosis all cleared up quickly. The left lateral sinus was completely thrombosed and on going into the left temporal bone from the inside the mastoid process was all broken down.
As one would expect, the doctor, who had been so solicitous, always looking for signs of progress and dreading the possibility of deterioration, even to the point of rooting like a fan for the scrappy kid, is now coolly clinical. Look at what he notices, and remember that the child is dead. "The lungs had cleared up. They were almost normal." The patch of pneumonia that remains "really amounted to nothing" Chest and abdomen are in "excellent shape." Then the doctor opens the head. As for its convolutions, they were "unusually well developed." Then the coolness falters, when he admits that he kept thinking that it was incredible "that that complicated mechanism of the brain has come into being just for this," an autopsy. It is in the head that the doctors succeed in their quest—their inquest—as the pathologist takes up the brain. Here Williams describes his next professional move. He "made the long steady cut which opened the left lateral ventricle." Only at second or third thought, perhaps, does one realize the violence of the pathologist's act and its attending violation of the child's brain. But the clinical cut "opens" that part of the brain, and reveals the mystery. "The left lateral sinus was completely thrombosed and on going into the left temporal bone from the inside the mastoid process was all broken down." The breakdown is exposed, and the "diagnosis" cleared up. It should be noted that diagnoses are usually in the service of life and potential health, and therefore patient-oriented. But here there is no longer a patient, merely a cadaver for which all diagnoses are bootless. In what sense is it still a satisfying diagnosis? And in what sense is it still health-oriented? Uncovering the breakdown of the mastoid process, discovering the logic of the disease, serves the doctors, of course. When a third physician, the "ear man," is called down to see for himself what has been found, he conjectures that they made a mistake. "A clear miss, he said. I think if we'd gone in there earlier, we'd have saved her." But the narrator-physician will have none of such talk. The autopsy has apparently served its neutralizing purpose. The doctor dismisses the "ear man's" comment with a political quip. "For what? said I. Vote the straight Communist ticket." To which the ear man counters: "Would it make us any dumber?" Satisfaction has come with postmortem knowledge. The child has disappeared into the inquest. The physician's faith in his science and craft is intact. And besides, who needs another unwanted child, let alone an unwanted voter? The doctor, after his infatuation with the child ("we all got to be crazy about Jean"), has reverted to the self who, making rounds in the morning, would tell the nurses that the "miserable specimens" who would survive would "grow up into a cheap prostitute or something." Of course, what gives this story its power is that the wisecracking and the running diagnosis cum treatment cannot eradicate the narrator's affections. They can, from time to time, encapsulate them.
Collected in Make Light of It (1950), "A Night in June," set in that fabled month for love and marriage, calls for a doctor to attend a woman at term. Settling in for a night of waiting for the delivery of what will be the woman's ninth baby, the doctor falls asleep. He sleeps at the kitchen table in a pleasant and comfortable position. He dreams; and in his half sleep he begins to argue with himself—"or some imaginary power." The argument turns on a conflict between "science and humanity." The dream, as the doctor describes it, runs like this:
Our exaggerated ways will have to pull in their hours, I said. We've learned from one teacher and neglected another. Now that I'm older, I'm finding the older school.
The pituitary extract and other simple devices represent science. Science, I dreamed, has crowded the stage more than is necessary. The process of selection will simplify the application. It touches us too crudely now, all newness is over—complex. I couldn't tell whether I was asleep or awake.
But without science, without pituitrin, I'd be here till noon or maybe—what? Some others wouldn't wait so long but rush her now. A carefully guarded shot of pituitrin—ought to save her at least much exhaustion—if not more. But I don't want to have anything happen to her.
Within the dream the doctor's options take the form of conflict. Shall he use a substance that will speed up the processes of labor or shall he wait patiently for nature's course? Shall he risk injecting pituitrin in the case of a woman whose uterus after eight deliveries is more than commonly susceptible to tearing to save them both time and fatiguing effort, and in her case possibly something "more," a something that he does not name? This conflict he sees as one between Science and Humanity. What makes its resolution into professional action difficult—after all, the doctor will choose to inject the pituitrin or he will choose not to do so—is that within the doctor another antagonism is playing itself out: the desire to act under the control of neutralized feelings in the face of emotions that threaten to break through the technique with which the doctor practices his artful science. In his dream the doctor sees such conflicts in terms of competing schools that are "older" and "newer." Significant, too, is his claim that as he gets older, he is finding "the older." It is the school of Humanity that is older, the school of Science younger. It has been hardly casual, one recalls at this point, that the doctor began his narrative with a two-paragraph summary of his failure years earlier—as a young man—to deliver successfully the woman's first baby. "It was a difficult forceps delivery"—of course that delivery would call for Science—"and I lost the child, to my disgust." Significant, as well, is the feeling that this failure engenders in the young doctor. He does not feel disappointment, which would be more neutral, more professional, nor grief or pain, which would be more humane. Rather, he feels disgust. He feels aversion, abhorrence; he is, perhaps, offended. If he feels that he is at all to blame for the failure, however, he quickly exonerates himself: "without nurse, anesthetist, or even enough hot water in the place, I shouldn't have been over-much blamed. I must have been fairly able not to have done worse." In short, we are to infer, the doctor had done the best he could given limitations and circumstances outside his professional control. There was no failure of technique, obviously, and therefore no reason for disgust, at least not self-directed disgust.
But all this is preliminary to a story centering, years later, on still another delivery. And by this time the doctor is a seasoned professional. The story celebrates his preparation and judgment, and, in the end, his success. There runs through the narrative a strong sense of contentment and self-congratulation. For example, because seldom are women any longer delivered at home, the doctor must seek out that "relic" of a satchel he had tossed under a table "two or three years" before. Nevertheless, a check shows that it contains just about everything the doctor will need.
There was just one sterile unbilical tie left, two, really, in the same envelope, as always, for possible twins, but that detail aside, everything was ample and in order. I complimented myself. Even the Argyrol was there, in tablet form, insuring the full potency of a fresh solution. Nothing so satisfying as a kit of any sort prepared and in order even when picked up in an emergency after an interval of years.
In the course of the early morning hours the doctor periodically examines the woman, assesses probabilities, and decides on procedures. All runs largely on course until the moment for delivery. "The woman and I then got to work," announces the doctor. Her "hands grabbed me at first a little timidly about the right wrist and forearm. Go ahead, I said. Pull hard. I welcomed the feel of her hands and the strong pull. It quieted me . . ." No forceps are needed. There is no need for the doctor to resort to instrumental intervention. The delivery will be natural, becoming a collaboration of the woman and her doctor. The situation provides the doctor with a moment of quiet self-perception: "This woman in her present condition would have seemed repulsive to me ten years ago—now, poor soul, I see her to be as clean as a cow that calves." The head is born, and then the rest of the baby. There has been no injection of pituitrin, no need for forceps; it has been in every way, a natural delivery. It is as an afterthought that the doctor reminds himself: "Oh yes, the drops in the baby's eyes." But, he quickly decides, there is "no need. She's as clean as a beast." Yet, the professionalism within him reminds him that he can't know for sure. Again there is a professional conflict. "Medical discipline says every case must have drops in the eyes. No chance of gonorrhea though here—but—Do it." The resolution to the allegorical conflict between Science and Humanity—the claims of the younger school and those of the older—is that they can go hand-in-hand when united by the experienced, judicious doctor. There have been employed no "exaggerated ways"; the horns of Science have been pulled in. For once, all's right in Doctor Williams' medical world. Mother and baby are doing fine.
"A Night in June" had begun with a doctor's memory of a forceps-delivered child he had lost. Although he had rather quickly absolved himself of blame, he nevertheless was disturbed by his failure. And, of course, the infant was dead. In "Jean Beicke," the eleven-month child loses her fight, and she, too, is dead. If the Beicke autopsy serves to bring the doctors back to the right professional note, there is no sense that all's right with the world. Curiously enough, though, that is exactly the note sounded in Williams' "Comedy Entombed: 1930," also collected in Make Light of It (1950). The story is thoroughly comic, or would be if it were not for one thing: the culminating event of the story is the delivery of a dead fetus. On second thought, there is no exception to the story's comic thrust. Not only does everything turn out for the best but, in certain respects, rather well. It is, as the doctor says, "just a five months' miss." The fetus was a girl, information the mother uses to taunt her husband who, after several boys, wants a girl. It is the mother, as it turns out, who controls the emotional ambiance of the whole procedure, who "knew it was all right," and who laughs at her husband's bellyache. She taunts him about his couvade: "You'd be more famous than the Dionne quintuplets . . . You'd get your pictures in the papers and talk over the radio and everything." In all likelihood the mother's sustained equanimity has given the doctor's narration its particular coloration and its sense of order-within-disorder. The story is about the discovery of that order, one unexpected and certainly unsuspected. The details of the house—its "greasy" smell to its "soiled sheets"—anticipate the potential messiness of a "birth" four months short of term.
The whole place had a curious excitement about it for me, resembling in that the woman herself, I couldn't precisely tell why. There was nothing properly recognizable, nothing straight, nothing in what ordinarily might have been called its predictable relationships. Complete disorder. Tables, chairs, worn-out shoes piled in one corner. A range that didn't seem to be lighted. Every angle of the room jammed with something or other ill-assorted and of the rarest sort.
In a story in which a dead fetus occasions a mother's not-so-black humor, however, matters are not readily predictable, and the observant doctor does not stop with these observations. He has an insight, an artist's epiphany.
I have seldom seen such disorder and brokenness—such a mass of unrelated parts of things lying about. That's it! I concluded to myself. An unrecognizable order! Actually—the new! And so good-natured and calm. So definitely the thing! And so compact. Excellent. And with such patina of use. Everything definitely "painty." Even the table, that way, pushed off from the center of the room.
"An unrecognizable order! Actually—the new!" That new knowledge will inform the doctor's experience with the collected mother and her dead fetus of a daughter (it's 'born' "still in the sack . . . It all came together . . . the whole mass was intact"). Indeed, since death and disorder are seen to be very much in the nature of things, it is almost as if the whole thing were a joke on the comic father.
"Comedy Entombed: 1930" offers an unmatchable key into Williams Carlos Williams the physician-poet. Williams' aesthetic impulse was in certain ways at odds with his doctor's scientific training. His aesthetic was profoundly Dionysian ("a new order") but his profession calls for an Apollonian temperament. The artist was always looking for new order; the physician always trying to engender the known, predictive, scientific order. As in the past—the scientist would say—so again, so now. The artist: never so before, but now, anew, so.
For the physician the fear would always be that the order would breed chaos, that it would be discovered that at the heart of order will be a disorder (an unknown, unrecognized, unrecognizable disease). The dream of the artist, and the artist's reward, is that his skill and technique and vision will discover for him the new order, and that there will always be such new orders. Williams displayed this most often and most lyrically in his poetry. But these truths were also there, amidst the everyday dust and dirt of his realist's observations, in his stories.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2994
SOURCE: 'The American Short Story: 1930-1945," in The American Short Story, 1900-1945: A Critical History, G. K. Hall & Company, 1984, pp. 103-46.
[In the following excerpt, Watson surveys Williams's contributions to the short story form.]
Other native sons and daughters whose work significantly contributed to the contours of the short story between the wars include two at apparently opposite ends of the spectrum: the American expatriate writer, Kay Boyle, and the doctor-poet of Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams. Expatriate and poet are delimiting labels for these two, but they help to account for divergences in the pattern I have been tracing. In her stories, many of them in the 1930s and 1940s written in England and Austria and France, Kay Boyle appeals obliquely to the rich resources of the Adamic myth. Her sophisticated short fiction draws on the American Adam as a frame or context for plots and values in the way that the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound draws on myth and literary precedent as artificial ordering devices. It is a sign of her modernity and her Americanness.
William Carlos Williams commonly abjures such literariness. He relies instead on acute attention to the telling concrete details of American life to give his stories their shape and significance. His long battle against Eliot's classroom classicism carried naturally from his poetry into his fiction, where likewise the ideas in things have metaphysical value. What Boyle works for through tradition, Williams tries to do with bare perception. Yet they are not so different as this makes them appear, and given another axis of comparison they might occupy some of the same space. In an essay titled "Style and Sacrament in Modernist Writing," Herbert Schneidau says of twentieth-century prose generally that it "seems to welcome more poetic effects and structures than does that of the preceding century. . . . This poetic quality is not a matter of atmospherics, nor even of reliance on images; at bottom we may see that it is the metaphoric pattern of language that is being used to cross-fertilize prose." Boyle's and Williams's stories mark an advance over those of Farrell and Wright and others of the second level of American short story writers in this regard. With some reservations for individual writers and individual works, the very best American short fiction is characterized by its range and intensity of poetic effect. . . .
In Boyle's fictional world, no less than in Richard Wright's, the generative American myths of innocence and opportunity are dispelled by inversions that assert, by mocking, the national identity. In the postlapsarian darkness of the 1930s, her stories of idealism wasted and abused take place always in broken gardens, lonely corners, and isolated lives. Her 1932 New Yorker story "Black Boy," for example, makes the beach where the child narrator and her black friend meet into childhood's last refuge: she calls it "the forsaken part, . . . the other end of the city," where waves "as indolent as ladies gathered up their skirts in their hands and, with a murmur, came tiptoeing in across the velvet sand." All too predictably, American racism intrudes on the metaphoric garden, in the person of the girl's grandfather, to drive the children into the world. "Keep Your Pity" (1936) tells the opposite story, of sheltered love impoverished by selfishness and hardened by pride, and of the unredeeming idealism of a well-meaning American innocent abroad named Mr. Jefferson. Like some underdeveloped Jamesian hero, Jefferson's innocence remains undisturbed and ironically unbetrayed by the equally symbolic Benedict Wycherley and his witchy wife.
The title story from the same collection puts such overtly American materials at a still further remove from America proper. "The White Horses of Vienna" also is set in a place apart, this one a white house high on a mountain above an Austrian village. The time is the mid-1930s. Austria is politically in disarray. Boyle's protagonist is a doctor, a former prisoner of war in Siberia, who intends his house on the mountain as a refuge from the world. In this reconstituted Eden, however, white is not only the color of the doctor's idealism but also of his blonde Nordic wife's belief in racial supremacy. The doctor injures a leg at a secret political rally, and the replacement called from Vienna turns out to be a Jew, Dr. Heine. Heine's story of a crippled Lippizaner stallion at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna symbolizes lost Austrian ideals and forecasts the doctor's destruction. And his own. The anti-Semitic wife accuses him of money grubbing, serves him pig for dinner, and in one terribly prophetic scene actually sets him afire. The situation of European Jews as Kay Boyle envisions it in this fine story is as severe and as frightening as that of American blacks in the stories of Richard Wright. And it is cast in the same metaphoric form as Wright's. Boyle uses the fall of the doctor's family as an allegory of the coming fall of Europe, but the Adamic substructure, like the allegory itself, makes it a particularly American expression. If the values and the dreams at issue here are not specifically American, the method and materials of the story are. In the words of a more famous American expatriate, in his memoir A Moveable Feast, "all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be." Hemingway was speaking of Paris in the 1920s and of mental carelessness, but whether the something was carelessness or racism or fascism, destructive pride or simple American cupidity, the common sense of loss and the common forms of its expression underlie the short fiction of this as well as his own American generation.
William Carlos Williams came to these themes differently, as he came by different ways to the short story form. For two decades a poet, though not yet the poet of Paterson, he published two volumes of short fiction in the 1930s, The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life Along the Passaic River (1938). In his 1949 retrospective essay, "A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)," he said that the heterogeneous character of the people was centrally responsible for his coming to the short story in the early years of the Depression. "I lived among these people," he said. "I know them and saw the essential qualities (not stereotyped), the courage, the humor (an accident), the deformity, the basic tragedy of their lives—and the importance of it. You can't write about something unimportant to yourself. I was involved." Williams was involved aesthetically as well as personally, as a poet as well as a doctor, and in both cases he was ideologically involved.
He despised the institutions of the church and state that falsified by stereotyping such lives, and he found in the short story the artistic means to raise people from "that Gehenna, the newspapers, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual." "The pure products of America / go crazy," he had written in 1923 in the poem "To Elsie," and it is significant of his social idealism that he chose to publish five stories in the little magazine Blast: Proletarian Short Stories. Yet Williams was no Marxist. His objections to social formulas made him impatient, too, of formulas of objection, and the best of his stories are no more typical of proletarian realism than of any other convention of expression, including conventionally American ones.
He could not, in any case did not, name a character of his Adams, as Hemingway so pointedly did. Nor does he appeal to mythic models to portray Passaic River lives in the way that Farrell does to express immigrant hopes, or Wright the hopelessness of black Americans. Williams's America of the 1920s and 1930s is less bound by traditions; it is more fragmentary and, in that, more modern. "How shall we write today?" he asks in "A Beginning on the Short Story." "The hero? Who is a hero? The peasantry? There is none. Men and women faithful to a belief? What belief?" Whatever the quality of their disaffection, Farrell and Wright (not to mention Saroyan) want to believe in the American Adam, and the myth informs their fictions. Because of the allegorical implications of that myth, their stories have a finished quality and a sense of closure that Williams's often do not. Kay Boyle's carefully made stories are still more finished: she is less concerned with the substance of the Adamic story than with its outlines, less inclined to it as a system of values than as a pattern of human behavior.
Williams claimed membership in no school of storywriters, subscribed to no modernist or even national creed. His characters seem often to enter and leave his stories as his patients entered and left his office. They come briefly under his eye and hand and are gone, fragments themselves of a hardly definable whole. Yet the stories are carefully, often poetically crafted. Whatever Williams might have seen that was Adamic in the people of Rutherford, to portray them in terms of a national literary convention would have been to sentimentalize their lives and condition. He was interested in overcoming traditions, not copying them. He tried, as he said, to impose form on material in such a way as "to wed the subject to its own time," and of that conjunction the result is "life, not morals. It is THE LIFE which comes alive in the telling. It is the life under specified conditions—so that it is relieved in the reading—as it strikes off flashes from the material. The material is the metal against which a flint makes sparks."
In the best of Williams's short fiction, both the subject matter and the form are revolutionary in this way. Each of the first four stories in The Knife of the Times, for example, deals with a sexual relationship that violates social norms: lesbianism in the title story, adultery in "A Visit to the Fair" and "Hands across the Sea," and bisexuality in "The Sailor's Son." Each subject is figuratively a knife of the times, a painful fact of the heterogeneous life in Depression-era America that challenges social definitions of love and family and upsets preconceptions of normalcy. In "The Knife of the Times," a middle-aged married woman is courted in letters and then in person by a childhood friend, herself a married woman and a mother. At first Maura shares Ethel's newsy letters with her husband, but the personal note becomes more confidential, then passionate, until the letters are "full love missives . . . without the least restraint." Maura is simultaneously frightened and attracted by them: now she hides them from her husband with Ethel's gifts, indulges Ethel's franker and franker fantasies, and finally agrees to meet her friend in New York. There Maura's last reservations about the relationship are overcome. Ethel draws her into a pay toilet where she kisses and caresses her, and though Maura tries to appease the passion she cannot modify it. At a public luncheon, she frankly responds to Ethel's under-the-table pressures. All these elements—the letters, the fetishism, the pay toilet, and the excitement of forbidden caresses—might be no more than symbolic elements in a loveless woman's fantasy life were they not first so frankly granted as realities. Maura is not a frustrated wife in a loveless home, and however abnormal her attraction to Ethel's advances, Williams is at pains to show that it is not entirely unnatural. The opening sentence establishes that "the girls who had been such intimates as children remained true to one another," and the intimacy of shared secrets gives way naturally to that of shared love, first in Ethel's letters and then in their lives. At the conclusion of the story, Ethel begs her lover "to visit her, to go to her, to spend a week at least with her, to sleep with her," and Maura's answer is, "Why not?" Knifelike itself, the story cuts away the easy affirmations and surface assumptions of the times to pose the same question that Maura asks herself. Given the importance of life in its essential qualities—not stereotypes—why not be true to the imperatives of intimacy, in life and in art?
Speaking of such stories in 1949, Williams acknowledged with a wry sexual twist and a jab at the Post that he had remained true to this principle. He said, "This wasn't the 'acceptable,' the unshocking stuff, the slippery, in the sense that it can be slipped into them while they are semiconscious of a Saturday evening." What writers for the Saturday Evening Post accomplished by innuendo or altogether ignored, Williams tried to portray frankly in individualized characters. Unsparing of his patients in his "doctor" stories, he was as unsparing of himself. The life that interested and involved him in the stories of Life along the Passaic River was "THE LIFE which comes alive in the telling," his own included, and he resisted the slippery standards of Post fiction with the same fervor he reserved for the Gehenna of the newspapers. The knifecuts that reveal the deformities, the tragedies, and the courage of his patients in "A Face of Stone" and "Jean Beicke" and "The Use of Force" also uncover the buried life of the doctor-narrator. In these opening sentences, for example, the doctor's stony reserve is no less a mask than the expressive face of the patient as he describes it: "He was one of these fresh Jewish types you want to kill at sight, the presuming poor whose looks change the minute cash is mentioned. But they're insistent, trying to force attention, taking advantage of good nature at the first crack. You come when I call you, that type." A "type" at the outset, the patient emerges as a father and husband, and the doctor's stone face cracks to reveal his compassionate nature. They are softened into individuality by their shared concern for a third masked character, the patient's deformed but stoic wife, whose sudden smile concludes the story.
In "Jean Beicke" the doctor's compassion slips past the mask of cynicism he constructs to hide it; his otherwise inexpressible feeling finds expression in its opposite. "Give it an enema," he says of a starving child, "maybe it will get well and grow up into a cheap prostitute or something. The country needs you, brat." Too many of his "brats" will grow up to be cheap prostitutes, he knows, but when they fail to get well the failing is his, not society's. "We did everything we knew how to do except the right thing," he says of Jean Beicke's death. But in "The Use of Force" the right thing is drastically wrong and another kind of failure. Mathilda Olson has diphtheria, which she hides by clamping her jaws shut and refusing to be examined. The doctor describes her initially as "one of those picture children often reproduced in advertising leaflets and photogravure sections of the Sunday papers." But Mathilda's violent resistance to the "nice man" who wants to look at her throat belies the newspaper stereotype: she rises above it to "magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bred of her terror." Simultaneously, the doctor's professional zeal becomes "a pleasure to attack her," and he forces her mouth open with a cooking spoon. The scene is elemental, savage, sexually charged, and he knows it:
The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.
At the end, the doctor and Mathilda have used force against each other: he to confirm his diagnosis, she to express her fear of him. Typing each other, each fails to communicate with the other, and their mute frustrations erupt into violence that reveals while it demeans their individual dignity.
Like this one, many of Williams's stories are concerned with obstacles to communication, in life and in art. Mathilda Olso refuses to speak; the wife in "A Face of Stone" speaks English haltingly; Jean Beicke cannot speak at all and so she screams. The problem for the doctor-narrator of the stories is to understand, so that he can treat, people who cannot or will not express themselves—the physically ill and the deformed, the children, and all the impoverished of language who come to him in need or hide in fear. The problem for the storyteller, of course, is to express them himself: to assert his authority as author over their limitations and his own in order to make stories. In this large sense, Williams's work in the short story is one attempt of many significant attempts to make the fragmented modern world possible for art. Some American writers found a solution in the Adamic forms of Hawthorne and Melville and Twain, others, like Kay Boyle, in the mythical method of Joyce and Eliot. Declining the formulas of tradition and the acceptable contemporary conventions, Williams chose to state frankly the intimate passions and passionate brutalities that he said were flashes struck from the materials of life. His stories fall into that space between revolutionary fictions and the fiction of revolution, and if he is less sure of his form than the great innovators, his stories are more powerfully expressive than those of the committed ideologues. The short story, he said, "must be written so well that that in itself becomes the truth while the deformity informs it."
Some of Williams's stories meet that high standard, and some do not. As a poet writing short stories, he was not always at home with his own form as he was not always at ease in his time. But the best of his work weds the materials to the form the times dictated, as he said, and marks a significant contour of the genre.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1676
SOURCE: "An Analysis of William Carlos Williams' 'Mind and Body'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. 347-51.
[In the essay below, Gratto details the autobiographical, medical, and literary components of "Mind and Body."]
William Carlos Williams' short story "Mind and Body" takes a vignette about a woman who obviously fascinated Williams, melds it with the substance of a chapter from a highly popular medical book of the depression era, and illustrates in a very effective literary way the main elements of an important medical issue—the relationship of psychiatric medicine to general practice.
The case of Martha Darby, first mentioned by Williams in his essay "Jataqua," provides the general biographical outlines of a character whom Williams would subsequently develop into the central figure in "Mind and Body."
Intelligent, our girls are, their minds are whip-like, if they don't rot, as did Martha's, she who beat the record of all years at Cornell; was secretary to Altman; was graduated as a trained nurse and, what a volcano of energy! taught Greek in a school till she went mad at the slowness of the pupils—and married that marvelous little lame Irishman, Darby—who has the moods of a rose. What a woman! spending her life now as servitor to women in the Insane Hospital on Ward's Island—after being an inmate there herself—and recovering. What an energy wasted there! No place for it in the world save among the insane. Especially no place for it in the United States.
A decade later Martha Darby reemerges as Ingrid Yates in the short story "Mind and Body." Like Martha, Ingrid
had won a scholarship from a Brooklyn High School to Cornell where she majored in Latin, Greek and Logic, and again won a fellowship in Logic. The instructors retreated in disorder before her attacks till she quit the game and, needing money, went to teach Latin in a high school from which, after a month, she ran away. The slowness of her pupils drove her mad. From there she went to a New York business schools, graduated in no time and became private secretary to one of New York's leading merchants. . . .
Yates, she had met, incredibly, in an asylum where she had been confined after her breakdown. She had gone there of her own will to be cured and there she had decided to remain, to become a nurse to attend the insane. And there she had encountered Yates, the gentle-voiced and kindly nurse—employed in the care of male patients—as she was in the care of females. It had been a most happy marriage, she with her erratic voluble disposition, he with his placid mind.
In the short story, Ingrid is undergoing an examination because of intestinal pains for which the doctor has difficulty finding a cause. He is not alone in his diagnostic difficulty; other physicians before him have also apparently failed, as Ingrid admits, for the condition lacks a physiological basis:
"I know people think I am a nut. I was an epileptic as a child. I know I am a manic depressive. But doctors are mostly fools. I have been very sick. They say it is my imagination. What is that?"
Williams, in an essay written about 1931, [titled "Imaginations"], commented on the relationship of the body and the wits, referring somewhat favorably to "Dr. Clendening's book" on this subject. The reference is almost certainly to Logan Clendening's The Human Body, originally published in 1927. Clendening's book contains a chapter entitled "The Relations of Mind and Body" which deals, as does Williams' story of similar name, with the general issue of psychosomatic illness. Clendening notes that telling a patient that his illness is "imaginary" is "resented more than anything. The patient will insist, 'I can tell you this is not imaginary,' . . . and they are perfectly right."
The difficulty for the physician in dealing with such a patient is recognized by Clendening, who views cases such as Ingrid's as conversion reactions. Clendening notes that such cases represent psychological "adaptation of the patient to his life up to the time of. . . [the symptom's] . . . origin."
Williams' physician attending Ingrid initially proceeds essentially as Clendening suggests would be appropriate: "Tell me more of your life," he says. Ingrid has obviously encountered this line of questioning before, because after telling him about an operation eighteen years earlier she remarks, "I am compensating for my childhood now." There follows an outpouring of dialogue, which Ingrid dominates, as she rambles erratically for several pages in a manner typical of a person a clinical psychologist would diagnose as a hysterical personality. Finally she remarks, "Someone to tell our troubles to is what we need. I suppose I bore you with all I am saying today but I must talk. You must think I'm crazy."
Clendening notes that patients whose illnesses are essentially psychosomatic are likely to find relief only from "regular physicians who devote themselves to rational psychotherapy," rather than from a "dreary round of specialists or mechanists," or from the average physician, whose psychiatric training is inadequate to the problem:
"The reason for this attitude of mind lies largely in the training of the average physician. All his professional life he is urged to look upon diseases from a mechanistic view-point. Therefore when a patient with many symptoms and no signs appears, he is apt to think that, no matter if you do call it hysteria or neurasthenia, still there must be some obscure infection, or some derangement of a ductless gland, or some metabolic disorder temporarily beyond his powers of demonstration. When the patient's complaints become so absolutely unreasonable as to force him to the conviction that no physical basis for them exists, the spiritual equipment of the average practitioner is inadequate to a sympathetic interpretation."
The patient, on the other hand, does, in fact, experience symptoms like those of actual disease, Clendening notes. Furthermore, the patient is unaware of the psychological adaptiveness of the illness, "totally unconscious of the steps by which he got sick," and thus essentially incurable in a normal medical sense.
The dilemma of a patient who can't accept the psychosomatic nature of her illness, and the doctor, who suspects it, but by training and temperament still perhaps seeks an organic cause is well illustrated in "Mind and Body." Ingrid ultimately insists on a physical examination. The doctor agrees. He
carefully palpatated her abdomen but could find nothing at all. . . . Her heart action was even and regular. Only flushed cheeks, the suggestively maniacal eyes, the quiver of the small muscles of her face, her trembling fingers told her stress. She awaited my verdict in silence. I could find nothing. "Yes," she said, "only two men have found the exact spot, and she pointed to a place in her right iliac quadrant. One was a young doctor at the Post Graduate Hospital who has become famous since then, and another was the surgeon who operated on me the first time. The rest just feel around the abdomen as you have done."
The doctor responds rather absurdly with a reference to an ancient medical belief, "But do not forget, I said in my own defense, that there is a place in the abdomen of major hysteria which if it is pressed upon will definitely bring on a convulsive attack."
A short discussion of this comment ensues, but the doctor quickly stops any further speculation with a diagnosis of exactly the sort Clendening abhorred: "I believe you are suffering merely—but that is quite enough—from what Llewelyn C. Barker calls—I have forgotten the term—what we used to call mucuous colitis." He explains the condition briefly, but the explanation in actuality is vague and uninformative. Furthermore, Ingrid apparently does not choose to hear it, presumably because she cannot psychologically endure the loss of her illness, anyway. At any rate, after the doctor takes her to the bus stop she remarks, "Well, you haven't told me what is the matter with me. What is it? Don't tell me I am nervous?" The doctor responds remarkably:
"There has never been an anatomic basis discovered for an opinion in cases like yours . . . until recently. Apparently the cause was laid down in the germ plasma when you were created. . . . "
"The anatomic basis of your condition . . . seems to have been detected in a new study called capiilaroscopy, a study of the microscopic terminal blood vessels. In people of your type these terminal loops between the arteries and the veins are long and gracile. They are frail, expand and contract easily, it is the cause of all the unstable nervous phenomena, you see."
Ingrid is now satisfied. "Yes, I can feel it often, she agreed. The blood goes into my face or into my brain. I often want to run and scream out, it is so hard for me to stand it."
The doctor begins to elaborate, but the arrival of Ingrid's bus mercifully interrupts this curbstone diagnosis the doctor is improvising.
Dr. Clendening, in his chapter on "The Relations of the Mind and Body" has outlined the difficulties for both patient and doctor when a physician who is untrained in psychiatric medicine encounters a patient who presents a psychosomatic disorder. Dr. Williams, in his story "Mind and Body," has effectively illustrated those difficulties.
Williams, of course, may have been dealing ironically with the issue. He did not fully agree with Clendening, who had embraced Freudian thought in a way Williams never would. Thus, while Williams' general practitioner in "Mind and Body" may have been inadequate by Clendening's standards to work Ingrid through her psychologically based conversion reaction, he obviously was ultimately perceptive enough to recognize a psychosomatic issue when he saw one. He did not rashly strip away Ingrid's defense mechanism. He recognized that Ingrid was rather hysterical, to be sure, but that she was also functional and in no apparent danger. The doctor could not cure Ingrid, and maybe she didn't need curing. At any rate, true to the Hippocratic oath, the doctor did the patient no harm.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3482
SOURCE: "La Giaconda's Smile," in William Carlos Williams Review, Vol. XI, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 55-60.
[In the following essay, Mariani closely analyzes Williams 's use of language and its effect on meaning in "Country Rain."]
"Why don't you write a story about the place while it's raining, now you've got your typewriter set up." So Williams has his wife, Floss, ask him in his short story, "The Country Doctor."
And Williams, art reflecting life: "Country Rain, said I, looking out of our bedroom window over the ploughed field. Or, The Dark Helen, huh?"
In early August, 1946, with the hardest part of the war rationing all but over, Williams and his wife drove up along the Mohawk Trail in western Massachusetts to Charlemont for a two week's vacation. Two young women, Helen Grieder and Ruth Borklund, who had formerly worked in the Passaic National Bank, had decided to settle up in Charlemont and earn a living by converting an early nineteenth century house located on upland pasture into an inn. They called the place Viewcrest and they had learned to run it pretty much themselves, keeping only one man on the place, Helen Grieder's eighty-three-year-old father, an old Swiss from Basle, whose job it was to prepare the vegetables for the guests and keep an old tom named District out of the house. The only other man around was a neighbor, Horace Warfield, of old Yankee stock, born in the farm perched on the hilltop above Viewcrest.
Though Williams met the farmer and liked him, liked his ways and his Yankee speech—he was "extremely able and intelligent"—and though Williams and Floss spent hours walking over the farmer's property following the streams and examining the various ferns in the area—Warfield, called Tilford in Williams' story—he appears in Country Rain only in a segment of a home movie made by Helen Grieder. This absence of the male except indirectly reminds us of Williams' use of the movies—a clip from Eisenstein's suppressed Marxist film, Viva Mexico—to present the Mexican peasant in Paterson 2, on which he was about to begin work again. But the absence of the male from the female (Mary, the Italian immigrant woman) on Garrett Mountain also registers as a sign of divorce, and it is a strategy which mutely but powerfully reinforces the independence of the two women from the male in "Country Rain."
As simple as Williams' story looks on its surface, however, as though it were little more than a verbal transcript of several inconsequential conversations which seem to go nowhere, this is really a complex story whose multifoliate meanings keep slipping away from the reader. During this vacation Williams himself was working primarily on an essay on Ezra Pound's Cantos and literary influence, an essay which took the form of a letter to an Australian editor [Briarcliff Quarterly, Vol. 3.2, October 1946]. The key point of that essay (Creeley for one thought it one of Williams' most important pieces) is no doubt Williams' rejection of literary androgyny, in which "the classics . . . father every thought," by which he means something like Harold Bloom's male-to-male and text-to-text literary development.
But that sort of lineage, Williams' insists, leads to sterility. For there is another source, he points out, which is every bit as important as the first, though we often take it for granted, or worse, are blind to it. And that is the pressure of the present moment, of the language as it is actually spoken, with its infinite subtleties and constant idiomatic and rhythmic mutations. That complementary source, Williams suggests, is what he calls by analogy the feminine, the fructifying female, the mother tongue. Where Pound, then, has come to rely too heavily on prior texts and not enough on the spoken word, Williams believes, Pound's work will become dry and lifeless. Williams, of course, is thinking of his own risks in Paterson and of the importance of getting figures not like Jefferson and Adams and Confucius into the fabric of his poem, but rather the letters of an angry and frustrated woman and some of Paterson's early history into the text as well. No wonder Williams laughed with relief listening to the idiom of western Massachusetts farmers during his vacation, a language he found as fresh and as varied as the ferns and apples grown locally on these small hill farms, something distinctively in the American grain, as it still is.
But how is Williams' preoccupation with words translated into this story about two women? It is a complex issue and perhaps one which Williams does not so much answer as present to us for us to answer. We know he could offer his opinions when the mood moved him, as he did in a story he published back in 1918 when he was thirty-four. In "The Buffalos" he had also talked about women and women's rights and the division of power. Let women have all the political power, he had mused somewhat simplistically and sardonically, and send men out to the plains like herds of buffalo to hunt and fish and fight:
Then once a year, at the proper times certain women of the cities would send out chosen emissaries, eunuchs perhaps, to treat with the tribes—then in the pink of condition, trained, hardened by their rigorous life out of doors—and those most able, most vigorous, most desirable would be admitted for the breeding.
That is Williams at thirty-four. At sixty-two he had softened somewhat, though the attraction-repulsion between the sexes remains a mystery to him. He has also learned how to tell a better story.
Consider for example the narrative frame of "Country Rain." It's vacation time for Williams and the small group of teachers and the Diesel engineer who have come together to this country inn. But the rain threatens to spoil their fun. It has been raining and looks as if it will continue to rain, and in fact Williams complains afterwards about how cold and generally vile the weather had been while he'd been in western Massachusetts. The weather: a condition everyone talks about—as Mark Twain said—but about which nobody does anything. And so with the real issue of the story: the nature of relationships between the sexes. Everybody talks about men and women, but who has the answers? And what answers will resolve the complex tensions between the sexes? In his mid-seventies Williams would write that long after the race issue in this country had resolved itself there would still be unresolved tensions between the sexes to contend with.
Williams' strategies in many of his mature stories are so extraordinary and yet so simple that we are in danger of simply missing them, for the problem is not only within us, the problem is that we ourselves are part of the problem. Another part of the problem of course is the language we use and the sorts of implied value judgments we are forever making, as if the language itself would answer the questions when there may not even be any questions. "If this were Switzerland, I thought," Williams begins his story, "we'd call it lovely: wisps of low cloud rising slowly among the heavy wooded hills. But since it's America we call it simply wet." And Floss, two pages later, telling Williams that in fact the place is just that: lovely. "There are so many things lovely about this place," Floss says, "and the charming atmosphere of it!" Cross purposes? A comic misreading? Or just the way we talk past each other—and ourselves—a hundred times a day?
The answer of how we read these lines depends on whether a man is doing the reading, or a woman. "The charming atmosphere of it," Floss notes. And Williams answers: "That's the girls—and the others." And Floss: "Vegetables taste so sweet." And Williams: "That's because they're so fresh." Because, because . . . simple cause and effect. Everything neatly tied up with answers. Williams knows men in particular tend to think this way, by habit. So the other man with Williams, a Diesel engineer from New Jersey on vacation, as he and Williams watch a Diesel shunting an empty freight into a siding along the Deer-field River in the valley below the inn. "No," George the engineer explains, "they're not clean, you can't say that [George just in fact having said precisely that]—but they got a big future." And then Williams' comment: "It was something, here on vacation from the big city, which he could talk about with authority." The need to speak with authority.
Or take George's other speech, about the fire which destroyed Mr. Tilford's house in February, so that the volunteer fire department could do nothing but watch the flames consume the house and all of its possessions. Williams too laments the loss. "I'll bet they had some pretty fine old things in there too," he says. "What a shame to lose them that way." And George answers—with knowing authority—"That's the way it is." The finality of the comment answers for the meaning of fate itself.
A key word: authority. Speech for many men seems practical, assertive, authoritative. You say something and that's the way it is. Take language itself, for example, and meaning. Who is not an authority on the words if not Williams? And yet, and yet . . . he knows that the words continue to slip away, that at the heart of the experience there is a mystery, the smile of La Giaconda. "Leonardo / saw it," Williams writes in his late poem "Tribute to the Painters," the "it" slippery, but suggesting perhaps the word Logos, as meaning, the design from without: "Leonardo saw it, / the obsession / and ridiculed it / in La Giaconda."
Design, Williams says, is from within, is something imposed on a complex mystery—that which remains other—and which will not reveal itself. But the women among themselves also seem to have their own kind of quiet authority. They listen to men or ignore them as they wish. And it is Floss who tells her husband, in talking about two of the other guests—two elderly school teachers—not to worry about them interacting with the other more worldly guests, for she is sure they "know what it's all about."
But do they? And do we? And what about men and women? Do they really need each other, then? Look at Ruth and Helen, the dark Helen, a woman with his mysterious mother's name, a reminder of the one whose face launched, we say. . . . How explain the relationship between these two women, who have so ably managed to divide the work of a paying household between them? Watching the home movies of Ruth and Helen working the place, the other women act as a kind of chorus, lending their implicit support to what in the east was a daring experiment in living some forty years ago:
Helen is all for the movies; Ruth takes the still shots and does all her own developing and printing. Helen and her sister do the cooking and Ruth does all the baking, said one of the women in a low voice. Her mother takes care of the rooms.
But we have questions. What about the heavy work, the work usually assigned to men as the physically stronger of the species? And what about sexuality and the propagation of the race? These questions are "answered" as well as the story develops, not of course in front of the women, but in private, between Williams and Floss as they take a quiet morning drive up into the hills and across an old covered bridge (closed to traffic) and down a quiet country road in rain.
Floss wonders if Ruth will ever get married. After all, she's young, pretty, and men are attracted to her. Then, as so often happens when the real issue is other than the one being discussed, something like an antagonistic dialectic is set up between the man and the woman: "Be done with men and all that sort of thing if she likes it; that's her business," Floss says to the man she has been married to for the past thirty-three years. But then she adds, thinking in terms of her own priorities and her own necessarily limited knowledge: "But she's too pretty and smart to have it last, I think." What does this suggest? That the social and sexual pressures on a woman are too great to be successfully avoided? An unstated complicity on the part of most heterosexual people—men and women—to get the qualified unmarried out of that condition and into marriage?
But instead of demurring, protesting that there is more to this attraction and fear between the sexes than drayhorse drudgery or the yearly implantation of the seed, Williams seems to agree, complicating the issue as men often do by using what women perceive as an aggressive sort of self-protecting irony. As a baby doctor he can speak on this issue as well with some authority. He knows that women "can get along all right together without a man, unless they want an alligator in the bathtub or something of the sort."
Floss ignores the crude alligator metaphor and continues her own train of thought. Granted, women do need men, she says, the way a farmer occasionally needs a horse. "But if they have ability and aren't particularly amused by sexual diversions they can get along all right; even save time and energy for more productive things." What these more productive things are she does not enumerate, but we have seen one example of productivity in the rows of jars of beans and tomatoes and other vegetables stacked neatly in the cellar. And another example—as surely Williams knows—is writing itself, surely one "more productive" way of spending one's time away from sexual diversion. (Remember that a few months earlier Williams had had the protagonist of his fragmentary improvisation, "Man Orchid," typing away late into the night while his wife, getting angrier and angrier, had told him that all he was really doing with that typewriter was playing with himself.)
The discussion tapers off—its various points made. Yet Williams continues to drive on. But look at what has been left unsaid or only implied. In this philosophical disquisition, like something out of a book on Eugenics or Thomas More's Utopia, what may escape us is that it is a woman and a man who are addressing each other, alone, in a car, on a road closed to traffic, as if the scene were a reenactment of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Floss has even repeated her husband's phrasing in responding to her husband: "Women can get along all right," Williams says, and Floss responds a moment later: "They can get along all right." But where Williams goes on to qualify his comment with an "unless," Floss follows her comment with a more emphatic comment: women can get along all right without men AND this would "even save time and energy for more productive things."
We are at an impasse. Both Adam and Eve have spoken, as if with authority, on the issue of women's independence. The thing can be done, just as Williams would admit such independence can in large degree be achieved by men. So there. But this is not a pro- or anti-feminist tract Williams is writing and, happily, this is not where he chooses to end his story. Instead, poet that he is, Williams provides us with an image, a silence, a rock with its attendant tree to meditate upon. The image is worse than the complicated jigsaw puzzle he'd seen the women trying to solve in the dining room of the inn the day before. Now Williams suddenly stops the car in the rain and backs up, he explains to Floss, to look at a rock.
Interestingly, no words transpire between Williams and Floss as they look hard at it. For Williams seems simply to present the rock itself as an "answer" to the issues the two have raised. What Williams suggests here is that language itself—especially dialogue—has been able to take this man and woman only so far, an antagonistic co-operation active between them, where the deeper attractions and needs and potentially murderous differences between the interested parties are obliquely felt but left unstated. If Williams could have described the rock without words at this point and instead given us the experience of the rock itself, he probably would have. But, as Apeneck Sweeney say, "I gotta use words when I talk to you." And so, with a show of objectivity, Williams presents the rock itself: a permanence, being itself, primordial, being carrying on a dialogue with itself, like the small stream in the "intense silence" of this ruined garden, "talking to itself among the stones."
Listen, Williams says—and he sounds very much like a Zen master at this juncture—listen to the rock in the midst of it all:
The rock lay at about eye level close to my side of the road, the upper surface of it sloping slightly toward me with the hillside. Not a very big rock. What had stopped me was the shaggy covering which completely inundated it. The ferns, a cropped-short, dark-green fern, was the outstanding feature, growing thickly over an underlying cover of dense moss. But there was also a broad-leafed vine running lightly among the ferns, weaving the pattern together.
That wasn't all. The back portion of the rock, which wasn't much larger than the top of an ordinary dining-room table slightly raised at one side and a little tilted supported both the rotten stump of a tree long since decayed but, also, a brother to that tree—coming in fact from the same root and very much alive, as big as a man's arm, a good solid arm—a ten-foot tree about whose base a small thicket of brambles clustered. Ferns of three sorts closed in from the sides completing the picture. A most ungrammatical rock.
A most ungrammatical rock. Williams slips in at the end, watching his readers and throwing the whole image onto a new self-conscious level of language. A reality, a thing, even a pattern, which refuses to reveal any meaning beyond itself. A rock and moss and ferns, a living tree and a dead, the living stemming from the root of the dead, and "brother" to that tree. A rock outside of our ordering, as if to say that what we call meanings are like the moss on the rock, added afterwards: that at the core of thought itself there is not a prescription, a grammar, or a text, but a rock atop which there is the disorder of brambles and—simultaneously—the weaving of a pattern together. Men and women will continue to be attracted to each other in a symbiosis, attracted AND repelled, needing each other and stemming out of each other, woman from man, man out of woman, a mystery of which—like country rain—we are forever complaining that we get either too little or too much.
But the story is still not quite over. Williams spots some raspberries growing along the road and tells Floss to stay where she is while he picks some to share with her. How are we to read this gesture, then? The protective male telling the woman to stay in out of the rain? Surely Floss could handle the weather as well as her husband, which is one of the reasons Williams married Floss in the first place. Or is the gesture a caring for the other, a generosity, an ornament in our behavior towards the other, male or female, done for the same reason Ruth had grown gourds: for the gourd flowers and for the gourds themselves, useless, except that, as Floss says in a phrasing very dear to Williams: that the useless flower is a beautiful thing. How are we to read the motives for our words? Pascal's imaginary sister might have a field day with this scene.
Yes, but. . . . Floss accepts the gesture and the gift of raspberries from her husband, extending the gesture of generosity—double-edged though it might be—to include the others. Nor is her response lost on her husband: "Perhaps we could stop again here tomorrow and pick enough for everybody," she offers. She has even come to accept the inevitable rain for the sake of the farmers, turning the fact of the rainy weather into a generous gesture extended outward toward the farmers who at least profit from the wet.
And at the very end of the story, as an afterthought which is anything but, Floss adds: "Do you think Ruth will ever marry?" To which Williams replies, as much to us and himself as to Floss: Why?
Why indeed. That is precisely the question.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8527
SOURCE: "Rare Presences: The Knife of the Times and Life Along the Passaic River," in William Carlos Williams, A Study of the Short Fiction, G. K. Hall & Co., 1989, pp. 39-78.
[In the following excerpt, Gish elucidates the thematic, stylistic, and technical characteristics of Williams's short fiction.]
Williams's first two volumes of short stones, The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life Along the Passaic River (1938), represent the kinds of "rare presences" he found as a doctor in his various encounters with his patients and with people in general; in listening to what they said and how they said it—with the ear not just of a physician formulating a diagnosis or prescription but of a poet tuned in for the music and dance of their words and voicings. Williams's stories are records of those times, those meetings, those places, and of his remembering of them; they are his attempt to turn case history into story and back again through writing. His stories become their own kind of rare presences both as things in and of themselves and in relation to each other. Williams's own rare presence permeates all of the stories—a "new meaning beginning to intervene," the "poetry" under the language that represents the lives of the people who are his characters, his life and his character as author-narrator.
Outside of two or three of the eleven stories in The Knife of the Times—namely "Old Doc Rivers," "The Colored Girls of Passenack—Old and New," and the titular story, "The Knife of the Times"—the eight other stories are relatively neglected by critics, as is the volume as a whole, which has been overlooked in favor of Life Along the Passaic River and, most certainly, In the American Grain. Knife, admittedly, includes only about one quarter of his stories, and early ones at that. But the stories in this first volume are some of Williams's finest, and reveal some of the techniques—style, structure, point of view, and theme—that he carried through and developed in his later stories and that mark the "presence" of a Williams story.
Much of what characterizes his stories must be demonstrated by analyzing individual stories, and by noting comparisons between them. Williams would be the first to admit that different readers find different things to see in a story: "So, let's look at short stories and see what CAN be done with them. How many ways they CAN be written, torturing the material in every way we can think of—from which YOU are to draw what you want." There are, however, a few general traits that bear mention as well as more extensive comment in the discussions below. Williams's stories, it must be reiterated, gain much of their motive and nature from the process of storytelling itself, from the oral tradition and the ancient native voice; he was preoccupied with the native voice, the American idiom, and dedicated himself to finding and experiencing it in daily life. By transferring the voice and the experiences to writing, Williams made a lasting thing out of those experiences for himself and for readers.
Given Williams's interest in storytelling, it is not surprising that his stories thus often take the form of stories within stories, making for multiple narrators and for a succession of linked stories rather than for predictable and formulaic frame narratives. The stories are often recounted in series or layers, much as an event might be related by various individuals, from various perspectives, to one central inquisitor or listener trying to make sense of it all, or trying to find the truth of the matter and then to relate that through the larger telling, which is the frame or "container" identifiable by title as the Williams story.
Significantly, this is the method and form of the case study, written by the scientist or investigator who knows that there are many sides to any story, many versions of character or action or setting that may appear as "truth." This method is also reminiscent of gossip, of hearing and telling about a person and what happened or did not happen to that person, from people who knew, each in their own way, portions of the story, who may have added to the story or even fabricated portions of it. These case stories or reports, or gossipy stories told to an inquisitor-listener who then relates incidents—often in retrospect—give an abiding anecdotal quality to a Williams story. This is not to say that his stories are completely without plot, or without sequenced events. Rather, even in stories that utilize sequenced events and motives, plot takes a decidedly anecdotal and digressive turn. Given an implied listener, Williams's stories seem like a prose variant of the dramatic monologue.
In keeping with their "oral," anecdotal, conversational, reportorial quality, his stories offer some fascinating examples of dialogue that is not really dialogue so much as it is, again, reporting, partially because the reporting is reported as it was reported. Moreover, the narrator does not pronounce judgment on the significance of these conversations. There is, however, more editorializing, more political and moral judgment, more overall value judgment in a Williams story than is commonly pointed out. There are, too, implicit judgments to be drawn, but by and large Williams's stories are not explicitly didactic in the sense that they draw a heavy-handed moral, unless the point is not to draw a moral, certainly not a "puritanical" moral. This is not to say that there is no moral center in his stories, at times even moral indignation. Williams's moral center, his "opinions" are decidedly not bourgeois, at least not overtly. His middle-classness, such as it is—physician, family man, citizen—is subservient to a more radical, left-of-center posturing and self-dramatization.
Because Williams is writing his stories quickly, with a brush stroke here and a fling of paint there (as he describes the process), the spontaneity, as technique, determines some of the form of the story; exposition blends with dialogue, the present of the story proper blends with the present (now the past) of the story related to the principal narrator (for example, the narrator closest in time, place, and psyche to Williams the man, but oftentimes a persona, variously close to or distanced from Williams himself). As a result, there is limited use of quotation and transition, unlike the more traditional short stories of Williams's day.
In terms of personae, point of view, and tone, Williams's stories are, like his other prose fiction, highly autobiographical. A doctor very much like Williams, with a wife like Flossie, with two sons like Williams's, with friends like Williams's, with a philosophy like Williams's, and so on, is quite often the principal narrator. Despite these similarities, the stories are ultimately fiction and not autobiography. At a minimum all characters' names are changed—a need Williams learned with a vengeance when he was used for not doing so in "The Five Dollar Guy," a story he had tucked away in a drawer and later submitted to the New Masses (in 1926) without changing the names as he had intended. The evolution of case history into story, however, goes much beyond mere cosmetic name changes. The vernacular voicings, especially of the narrator, but also of the characters; the finely pared and crafted structures—patterns, rhythms, openings and closures; the usually ironic and oftentimes cynical tonalities; the minimalist "style" and "presence" that is uniquely Williams—all of these ingredients work the marvelous transformations of art.
The case study as source and foundational form notwithstanding, the narrator in these stories, particularly in the early stories, is not always a doctor. Roughly half of the stories in Knife are not stories told by a doctor, nor are they, strictly speaking, about a doctor—though the overall attitude of the narrator and/or persona behind the narrator is keenly aware—as a writer and chronicler of humanity and mortality must be aware—of the miseries, "la tristeza,", of the human condition as a doctor stereotypically is thought to be. When Williams's stories are about neither physicians nor writers as such, they are nevertheless, invariably (albeit oftentimes obliquely) about the writing process, and most expressly about the storytelling process.
Williams's diction is for the most part decidedly casual and, in keeping with whatever character is speaking, utterly colloquial. The common language of ordinary working class, not particularly well-educated Americans—the "American idiom"—pervades each story. There are also, however, instances in which highly technical language, usually medical language, intervenes. "Profanity" occurs, but there is never "obscene" language as such, for as iconoclastic and "shocking" as he is, Williams makes an attempt to tone down, for the sake of literary presentation or public reception, the blue hues of the people's language and his own language. In his letters and notes to friends and other writers his use of the vernacular illustrates just how fully he toned down his own eloquent use of profanity for the more public, artistically crafted stories—texts especially susceptible to public standards of taste or editorial censorship in the 1920s and 1930s.
Certainly the places Williams writes about and the kind of people he writes about (including himself as dramatized by his narrators and characters) give his stories the stamp of local color. In Knife he echoes local colorists of Rahv's "Red Skin" variety, such as Mark Twain and company. Somewhat more refined voicings are also heard—Hardy, T. F. Powys (in his village sketches), and behind these the austere voice of George Crabb. And ever so seldom, in a story like "Hands Across the Sea," even Henry James is heard—he is present in the writing to the extent that he is being rejected and replaced by what Williams considered his better ear for American place and people. In more general terms, perhaps part of Williams's voice is the voicing of the modern, an Arnoldian "plangent threnody" of recognition of the "buried life," the Sophoclean tragic "turbid ebb and flow of human misery," flowing mysteriously from the Aegean to the English Channel to the Passaic River, turning, anxious and forlorn, not so much on the intruding forces of naturalism as on the anguish met firsthand by a physician working with disease, illness, and death in the cutting and killing times of the American depression.
The stories in Knife are not all depression stories in any all-encompassing sense, in the sense that all the characters depicted are not suffering as a direct result of poverty or economic reversal caused by the failure of the economy. The "knife" and the "times" in the title may well be seen as metaphors for cuts in and cutbacks to the amenities otherwise available in more solvent, stable times. The "knife," however, as it appears literally and figuratively in these stories, takes on many different meanings. In one sense the knife is the stress, the neurosis, the anxiety caused by modern living—separations caused by city/country, love/hate, health/sickness, and other lesions associated with family and self, husband and wife, parent and child, individual and others, home and homelessness, youth and age, or, more uniformly in these stories, of middle age set against youth and old age. Not only are many of these stories "couples" stories or "love" stories that deal with the battle of the sexes, they also deal with the crises of middle age, and appropriately so, given that Williams himself was facing the personal and artistic crossroads of middle age when he turned to writing stories. In certain instances the "knife" is a cutting tongue of verbal insults and abuses; in other instances it is the looming threat of insanity and nervous breakdown, of losing control of one's life, one's job, one's mental as well as physical health. In some instances it is the "knife" of drug addiction and alcoholism; of homosexual rather than heterosexual yearnings; of racism and rape and violence in real and imagined forms; of apprehension about and recognition of infidelity—the "knife" that cuts the knot of marriage, of human emotional and sexual solidarity, whether of lovers, friends, or fellow human beings. In some instances the knife is one of jealousy, of real and metaphorical back stabs and gut stabs and violent assault. As a backdrop to some of the stories, World War I presents one version of the metaphorical "knife." In rare instances it is a literal scalpel, used to remove surgically a major disease or tumor or to perform something as minor as circumcision, tonsillectomy, or appendectomy. And in a somewhat more far-fetched sense the knife is not just the tongue but the pen, the stories themselves that bring to the reader short, close cuts of "realism," slices of life. There are then many ramifications of the title in these early stories, ramifications of theme and character and form, of style and technique, which though capable of being isolated in these stories also carry over to Williams's other stories, to his other prose works, and to his longer poetry.
In The Knife of the Times, Williams is in a real sense not just involved in a literary experiment or a literary creation for its own sake; he is working through, in writing as healing, his own doubts and despairs as a man who is compelled—like Coleridge's Mariner or the poet persona of Wordsworth—to give relief through a timely utterance and thereby avoid the despondency and madness that comes from an inability to express something akin to "emotion recollected in tranquility" in the face of the observable. There is a certain dimension of the romantic crisis lyric, as well as the conversation poem, in these stories, which also owe something of their form, as well as their impulse, to the tradition of the biographical sketch or life telling, the autobiographical confessional.
"Hands across the Sea" is particularly revealing of Williams's autobiography; however, in "Mind and Body," "The Colored Girls of Passenack," and "Old Doc Rivers," Williams also makes appearances as narrator/character that place him as close as possible to his actual self. This quartet of stories does not represent his best stories (except, perhaps, "Doc Rivers"), only some of his most characteristically autobiographical. These four stories provide Williams with the means and ways of looking at some of the knives of his own disturbing middle age as his autobiographical presence (who he was able to become as a good, productive male and human, and who he might have been, in the fashion of Conrad's Kurtz in the potential of his own and humanity's darker self) shuttles back and forth, in and out of the stories. If one recognizes Williams's presence in these four stories, his already very much felt presence in companion stories is made yet more easily identifiable if we compare "Hands" (to mention just one of the most directly autobiographical quartet) with "The Knife of the Times" and "The Sailor's Son" (where the psychic and physical unions and splits involve more bizarre sexuality), and with "A Visit to the Fair," "An Old Time Raid," "Pink and Blue," "The Buffalos," and "A Descendant of Kings" (where the unions and separations run the gamut of age, friendship, marriage and parentage). . . .
In "Mind and Body" Williams's fictional counterpart is the unnamed doctor and friend who listens to and examines an unnamed woman patient. Only the patient's husband, Yates, and the doctor's wife, Emily, are known by name. The main characters—doctor and patient—are not named, and effectively so, since they know each other well, both as friends and as patient/doctor. The woman patient and Yates are, moreover, family friends. Because of the relative anonymity of the characters Williams achieves a kind of authenticity about the confidentiality obligatory between doctor and patient. Names seem to be changed or not given to protect Williams's actual patients and friends.
The setting for this story, the doctor's home with an office upstairs, is very similar to Williams's own residence at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford. The place is in the northeast—for all practical purposes, New Jersey—and the ambiance is urban. Much of the story involves the doctor's attempts to diagnose what ails the woman, her attempts to explain her symptoms, and in the process her beliefs and opinions on a number of subjects. The knife that is whittling down this patient is anxiety concerning just what is wrong with her and how it relates to what has been wrong with her in the past: her operation some eighteen years ago, and her nervous breakdown, which placed her in a hospital for a time, a hospital where she met Yates, a man with his own kind of problems.
Their conversation is followed by the doctor's physical examination of the woman. Both the mind and the body of the patient are thus considered and ministered to by a physician who offers advice on sexual matters and marriage in a most matter-of-fact way—especially since the physician goes to the extent of telling the woman that perhaps she needs a woman to love rather than a man. The woman's husband, Yates, seems much more the friend than the lover; but there is no real evidence in the story that the woman actually would prefer a female lover in place of Yates. Maybe she prefers a more masculine one—like the doctor, for their "appointment," has its erotic overtones. (This same kind of acceptance of lesbianism and homosexuality as either a biological or a psychological fact pervades Williams's other stories that address the subject, including "The Knife of the Times" and "The Sailor's Son.")
"Mind and Body" has a convincing air of reality about it: the physician knows his stuff and demonstrates wide past experience as well as familiarity with the latest research found in professional journals. From the attitudes and methods demonstrated one can infer some of the techniques Williams no doubt approved of and demonstrated in his own methods and bedside, examining room manner as a physician. To a certain extent the physician acts more like a psychoanalyst than a general practitioner.
What is impressive about the story, and unusual by today's impersonal clinical standards, is the extent to which the physician talks to the woman as a friend and even escorts her to the bus stop, insisting that she and her husband return for a visit. The basis for this relationship only partially resides in the fact that the doctor and woman are friends. They discuss religion, education, culture, medicine—many subjects all of which ultimately have a bearing on the woman's condition—and on her relationship to her husband. One infers that in Williams's assumptions of what a doctor does, both "mind and body" are important, and society is both part of the ailment and the cure. As in the prototypical portrait of the physician of an earlier era, this doctor, like a writer, listens and counsels, proving very much a human being and not a sterile, faultless scientist detached from the humanity he serves.
As in "Hands Across the Sea," couples—the woman and Yates, the doctor and Emily—again provide a pattern that Williams uses to great effect to describe the patient-doctor/husband-wife types here. Both marriages are vulnerable to being cut asunder given the numerous pressures of the time, such as the selfishness or narcissism announced in the woman's half-believed assertion, which is the first sentence of the story: "For ourselves are we not each of us the center of the universe?" Williams both gives evidence of egocentrism as a true and almost instinctive aspect of life and attempts, through the words and actions of the physician and his wife, to disprove this view. Not only mind and body but minds and bodies need contact, need to converse, need to care reciprocally about each other.
Williams fuses the woman's narrations with the doctor's narrations, her past and her present, in such a way—without the use of quotation marks or paragraphing, for example—to underscore visually on the page the story's need for greater fusing and welding of hitherto disparate architectonic parts. The woman, as well as the doctor, is quite opinionated about literature, art, and cultural issues, and yet they are both listening to each other and in key instances conceding points of argument to each other. It is no happenstance that the woman is trained in logic and very intelligent and that the doctor is operating throughout by means of the logical processes taught him.
As intelligent and intellectual and reasonable as the doctor and the patient are, they both hold out for a certain pragmatic primitivism, a superstitious belief in what works over what is explainable in their culture's logic about mind and body. She believes in intuition and "second sight," or animal knowledge. And the doctor does not refute her—he even agrees. Although people view the woman as a "nut" and an eccentric, and conjecture that much of her problem is imagined, she knows, as does the doctor, that natural remedies and nostrums, even superstitious religious ceremonials, can be effective—if there is belief. The doctor/narrator advises that everyone should avoid priests with only one answer, one way to be saved, saying that a ceremonial dance by a medicine man "with beating of torn toms to conduct. . . [him] into the other world" would be more comforting "than the formula of some kindly priest." Williams himself preferred the "poetry" of the satyrs, as he says in Paterson. And his analogue Evans in "The Venus" carries the emblematic arrowhead in his pocket, ready to express its secrets to those who care. But the arrowhead is emblematic of much more than words—as are the satyrs. A similar "no one has all the answers" attitude is also found in "Doc Rivers."
Williams's own individualism as a writer, his iconoclasm in the face of traditions of one kind or another, carry over to his characterizations found here in the woman and in the characters of other stories: the story asserts the implicit value of individualism, even quirky individualism. Intellectually, the woman sets herself above many of her former doctors who, she thinks, do not even understand her charts and the terminology on them to the extent that she does. As she tells the doctor her history, offers him her biography, the doctor is simultaneously drawing conclusions based on what he hears and what he is observing—and these processes, too, are blended with the woman's narrative in such a way as to make the disparate pieces whole, and his thinking process organic to the woman's "storytelling," which is her case, her life. The doctor, in coming finally to what he believes is the right diagnosis—attributes her symptoms not so much to a pathological condition ("mucous colitis" or intestinal spasms) as to an anatomical basis (her "short more inert [capillary] loops which account for [her] more lethargic demeanor")—offers an explanation of first causes: "apparently [it] was laid down in the germ plasm when you were created." The diagnosis tends to have a calming effect on the woman, because it helps her to accept who she is, how she came to be herself. As simple and all-inclusive as the explanation is, it does give her a better sense of what is wrong with her. It seems as good an explanation as any for her anxiety, reconciling in a way that other doctors had yet to do, her "mind and body."
At the end of the story, what the woman tells Emily—whose place in life is as a housekeeper, looking after her husband—is contrary to what she says as the story opens. Now she asserts that "we must live for others, that we are not alone in the world and we cannot live alone." In part she knows this before she visits the doctor; but the doctor, in his actions and in his listening to her case history, and in his willingness to talk with her and express his own views, has had a healing effect on the woman. One also knows, and can infer from the telling, that the doctor has benefited from the rather bizarre (yet natural) visit from this woman and her nervous, rare presence as a person. . . .
The other stories in Knife have little to do directly with physicians or with Williams's autobiography, at least his life as a doctor. Williams is not as present—at least some of the more prominent and documented aspects of his life as a physician or husband are not as present—in these relatively lesser-known stories. They do, however, reveal a physician's (and a writer's) caring involvement with the miseries of humanity. Furthermore, most of these stories share with the other stories in the volume a concern with couples, their fidelities and infidelities, their bondings and their separations—all set against the cutting tensions of individual and social hard times: homosexual psychic and physical unions and splits; young and old; longtime friends and cronies; mail-order bride and crazed husband; would-be patriarch and liberated wife; mother and son; sons and lovers.
"The Knife of the Times" and "The Sailor's Son" have received more critical attention than "A Visit to the Fair," "An Old Time Raid," "The Buffalos," "A Descendant of Kings," and "Pink and Blue." But Williams's stylistic presence is so successful in all of these stories that one can only wish he had written fewer stories about the physician's life and more stories like these, which go about their business outside of the more focused world of doctors and medicine. This is not to say that these stories are not autobiographical, for they still deal with the crises of middle age that Williams faced, and they allow him a way to objectify some of these crises, empathetically, through self-as-other portrayals. . . .
In "An Old Time Raid," and "The Sailor's Son," the two sets of male friends try to survive the pressures against their mutual personal commitment. In the former story that commitment is rowdy friendship; in the latter story the commitment is rowdy homosexual love. Moreover, in the latter story the male companionship is set against the complications of two women—one a disapproving employer of young Manuel, the other an assenting fiancée who is not bothered in the least by his carousing in the haystack with the wild motorcycler and bad influence from the city: uthe Kid."
"An Old Time Raid" is one of Williams's most colloquial stories. Another retrospective accounting of a friend's life, the narrator here relates some of the wild times of his youth with a crazy prankster of a fellow—a good but wild old buddy, Dago Schultz. As such, the story functions as a eulogy of sorts both to the memory of Schultz and to the good old days when a fellow could carouse through the town with a friend. Prank follows prank, mischief follows mischief as the narrator confesses to some meanness carried out with Schultz one day in New York City. They raid restaurants, fruit stands, theaters, businesses and disturb the civic peace and order, hastening a police raid or two.
Williams's expert handling of the opening and the ending of the story makes it clear that Dago's days are surely numbered. In the opening paragraph (which deals with events some three years later) he is presumably clipped by "a freight coming from nowhere in the opposite direction." But that destiny is not known for sure until the ending, and the ending of the story is nicely reflexive to the opening as the reader learns conclusively from the narrator and crony, "Well, whether he was drunk or not or just didn't see, as he swung out after getting a grip on the rail, a freight coming from nowhere . . . , just clipped him—." It is a fitting outcome for Dago's life, another aspiring roamer, a free-spirited hobo whose freedom and daring lead to death. The consolation, and another ironic, ambivalent one, is that he literally did not know what hit him and thus went out in his own kind of style and gory glory.
Schultz's kindred spirit in "The Sailor's Son" is "the Kid," a free spirit who leads a gang of motorcycle rebels lawlessly through the city streets, and every now and again goes out to the country for a sexual tryst with young Manuel, who is employed by Mrs. Cuthbertson. Once she is aware of what she considers outrageous goings on, Mrs. Cuthbertson orders a stop to it and fires Manuel. Manuel's lovesick and lonesome attitude, his longings for both the Kid's attentions and for letters and visits from his fiancée, Margy, and Mrs. Cuthbertson's overall outrage, are all ironically undercut by Margy's arrival on the scene and her berating of the older woman: "I am engaged to marry him, I don't care what he does. Why should you worry?" Here again, the narrator takes no puritanical stand on so-called aberrant sexual liaisons. Although Margy seems rather too nonchalant, it is her opinion that rings beyond the story—another commentary on Williams's live and let live physician's acceptance of the human condition in all its forms and manifestations. The Kid provides yet another instance of Williams's alterego, the wild and free rebel ready to live beyond the pale of society's approvals and conventions in an urban counterpart of America's former frontier. Part delinquent, part hero, he is the stuff not just of stereotype but of an American archetype that fascinated Williams—whether as aborigine, frontiersman, mountain man, cowboy, or biker.
In the much-talked-about title story, "The Knife of the Times," the narrator takes a similar live-and-let-live attitude in recounting the long-pent-up lesbian love of Ethel for her old friend, "dark-eyed" Maura. Long married and the mother of six children, Ethel takes to writing passionate, seductive letters to Maura. She finally arranges a reunion in New York where she lures Maura to some pay toilets in Penn Station and makes her desires known in a passionate release of physical fondling and kissing. Maura is awakened to her own repressed love for Ethel and when asked if she would spend at least a week with her, "sleep with her," Maura decides, lucidly, carelessly, "Why not?" One "knife" in the story is the knife of long-repressed sexual desire and a desire to be free (another instance of this common proclivity) of society's expectations and conventions. "Why not?" as Maura announces it, is at once a cry of liberation and a leveling of self-restraint in the face of larger instincts. The actual descriptions of physical contact between the two women seem tame if not quaint by today's no-holds-barred erotic accounts. But in the context of the story, the passion seems anything but silly and allows the reader insights into just how far in the history of the short story the freedom to deal with issues of homosexuality has extended. In this sense Williams needs as much recognition as E. M. Forster and others whose homosexual stories were by and large only published posthumously. Whether his homosexual stories were intended by Williams as a kind of apology for those of homosexual persuasion among his painter and poet friends, or a working out of his own feelings for others of the same sex, as is suggested by Reed Whittemore about Williams and Robert McAlmon, is perhaps beside the point.
The homosexual stories in Knife hold forth the possibility—most especially to readers of more conventional (Williams would say puritanical) persuasion and those contemporary with the era in which these stories were written—that male-male friendship or love may be a kind of shield against female barbs and other kinds of knives of the times. Moreover, lesbian or homosexual love, if that is the person's inclination, is presented—more shockingly for Williams's time, and somewhat more ironically in the 1980s given the hysteria over AIDS—as something to be accepted without inhibitions if that is the nature of those involved. All three gender combinations—male-male, female-female, and female-male are accepted throughout Williams's early stories as ways of attempting to get through life, as observed by an author who sees human sexuality and behavior for what it is, diverse as it may be, and vulnerable as it may be, both in fidelity and infidelity, and set against the social and psychological, mental and emotional slicings of the "knife of the times."
The nineteen stories in Life Along the Passaic River continue some of the same themes and techniques Williams develops in Knife. A half dozen of these stories are among Williams's best, and at least two of them, "The Girl with a Pimply Face," and "Jean Beicke*" are among Williams's own favorites. In Passaic subject and tone turn darker, tending more than in Knife to the cynical, the grotesque, and the tragic. Part of the darkness of these stories is attributable to the familiar "knife" of the times: the worries, fears, and miseries of humanity, now focused more on children than on adults of middle age. Although the crises and conflicts in Passaic do involve adults peripherally, children's presences are closer to the center of things. Place (setting, locale, ambiance—Williams regarded "place" broadly) also assumes greater importance, reflecting Williams's belief that "In a work of art place is everything." In these stories, the Passaic River itself gives a nodality to Williams's portrayal of character and action.
Williams appears again, quite autobiographically, as the physician-writer, the narrator, the overarching persona who, in watching the Passaic and describing the urban liabilities of lives whose rare presences captivate him, is so moved to empathy that he passes beyond voyeur to participant through the telling and retelling of their lives. Few of these stories involve country interludes, retreats, farms, or the summer cottages on the shore known to the more affluent middle-class protagonists who appeared as the "employers" in Knife. Here there is only a provisional escape from the city squalor in which the working-class, proletarian families portrayed in Passaic live. Part of the cynicism and part of the hostility expressed here by Williams and his personae is due to the inequalities in class, education, income, intelligence and sensibilities between those who see and those who are seen, those who are told about and those who tell. Here, too, hard times are recorded on more than one level. Williams's own middle-class respectability and security adds to the poignancy of the disparities between class and economic status of the individuals living along the Passaic.
One thing is felt by the author and shared by the reader vividly in story after story: Williams feels the "hard history" of the people, the society, the country. And he takes his job as physician and as chronicler seriously. It is that feeling, again, that turns ordinary presences into rare ones. Williams empathizes with these individuals, with their predicament, with their humanity in a caring, far from condescending way, even though his own status in life could easily distance him from them, and cause him to be disparaging rather than empathetic.
In Passaic more than in any other collection of his stories, memorable characters come to the forefront as living people, people with names and desires that at once typify and transcend their kind. For example, the title story, "Life Along the Passaic River," is a wonderfully tough but impassioned overview of the place and the people. Both the river and the local inhabitants of the valley virtually compel Williams and his narrator(s) to pay attention to them, to speak up for them, to say in various ventriloquisms that they matter very much in spite of the larger world's indifference, in spite, to some degree, of their own indifference. The stories could be, and usually are, capable of their own individual meanings, but read together, they gain a special rhythm and structure. As a whole, the volume personalizes the human "swarm," bringing moment and distinction to the larger, generational and historical process that Williams tried to define throughout his career, from "The Wanderer" to Paterson, from In the American Grain to Pictures from Brueghel. He credited James Laughlin with saying that the form of Passaic, with its attention to the river as a metaphor for history, might also be well suited to a long poem—a poem that turned out to be Paterson. Similar presuppositions about history as process, the flowing of events and persons along time's river also infuse the organic and nature metaphors of In the American Grain.
In Life Along the Passaic River the point of view shifts and blends (now limited, then omniscient); specific scene merges with limited editorializing; vignette dissolves into vignette; showing and telling mix and separate as styles of story; the story proper is reinforced by smaller, internalized stories; the river is knowable first as place and then as idea; the historical past alternates with the present; the language, the vocabulary, the diction, the intonations not only reflect but help define the nature of these lives and their riverscape, or, conversely, the riverscape and its lives. The resultant effect is that of a large canvas done in hasty but impassioned brush strokes. The stones are all essentially Williams—person, physician, narrator, character all combined—teller and technique shaping and being shaped by subject.
As Williams the physician well knew, life is defined ultimately in terms of death and in these stories about life along the Passaic, death is always ready to intrude. This irony of death threatening life is made part of the rhythmic structure of the story in one anecdote after another. The "Polacks" in the city try to cope, like the narrator, with the predicament they are born into, generation after generation. Some, like the young anonymous male hitchhiker in one of the vignettes, possess the saving ambition of wanderlust—the gumption to leave the hometown, like Boone, and travel to "the coast." The hitchhiker at least has the story of his traveling to tell when he gets in the narrator's car. He has been to one geographical limit, found no work there or anywhere else during his journey "back again through the whole country," and now his glorious westering comes down to a ride to "Westover" just "up here a way."
The small canoe, in the summer-hot, dye-waste, polluted water of the river, which the narrator watches and describes intermittently in the story, is not really going any place very far either. The boy who made the canoe and now floats in it has fashioned hope more than anything else. Others of the youths described are resourceful, if not successful, in their schemes. The intentions of the girls are presented with an air of tragic indulgence and sympathy for their attempts to get their oversized feet into undersized shoes. The narrator's conversation with some listener other than the reader clarifies the attitude: "If your shoes fit you and they're made of good leather, if you know what good leather is, . . . you're getting somewhere. What did you say? The girls' feet look like flat tires in most of the things they don't know enough not to buy and to wear."
And in another vignette, Williams makes clear that the teenage girl lying on the autopsy slab in the hospital never went very far at all. Neither did her aborted twins. Not just children and youths but young girls especially have Williams's feeling about their hard, rare presences. The pimply-faced girl; Jean Beicke; the young Olson girl in "The Use of Force"; this girl long gone on the slab—all of them face dead-end lives with precious few like the narrator/physician caring to help even if it is only for the sake of helping more than for wondrous "results."
The narrator does not know for sure what the dead girl's story is. She is dead, he sees, a suicide whose death was gruesome, as evidenced by the burn down her throat caused by some concoction she drank. Indignation at the probable motive and the waste of it all, and yet the possible, painful blessing of it, is heard in the narrator's Greek chorus-like judgment: "Good legs. A fine pair of breasts. Well-shaped arms. She's dead all right, and if you get what I mean, that's not such a bad thing either. But good God, what for?" Trying to deduce the details of her story is not worth it, finally, for the narrator/observer. A woman, a mother, a worker—a waste. But Williams at least makes that point. The reader is convinced that the details would be ghastly whatever they are.
Death in the form of murder along the Passaic cuts short these lives too, as the two bodies fished up out of the river testify—one of them without a head, arms, or feet. And the narrator of this vignette with his "ain'ts" and "gonnas" and "wannas" puts the case plain and hard about those who kill and are killed, "punks," and "suckers" and "gorillas" and "mugs" who as kids grow up to be either cops or criminals. All are still there—". . . they ain't moved away none; that's what I'm saying. They're still here. Still as dumb as ever."
In addition to presenting the narrator's flinging of words and throwing of voice, his impersonations of these peoples' voices and views, Williams paints heart-rending and soul-tearing verbal descriptions of the river. Two bridges, one upstream by the new Third Street Bridge between Passaic and Wallington, and the other downstream at the Country Bridge, frame the story's opening and closing. Above the Country Bridge the "Polacks" walk looking for, of all things, gold coins out of some rumored, softer past. And Williams watches them in their looking—for coins, at a diver, at each other; watches one turn up an 1864 copper coin; watches one sit amidst the roots of an upturned tree; watches young, muscular men; watches them want to see "The Babe knock it, just once, out of the lot"—laughs and says, "good luck to you." . . .
In Williams's most popular story, "The Use of Force," the reader is taken again into the house of another such Passaic River family, where a strange, intimate presence is played out, a battle of wills, of love and hate, cool reason and mindless rage. A relatively simple challenge faces the physician in the story: to examine the girl's throat for infection and signs of possible diphtheria. But out of fear or defiance, the girl, Mathilda Olson, refuses to open her mouth, violently scratches at the doctor's glasses, bites a tongue depressor into splinters, and generally behaves—while in her father's lap—as if the doctor were the embodiment of the disease itself, rather than the means to a cure.
Irony compounds irony and Mathilda's mother and father make matters worse with each word they say to the child. And Williams uses the implications of the semantics in the "argument" at hand to great effectiveness. "He won't hurt you," says the mother. "Hurt" is the wrong word to use and irritates the doctor—and the doctor (also the first-person narrator) makes this clear to the reader although he restrains himself in his "professional" dialogue with the parents and girl. "You bad girl . . . , The nice man You'll have to go the hospital" the mother continues, and Williams, again through the first-person point of view, calls attention to the words and the wrong psychology behind them. Finally he blurts out a remonstrance to the mother with her "bad girl"/"nice man [doctor]" designations: "For heaven's sake, I broke in. Don't call me a nice man to her."
Since the doctor/narrator (and behind him, Williams) is so keenly tuned to these loaded words in context, it is significant to note that he describes his own persistence toward the end of the struggle with Mathilda as "a final unreasoning assault," by which he "overpowers the child's neck and jaw" (my italics).
Williams utilizes his familiar undertones of violent eroticism in "The Use of Force" as well. The doctor's admiration for the girl's beauty (that is, he speaks of her as "an unusually attractive little thing"), which is met by devouring him with her eyes, combined with his hostility to her whimpering mother, become a kind of "rape of the girl's will." The doctor's confessed feeling of "adult shame" notwithstanding, the end justifies the means—the use of force (also exerted by the father) is necessary because Mathilda's tonsils are seriously infected. She cares nothing of such matters, however, and the story ends in her tear-blinded, furious attempt to brutalize the doctor—force returned for force—her own kind of violent attempted "rape of his will." Neither Williams nor his narrator is naive about the sexual implications of the episode. And even if the narrator says, "I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat . . ." in an essentially nonliteral way, the adequacy and inadequacy of words in relation to action become a theme of the story.
"Love," "bad," "nice," "savage"—all of the words to which Williams and the narrator call attention, are useless in the face of the infection threatening the girl's very life. The doctor knows the infection is the most powerful force in the equation of forces at work in the small, squalid room. Even the word "diphtheria" with all of its forceful connotations is just a word. The force lies behind the word in the disease and in the will and anger and beauty of the girl's presence, her human essence. But words, inadequate as they are, do have a certain limited, albeit primitive, magical, incantatory persuasive force that will enable the doctor to see, to know the truth of the ailment once he can convince the girl to relinquish her stubbornness. He sees his need to open her mouth, to examine her, as stupidly but admirably thwarted by the girl's resoluteness. Does she hate him? Does he love her? The word "love," as used—perhaps intended figuratively but revealing a more subconscious literalness—and the psychology of the emotion(s) expressed, make for intriguing speculation. Life along the Passaic, like the river itself and the aborigine in Williams's psyche, has its violent, savage aspect. . . .
Although not all of the stories in Passaic, beautiful and significant as they all are, can be discussed here, two other stories do bear mentioning. "Danse Pseudomacabre" and "The Accident" (two of Williams's earliest stories, first published in 1920 and 1921, respectively) raise the general/specific, specific/general rhythm of Williams's narration to further heights of the abstract and the philosophical. For Williams was desperately trying not just to report and describe, but to piece together some meaning to the misery he witnessed, some self-reflexive, word-way of coping with it, of solacing the people, the situation and himself—of reconciling life being born unto death.
In "Danse" a man meditates, in a Kafkaesque way, about life and death, health and illness, time and historical process, self and others—all the metaphysical queries about being and awareness. That process, the living of life, the "doctoring" becomes "la danse" as Williams suggests. The premise from which the man's ruminations radiate is a paradox: "That which is possible is inevitable," he thinks, the "normality of every distortion to which the flesh is susceptible, every disease, every amputation." It is the paradox of death in life, of morbidity in health, of the reversals of every kind that physicians see in their training and in their daily practice as it accumulates over the years.
Much of his anxiety is personal as well as professional. He is awakened with an overwhelming sense of death. His wife, sleeping next to him, might die, he thinks. How could he bear such separation, his "boon companion annihilated"? He hears a taxi leave; hears the "finality" of the clock strike three. Other thoughts come—of death, of a will in need of endorsement, of sickroom talk, a wife's fear of her husband dying, of an unconscious baby with meningitis, presumably, infected at the baptismal font of all places, from "holy" water, a baby, who, if it lives will be an idiot. The moon and street lamps imagistically provide a funereal backdrop to his meditations. The moon's movements, the lighting, are part of the dance and the repetitious visitations of a physician, and the writings and rememberings that grow out of those visits: "And do I repeat the trouble of writing that which I have already written, and so drag another human being from oblivion to serve my music." Such an imagistic "dance" is confirmation in plotless but still "story" form of the significance, the meaning that writing stories such as this one brought to Williams, "Satyr-like," in counting out the tempos and rhythms heard against his music and giving form to his music, the dance of the river, the place where he happened to find himself, the compulsion to write out an accompaniment to the words, the sounds, "the tragic foot," the dance of life—to death.
In "The Accident" the vignettes that dramatize the event point out that "Death is difficult for the senses to alight on." For twelve days the speaker struggles to keep a girl alive, but death comes, finally, vividly, grotesquely: "She lies gasping her last: eyes rolled up till only the whites show, lids half open, mouth agape, skin a cold bluish white, pasty, hard to the touch—as the body temperature drops the tissues congeal."
Which is the accident, Williams seems to say, life or death? The girl's final moments are juxtaposed with another lesser accident, experienced by the narrator/physician, a minor cataclysm on a serendipitous "out-of-doors" trip in spring (a beginning, an "accident") to see four goats "down a red dirt path." The physician now becomes a man who wants to stop to show his son the goats. As in e. e. cummings's "Just Spring," the spring, the boy, the goats, the sexual urges felt by the man toward the woman in the car seat, "hips beside him," or in Williams's "Spring and All," out of all the lustful longing for life and its utter mystery of "death, a sign of life," the child must instinctively touch one of the goats. He does so. Then, walking back along the path, the child stumbles, falls full face into the dirt.
The child's falling is an accident of another kind than the girl's gasping and dying, which opens the account. Death is an accident and spring is an accident. The goats where they are, doing what they are doing as "goats," are an accident. The child's fall is an accident. The story is a kind of accident. Experience is an accident, life, the rarest presence of all, and the rarest absence, in death—all such "accidents" are the stuff of storytelling.
In Knife and Passaic Williams first tries his hand at doing all of it—the "danse," the "accidents)," the poetry, the words of it—in short story form. And readers who happen across them, like the six wonderful, sun-drenched women who stop their work and stare, concerned, and finally laugh and wave at the child recovering from his fall, can be thankful Williams cared to tell each and every one of these hard histories, these beautiful stories.