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."