William Carlos Williams

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Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 67,703 words.)