William Carlos Williams Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download William Carlos Williams Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A first-generation American, William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. His father, William George Williams, of English ancestry, had been born in England and raised in the West Indies. His mother, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb Williams, whose ancestry contained elements of French, Spanish, and Jewish cultures, had been born in Puerto Rico.

With his younger brother, Edward, Williams went to public schools in his hometown. When he was fourteen, he went with his family to Europe for two years, where he attended school first near Geneva, Switzerland, and later in Paris. When his family returned to the United States, he was sent to Horace Mann High School in New York City. He commuted daily from Rutherford by streetcar and Hudson River ferryboat. Williams entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902. While there, because of his interest in poetry, he met the poets Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and the painter Charles Demuth, all of whom became his lifelong friends.

After his graduation from medical school in 1906, Williams interned at the old French Hospital and the Nursery and Child’s Hospital in New York City. His first volume of poetry, Poems, published at his own expense, appeared in 1909. That same year he went to Europe again, where he did postgraduate work in pediatrics in Leipzig, Germany. While in Europe he renewed his friendship with Ezra Pound, and through him was introduced to many writers and artists of prewar London.

After brief trips to Italy and Spain, Williams returned to Rutherford in 1910 to begin the practice of medicine. In 1911, he married Florence Herman, the “Flossie” of his poems. During the next few years, Williams became the father of two boys, William and Paul. In 1913 he bought the house at 9 Ridge Road in Rutherford which would be his residence for the rest of his life. His second volume of verse, The Tempers, was published in England that same year. Williams was a very active pediatrician with a wide practice among the industrial workers of northeastern New Jersey. Nevertheless, he continued to be a deeply committed poet and literary man eagerly involved in the artistic life, publishing ventures, and general creative climate of Greenwich Village in the years of World War I and after.

During the 1940’s, Williams contributed to numerous magazines, including The Glebe, Poetry, Others (of which he was associate editor for a time), The Little Review, The Dial, and Broom. He became acquainted with Walter Arensberg, Kenneth Burke, Marsden Hartley, Alfred Kreymborg, Marianne Moore, Charles Sheeler, and other poets and painters. Williams published his third collection of poems, Al Que Quiere!, in 1917 and Kora in Hell: Improvisations, an experimental collection of poetry and prose, in 1920. From 1920 until 1923, Williams edited Contact with the publisher Robert McAlmon and during these years published three daring experiments in prose and poetry: Sour Grapes (1921), Spring and All (1923), and The Great American Novel (1923).

In 1924 Williams went to Europe with his wife for six months and savored the expatriate life of the most important members of the American “lost generation” and their French counterparts. He was guided again by Ezra Pound, along with McAlmon, and through them Williams associated with such writers and artists as George Antheil, Sylvia Beach, Kay Boyle, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, and such French writers as Valery Larbaud and Philippe Soupault.

Williams published one of his most influential prose works, In the American Grain, in 1925, a collection of essays on American history. During the following decade he contributed to transition, The Exile, Blues, Front, Pagany, Alcestis , and other magazines. In 1926 he received the Dial Award for Services to American Literature. Still a full-time pediatrician with a large private practice among the working class of Rutherford, he joined the staff of the Passaic...

(The entire section is 3,024 words.)