In the American Grain
In the American Grain
William Carlos Williams 1925Introduction
Although he is best known as a poet, William Carlos Williams's literary output spanned many genres. He wrote numerous novels, dozens of short stories, an autobiography, and a history book and meditation on the true nature of the American character. In this book, Williams attacks the Puritan legacy that he sees as a crippling influence on America and praises the figures in American history who fully engaged with the people and land of the New World. "The pure products of America go crazy," he wrote in his poem "To Elsie," and his book In the American Grain is an attempt to explain why.
Williams was a member of the literary movement known as modernism. Some of the movement's greatest figures, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, bemoaned the state of the modern world and looked to past cultures as their inspiration. America, for these writers, epitomized the shallow, philistine, history-less, materialistic strain of culture that was beginning to dominate the modern world. These modernist writers (and dozens of others) left their home nations to find refuge and an artistic home in other countries. Eliot repudiated his Americanness and became a British citizen; Pound maintained his interest in the United States but held a condescending view of his home country.
Williams, almost alone among important modernist writers, stayed in America and devoted himself to appreciating aspects of American culture ignored by his modernist comrades. Through his medical practice, Williams served the working-class and poor citizens of northern New Jersey. He wrote poetry suffused with the imagery and characteristic verbal expressions of America's diverse communities. He also studied the history of the United States, attempting to define America's place in the world differently than did the apologists of manifest destiny or the European detractors. With In the American Grain, written when Williams was forty years old, he added to the observations of a lifetime a systematic study of the original documents of America's discovery and colonization. In the book, he rereads American history in an attempt to identify what really makes up the American "grain."
One of the best-loved, most enduring, and most American of all poets, William Carlos Williams balanced a life of aesthetic contemplation with a life of constant, hands-on involvement with the most brutal facts of life. Forever envious and resentful of the American modernist poets, like Ezra Pound, H. D., and T. S. Eliot, who fled to Europe to live bohemian lives, Williams stayed home in New Jersey and practiced family medicine among the poor and working-class citizens of his region. He stayed involved in the artistic ferment going on in the world, however, and established and maintained friendships with many of the writers, painters, and photographers who were creating the movement known as modernism. Like his contemporary, Wallace Stevens, Williams identified himself primarily with his profession and only secondarily with his vocation of poetry. Also like Stevens, this split caused him endless inner turmoil, but also provided him with material and inspiration for one of the truly great bodies of work in American literature.
Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. His father was British by birth and never became an American citizen, while his mother's family came from a number of Caribbean islands and her own ancestors were French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish. She preferred to speak Spanish or French at home, and many exotic foreigners passed through the Williams' house because of her. Williams attended public schools in Rutherford and was frequently at the Unitarian church in the town (his father was one of the church's founding members). When he was fourteen, Williams's mother took him and his younger brother Edgar to Europe for the year, where they lived in Geneva and Paris. Returning to the United States, the boys enrolled at the Horace Mann school in upper Manhattan. If Williams did not excel at Horace Mann, his performance there was at least an improvement over his dismal work at the Swiss and French schools where he had recently studied. While at Horace Mann, he came under the influence of the popular English teacher William Abbott. Abbott's love of poetry was infectious, and Williams soon decided to devote his life to it.
Williams's resolution was a private one, though. Acceding to his parents' desires, Williams enrolled in the dental college at the University of Pennsylvania in 1902 and later transferred to the medical school. While at Penn, he met two other figures who would loom large in his development both as a writer and as a person: Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle. Pound was a flamboyant and eccentric figure on campus even though he was only a sophomore when Williams met him, but Pound's devotion to life as a poet was complete. Williams, who knew compromise in this, both idolized and envied Pound. Pound also introduced Williams to the artistic experimentation of the late nineteenth century. Where Williams had modeled his verse after that of the great writers of the tradition (Spenser, Keats, and Tennyson were important influences), Pound admired more daring writers such as Walter Savage Landor and Robert Browning. Also at Penn, Williams met the painter Charles Demuth, who would be a great influence on Williams's conception of the links between the visual and the linguistic.
Williams finished medical school in 1906 and relocated to New York City, where he worked in hospitals. In 1909, he spent a few months in Germany studying pediatrics and traveling. Upon his return to the United States in 1910, he moved back to Rutherford, New Jersey. In 1912, he married Florence Herman—"Flossie"—a young woman he had known for several years and to whom he had proposed just before leaving for Europe. Williams and his new wife quickly had two children (Bill and Paul) and settled into his life as a family doctor.
But he did not neglect his poetry. He had privately published a volume of poems in 1909, and, in 1913, his collection The Tempers was published by the small London literary firm of Elkin Mathews. He also had four poems accepted by Poetry magazine, a Chicago-based journal for which Pound worked as "foreign editor." In 1914, Williams's work appeared in the influential book Des Imagistes.
The years of World War I and the 1920s were amazingly productive ones for Williams. During this period, he published many of his most remarkable books of poetry, as well as embarking upon attempts at prose and (with In the American Grain) history. Also during this time he tried on and moved beyond a number of themes and stylistic tendencies, and discovered new ways of incorporating the visual arts and dance into his poetry.
After about 1928, when he published his collection The Descent of Winter, Williams began to turn his talents to prose. All through his life he wanted to be a democratic artist, a writer whose work was not esoteric and coterie-based but that spoke to the broad mass of Americans. After the late 1920s, he seems to have decided that the novel and the short story were the forms through which he would reach this broad audience. In Williams's verse and prose, it is the telling local detail that matters rather than the abstract concept or the sweeping generalization. As one of his most famous lines (repeated in a number of poems but most famously appearing in "A Sort of A Song") states, "No ideas but in things."
In the 1930s Williams began to attain the respect of literary figures both established and upand-coming. The young publisher James Laughlin founded his publishing house, New Directions, in large part around Williams's works, and the poet Louis Zukofsky looked to Williams as his most important predecessor in the objectivist movement. In the 1940s Williams began working on his masterpiece, the long poem Paterson (which was completed in 1958). Difficult, at times abstract, postmodern in its incorporation of many kinds of texts, and ultimately rooted deep in the place that gave it birth, Paterson is truly one of the most important works of American verse.
From the 1950s until his death in 1963, Williams continued to write verse, to practice medicine, and to maintain a family life, while at the same time public acclaim flowed to him. He won prizes, was asked to speak at various events, was granted honorary degrees, and slowly became incorporated into the canon of American literature. In the early 1950s, he was appointed Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, but this post was taken away from him because of his left-wing political activities in the 1930s. He continued to publish a wide variety of works well into the 1950s, but physical ailments (strokes, a hernia operation, a heart attack) slowed him down significantly. After a series of strokes, he died on March 4, 1963.
Williams's book begins with the assumed "discovery" of the American continent by Scandinavian mariners. He immediately lets the reader know that this is no ordinary history book. Instead of using a traditional nonfiction narrator, the book is narrated by a series of different voices. The first voice, as indicated by the chapter's title, is "Red Eric," known to American history as Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericson. Eric the Red begins his narrative with a tone of defiance: "Rather the ice than their way." Eric the Red has killed a man, been chased from his home in Norway, and found his way to the desolate island he calls "Greenland" to mislead potential colonists. His son Leif returns briefly to Norway and, on his return, is blown off course far to the west and finds new land.
The Greenland settlers leave their island to explore this new land far to the west that they call "Vinland the Good." The Norse settlers land and fight with the natives whom they call Skrellings. Both women and men, led by Leif and Freydis (Leif's sister), join in the settlement and defense of the Norse lands. Freydis starts a quarrel with two brothers of the settlement, and she and her husband kill these two brothers and their entire families. Seeing that this new land and its settlement is born in blood and crime, Eric prophesies that "there is little prosperity in store for their offspring."
The Discovery of the Indies
Most of this chapter is narrated by Christopher Columbus himself, but the first three paragraphs are in the voice of a different narrator, one who views the unsettled New World as an unravished flower. Columbus then takes over the narration, with occasional interruptions from the initial narrator. The first part of the chapter, ironically, focuses on the fourth and last of Columbus's voyages to the New World. Although Columbus opened the way to Spain's eventual takeover of most of the two American continents, he never attained the riches he desired. The other narrator describes Columbus as simply a "straw in the play of elemental giants," arguing that Columbus was more of an inevitability than a "great man."
The story then goes back in time to Columbus's first voyage in 1492. He tells of the trials of the journey, focusing especially on the last stage of the voyage. The three ships seemed to be wandering aimlessly, and for weeks the sailors grew more and more impatient. At the end of each day, and in order to keep them from despairing, Columbus tells the men that they have not gone as far as they actually have. They continue to see signs of land—birds, clusters of weeds—but do not actually find land. Finally, the ships spot what they are looking for. They land, make the acquaintance of the natives, and Columbus marvels at the beauty of all of the new sights.
The Destruction of Tenochtitlan
Williams's book tells this story as one of violence and loss, rather than one of triumph (as white historians generally portrayed it until the late twentieth century). The first paragraph of this chapter uses very disturbing imagery to describe the Spanish exploration and takeover of Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. "Upon the orchidean beauty of the new world," the narrator starts, "the old rushed inevitably to revenge itself [bringing] the evil of the whole world." This narrator clearly views the project of colonization as a destructive one.
Williams's narrator then attempts to retell the story plainly. Hernán Cortéz, resentful of the powerful Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos, takes his ships from Cuba to the coast of Mexico, beaches them, and, so that his men cannot desert and return home, burns them. The powerful king of the Aztec empire, Montezuma, fears what Cortéz might bring to his realm, so he sends the Spaniard gifts and entreaties to try to encourage them to stay away from his city. Cortéz, driven by his desire for riches and his mission to expand the empire of Spain and the reach of Christianity, ignores Montezuma's persuasion and marches inexorably toward the floating city of Tenochtitlan, picking up allies among the disgruntled tribes along the way.
Finally Cortéz reaches Tenochtitlan. The city amazes him: it is built on a floating island that is anchored to the mainland by long causeways "two spear-lengths in width." Cortéz marvels at the large, well-organized markets offering goods from every part of the Aztec empire. The narrator describes in detail the system of water supply and the religious rituals that end in the sacrifice of victims. Montezuma, dreading what the Spaniards might bring but still needing to demonstrate his magnificence both to his subjects, gives them lodging and the best that the city had to offer. The Spaniards close the temples of sacrifice and tear down their altars. Eventually Cortéz takes Montezuma prisoner and the citizens attack them. Montezuma urges his people on before being hit on the head by a stone and killed. The Spaniards, vastly out numbered, flee the city, and in doing so lose many men, horses, and much of the treasure that they had amassed. Soon after their retreat, though, they return and take the city. The Aztec Empire is no more.
The Fountain of Eternal Youth
This chapter tells of the Spanish explorations into Florida headed by Juan Ponce de Leon, and is narrated by one of Ponce de Leon's settlers. The Spaniards, seeking slaves to work Puerto Rican plantations, land on Florida's coast and are immediately attacked by Carib Indians. The chapter focuses on the slavery that the Spanish forced upon the native populations. Nine-year-old girls were enslaved to work in mines and on plantations until war, disease, and excessive work wiped out entire tribes. One of the Indian women tells Ponce de Leon of an island to the north, which she calls Bimini, where there is a fountain of water "to make old men young." Ponce de Leon leaves to find the fountain but ends up finding nothing. He returns to his plantation and stays there until he hears the news of Cortéz's triumph over Montezuma. Jealous of his rival's success, Ponce de Leon leaves the plantation in Puerto Rico in an attempt to achieve more feats of conquest and exploration. He arrives in Florida, only to be killed by an Indian's arrow.
De Soto and the New World
Hernando de Soto set out to explore the American Southeast: Florida, Georgia, Alabama and the gulf coast in search of cities of gold. In this chapter, the initial narrator is the female voice of the unexplored American mainland. Her tone is teasing and elusive, assuring de Soto that he will never find these cities. A new narrator then takes over, this one sounding very military and telling the story of de Soto's expedition as plainly as possible. The company lands in Florida and immediately starts north, beset by hostile Indians and by hunger. Within a year they make their way to the Savannah River. For much of the chapter, the two narrators converse with each other.
The rest of the chapter details the hardships of de Soto's four-year exploration of the American interior. Conflicts with the tribes are constant, and both sides betray each other numerous times. During the course of his journey, de Soto begins to learn how to act "like an Indian": he adopts the characteristics necessary to survive and conquer the native tribes, and the first narrator (the voice of America, as it were) congratulates him. Eventually, he finds his way to the Mississippi River and discovers that he is dying. He dies on the banks of the river, behind a palisade constructed by his men to protect them against Indian attacks.
The narrative voice changes drastically in this chapter, which does not so much tell a story as it invokes a character and an era. Using the type of voice and diction typical of classical epic poetry, the narrator asks the Muse to recount the story of Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a poet, courtier, and explorer in England's Elizabethan era. A friend of Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh was one of the most notable figures of this period—perhaps the very epitome of the "Renaissance man." The narrator, in the course of asking the Muse to speak, tells of Raleigh's wisdom and bravery and tries to imagine what Raleigh's impressions might have been had he come to what would later be called Virginia.
In addition to speaking of Raleigh, the voice continues the argument about the meaning of American history that unifies the book. White Europe was not unique, the voice argues; all cultures and civilizations found towns, fortified those towns, cultivated grain, made bread, and attacked and subdued enemies. Raleigh, the chapter makes clear, was an "atheist," and as such his own culture would have "burned him." Because of this, he applied his courage and independence to the endeavor of exploration. He became a sponsor of the expeditions to America, sending colonists there while being forbidden to go there himself. The narrator believes that "there is a spirit that is seeking through America for Raleigh," that the traits he embodied are wanted in this nation even if Raleigh himself was never here.
Voyage of the Mayflower
After the flamboyant, self-conscious poetic voice of the Raleigh chapter—a voice that fit Raleigh's character—the next chapter returns to the calm, measured, objective voice of traditional historiography. This, in turn, befits this chapter's subject: the Puritans. The chapter argues clearly and simply that the Puritans were the small, hard "seed of Tudor England's lusty blossoming," and that their plainness and determination and lack of wealth or decoration made them the perfect settlers of this new land. The narrator doubts their oft-professed religiosity, arguing that their devotion to God was a sham, a way to keep "themselves surrounded as with a palisade." The narrator condemns the puritans for "look[ing] black at the world and damning its perfections."
Cursing the Puritans and their legacy in the strongest possible terms, the narrator insists that the combination of the dark, inward-looking, self-hating Puritans and the wild, violent, lawless continent made America into what it is: "'the most lawless country in the civilized world,' a panorama of murderers, perversions, a terrific ungoverned strength, excusable only because of the horrid beauty of its great machines." Turning traditional American history on its head, Williams's narrator forcefully argues that the legacy of the Puritans was an almost damaging one.
The Founding of Quebec
An unidentified narrator speaks throughout this chapter, which tells of an incident in Samuel de Champlain's exploration of the territory that would later be called Quebec. In this story, Champlain spends three years exploring and obtaining money for subsequent expeditions in Quebec. In his camp, he learns of a plot among some of his company to kill him. He immediately searches out the leaders of this plot and executes one of them, sticking "his head upon a pike" for everyone to see.
The narrator of this chapter is both fascinated and amused by the seeming contradiction inherent in Champlain's actions. On one hand, Champlain is a consummate Frenchman, seeking to bring French civilization to the wilderness—to found towns and cultural institutions. Propriety and good behavior are essential to Champlain. Yet, the narrator points out, not even a culture as rigid as that of the French could ultimately wring the "wild" out of the American wilderness. The narrator ridicules the French for thinking that they could "civilize" this land by their presence here, merely by "planting a drop of your precious blood in outlandish veins." Quite the contrary will be the outcome, the narrator argues: the French themselves will be infected by the wildness.
The May-Pole at Merry Mount
This chapter, unlike the previous chapters that address famous explorers, deals with a relatively small and little-known incident in American history. The narrator of this chapter is a historian and the chapter itself is almost as much of an argument for paying equal attention to the small facts of history and to the "winners" as it is a historical description. The central figure here is Thomas Morton, a "vulgar royalist libertine" in the words of a later commentator, who went to live in Massachusetts in Puritan times. In 1627, a celebration was held to commemorate the change of a settlement's name to Merry Mount. Morton arrived at the party and took part in the drunken (and, it is suggested, sexual) revelry with a number of the Indians who were present. The Puritans, already bothered by Morton's trade selling liquor and guns to the Indians, took his "immoral" behavior as a pretense for arresting him and sending him back to England in chains. Again, as in the chapter on the Pilgrims, the narrator does not hesitate to find fault with the Puritans for their moralism, their inherently bitter dispositions, and their inability to accept any of the qualities of the New World.
Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World
Again the narration changes: this time to a voice very similar to that which one might encounter in a seventeenth-century published treatise, complete with Latin epigrams, unpredictable capitalization, and liberal use of italics. The first section of Mather's chapter sets up what will be the primary theme of the chapter: the conflict between good, personified by the Puritan colonists, and evil, personified by none other than Satan. The narrator argues that Satan placed among the colonists witches to lead them from God's path. The following sections describe the trials of some of these witches (Bridget Bishop, Susanna Martin). The events and specifics of these trials are familiar to us from any number of popular representations of the Salem Witch Trials. The narrator goes on to "relate a few of those Matchless Curiosities" that the Devil caused in the colony. First describing how these satanic groups were organized much like churches, the narrator then goes on to detail some of the powers of witchcraft—specifically, the power of invisibility.
Pére Sebastian Rasles
After the period-style narration of the Mather chapter, we now are presented with a chapter narrated quite plainly in the voice of Williams himself. The chapter begins with a list of figures from the art world of Paris in the 1920s—figures that Williams met during his six weeks in Paris. His description of bohemian life in Paris is both exciting and distasteful. The Parisian avant-gardists are not involved in life; they merely observe the world around them. The artists Williams meets are not interested in meeting him. Nonetheless, he gains aesthetic sustenance from the food, the paintings, and the sense of living life solely for art. He meets the French poet Valery Larbaud and is impressed by him as the two talk of the difference between how the English and the Spanish colonized the new world. The two argue about the nature of the Puritans.
The main theme of this chapter, as in some of the previous chapters, is the difference between the English/Puritan colonial mind-set and the French/Catholic mind-set. Williams sees the Puritans' legacy as wholly malignant. Driven by their religion, they denied the value of life at every point. The Catholics, such as the French priest Rasles, tried to understand the societies that existed in the new world, to accept their good points and fight against their faults. The English settlers in the Maine woods eventually killed Rasles. Larbaud sees problems with the Puritans but praises their energy and manic drive to conquer. Although Williams-the-narrator never points this out explicitly, the course of the conversation makes it clear that Larbaud praises these qualities in the Puritans because he has turned them into aesthetic objects, historical figures. Williams, as an American, cannot separate himself from the Puritan legacy. Rather, he must fight it.
The Discovery of Kentucky
This chapter focuses on Daniel Boone, the pioneer who was the "great voluptuary born to the American settlements against the niggardliness of the Puritan tradition." Williams (the narrator) praises Boone's character, his mildness and bravery. Boone was raised in western Pennsylvania and was known as a remarkable hunter and woodsman from the time he was young. When he was eighteen, his family moved south, to the wild country of North Carolina, and Boone married a neighbor girl. In 1769, he left his family behind to explore the lands west of his home. He was taken prisoner by Indians that December, escaping soon afterwards, and eventually came upon a search party led by his brother, Squire. When Squire left to get supplies, Boone remained alone in the wilderness, menaced by Indians but exhilarated by the vastness and fecundity of the country. Taking an important step beyond his Puritan heritage, he ventured fully into the country and became part of it. Instead of trying to defeat the land, he incorporated himself with it. This is what Williams calls his "genius."
Boone, as described in this chapter, becomes the prototype of the "good" American. He will be "himself in a New World," accepting the ways of the Indians while still remaining a European. Even when Indians kill his son, he maintains his respect for and understanding of their ways. The narrator says "he never wavered for a moment in his clear conception of the Indian as a natural part of a beloved condition, the New World, in which all lived together."
Williams's portrait (for he is now clearly the narrator of the book) of our first president is surprisingly equivocal. Washington was "the typically good man: take it as you please." The narrator focuses on Washington's physicality, his strong frame and his even stronger libido. Washington was unable to give up on anything in life and this, the narrator argues, made him the ideal general and the ideal first president for a country whose populace refuses to ennoble its leaders. At the end of his life, the narrator adds, he was rejected by the American people, who metaphorically threw dirt in his face.
This chapter begins as a clever mirror-image of the book as a whole: one writer taking the voice of another in order to establish some distance from himself. In this case, the voice is that of "Poor Richard" and the real writer is Benjamin Franklin. The pamphlet "Information for Those Who Would Remove to America" that is reproduced here was published for the benefit of potential English settlers. In this pamphlet, Franklin wanted to make an argument not only about the type of settlers who were best suited for America but about what America meant. Primarily, America means work. Because the nation is a blank slate, with no gradations of birth or privilege, all must work, and only the hard working survive. This results in what Franklin/Poor Richard calls a "general happy mediocrity," in which the vast majority of people live in approximately the same level of comfort. He dispels the notion that one can obtain a comfortable, easy government job (jobs notorious in Europe as being held by the laziest of citizens).
When the excerpt from Poor Richard ends, the voice of Williams himself takes over again. He points out what he sees as Franklin's most important quality: "motion without direction," "a voluptuousness of omnivorous energy." Franklin represents what would later be called the "can-do" nature of Americans, but at the same time he represents another, less positive aspect of the American character: the lack of deeply understood purpose. Williams also identifies what he calls a deep "timidity" in the American character that derives from the initial motivation behind settlements in the Americas: huddling together for mutual protection in a land of "great beauty and ripest blossom." The desire for knowledge is always practical in Franklin, always aimed at the immediate, always closed off to the immense possibilities of the New World.
Battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis
This chapter is presented as a letter sent from the American naval captain John Paul Jones to Benjamin Franklin. Jones commanded an American ship, called the Bon Homme Richard (French for "Poor Richard") in honor of Franklin, that had sailed to the North Atlantic to bring war to British shores. With a number of other ships, and protected by the French navy, Jones attacked British shipping and took prizes from the British fleet. Sailing south near the coast of Newcastle, Jones encountered one of the British navy's best ships, the Serapis. The two ships engaged each other in a brutal battle and, at one point, to lessen the Serapis's great artillery advantage, Jones lashed the two ships together. Although his ship was almost destroyed (both by the relentless batteries of the Serapis and the treacherous or horribly mistaken attack by a member of Jones's own fleet, the Alliance), Jones refused to surrender. In the end he won the battle of attrition when the captain of the Serapis lowered his colors and Jones boarded the ship.
The chapter "Jacataqua" is perhaps the strangest chapter of the book. Written by a narrator close to Williams in personality, the chapter is a scattered series of thoughts on the role of women in American history. Williams execrates the cult of virginity and purity and the denial of the body that especially exercised itself upon women. In many ways sexual roles are the central theme of Williams's book as a whole, for he views the New World as female (and in chapters such as this one or the de Soto chapter, actually figures the country as a woman). The energy that his heroes expend in exploration and construction are sexual energies; conversely, the Puritans' greatest fault could be their hypocritical rejection of sexuality. Jacataqua herself does not enter the story until the last pages. She was an Indian woman, a member of the Abenaki tribe, who was of mixed French and Indian heritage. As the band's "sachem," she leads the group of braves on a hunting party, and the group encounters a group of white men headed by Aaron Burr. Upon meeting her, Williams tells us, Burr was "for the first and last time at a loss before a woman." This statement indicates Williams's opinion that American women had their personalities and strength beaten-down, and that when confronted by a woman who had not experienced that kind of defeat, an American man could be struck speechless.
The Virtue of History
This chapter is structured as a dialogue; in this it is perhaps inspired by Plato's philosophical writings. The two voices debate whether history is simply a record of the dead. From this they begin discussing the character of Burr and delve into the question of whether he was as selfish and profligate as history has made him to be. One of the voices argues that Burr's contemporaries suspected him and were able to determine the historical portrait of him. The other voice counters that Burr was a "subversive force." The first voice (which becomes more and more clearly the voice of Williams himself) states that America "was a mean, narrow, provincial place" tending toward the suppression of freedom to central authorities. The two voices speak of Burr's career, his promising youth, his role in the independence struggle, his three-time rejection to be American ambassador to France, his killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Finally, the two voices return again to their original topic: whether history can be trusted in its judgments about individuals.
Advent of the Slaves
This chapter, again in the voice of Williams (and drawing on his personal experience as a family doctor), attempts to come to an understanding of the place of Africans in American society. Most of this short chapter consists of small observations about African Americans whom Williams has known. He asserts that they "have a quality which they have brought to America," but that, when we try to identify that quality, we find that it is "nothing." By "nothing" he means that to attempt to pin it down is to lose sight of it. This quality is the tendency toward nonchalance and the endurance of slights and oppression.
In discussing Samuel Houston, Williams's narrator begins his story with a very brief mention of Houston's youth among the Indians and then concentrates on his failed marriage to a wife who left him after three months. Following this, he lived again with Indians for eleven years before returning to white society and attaining prominence in Texas. The theme of this chapter, as stated in the last sentence, is that "everything that is must be destroyed." Houston, in order to accomplish what he accomplished, had to be "destroyed" beforehand, and would again be destroyed. The willingness to rebuild after destruction and the openness to new possibilities are traits that mark the greatest of the new Americans.
Williams praises Poe for being the first writer to imbue literature with the sense of an American "place," a necessary relationship to the land that created it. Poe, Williams argues, was the first American writer to reject "colonial imitation" of his English literary forebears. The picture here of Poe is of a proto-modernist, refusing to join the literary conversation and instead ruthlessly pruning away the dead branches of received forms. Poe's use of European settings, Williams states, is of a piece with that rejection because he "succeeds in giving the impression of being not in the least dragged in by rule or pretence but of a fresh purpose." Instead of ignoring the vast and often frightening New World and looking back to Europe, as did his contemporaries Bryant and Lowell, Poe adopted the characteristics of America into his writing. The chapter ends with a discussion of Poe's fiction as compared to such other writers as Hawthorne, and with remarks on the successes of Poe's poetry.
The shortest chapter of the book is also the saddest. With Lincoln, an era ends. The "torture" of the two strains in American history (the Puritan and the Catholic, fear of the New World and love of it, the repressive and the licentious) comes together in Lincoln, who in these brief paragraphs is represented as being both a man and a woman.
Bridget Bishop is one of the witches put on trial in the chapter entitled "Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World." The witnesses testifying against her are stricken with pain when they look at her. Among the testimonies offered against her are stories that she kept "poppets," or dolls, in the walls of a house, that she bewitched a sow, and that she caused apparitions to appear in front of people.
For Williams, Daniel Boone is one of the central figures of American history. Born and raised in western Pennsylvania, Boone and his family moved to the unsettled parts of North Carolina when he was a boy. From there, he became an uncannily good woodsman. After Boone married, he left the settlement in which they lived to explore the woods to the west. He was captured by Indians and released, but the desire to explore the vast, unknown lands west of the Appalachians possessed him. Williams admires Boone as a true American—a man who incorporated into himself the drive of the European settlers with a full acceptance of the ways of the American continent and the Indians who inhabited it.
In the chapter "The Virtue of History," Aaron Burr is the main character. Williams felt that Burr had been unfairly condemned by history as a result of his killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Williams quotes Hamilton's statement that Burr was "a dangerous man" and spends much of the chapter examining and ultimately debunking that idea. Burr was one of the most powerful and important figures in the early Republic, serving as Vice President and being nominated (but ultimately rejected) for the post of Ambassador to France. But his duel with Hamilton, and the resulting public reaction, doomed his political career.
Burr's most important characteristics, the traits that resonate in later American history, were his persuasiveness, his ambition, and his irresistibility to women. This final characteristic, seemingly unimportant within the larger scope of history, is actually central to Williams's idea of the American character. True Americans are womanizers; they are men of action who seek to act upon something, whether that "thing" be a woman or a land. Closely linked to this trait, at least in Williams's eyes, is the tendency to not be concerned about what others think—what Williams calls Burr's "open disregard for the opinion of the world." Finally, Williams praises him for his "humanity, his own, free and independent, unyielding to the herd, practical, direct."
Samuel de Champlain was a French explorer, the son of an admiral, who spent years in the territories of French Canada. The narrator calls him "a great adventurer, tremendous energy, one of the foremost colonizers of our country." In the incident recounted in In the American Grain, he learns of and thwarts a plot against him by members of his exploration party.
Champlain, like Pere de Rasles, serves Williams as an example of the French/Catholic approach to colonization. While he does not endorse this approach, Williams sees it as better than the Puritan approach (although, given the single-mindedness of the Puritans, the French/Catholic way was doomed to insufficiency). Champlain appreciated the ways of the New World and wanted to be a part of it. As the narrator states, "it is the weakness of you French—planting a drop of your precious blood in outlandish veins, in the wilderness and fancying that that addition makes them French—that by this the wilderness is converted!" Champlain (and Cortéz, for that matter) want to convert the Indians and the land itself, while the English Puritans simply want to eliminate them.
The story of Christopher Columbus is familiar to every American schoolchild. Williams uses this familiar story as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the character of Columbus. His most important trait is his resolution: he determined to accomplish a particular goal and nothing could keep him from that. Even given that, though, Columbus's own character was ultimately of little importance because he is "a straw in the play of elemental giants"—that is, he is at the mercy of kings, queens, emperors, and the sea itself. Columbus went four times to the New World, yet he personally never benefited from the great wealth he brought to Spain. The majority of the chapter devoted to him is a narrative of his first voyage to the New World and demonstrates his determination and his cleverness in staving off what seemed like an inevitable mutiny. For Williams, Christopher Columbus (like George Washington) was a necessary man but not a great one in the development of the American "grain."
Hernán Cortéz was the "conquistador" who sailed from newly settled Cuba to the eastern shores of Mexico, searching to enrich himself and his king. The story of his encounter with the powerful Aztec empire and its enigmatic leader, Montezuma, is one of the most remarkable stories in world history. The representative of a violent, self-assured, and far-reaching empire, Cortéz came to Mexico utterly confident in his ability to take the land (even though his army was relatively small). When he landed at what is now Veracruz, advance scouts from the Aztec empire carried messages from Montezuma urging Cortéz to stay away from Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. As Cortéz and his small group of Spaniards (eventually accompanied by large numbers of Indians from tribes oppressed by the Aztecs) marched toward Tenochtitlan, Montezuma continued to urge him to stay away.
Arriving in Tenochtitlan, Cortéz was amazed at the sophistication of the city, which outshone Madrid or Seville. But Cortéz, Williams emphasizes, was completely unable to appreciate the glories of a foreign land. His goal was clear and he would not waver. As Williams writes, "Cortéz was neither malicious, stupid nor blind, but a conqueror like other conquerors." In the process of taking over Tenochtitlan, he profanes the Aztecs' altars and causes the death of Montezuma. In the end, though, he gets what he wanted both for Spain (the vast holdings of "New Spain") and for himself (a large estate in the present-day state of Oaxaca).
Unlike Columbus, Cortéz was a powerful personality whose actions, by themselves, shaped the New World. However, this is not to say that he is necessarily an admirable man. He is a prefiguration of the Puritans. Unlike the Puritans, though, he was not entirely self-absorbed. He could reach out to other cultures and interact with them to a small extent. However, the result is the same: the destruction of the "orchidean beauty" of the native culture and the substitution of the European way of life.
Williams has a problem with Benjamin Franklin: he could have been so much more than he ended up being. Franklin's most important characteristic is his endless energy. He could have done anything, accomplished anything, simply by dint of persistent effort and tirelessness. But Franklin simply does not have anything on which to expend all of that energy. He is "motion without direction," "a voluptuousness of omnivorous energy." However, as Williams makes clear, Franklin had no worthy project. The New World and its fundamental incomprehensibility to the practical mind thwarted his ability to be a Daniel Boone or Pere Rasles (two of the most positive figures of the book).
For everything negative Williams says about Benjamin Franklin, he tempers it with something positive. Franklin was utterly unable to understand the New World, but he was able to use the "massive strength of its primitive wilderness" when he was among Europeans (while in Paris, Franklin often went about dressed as a frontiersman). However, he is always looking back at Europe, not forward to the American continent. He embodies "timidity" and "the strength that denies itself." Ultimately, Williams seems to be most disturbed by Franklin's refusal to accept the great gift that America's land and people wanted to give to him. He turns his back on it, concentrates on thrift and saving and building forts against the land. In this he upholds the worst of the Puritan legacy.
Freydis is one of the daughters of Eric the Red and therefore Leif Ericson's sister. In the first chapter of the book, she commands her own ship in the expedition to Vinland. She has an argument with two of her fellow explorers, Finnbogi and Karlsefni, and has her husband Thorvald kill the two men. After Thorvald does this, Freydis kills the two women who were traveling with Finnbogi and Karlsefni.
Hamilton appears primarily in the chapter on Aaron Burr, with whom he will be forever linked. Hamilton was a self-made man, born in the West Indies, who came to America and quickly showed himself to be perhaps the most intelligent of all the so-called "Founding Fathers." He graduated from college and quickly joined the staff of General George Washington. During the debate surrounding the writing of the Constitution, Hamilton argued for a strong Federal power, opposing such men as Burr and Thomas Jefferson who wanted a decentralized government. He founded the New York Post and from there attacked men—such as Burr—who opposed him. Eventually, through his newspaper, he called Burr "politically dangerous" and Burr challenged him to a duel. In this duel (held in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson from Manhattan), Burr killed Hamilton. Hamilton was fifty-seven.
Because of his views on finance, Hamilton was reviled by modernist artists. He sought to establish a strong central bank, and he supported the interests of banks and capitalists against the interests of farmers and workers. Because of his own left-wing political leanings, Williams felt that the right-wing Hamilton was one of the villains of early American history.
Sam Houston was born in Tennessee and, for awhile, lived among the Indians of that territory. Returning to white society when he was eighteen, he obtained an education and rose to prominence in his home state, eventually becoming governor. In 1829, he got married, but the marriage was quickly annulled for unknown reasons. Disgraced by this failed marriage, Houston resigned from his office and left the state to again join the Cherokees in Arkansas. After a number of years with the Cherokees, Houston came to Texas and led the Texan army to victory at San Jacinto. He became governor and later senator for his adopted state.
Williams admires Houston because, unlike so many of the other figures in the book, Houston left white society and lived with the Indians. In doing this, he came to understand the New World. Williams believes that the truly great figures in American history (as well as what he calls the "poets") must come up from the very ground, like Boone and Houston.
Jacataqua is the name of an Abenaki Indian woman who figures in the chapter named after her. She is eighteen, a "Sachem" of "mixed French and Indian blood." She watches for English troops with Squire Holworth, but is startled when she observes Aaron Burr, who is just as taken aback by her. Their meeting and mutual attraction represents, for Williams, the ideal meeting of the Indian and the Anglo traditions.
John Paul Jones was a Scotsman who came to America and joined the Continental Navy. In his most famous battle, he captained the ship Bon Homme Richard against the British ship Serapis. Although his ship was gravely damaged, he managed to lash it to the Serapis and bring the battle to close range, ultimately defeating the British crew.
An important French modernist poet, Valery Larbaud was one of the writers whom William Carlos Williams met on his trip to Europe in 1924. Although Larbaud's influence and friendship were important to Williams on this trip to France (a trip during which he came to a greater understanding of his relationship to his own country and to the modernist experiment going on in Europe at the time), he only figures in this book as Williams's foil in a discussion of the Puritans. Larbaud argues with Williams that the Puritans were not essentially a malignant influence on the settlement of America and the development of an American character. He believes that they were "giants," possessed of a "fiery concentrate of great virtues" that allowed them to accomplish remarkable acts.
Williams disputes these points with Larbaud throughout the chapter, agreeing that the Puritans' inability to see what was in front of them was a source of power, but feeling that they used this power in ways that crippled the American ability to live with the "new world." Ultimately, Williams seems to feel that Larbaud is aestheticizing the Puritans, looking at them as an interesting phenomenon rather than as a group whose beliefs and activities had real-world effects.
Lincoln was, of course, the sixteenth president of the United States, elected in 1860 and reelected in 1864, who held office during the Civil War. Only the last page of the book is devoted to Abraham Lincoln, and Williams's feelings about Lincoln are hard to extract from these few words. Williams sees Lincoln as the last important figure of what he calls "THAT period," the period of American history lasting from first exploration to the 1860s. He characterizes this period as "the brutalizing desolation of life in America."
Susanna Martin is another of the accused witches from the Cotton Mather chapter. The record shows that she used her witchcraft to hinder witnesses from testifying against her. Evidence against her includes testimony that she caused some people's oxen to run into the river and drown, caused cattle to go mad, and caused animals to pester or even attack other people.
Cotton Mather was the minister of the Old North Church in Boston in the late seventeenth century who led investigations into witchcraft. In many ways he was "behind" the famed Salem Witch Trials, for he instigated the charges. Several of the judges appointed to sit at the trials were members of his church and friends of his. Mather's advice to the judges to use their best judgment regarding the admissibility of hearsay and stories doomed the accused, and made him a perfect example, in Williams's eyes, of the closed and insular nature of Puritan society.
When Cortéz came to Mexico in 1521, Montezuma was the emperor of the great Aztec empire. Montezuma was also the last important leader of the Aztecs. He was a morose and moody man who feared Cortéz because he seemed to fulfill the prophesies that described the end of the Aztecs. Still, Montezuma tries to bargain with him, and was apparently unable to come to a conclusion as to whether Cortéz was a god or a man. After the Spaniards came to Tenochtitlan, Montezuma was taken prisoner. During his captivity, he hoped to stave off the death of the empire and therefore did not order his people to attack. After the Spaniards overthrew the holy places of the Aztecs and took even greater liberties, Montezuma called for vengeance. He was killed by an errant missile from one of his own subjects.
Thomas Morton was a "libertine," a pleasure-loving man who lived in Massachusetts during the Puritan era. Morton kept a trading post at Merry Mount, a place where "a rough and lawless class of men, selling liquor and guns" to the Indians gathered. He also "consorted" with Indian women. The Puritans hated and feared him, because Morton threw himself into the world and appreciated its pleasures. He threw a party when the Indians agreed to change the name of a settlement to Merry Mount. The party lasted for days and involved much drinking and even some sex between Indians and white people. Because of this, the Puritans attacked him, took his land and possessions away, and put him in custody.
Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer who lived in, among other places, New York City and Baltimore in the early nineteenth century. He is most famous for short stories such as "Murders in the Rue Morgue" or "Masque of the Red Death" that explore grisly, horrific themes. He also wrote poems such as "Annabel Lee" and "The Raven." Although Edgar Allan Poe was virtually unknown in his time, some late nineteenth-century French symbolist poets, such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, saw him as a spiritual ancestor. In Williams's book, Poe is the literary equivalent of such figures as Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, or Pere Rasles. He acknowledged and even welcomed the strangeness of the New World, and did not feel the need to shut it out or ignore it as did his Puritan forebears. As Williams writes,
he was the first to realize that the hard, sardonic, truculent mass of the New World, hot, angry—was, in fact, not a thing to paint over, to smear, to destroy—for it WOULD not be destroyed, it was too powerful—it smiled!
A Spanish explorer and adventurer who settled in Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de Leon was the archetype of the greedy, foolish Spanish explorer. Seeking slaves to repopulate his plantation, Ponce de Leon is granted the right to take slaves from among the Carib Indians of the surrounding islands. When he attempts to do this, he is shocked at the viciousness of the Indians' resistance. The Spaniards eventually enslave them, however. One of the Indian women tells Ponce de Leon about the legendary Fountain of Youth, which she says is located on the island of Bimini. Ponce de Leon sets forth on an expedition to find this fountain, but after much wandering finds nothing. He returns to Puerto Rico and spends three years there, until he hears of the feats of Cortéz and the destruction of Tenochtitlan. Jealous, he sets out on what will be his final expedition to Florida. This time, he is killed.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was the epitome of the "Renaissance man." A scholar, a poet, a soldier, an explorer, a courtier, and a financier, Raleigh embodied the Elizabethan era in England. Raleigh founded the colony of Virginia but never went there himself (the Queen would not allow it). Williams believes that, although Raleigh himself never came to Virginia, he "seeded" the land with his "genius." Like Red Eric, Daniel Boone, and Aaron Burr, Raleigh is one of Williams's heroes: a strong man willing to engage what is really in the world, including women, both literally (Elizabeth) and figuratively (the land of Virginia).
Pere Sebastian Rasles
Pere Sebastian Rasles was a French Jesuit priest who lived among the Indians in what is now Quebec and Maine and was eventually killed by the English. He wrote letters explaining the reasoning behind the Indian attacks on English villages, and, although he condemned the violence, he shows a deep appreciation for the virtues of the Indians and for native culture in general. He wrote of the day-today life of the Indian and accepted them as equals and as human beings just as deserving of life and land as the Europeans were. In light of this, he is one of the great inspirational figures (as opposed to the active "heroes") of Williams's book.
Eric the Red was a Norse adventurer, exiled from his country for a murder. He sailed to Greenland and Iceland in search of new territory. Red Eric was the father of Leif Ericson, who was the first European to set foot on the American continent. Leif's adventures are not described in Williams's book. Rather, the chapter focuses on the violence and independence of spirit found among the explorers who first came to America.
Hernando de Soto
Hernando de Soto was a Spanish conquistador who set out to explore the lands adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. Enduring hardships, he and his party travel through Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, and eventually make their way to the Mississippi River. His ultimate goal was to find the legendary Cities of Gold, and it was by using this promise that he was able to recruit fellow adventurers. The adventure continues for nearly four years, but, upon reaching the swampy delta of the Mississippi, they bog down, restrained both by terrain and by hostile Indians. De Soto contracts fever and dies.
In this chapter, a female voice speaks to Hernando de Soto. This woman is what we might call the "spirit" of pre-conquest America. Williams's theories about the role of male sexuality in exploration and conquest are fully played out here, for the woman speaks to de Soto as if to a lover, and the process of exploration and subjugation is described in very sexual terms. The woman describes the Mississippi as the very heart of the country, and de Soto's arrival at the Mississippi marks his full "conquest" of her.
For Williams, George Washington is not a particularly important character in American history. He was a pleasant enough man, and, like most of Williams's other heroes, a womanizer. Plain and simple, Washington was a man who tended to be in the right place at the right time. Williams introduces him as "the typically good man: take it as you please." In the "Virtue of History" chapter, the narrator calls him a "monster of prudence" and a "helpless mother." Yet in the chapter devoted strictly to Washington the picture is more flattering, concentrating on his strength and, more than anything, his necessity: he was a necessary figure for the time. The new nation needed a physically strong, solid-appearing man to reassure them that the nation itself had such strength. However, at the end of his life the American people turned on him, Williams feels. "He was the typical sacrifice to the mob," Williams concludes, "in a great many ways thoroughly disappointing."
Puritanism was a variety of Protestant Christianity that came about in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the Anglican church was established in England as the official state religion, replacing Roman Catholicism. The Anglican (or, as it is called in the United States, "Episcopalian") faith was very similar to Catholicism in its rites, structure, and theology. Beginning in the later 1500s and continuing on into the 1600s, many English theologians began to oppose this tendency, using the work of such writers as Luther, John Knox, and especially John Calvin to argue that religion should be stripped of the decorations and rituals and hierarchy of Catholicism. God was immediately present everywhere, these "Puritans" (so called because they sought to purify the English church) felt, and all of the trappings of Catholicism were merely idolatry.
These Puritans were persecuted during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods. As a result, many of them left England for such places as Holland and the American colonies. The Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, in 1620 were Puritans. The colonies the Puritans founded in America bore the marks of their inhabitants' ideologies. Religion was not simply the center of daily life; it was the totality of it. All activities were regulated by religious strictures. The Puritans were very strict about all types of behavior, but they were especially vigilant about any transgression of the codes governing sexual conduct. Women were entirely governed by men, and women who broke the rules (by adulterous behavior or simply by not marrying) were cast out of society. (Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter is the best-known depiction of this.)
Williams holds the Puritans responsible for many of what he sees as the defects in the American character—its hostility to ideas, its often violent insularity, its suspicion of anything different. Throughout In the American Grain Williams attacks the Puritans and blames them for, frankly, problems of his own life and career. His literary work was never appreciated as much as he thought it should have been (this was especially true in the 1920s, when this book was written) and, like many American modernists, he blamed the anti-intellectual, anti-artistic feeling of American society that derived, he felt, from the Puritans. In the chapter on "Pere Sebastian Rasles," this anger underlies his argument with Valery Larbaud. Larbaud, on the other hand, sees in the Puritans a vitality, determination, and energy that cannot be condemned wholesale. Williams's sympathetic inclusion of Larbaud's contrary opinions suggests that, although he felt very strongly that the Puritans had an unmitigatedly negative effect on the American character, he recognized that much of this animus could have been personal and that people not brought up in America might see a more positive legacy left by the Puritans.
Throughout the entire time that he published poetry, Williams was a practicing physician. And even though his vocation may have been that of poet, the body, its functions, and the various ways in which it can go wrong was his profession. Consequently, his poetry has a carnality, a sense of the reality of physical existence, that much modernist poetry lacks. For Williams, the body was not something to be ashamed of or something to celebrate; it was the ineluctable, unavoidable primary fact of existence.
Therefore, it is not surprising that In the American Grain is a book permeated with sensory impressions. Eric the Red must endure the privations of the "ice," while Columbus and his crew experience hunger and the sweaty astringency of a sea voyage. The chapters about de Soto, Cortéz, Boone, and Washington all focus on the physical.
Reading the text closely and with an eye to its symbolic and rhetorical structures leads us then to a greater understanding of Williams's most important physical theme: sexuality. Women hold a central place in In the American Grain, but it takes a reading of the entire book to understand it fully, for few women appear in the text and only one of the chapters ("Jacataqua") is titled after a woman. The first woman we see in this book is Freydis, Eric the Red's daughter, who kills the women her husband will not kill. Other females who figure prominently in the book take similarly active, controlling, nontraditional roles: the "She"-narrator of the de Soto chapter, the Muse and Queen Elizabeth in the Raleigh chapter, Mather's witches, Jacataqua. None of these could be mistaken for the ideal retiring, submissive, holy woman the Puritans sought to raise.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the coming of the Spanish to the "New World." How did Columbus's voyage differ from Cortéz's or Coronado's? What difficulties did Cortéz face from his Spanish superiors while trekking through Mexico? Who was Cabeza de Vaca and what did he discover? For this research, you might want to read the original sources such as Columbus's diaries, the letters of Cortéz to the King of Spain, or Bernal Diaz de Castillo's True Story of the Conquest of New Spain.
- Although Americans like to think of the Founding Fathers as a unified group with identical interests, this is by no means true. As demonstrated in the Federalist papers, many of these Founding Fathers differed violently on what the government of the United States should look like. Nothing serves as a better example of this conflict than the personal animus between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Who were these men? What offices did they hold and what has been their impact on American government?
- Critics of Williams's book such as Henry Seidel Canby accused Williams of adopting the ideas of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Research the life and ideas of Rousseau, especially his notions of "natural man" and the "noble savage." Do you think Williams's theories about American history were influenced by Rousseau?
- Although Williams's book expressed revolutionary ideas in its time, today's readers might find him still to be an example of "dead white male" history—a way of looking at history that focuses on the roles and accomplishments of "great men" and leaders. A competing school of history, social history, attempts to explain the world with reference to the facts of ordinary life and by rediscovering the voices of people (such as women and Indians, to take the case of American history) who have traditionally been ignored. Do you feel that Williams is just a chronicler of Great Men? Or do you feel that he is truly delving into untold histories of unknown people?
- Williams's focus is largely the history of the discovery of the American continent by Europeans and the formation of the United States. To accomplish this, he uses a wide variety of sources in a wide variety of ways. Think about how one might go about such a project for your home region—your town, your county, your state. Who are the important historical figures to include? What groups have been left out of the "official" history? What technological or economic developments were crucial to the history of your area?
Williams had unorthodox views about the roles of males and females. Males, he believed, are characterized by a "insufficient attachment to the objective world" because their only "positive connection to the earth" is in "the fleeting sex function." Apart from that, they really have no function. Women keep men stable, they give them a purpose and a focus for their energy. Men need women around, Williams felt—and he used this theory as a grounds for justifying male adultery and promiscuity. However this may have played out in his own marriage, he employed this theory in the construction and composition of In the American Grain. The men he admires in American history—de Soto, Boone, Burr—are strong personalities with a great deal of energy who must expend that energy on something. Instead of expending it in the sexual act with women (although many of them do this as well), they expend it on the land of America, which is represented in the de Soto chapter and others as female.
The narrative voice in works of history is central to those works' claims of authority. Generally, historiography (or the writing of history) takes two forms: first-person narrations by people who figured in or lived through the period being described, or third-person narrations in which a historian researches a period by using source materials, interviews, or any other form of evidence and writes about the period without making reference to his or her own role in picking and choosing among this evidence. These two kinds of history are also called, respectively, "primary sources" and "secondary sources."
Each kind of historiography claims authority in a different way. First person histories often capture the details of the time and, when written by the leaders of the organizations involved, can give the reader otherwise unavailable information about the motivations of the players in the drama. However, this kind of history suffers from a lack of perspective. When a person takes part in a historical event, even if that person is Napoleon or Winston Churchill or Henry Kissinger, he or she usually cannot see the "big picture" of how this event related to other contemporary or historical events. On the other hand, secondary-source history's strength does just that: a historian ideally reads all of the relevant materials about an event to understand what "really happened" apart from individual players' biases, and then analyzes that event in light of other events of the time and similar events throughout history. The drawbacks of secondary-source history are numerous, though. If a circumstance or a component of an event was not recorded, it is unavailable to the historian. The historian often cannot eliminate his or her own cultural assumptions from the analysis of another period of time, and thus may miss or overemphasize the ramifications of that event in its time.
In In the American Grain, Williams attempted to confront this problem in a new and unique way. As he made clear in his descriptions of the project and in his correspondence to Horace Gregory when Gregory was preparing an introduction to the book in 1939, he went about his research as a true historian would. Williams spent hour after hour in the New York Public Library, reading the first-person accounts and autobiographies and journals of his subjects. He wanted his work to be taken seriously as history, and thus he went about his research in the way that "real" historians do. However, Williams was suspicious of "real" history because, in its "objectivity," it had utterly misunderstood the meaning of American history—and then, by eliminating the presence in the text of a narrator with whom we can argue, it implicitly claimed to be inarguable. Williams's project is just as relevant today as it was then precisely because it attempts to undermine the claims to authority taken by secondary-source historians.
Williams's solution to the problem of historical authority was to claim a different kind. His text is what narrative theoreticians call "multivocal," or speaking with many voices. Dozens of voices tell the story in In the American Grain, and Williams puts himself in the mix with the rest of them, sometimes standing outside of the events of history and sometimes, as in the chapter on Rasles, inserting himself into the narrative of events. He does this in part to emphasize that he is, like the people whose stories he narrates, an actor in American history, shaped by his place and time just as much as they are. Secondary-source history attempts to prevent the reader from thinking about the historian as a person with prejudices, experiences, and fallibility. This kind of history, Williams felt, gave us the picture of America that he so vehemently rejected—a picture of a country following quietly in the determined, hardworking footsteps of its Puritan founders. Wanting to disinter the buried history of a vital, earthy America, Williams sought to allow the figures to speak for themselves.
A number of time periods clash in In the American Grain, which is only natural for a work that spans many centuries of history. The subject matter of the books reaches from the voyages of Eric the Red in the late tenth century to the presidency of Lincoln in the nineteenth. However, another time period that barely appears in the book nonetheless has a great bearing on the composition of the book and on our understanding of what the book is meant to be. That period is the 1920s, the age of the so-called "Lost Generation" of American writers and artists who lived in Europe during that time.
Williams was not a member of this "Lost Generation." So why is this group of people so important to this book? Because it is largely in response to their attitude toward America that Williams formulated his theories about American history and, consequently, it is largely in reaction to their ideas that Williams wrote In the American Grain. For many of the American artists of the "modernist" period (a loosely defined term for a broad group of artists who worked between the 1860s and the 1930s), the United States was a profoundly antagonistic nation, a country of philistines and social climbers and materialists, a land where the accumulation of money was the highest goal. A smug indifference to culture has often characterized the United States, certainly, and our society has historically been belittling or even hostile toward artists. American society has also historically been quite conservative in its attitude about sexuality, the body, religion, and politics. Artists of the modernist period explored these topics, often in ways that had never been attempted before, and as a result they became outcasts, bohemians.
In Europe these bohemians gathered together in such cities as Paris, London, Berlin, and Vienna. They supported each other, bought each other's books and paintings and sculptures, and eventually became a "movement" that influenced young artists. Artists in the United States had no such places to gather. The cities that we now think of as havens for bohemianism—New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles—were too concerned with economic development or with simply becoming cities to develop thriving artistic scenes. (Probably the most bohemian city in the United States in the early twentieth century was New Orleans, but it never became an important artistic center for anything except music.) At any rate, because of the lack of support and of a "critical mass" of like-minded people, American experimental artists in the early twentieth century fled to Europe, to Paris and London mostly. Painters, composers, dancers, photographers, and especially writers came together in a large but loosely affiliated group in Paris in the 1920s. If these artists were widely diverse and often hostile to each other, they almost all shared the conviction that the United States, because of its capitalist materialism and its Puritan conservatism, was irredeemably hostile to art.
Among this group were a number of Williams's acquaintances, most importantly his old college friends Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle and his close friend Robert McAlmon. These artists condemned America as a nation that would always be stunted by the influence of the Puritans and of the drive toward wealth. They basked in the cultural accomplishments that they found in Europe and, in their art, entered into a conversation with historical periods. America was, to them, a savage land originally populated by primitive people and now populated by greedy businessmen.
Williams, however, strongly felt that America had something else to offer. Throughout his life, in his correspondence with his bohemian friends, he defended the United States. It is very important to note that while he could have gone to Europe to live the life of the poet he did not: he stayed in New Jersey, practiced medicine, and wrote on the side. He felt an undeniable connection with and obligation to the land of America, and was convinced that Americans had a character that was not just greedy and reactionary. In the American Grain was his attempt to formulate an explanation of what the American character was, so it is not strange that the villains of the book are the Puritans. They were the original source of all that was closed, conservative, hypocritical, and venal in America. The Puritans utterly rejected all that the New World had to offer. The heroes of Williams's book, then, are those men who are willing to incorporate the New World into themselves instead of rejecting it wholesale. By providing this model of American history and Americans, Williams hoped to explain not only to his friends but to all American intellectuals who disparaged the American "character" that they were being shortsighted.
Compare & Contrast
Today: After the largest peacetime economic expansion in history during the 1990s, the United States begins to suffer from what some commentators call a "downturn" and others call, more ominously, an impending recession.
1925: In the United States, racial discrimination is the norm, and the legal system of segregation known as "Jim Crow" is the law in all Southern states. But even in the North, African Americans receive different treatment in economic, political, and social spheres.
Today: Legal (de jure) segregation is against the law in all states, but social (de facto) segregation endures across America. Efforts, both legal and social, continue to eliminate it.
1925: The era of mass communication is just beginning. The recently invented radio allows people all over the country to listen to the same event simultaneously and "talkie" motion pictures match sound with moving images.
Today: The ever advancing progress of mass communication through the twentieth century enables people in all parts of the world to experience events at the same time. Because of the interactive nature of the Internet, people can comment on events and communicate with each other directly (as with e-mail) or indirectly (by posting messages to publicly accessible forums such as bulletin boards or Web sites). Access to this technology is limited to those who have the money to buy or rent the equipment, however.
1925: Poetry holds a small but important place in American literary culture. Poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg sell large numbers of books and obtain mass popularity, while other poets (such as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or Williams himself) must hold other jobs to make a living while they write poetry that will eventually be considered some of America's greatest.
Today: In the late 1990s, poetry's popularity jumped slightly because of such factors as U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project and the "poetry slam" movement. Most serious or professional poets hold jobs as university professors; almost none make enough money from their poetry to live on that income alone.
1925: In Dayton, Tennessee, science teacher John Scopes is put on trial for teaching his biology students about evolution. Two of the country's most eminent lawyers face off in the trial: Scopes is defended by Clarence Darrow and former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan prosecutes.
Today: Although evolution is regarded as fact by a majority of the scientific community, religious groups in the United States still insist that alternative "creation science" theories be taught in schools. They achieve victories such as in Kansas where in the late 1990s a law is passed mandating that evolution must not be taught as fact.
When Williams wrote In the American Grain and saw it published by the small American literary firm of Albert and Charles Boni, he was a middle-aged poet of little repute. Although he had produced a number of volumes of poetry that have since been recognized as masterpieces, these books had been published by small presses and found small audiences. In the 1920s, moreover, many readers erroneously lumped him in with the group of American modernist writers located in Paris. Although he often wished to live the life of a bohemian poet in Europe, Williams felt strongly that he had an obligation to his home country and thus remained there. Writing In the American Grain was one way in which he hoped to better understand his vexed but ultimately devoted relationship with the United States.
The book mixes personal meditation with source-based history, the voice of the historian with the voice of the historical figure. It is neither essay nor monograph. Consequently, contemporary reviewers didn't quite know what to make of it. Many attacked it for not being "real history." One of the most influential literary critics of the day, Saturday Review of Literature editor Henry Seidel Canby, as quoted in Charles Doyle's William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, simply dismissed it. Williams's arguments exalting the Indians and the "instinctive, full-blooded people" and attacking "crafty, prudent folk like Franklin" and "cold-blooded conservatives like Hamilton," Canby asserted, make Williams "another, if a less original, Rousseau." Williams's book falls into a category of works that
are not history, not even good sense, especially when the author regards the sober march of civilization across the continent as an unfortunate curtailing of savage liberty, and puts his curse on his native land because he is not allowed to dance naked in the moonlight around a broached rum cask in Gramercy Park.
Williams's friend Kenneth Burke, a philosopher and scholar of rhetoric, saw the same traits that Canby did but appreciated them. In his review appearing in the New York Herald-Tribune (also quoted in Doyle), Burke stated that "the purpose [of the book] is poetry, not history. Williams seeks bravuras rather than facts. 'Meaning' in his mind is not to observe, but to cry out." Another important writer of the time, Gorham Munson, saw the book in the context of Williams's poetic work. Williams "approaches the American past to rename it and retell it in such a way that its surge and color, its irony and beauty, its own indecisions and suspenses may show themselves" (in Doyle). Munson praises the book's prose "that puts muscle into its stride" and "superb wordings." Munson does grant, however, that "there is a full measure of his more usual broken impatient hammering at the subject and the reader."
The book's most important precursor, as many critics have pointed out, is the novelist D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, in which Lawrence identifies what he sees as a buried strain in the American character, an instinctive vitality that has been put entirely under the control of the civilized and the intellectual. In the American Grain clearly has this as one of its themes and, consequently, the book is congenial to Lawrence, who lauded it in a review in the Nation quoted in Doyle. Lawrence's is the most perceptive of all of the contemporary reviews of the book, for, unlike the other reviewers, he sees the theme that in many ways dominates all of Williams's work: the centrality of the particular and the local, whether that particular be of place, personality, or object. The American situation has molded Americans, Lawrence and Williams agree, and one cannot understand American history simply as the record of the great deeds of great men. Rather, Lawrence hears Williams saying that one must examine all of the ramifications of the collision between the native cultures with the European. "History in this book," Lawrence wrote, "would be a sensuous record of the Americanization of the white men in America, as contrasted with ordinary history, which is a complacent record of the civilization and Europizing (if you can allow the word) of the American continent." "I am only too thankful that Mr. Williams wrote this book," Lawrence concluded.
The book was quickly forgotten after its initial publication. In 1939, though, the young company New Directions Press reprinted the book in its "New Classics" series, a series intended to resurrect "lost" works by modern authors who had been unfairly ignored by critics and academics. Part of New Directions's strategy in publishing the "New Classics" was to give readers direction; as a result, a number of the books had introductions appended to them. As Bryce Conrad points out in Refiguring America, his study of In the American Grain, although Williams provided Horace Gregory with a great deal of information on the sources and composition and intentions of the book, Gregory's introduction to In the American Grain"doesn't really talk about the book at all." Rather, Gregory's introduction was a preemptive strike at readers who might arrive at Canby's opinion about the book. The book is best understood as prose poetry, as a work of art rather than a work of history, he argued.
Partly because of the war, partly because New Directions was a small house with a small advertising budget, and partly because Williams was still not a well-known poet, the reprinted edition of In the American Grain did little for the book's fame or reputation. It was not until 1950, at a time when scholars began to write seriously about Williams's accomplishments as a poet, that the book emerged again. In that year Louis Martz (as quoted in Doyle), one of the most important early critics of modernism, identified it as a crucial piece of work in Williams's career, a "prose preparation for Paterson," the epic poem that is truly Williams's masterpiece. But, again, Martz did not regard the book as a work of history.
Most critics continued to do this until the late 1960s, when a few began to seriously consider the book as a work of historiography, and went back to examine the source materials used by Williams. Of these critics, James Breslin is probably the most notable. For his book William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, Breslin went to the New York Public Library reading room and found the source books originally used by Williams. From sifting through what Williams used and what he omitted, Breslin came to the conclusion that "Williams's method was to cut through a prolixity of detail … in order to point up a hidden symbolic pattern … latent" in the source texts.
Because of a general scholarly concern in recent years with the ways that heritage, race, and locality play out in cultural production, Williams's book is enjoying increasing prominence in English, American studies, and even history courses. The postmodern interest in undermining the artificial boundaries between types of discourse is also congenial to In the American Grain's wide variety of voices and claims to authority. These aspects of the book are studied in the only full-length monograph on In the American Grain, Conrad's 1990 work Refiguring America. One of Conrad's theses is that the book is "anarchically disruptive of systematic thought," and his book takes that as a point of departure for an examination of the text.
Barnhisel directs the Writing Center at the University of Southern California. In this essay, Barnhisel discusses Williams's attacks on the Puritans as they relate to the modernist movement in general.
Williams has become known as a poet of the particular, overwhelmingly concerned with the specifics of place and of the objects to be found in any particular place. The three poems that are probably Williams's most famous all express this concern with the particularity of things. In "The Red Wheel-barrow," the speaker focuses on a specific image of a wet, red wheelbarrow next to white chickens, saying that "so much depends/upon" this wheel-barrow. The question, of course, is what? What depends upon this wet wheelbarrow? Perhaps the answer can be found in Williams's most genial poem, "This Is Just to Say," in which the speaker goes into sensual detail about plums he has taken from the ice box, describing them as "so sweet/and so cold."
Poetry records the specificity of sensory experience, that part of the sheer pleasure of living in the world that inheres in objects and our perception of them. What "depends" upon the wheelbarrow, then, is everything: if we do not have the objects of the world, we have nothing.
The final poem germane to this discussion is "A Sort of a Song." In this poem Williams moves from the simple declaratory statements of the two previous poems to the combination of the concrete and the abstract—metaphor—that is, the primary business of poets. The central image of this poem is saxifrage, a plant that can actually break stones by growing through them. "Metaphor," the speaker says, will "reconcile/the people and the stones./ Compose. (No ideas/but in things)." The world and its physical reality must be the starting-place for all abstract ideas; one must induce (construct abstract general concepts from specific evidence) before one can deduce (apply abstract concepts to the evidence of the world). In the introduction to his long poem Paterson, Williams writes that he must "make a start,/out of particulars,/and make them general, rolling/up the sum, by defective means." The poet's job is to create these metaphors, roll up these specific sums, which will "reconcile the people and the stones," or explain to people their necessary, if forgotten, relationship to the world around them.
What Do I Read Next?
- For those interested in Williams's other writings, probably the best place to start would be with his Selected Poems, first published in 1949 and reprinted and augmented many times since. A comprehensive portrait of Williams's verse is provided in the two-volume Complete Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Most of Williams's novels, as well as his Autobiography (1951), are still in print.
- Williams worked with many original historical texts in writing In the American Grain, and those texts are frequently available in commercially produced editions. The diaries of Columbus and the letters of Cortéz to the King of Spain were texts that Williams consulted which are easily accessible today. Another fascinating portrait of the conquest of the Aztecs is provided by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortéz's soldiers, who wrote his True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1568), refuting Cortéz's self-serving depiction of the defeat of Montezuma. Bartolome de las Casas was a Catholic priest who lived in southern Mexico in the late sixteenth century, and his book The Destruction of the Indians (first published in English in 1656) provides chilling descriptions of Spanish colonial policies towards the Indians of the area—policies that included enslavement and genocide.
- The American colonial period is well documented. William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (1654) describes the early days of the Puritans. Nathaniel Hawthorne, born into a family with Puritan ancestors, focused on the dark side of Puritan society in his fiction. His novel The Scarlet Letter (1850) tells the story of Hester Prynne, marked forever when her town discovers that she has committed adultery. In such stories as "Young Goodman Brown" and "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" (both published in 1837 in Twice-Told Tales), Hawthorne leaves the reader guessing about whether Satan really was a presence in Puritan societies or whether the devil was merely a creation of the Puritans' own minds.
- Letters of John Adams to his wife Abigail describing the process of writing the Constitution and the Federalist Papers (1787)—largely written by Alexander Hamilton—are probably the best record of the debates surrounding the creation of our federal government. In 1973, Gore Vidal produced a fine novel, entitled Burr, which has the life of Aaron Burr as its subject. Finally, an excellent general revisionist history of the United States can be found in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (1979).
A grounding in the facts of the real world around one, then, is an absolute prerequisite for true understanding. A religious skeptic, Williams is utterly opposed to the blanket application of general concepts to the world (which is, arguably, the cornerstone of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition). Williams values flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to encounter the new and accept it on equal footing. In the American Grain is the story of encounters with the utterly unfamiliar. The book recounts dozens of encounters between Europeans and the unfamiliar people and land of the New World. The heroes of the book are those men (and they are all men) who are willing to venture into the New World and meet it. The villains are those, like the Puritans, who back their way into the New World, closing their eyes to the news, shutting themselves off from its people and possibilities.
To be sure, Williams did not approach the project of writing In the American Grain with an unbiased view of the Puritans, nor was he alone in attacking them. American artists have always explained public attacks on or lack of interest in their work as a residual effect of our nation's Puritan heritage. Among other accusations, the Puritans have been blamed for our repressed attitudes about sexuality and the body, and for what many see as the excessive presence of religion in our political discourse. In the 1920s, a number of cultural developments (from the Scopes evolution trial to revulsion at the loosened morality of the Jazz Age) seemed to be tied to America's Puritan heritage. But Williams sought to explain their pernicious legacy in deeper, more structural terms than had been attempted before.
Williams explains the genesis of the Puritans as being a reaction to the "flamboyant force" of Tudor England's "lusty blossoming." They are the "hard and little" seed left over after that efflorescence, in all ways the opposite of the sophisticated, daring, sexualized society of Elizabethan times. The figurative language he applies to them is very telling: they are small, dark, cold, hardy, determined. Most importantly, they are both closed and empty. The first page of the "Voyage of the Mayflower" chapter describes them as an almost unconquerable force, answerable to no outside authority apart from their God and dominated at all times by fear. Their ideology was free of complication and their religion told them that anything that did not accept their ideology had to be destroyed, for it was a manifestation of Satan.
This refusal to be open to any new experiences or possibilities enabled the Puritans to succeed in an incredibly harsh and hostile environment. Williams does not downplay the hardships that the Puritans overcame; rather, he attributes their success to their single-mindedness. They arrived, set up their forts, took advantage of the Indians as long as they had to and then exterminated them, and inflexibly taught their children that the world was dangerous and sinful and that life consisted of work and the constant contemplation of God. Outsiders such as Rasles or Morton who approached the Indians in different ways were cast out or killed. The Puritans, Williams makes clear, were a ruthless and efficient machine for the conquest of a land. The Spanish and French sought to incorporate the New World into their own through conversion and education and intermarriage. The Puritans simply sought to make the New World as empty as they were themselves.
Williams's attitude toward the Puritans was common among artists and writers, of course. Where In the American Grain is a groundbreaking book is in its ambitions. Williams wanted this book to be taken seriously as a work of historiography. He researched it as a historian would, and like a historian he makes a strong and well-supported argument (in his case, an argument about the makeup of the American "grain," or character). But any reader can tell that this is not a traditional work of history. Its shifting narrative perspectives, highly opinionated and idiosyncratic authorial voice, and refusal to stick to what is traditionally considered "important" in American history excludes it from that category.
"The world and its physical reality must be the starting-place for all abstract ideas.…"
The book also contradicted the traditional schoolbook view of American history. That view (propagated, not coincidentally, by Puritan-influenced texts such as the McGuffey readers) held that the Puritans' determination was the sole cause of American greatness. The traditional view of American history held that the Indians were savages who benefited from the arrival of white settlers, that the American landscape was a "slovenly" (to borrow a term from Wallace Stevens) wilderness waiting for responsible people to put it to use, and that sober-minded, hardworking Christianity was what enabled white settlers to conquer this vast and hostile land. Williams rejected that idea. In his book, the land and the Indians are figured as women who wait for their strong, intrepid lovers. The American "grain" is a result of the conjunction (often expressed in quite sexual terms) of the two. Such a sexualized explanation of American history could be considered quite hostile to Puritan ideology. Moreover, the Indians and their appreciation of the particularities of the land are described in glowing terms. Williams's endorsement of what he saw as the Indian component of the American character is prefigured in D. H. Lawrence's book Studies in Classic American Literature; Williams goes beyond Lawrence, though, in applying this judgment not just to America's literary tradition but to a number of prominent figures in American history.
A central component of Williams's resentment of the Puritans is their lack of what the Indians had: an appreciation for and openness to the particulars of place. Puritan writing (and Williams read most of it in the course of preparing to write In the American Grain) is utterly uninterested in the particulars of the American landscape except that they must be overcome. The Puritans' minds were on religion and morality; they came to America to impose their abstract concepts on this new land, and had absolutely no interest in understanding the new land. "The purpose" of the Puritans' early settlement, Williams writes in "The American Background," an essay not appearing in In the American Grain, was to "force back" the land. "That these transplanted men were at the same time pushing back a very necessary immediate knowledge of the land … could not become at once apparent," Williams continues.
The heroes of the settlement of America, by contrast, were interested in the land. In the same essay, Williams writes that "the significance of Boone and of the others of his time and trade was that they abandoned touch with those along the coast … and made contact with the intrinsic elements of an as yet unrealized material of which the new country was made." "Material" here has a double meaning: it is both the intangible mental and psychological qualities that would make up the "American grain" and it is the actual material of the country: the wet wheelbarrows, the cold plums, the saxifrage plant that breaks the stone. These men then become cut off from or even destroyed by the societies that produce them. Red Eric, Cortéz, Boone, Houston: all of these men went out into the land, grew to understand it by close and frequent contact with it, and found themselves cut off from the societies that produced them. They became something different than what they were because of their encounters with the new. The Puritans encountered the new, turned their backs on it, and built palisades from which to attack and eventually obliterate the new.
Williams's exploration of the American grain was aimed not just at the Puritans and their philistine, reactionary descendants who dominated (and in many ways, still dominate) American politics and culture. Williams's attacks were also aimed at his closest associates, the American modernist poets and writers who left America to write from London, Paris, or Italy. These writers (Ezra Pound in particular, but also T. S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, Robert McAlmon, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and many others) cursed American closed-mindedness and suburban smugness from their garrets in crumbling European cities. They made pronouncements on what America meant but, Williams felt, refused to engage with the real America. The modernists lived in the past, in many ways; threaded throughout all of their work is a vast knowledge of past cultures and foreign lands and languages and a condemnation of the present-day world. This infuriated Williams, who unlike most of these writers actually lived not in a milieu of other artists and writers but among the poor of northern New Jersey. In the American Grain is an even-handed assessment of American history that in many was prefigures today's reconsiderations of the Puritan legacy and the "conquest" of the New World. And in terms of the work of Williams himself, the book is a prefiguration of Williams's masterwork Paterson, an attempt to capture vividly the particularities of one small American place.
Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on In the American Grain, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay, Conrad explores how Williams eschews past history-writing techniques to reveal openly "the structural devices by which he constructs the past."
In the American Grain makes history not a matter of events, but a matter of language—or rather, of languages as itself an event. The underlying premise of Williams' book is that a history of America must be, in part, a history of language in America, a study of the tropes and verbal configurations which have historically defined the place. "Studies," in fact, is exactly what Williams terms In the American Grain in the epigraph to his book. Stating that he had not only read "letters," "journals," and "reports of happenings," but had "copied" portions of such "original records" directly into his text, Williams dedicates his work to the task of achieving a verbal archaeology, of excavating "the true character" of his historical sources from beneath "a chaos of borrowed titles." As he tells the French literary critic Valery Labaud in the discussion that forms the book's central chapter, "Père Sebastian Rasles," it is "only by intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records," that Americans can come to recognize "that what we are has its origins in what the nation in the past has been."
Williams enacts this process of investigation and recognition in the Rasles chapter, locating two seminal responses to America in the books of the Puritan Divine Cotton Mather and the letters of the French Jesuit Priest Sebastian Rasles. Mather and Rasles were contemporaries—but while Mather lived securely among his Puritan community of the elect in Boston, Rasles lived among the Abnaki Indians of Maine, "spending thirty-four years, October 13, 1689 to October 12, 1723, with his beloved savages, drawing their sweet like honey, TOUCHING them every day." Like Mather, Rasles sought to convert the Indians to Christianity, but unlike Mather, Rasles sought to do so by first converting himself to the Indians' way of life, learning to observe their customs, to partake of their diet, and to speak their languages. Williams stresses these points with excerpts from two lengthy letters Rasles wrote toward the end of his life. Quoting several passages in the original French and translating others into English, Williams particularly emphasizes Rasles' sensitive devotion to Indian speech: "He speaks of his struggles with their language, its peculiar beauties, 'je ne sais quo id' énergique,' he cited its tempo, the form of its genius with gusto, with admiration, with generosity." Rasles was not afraid "to hybridize, to crosspollenize" with the New World, and Williams points to "the figure 8 used by Rasles in his alphabet of the Abnaki language to signify the unique guttural sound characteristic of the Indian dialects" as evidence of Rasles' openness to that which could not be contained within the familiar lexicons of Europe.
Compared to Rasles' writing, Mather's language is hermetically sealed, bearing the same rhetorical stamp that Williams had found in another Puritan writer, William Bradford, whose first-hand account of the 1620 Mayflower voyage Williams critiques in an earlier chapter. "The jargon of God, which they used, was their dialect by which they kept themselves surrounded as with a pallisade." Mather shows his fear of the raw life of the New World by verbally barricading himself, and isolating his community as well, from direct contact with the aboriginal peoples of America. From the India Christiana, a tract which Mather wrote for the ostensible purpose of converting the Indians to Christianity, Williams cites Mather's view of the Indians as "men Satan had whished away (via Asia)" at "the advent of the gospel." Mather's rigid rhetorical allegorization of the Puritans as the bringers of God's light to the dark heathens of America implicitly demands annihilation of the Indians' cultural difference if they are to be converted. Mather would not let himself be touched by that which was different from himself—a point Williams makes clear with a passage from the Magnalia Christi Americana in which Mather describes his attempt to convert a group of Frenchallied Indians who were captured and carried prisoners to Boston during King Phillip's War. Though Mather makes great show of his interest in the Indians' salvation, "He would not suffer the contrite Indians to lay their hands upon him, as the Catholic fathers in the north had done, but drew back and told them to address themselves to God alone." Under Williams' analysis, Mather and Rasles present not only two differing responses to the American Indian, but critical historical instances of linguistic closure and openness to the fact of the New World.
Williams' attempt to base a knowledge of history not on words that have been written about the past, but on language written in the past is prescient of recent developments in historiographic theory. Work by Arthur Danto, Louis Mink, and Hayden White has shown how ordinary modes of history-writing invent stories about the past according to narrative conventions rather than historio-scientific laws. White, in particular, has worked extensively with the premise that to approach written history as a "verbal artifact that purports to be a model of structures and processes that are long past and cannot therefore be subjected to either experimentation or observational controls" is to show that our histories are "verbal fictions, the contents of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences." Even in its most objective descriptions of the past, White claims, written history linguistically constitutes its subjects and events, ordering them into narrative schemes of organization. There are no "authentic" histories, White suggests, but only texts that try to "authenticate" themselves as the true story of the past by passing off their own verbal strategies of organization as the structure of the events they pretend to describe. As Lionel Gossman points out, conventional history-writing engages in the "referential fallacy," conflating its constituted subjects with their actual referents, creating the illusion that the historian's text truly represents the past itself.
Williams had recognized this fallacy as early as 1919, writing in the prologue to Kora in Hell, "Of course history is an attempt to make the past seem stable, and of course it's all a lie. Nero must mean Nero or the whole game's up." Williams was strongly aware of the irremediable gap between the past and its narrative representations. And in writing In the American Grain, he eschews the standard practices by which historians create the illusion of a well-ordered past. Williams doesn't tell a continuous narrative of events about a central subject. Indeed, he specifically attacks conventional history-writing for following "governments and never men. It portrays us in generic patterns, like effigies or the carvings on sarcophagi, which say nothing save, of such and such a man, that he is dead. That's history. It is concerned only with the one thing: to say everything is dead." Yet "History," says Williams, "must stay open, it is all humanity." Williams' idea of an "open" history is not just one which is open to language of the past, but one which is conscious of itself as language. Rather than attempting to conceal the history-constituting function of his own language, Williams often plainly reveals the structural devices by which he constructs the past, making In the American Grain not simply a study of historical sources, but also an exploration of the ways in which historical knowledge can be created.
Tropological analysis of the kind Williams employs with Mather's writings and Rasles' letters—as well as with Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation in "The Voyage of the Mayflower"—is but one of the ways in which Williams explores the potential meanings of history. In "The Discovery of the Indies," Williams uses the technique of collage, juxtaposing excerpts from Columbus' writings with interstitial comments of his own in order to achieve a startling reversal of ordinary historical chronology. Williams draws on Columbus' writings from the sanguine visions of the journal of the first voyage in 1492 to the latter letters Columbus wrote from the depths of despair during his last two voyages in the early sixteenth century. But Williams doesn't arrange these documents in the received chronology. Instead, he begins with Columbus' return journey to Spain in 1493, moving chronologically forward from that point to the disastrous end of Columbus' fourth voyage in 1503, when the man who had once been named perpetual Viceroy and Governor of whatever territories he might find to the west was broken in spirit, stripped of his titles, and barely able to keep his ships afloat. Columbus had lost proprietorship of the New World, but Williams transforms that loss into an aesthetic re-possession of the place, making Columbus' discovery of America a rediscovery, a journey back in memory. Conjecturing that if Columbus had followed his design of making a pilgrimage to Rome after his third voyage, rather than making one last vain attempt to regain the New World, he might have often remembered the New World in all its "old-time loveliness", Williams delivers the text of the journal of 1492, ending with the moment of discovery and Columbus' awestruck account of his first hours on the beach at San Salvador. No longer contained within a conventional narrative sequence of events, the moment of discovery becomes a verbal adventure, an exploration not of geography but of the poetic imagination, as Columbus eagerly opens his language to embrace "the most beautiful thing which I had ever seen."
"Like his Columbus, who can imaginatively rediscover the New World only once he has acknowledged its loss, Williams renders the past open to aesthetic repossession in the present by cancelling out the myth of historical verisimilitude."
Williams uses this same collage approach in "De Soto and the New World," but rather than reversing the chronology of his source narratives, he subverts the received emplotment of the narratives by interspersing the voice of "She"—the archetypal female "essence" of America—throughout his excerpts. Williams' primary source for the De Soto chapter was the anonymous Fidalgo of Elvas' account of the expedition's collapse in the wilderness, though he also drew on details from two briefer narratives—one by Hernandez de Biedma, the expedition's factor, the other by Rodrigo Ranjel, De Soto's personal secretary—that had been gathered together in a single collection by Edward Gaylord Bourne, the same historian who had edited Williams' Columbus documents. Like Columbus, De Soto lost the New World he sought to possess, and Williams uses the inevitable fact of De Soto's demise to create a verbal source in the land itself for the disorder that overwhelms the Spaniard's projected schemes of conquest. De Soto does not merely become lost in the unknown interior of the country—he is seduced from his path by the spirit of the land that dictates a new plot to the events which the expedition's chroniclers report. "She" panders to De Soto's lust for gold and riches to draw him inexorably across her contours and into her center, the Mississippi, where he sinks, a "solitary sperm," plunging down into the amnion of the continent. Through the words of "She," the wanderings of De Soto in the wilderness and his death at the Mississippi River become a ritual fertilization of the New World, an expression of Williams' primary mythos for In the American Grain: to become seed for the growth of an American culture, Europe must die upon these shores.
Williams forces us to read old texts in new ways—yet at times he freely mixes his own language with that of his sources so that an entirely new text is generated. Williams uses this technique of recreation in "Red Eric," appropriating the sparse details of the two Icelandic sagas about early Norse voyages to the New World to create a voice for Eric, who narrates the first part of the chapter. While "The Saga of Eric the Red" and "The Vinland History of the Flat Island Book" merely mention that Eric was slow to adopt Christianity, Williams makes Eric outspokenly defiant of the new religion spreading from Rome: "Who was this Christ, that he should come to bother me in my own country?" Eric's westward removals to flee the "bishops that lie and falsify the records" and "make me out to be what I am not" implicitly subverts the Puritan notion that American history properly begins with the establishment of Christianity in the New World. Though Eric himself never reaches America, his illegitimate daughter Freydis—offspring of his recalcitrant paganism—cruelly conspires to eradicate the fledgling Christian settlement in Vinland, returning the New World to that state of "immaculate fulfillment" in which it continues to lie, "beyond the sphere of all things known to history," until Columbus' first voyage nearly five centuries later.
Williams' use of recreation in "The Destruction of Tenochtitlan" is no less subversive of received historical notions. From the voluminous letters Cortez wrote to Charles V in Spain about the conquest of Mexico, Williams draws primarily on a brief section which Cortez devotes not to his military exploits but to a description of Montezuma's splendid city. Cortez was certain of his skills as a commander of troops, but less so as a commander of words. As long as his subject to Charles V was his feats in the field, Cortez felt on familiar ground—but in the section of his letters upon which Williams bases "The Destruction of Tenochtitlan," Cortez had momentarily left off his relation of military matters to venture upon the more difficult task of verbally capturing the dazzling shapes and textures of the Aztec capital. Williams takes that narrative task over wholesale from Cortez, displacing him as narrative expositor of the chapter, appropriating his descriptions of the city's marketplace, temples, and Montezuma's palaces to reveal the incredible structure and organization of Tenochtitlan. Indeed, Cortez' conquest of the city, though explicitly named in the chapter's title, isn't the real subject of the chapter at all. Though Williams acknowledges the irrevocable loss of the city, his recording of history enacts the construction of Tenochtitlan rather than its destruction. It takes Cortez' language as a verbal blueprint to create an image of the city in all its pristine beauty, relegating Cortez' military acts against the city to the periphery of the chapter, like mere narrative packaging.
Some of the book's most striking chapters, however, are those in which Williams seems not to mediate his source materials at all, making the purely bibliographical thrust of his enterprise starkly apparent by copying entire documents verbatim into his book, reprinting substantial portions of the historical record in the manner of an anthologizer. In "Cotton Mather's Wonders of the Invisible World," Williams cuts and pastes chunks from Mather's book on the evidence and occurrences of witchcraft without otherwise altering a single word. In "Poor Richard," he gives us the complete text of Franklin's Information to Those Who Would Remove to America—and in the subsequent chapter, "Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis," Williams again reprints an entire document, Jones's letter to Franklin about the absurdly disastrous events which beset his naval operations off the English coast during the Revolutionary War.
James Breslin identifies these verbatim extract chapters as the weakest sections of In the American Grain. He accuses Williams of pulling "too simple a rhetorical trick," of taking the easy way out by simply copying his material instead of artistically remaking it as he had done in other chapters. But Williams' verbatim extract chapters are very much an integral part of his approach to American history. Williams, in fact, saw these chapters as one of his major achievements in the book, telling Horace Gregory that in his effort to get as close as possible to the style of past writing he had copied the documents by Mather, Franklin, and Jones "with malice aforethought to prove the truth of the book, since the originals fitted into it without effort on my part, perfectly, leaving not a seam." But despite Williams claim of an effortless fit, he doesn't simply anthologize these documents—he also edits and editorializes about them. Nor is the kind of selective excerpting he employs in piecing together twenty pages of text from Mather's two-hundred-page Wonders of the Invisible World Williams' only means for mediating these anthologized materials. In the Franklin chapter Williams supplements rather than shortens his source, appending his own "Notes for a Commentary on Franklin" to the text of Franklin's Information to Those Who Would Remove to America. And in the Jones chapter. Williams sets up a brilliant interplay between his documents by selecting a letter written to Franklin from Jones detailing the ill-fortunes of the Bon Homme Richard, the ship Jones named after Franklin's celebrated persona, Poor Richard. Williams directly invokes "Poor Richard" in his title for the Franklin chapter, pointing to a possible reading of Jones's narrative not simply as a letter to Franklin, but as a response to Franklin's own text about the happy stability of American life. Jones's report of deceit and disorder on the high seas thus trenchantly undercuts the tidy and efficient stability of Franklin's nearly uttered vision of American experience in the Information.
Williams knits these documents into the scheme of In the American Grain in even more subtle ways. In the "Curiosities" section of his Wonders, for example, Mather writes how "That Reverend and Excellent Person, Mr. John Higginson, in my Conversation with him, Once invited me to this Reflection; that the Indians which came from far to settle about Mexico, were in their Progress to that Settlement, under a Conduct of the Devil, very strangely Emulating what the Blessed God gave to Israel in the Wilderness." Mather's view of the ancient Aztecs as the legions of Satan is implicitly undermined by Williams' treatment of Tenochtitlan as the brightest flowering of civilization in the New World. And in the Information, Franklin's insistence that "America is the land of labor, and by no means what the English call Lubberland, and the French Pays de Cocagne, where the streets are said to be paved with half-peck loaves, the houses tiled with pancakes, and where the fouls fly about ready to be roasted, crying, Come eat me!" is ironically subverted by Williams' metaphors and facts of food in "Père Sebastian Rasles." Rasles learns to adjust to the difficulties of the native diet, thereby finding an abundance that Franklin's parsimonious character could never perceive in the New World, save in an immigrant's fanciful dream of a land of plenty.
Yet these are only a few of the possible readings we might give of these verbatim documents—and Williams himself remarks none of these potential verbal interplays for us. Other than establishing a context in which the documents might take on particular resonances, Williams offers virtually nothing in the way of explicit interpretive comment or directive. In the Mather and Jones chapters, he gives us nothing but the words of the documents themselves. And even though he appends a commentary to Franklin's Information, Williams doesn't deliver a reading of Franklin's text at all, but comments more largely on Franklin's role in disseminating a secularized Puritanism to the young nation. In these three chapters, the task of reading the documents—the act of making history mean—is primarily left to us alone. Williams structures In the American Grain to initiate us as readers of early American texts, asking us to begin our own studies in the verbal grain of America.
But Williams does provide us with a possible model for the process of reading these documents. Through his reading of a passage from Champlain's Voyages, Williams gives a marvellously dynamic enactment of the reader's mind at creative play, making "The Founding of Quebec" not simply a narrative of Champlain's adventures, but, more insistently, an adventure in reading Champlain's narrative. Williams, in fact, narrates "The Founding of Quebec" as if he himself has Champlain's text directly at hand, punctuating his progress through the Frenchman's account of the treacheries which nearly thwarted the founding of the city by repeatedly asking "What's happened?" and exhorting us to "imagine what comes next." Williams invokes our imaginative involvement on the level of the plot, and there is indeed an engrossing plot to the section of Champlain's Voyages Williams chooses for his chapter—a plotted mutiny which Champlain himself has to unravel if he is to succeed in founding his colony at Quebec. Williams uses that plot to engage us more fully in the process of reading, but it is not the suspense of the attempted insurrection that makes Champlain's relation remarkable reading for Williams. After giving the background to Champlain's and Pont Gravé's joint voyage to New France in 1608. Williams brings Champlain to the harbor at Tadoussac, on the St. Lawrence, then endeavors to instruct us how to read the signs that more accurately constitute the man's character:
But what has happened? Where is Pont Gravé and the other ship? The New World presses on us all; there seems no end to it—and no beginning. So too with him. They see a ship's boat coming. So Pont Gravé has gained the harbor. Good. But there's a stranger in the skiff. A Basque. There's been trouble.
To me there is a world of pleasure in watching just that Frenchman, just Champlain, like no one else about him, watching, keeping the thing whole within him with almost a woman's tenderness—but such an energy for detail—a love of the exact detail—watching the little boat drawing nearer on that icy bay. This is the interest I see. It is this man. This—me; this American; a sort of radio distributor sending out sparks to us all.
Well, here's the boat. What's happened? Ah, Pont Gravé is here, of course. Well? There was a Basque in the ship in the bay before him, they refused to stop their trade in furs at the King's order. A short battle. Pont Gravé wounded. This Basque with us has come to make a truce. Champlain was "greatly annoyed", his records say, at such a beginning. Greatly annoyed! Isn't that a treasure?
Williams attempts to cultivate in us as readers the same quality he reads in Champlain as writer—"a love of the exact detail." Not just the details of the unexpected turn of events at the beginning, but the details of the whole with "no end" and "no beginning," the entire field of verbal action. He cites Champlain's attentiveness to "that little boat drawing nearer on that icy bay" as indicative of Champlain's acute focus on both the world and word at hand, momentarily isolating that fact from the plot in order to delight in watching Champlain himself in the act of "watching, keeping the thing whole within him." It is just such watchfulness over the whole scene of reading that enables Williams to discover the character-revealing contours in Champlain's admission that he was "'greatly annoyed"' at the news from the boat. "Greatly annoyed!" proclaims Williams. "Isn't that a treasure?" And he expresses the same delight in later noting that Champlain was busy preparing a garden when he received further intelligence of the plot against him. "'I was in a garden that I was having prepared,' he writes. In a garden! that's wonderful to me."
But Williams uses Champlain's account of the near-mutiny for something more than a mere device to hook the reader's interest in detail. He also uses it to view Champlain's character through the qualities of his responses to the mutineers. Champlain proves not only a perceptive reader of situations but an adept author of events as well. Once he learns the names of the chief conspirators, he sends them two bottles of wine and an invitation to dinner, then arrests his unsuspecting foes when they arrive. "Can you beat it?" asks Williams. He revels in Champlain's artful foiling of the mutiny, relating with gusto how Champlain finally decided it was sufficient to kill the ringleader and put his head upon a pike as an example to the rest. "To me the whole thing's marvelous—all through," says Williams, and it is indeed the textures of the "whole thing" that he tries to impress upon us "all through" his reading of Champlain.
We can well imagine how Williams might give such a playfully attentive reading of yet another tale of treachery and mutiny—the one he leaves for us to read in "Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis." At the opening of his letter, Jones asks his reader to pay strict attention to the details of his narrative. He states the conditions upon which he set sail with the apparent support of a French squadron, then remarks, "Whether I was or was not deceived will best appear by a relation of circumstances." What follows is an astounding account of disguised intentions and deceptive twists as Jones's subordinate captains show themselves insubordinate traitors. But though Williams leaves us to tackle Jones's relation on our own, he has schooled us in reading such narratives—and he has also cautioned us with a startling demonstration of the instability of any one interpretation. At the end of "The Founding of Quebec," Williams unexpectedly overturns everything he has just said about Champlain. It initially seems that the primary speaker in the chapter forcefully advocates a patently American reading of Champlain, calling him "a sort of radio distributor sending out sparks to us all", finding in Champlain's keen sensitivity to the New World a manifestation of "my own world, the world in which I myself breathe and walk and live—against that which you present." But the "you" who replies to conclude the chapter voices an even more savagely American point of view, undercutting the French posturing of the primary speaker, accusing him of having uttered too sophisticated an appreciation of Champlain, castigating him for displaying "the weakness of you French," for imagining that "a drop of your precious blood" civilizes the wilderness and links it to a great chain of "historic continuity" reaching far back "with roots in every culture of the world."
Williams' book constantly disrupts the possibility that any one interpretation or reading of the past might gain authoritative status. In chapters structured as dialogue between opposing points of view—such as Williams' discussion with Larbaud in "Père Sebastian Rasles," or the voices which heatedly contest the character of Aaron Burr in "The Virtue of History"—Williams strives to make history a subject of debate rather than unchallenged pronouncement. It is precisely that aspect of debate and argument between contending visions of America that Williams accuses conventional historians of masking beneath a "chaos of borrowed titles." And in "The May-Pole at Merry Mount," Williams pursues with literal verity the task of rescuing a contending voice from the hands of the historian, endeavoring to release Thomas Morton's New English Canaan from the obscuring patina of Charles Francis Adams' lengthy Introductory essay to the text. Williams admits that Morton's book "was no great literary feat," but he contends that "as a piece from American History it has a savor which Adams dulls rather than heightens—which is too bad." Williams makes Adams the living symbol of what is wrong with academic historians, claiming that "He has seen the time too near." Adams perpetuates the distorting myopia which characterizes much American historical writing for Williams. "A most confusing thing in American History, as we read it, is the nearly universal lack of scale," states Williams, and he attacks Adams for his "parochialism" in viewing Morton as a licentious drunkard among the Puritans: "The description, 'a vulgar libertine, thrown by accident into the midst of a Puritan Community, an extremely reckless but highly amusing old debauchee and tippler,' is not adequate to describe a man living under the circumstances that surrounded Morton; its tone might do for a London clubman but not a New World pioneer taking his chances in the wilderness. It lacks scale."
Williams, in fact, devotes more of "The May-Pole at Merry Mount" to disputing Adams than he does to quoting or discussing Morton's text, mangling the well-known historian's name with flagrant carelessness by calling him "A. C. Adams." He charges Adams with failing the office of historian, which should have been to give "a simple exposition of the facts relating to" Morton's book: "Thomas Morton was unique in our history and since Adams does attempt an evaluation of his book it is a pity he did not realize that, in history, to preserve things of 'little importance' may be more valuable—as it is more difficult and more the business of a writer—than to champion a winner." In Williams' view, Adams, not unlike his New England forbears, couldn't really see Morton's qualities, because he let the question of Morton's sexual relations with the Indians overshadow all other concerns. In one of the verses he composed to be sung around the infamous maypole, Morton had beckoned, "Lasses in beaver coats come away/Ye shall be welcome with us night and day." Adams, in his introduction, cites those lines as his primary proof of Morton's profligacy, and Williams quotes Adams on that point in order to fault him for his handling of the evidence:
Some of the earlier writers on the New England Indians have spoken of the modesty of the women; Wood, in his Prospect, for instance, and Josselyn, in the second of his "Two Voyages." "Morton however is significantly silent on this point, and the idea of female chastity in the Indian mind, in the rare cases where it existed at all, seems to have been of the vaguest possible description. Morton was not a man likely to be fastidious, and his reference to the 'lasses in beaver coats,' is suggestive." This is as near as Adams ever gets to a full statement of the facts.
Williams goes on to give us a much more "full statement of the facts," delivering an impressive display of scholarship. From Parkman's Jesuits in North America he quotes the Jesuit missionary Le Jeune's comments on Algonquian attitudes toward sexuality, then quotes Parkman himself before delivering passages concerning Indian sexual mores from Roger Williams' A Key into the Language of America and Morton's own New English Canaan. And last but not least, Williams provides a substantial excerpt from William Strachey's Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, quoting the passage on "Pocahuntas, a well featured, but wanton yong girle, Powhatan's daughter." Yet none of the evidence points decisively one way or another on the issue of female chastity among the Indians, and Williams concludes—against Adams' contention that Morton's failure to speak of Indian modesty suggests a meaningful omission—that using the issue of female chastity among Indians as grounds to judge Morton is untenable because "From conflicting reports from many sources the truth seems to be that the state of affairs with respect to this trait of female chastity was a matter largely of individual inclination."
Williams marshalls his evidence with precision. He even provides the kind of bibliographical references he generally omits from In the American Grain, citing not only authors' names and titles of books, but even chapter and page numbers. With Parkman's Jesuits in North America, Williams documents his material as "(ch. iv)," and with Strachey he directs us to "(Historie p. 65)." Yet such assiduity with bibliographical details seems somewhat out of character for Williams' handling of documents. And indeed it is. Both the bibliographical data and all the conflicting reports on Indian sexuality are pirated directly from Adams, taken straight out of the footnotes to both his introductory essay and Morton's own text. Williams follows a well-marked path through these notes. From p. 16, n. 2, and p. 17, n. 1, Williams splices together Parkman's material on Le Jeune, and the additional remarks by Parkman himself and Roger Williams. (Adams, 16, n. 2, had quoted more extensively from Williams' A Key into the Language of North America, as well as from Josselyn's Two Voyages and Wood's New England's Prospect.) The sentence about "an incident mentioned by Morton," though it seems to be spoken by Williams, is also from Adams' notes, and, in this case, is in Adams' own words. Williams appropriates Adams' statement, then follows the historian's reference " (Infra, *32)" to the designated section New English Canaan in which Morton tells the story of an Indian who may have been cuckolded by an Englishman. Williams quotes that story, then picks up the thread of Adams' notes on Indian sexuality from that point in Morton's text, leafing back to p. 145, n. 2, to take the long quotation on Pocahuntas from Strachey's Historie. The final passage Williams delivers, misleadingly punctuating it as if it were a continuation of the Strachey material, is actually compounded of two separate statements Adams makes in reference to Parkman on Indian sexuality in the same note.
Such appropriations are, of course, very much in the character of In the American Grain. But of all Williams' borrowings in the book, his lifting of Adams' footnotes is the most brazen theft. Williams not only nakedly plagiarizes this material, he turns it against its author, using Adams' own scholarship to dismiss Adams as scholar. Williams' treatment of Adams points to Williams' own paradoxical relationship with history and historians. Though he aggressively wages a dispute with historians throughout In the American Grain, Williams actually relies quite heavily on the work of historians—and not on just their factual researches, like Adams' extensive notes on conflicting reports of Indian sexuality, or Bourne's copious supplementary notes to Columbus' journal. In several chapters of his book, Williams relies solely on a single historian's account of the figure in question. Williams' claim to have studied only autobiographical documents—"The plan was to try to get inside the heads of some of the American founders or 'heroes,' if you will, by examining their original records. I wanted nothing to get between me and what they themselves had recorded"—is not entirely consistent with his practice. In "George Washington," Williams relies primarily on Paul Leiscester Ford's The True George Washington, taking his observations of Washington's physical stature and interest in women from Ford's chapters "Physique" and "Relations with the Fair Sex." And his use of James Parton's biography of Aaron Burr in "The Virtue of History," as well as Henry Bruce's Life of General Houston in "Descent" and Cecil Hartley's Life and Times of Colonel Daniel Boone in "The Discovery of Kentucky," suggest that Williams sometimes preferred viewing his subjects from the outside, at a distance, through the lenses of the historian's vision. With Washington, Burr, Houston, and Boone, Williams sacrificed the possibility of letting these men speak for themselves in order to give their lives a biographical sweep he generally withholds from other characters in the book.
Yet Williams is even more profoundly dependent upon historians. They are the ones who made available to him the very books and records so vital to his studies in In the American Grain. Williams' book is an archaeology of knowledge—but William didn't do his digging in an untouched field. When Williams went to the New York Public Library, he found not just a field already laid out by the structure of the library itself—an American history reading room with books catalogued and arranged by topic on shelves—but a field made rich by the historians who had preceded Williams' in his task. In the American Grain profits immensely from that era in our national history, from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, when many American historians dedicated themselves to making available modern, annotated editions of early American historical records. Projects like J. Franklin Jameson's multi-volumed "Original Narratives of Early American History" series and the Prince Society's reprint series of early American documents provided Williams with both reliable texts and scholarly insight.
Indeed, Williams' whole book seems to be structurally patterned upon one such reprint series—the Old South Leaflets issued from 1895-1922 by the directors of the Old South Studies in History at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. Williams most probably encountered these leaflets at an early point in his investigation of the library's resources. Collected in bound volumes, the Old South Leaflets not only became Williams' basic American history primer, they also determined to a great extent his apprehension of early American history. Like the leaflets, In the American Grain conceptualizes history episodically, devoting ten to twenty page sections to some particular figure or event in American history. And in more than one case Williams let the leaflets decide not only which passages of a given historical record he would select, but how he would title his chapter as well. In "Voyage of the Mayflower" Williams discusses only those portions of Bradford's voluminous Of Plymouth Plantation which are reprinted in the leaflets under the title "Voyage of the Mayflower," while in "The Founding of Quebec," Williams' reading of Champlain is based entirely upon the passage from his lengthy relations that the leaflets print under the title "The Founding of Quebec." And in "Battle Between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis," Williams essentially reproduces Old South Leaflet No. 152, title and all.
The Old South Leaflets also provided Williams with the text of Franklin's Information that he reprints in "Poor Richard." But in several instances, Williams relied upon the leaflets to introduce him to particular texts and figures which he later went on to investigate more deeply. In leaflet No. 35, Williams found the genesis of "The Destruction of Tenochtitlan" by reading "Cortes's Account of the City of Mexico," an excerpting of Cortez' amazed and amazing attempt to comprehend Tenochtitlan's splendor from Folsom's Despatches of Hernando Cortes. And in leaflet No. 36, Williams discovered the materials for "De Soto and the New World" by reading "The Death of De Soto," which reprints passages from the narrative of the anonymous Fidalgo of Elvas concerning De Soto's demise on the banks of the Mississippi. "Red Eric," too, may have been suggested to Williams by reading "The Voyages to Vinland, from the Saga of Eric the Red" in leaflet No. 31—which delivers the Arthur Middleton Reeves translation of the Vinland portions of the Flat Island Book that Williams later met again in Olson and Bourne's The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot 985-1503—while Williams' lyrical performance in "Sir Walter Raleigh" was spurred by his reading of Arthur Barlowe's account of the first voyage to Virginia in leaflet No. 92 and "The Invention of Ships, by Sir Walter Raleigh" in leaflet No. 166. And Williams most probably had his first contact with New English Canaan through leaflet No. 87, which reprints sections of Morton's text as "Manners and Customs of the Indians" from Charles Frances Adams' Prince Society edition of the work.
Old South Leaflets offered Williams just what he needed—expedient access to materials. A kind of library within the library, the leaflets give excerpts from some two hundred primary documents, many of them accompanied by bibliographical and biographical source citations. They provide an excellent representation not only of documents, but of the work historians had done since the mid-nineteenth century to make such documents available. Old South Leaflets was dedicated to publicizing that work by reprinting portions of it. The leaflets were printed in massive numbers and sold cheaply to the public, the directors of the project announcing it as their purpose "to bring important original documents within easy reach of everybody." Williams was sympathetic to that populist effort, and his own reprinting of selections from the Old South reprints adds another disseminating thrust to the process, continuing the Old South directors' campaign to acquaint Americans with the basic original texts of early American history.
Yet unlike the Old South Studies, Williams' "studies" didn't entail his leaving clear tracks to mark his passage through the library. Williams, in fact, claimed not to be able to remember his sources for In the American Grain. Writing to Horace Gregory in 1939, Williams lamented that he hadn't "kept a record of all the things I read." Williams most probably hadn't forgotten the Old South Leaflets, which essentially are a record of what he had read for his book. And what seems to have been nothing less than an attempt to keep the bibliographical origins of his work cloaked in obscurity points to an important aspect of In the American Grain. Williams' book is not just a study of early American writing—it is the work of a student. Williams had no extensive knowledge of American historical documents prior to writing his book. He expressly undertook the creation of In the American Grain in order to gain such knowledge, to educate himself about the writers and texts of early America, "to establish myself from my own reading, in my own way," as he would tell Gregory. But Williams also needed to play an educated part for his own students, the readers of In the American Grain, and at times the gap between those two roles creates visible tensions in the text.
Williams self-consciously juggles these roles of student and teacher in his discussion with Valery Larbaud, posing himself alternately as a crude, untutored block and a knowing teacher of things American. At the beginning of the chapter, Williams sits in mute fear that the more learned Larbaud "will ask me questions that I cannot answer!" Larbaud, he pointedly states, "knows far more of what is written of my world than I." But by the end of chapter it is Williams who reduces Larbaud to silence, reversing their initial positions of student and teacher as he delivers a lecture to the scholar, excoriating him for failing to comprehend the importance of Mather's and Rasles' writings for the study of American history. Yet judging by the evidence in Williams' diary and letters concerning the actual meeting with Larbaud in Paris upon which the chapter is based, it seems that Williams did indeed sit in intimidated silence before the more sophisticated Larbaud, who spoke knowledgeably about the books of early America. In the letters he wrote to Marianne Moore after his meeting with Larbaud in Paris on January 26, 1924, as well as in the diary he kept of his European tour during 1924, Williams portrays himself as the silent party who listened in awed admiration while Larbaud spoke to him about the works of Cotton Mather and contrasted the English mode of colonizing the New World with that of the Spanish. Yet in "Père Sebastian Rasles," it is Williams who speaks volubly about Mather's books, quoting readily from the India Christiana and the Magnalia Christi Americana, while Larbaud lapses into disgruntled silence. One cannot but wonder, even though there is no mention of Sebastian Rasles in Williams' letters and diary, whether Larbaud himself, a Frenchman, was not the one who informed Williams about the relatively unknown French Jesuit missionary.
Williams was acutely aware that from the perspective of the European tradition—particularly the European tradition as it was symbolized for him by Pound and Eliot, those Americans who had gone to Europe in order to steep themselves in it—he was no intellectual. At times he sought to play up the image of himself as the crude and unrefined American: "a beginner … United Stateser," as he had put it in The Great American Novel—"the brutal thing itself," as he says of himself in Larbaud's presence. But Williams also felt the need to reply to Pound and Eliot in their own terms, to show himself adept at the pursuits of a scholar, for he recognized, as he said in "Descent," that "from a low position it is impossible to answer those who know all the Latin and some of the Sanskrit names, much French and perhaps one or two other literatures." Williams attempted to achieve his own high ground by a kind of scholarly posturing much like that which he had mocked in Pound. In the prologue to Kora in Hell, Williams mentions an incident in which Pound "was glancing through some book of my father's. 'It is not necessary,' he, said, 'to read everything in a book in order to speak intelligently of it. Don't tell everybody I said so,' he added." Williams defied Pound by publishing the remark, but he also followed Pound's advice. He was well aware that In the American Grain would serve him best if it would create the impression that he knew more about American history than he did, and he never let on to just how he came by his materials. It's entirely likely that if his use of the Old South Leaflets had ever come to light during his own lifetime, Williams would have quite simply denied any knowledge of them, just as he later claimed to have never met anyone named Valery Larbaud. Yet such erasures and appropriations are very much in keeping with Williams' modernist approach to the problem of writing history. Like his Columbus, who can imaginatively rediscover the New World only once he has acknowledged its loss, Williams renders the past open to aesthetic repossession in the present by cancelling out the myth of historical verisimilitude. Though he insistently gestures to sources and origins throughout his book, he just as certainly erases and disguises others, making history, ultimately, deceptive ground in In the American Grain.
Bryce Conrad, "The Deceptive Ground of History: The Sources of William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain," in William Carlos Williams Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 22-40.
Paul L. Jay
In the following essay excerpt, Jay asserts that "the past emerges in In the American Grain as its product, not its topic, " and is thus "ideologically skewed."
By virtue of its insistently recuperative strategy, Williams's book affirms what Donato, by way of Kojève, and White each in their own ways suspect about the necessarily ironic condition of post-Hegelian history: In The American Grain is decidedly a post-historical history, for Williams deems the present which animates it to have its origins in a past which keeps repeating itself into the present. His twentieth-century America, that is, represents a cultural moment whose immediacy is grounded in the forms of a past tradition which is its central source, so that the present is conceived as a kind of dead representation of a deadening history.
But if Williams claims for his book the status of "history" (albeit a history redefined by its own rethinking of the word), we need to ask what kind of history it in fact produces. If it is aimed at protecting contemporary culture from history's "tyrannous designs," we need to examine critically the design which it provides for history, assessing the success of its strategy in terms of the extent to which it can claim, in any meaningful way, to be historical.
The design of Williams's version of American history is oppositional. The seeming paradox of his assertion that the past is both the source of America's present degradation and of its renewal is due to the fact that there are two diametrically opposed traditions in Williams's history. Its recuperative hope is keyed to what he calls the necessary "annihilation" of one of them—Puritanism. The tradition of the Other which his book seeks to privilege—depicted primarily in his chapters on Boone, Rasles, and Houston—is the tradition of a relationship to the new world which Williams wants to re-evoke as an antidote to the Puritan origins of the American self. The dichotomy he generates between what we might call Puritanism and Frontierism constitutes not only the structural design of his book—it actually becomes the history which it recounts.
As a structural design, the poles of his opposition oscillate through the middle and late portions of the book, forming a series of contrasts which structure and control the story it tells. Thus the "Mayflower" chapter on Puritanism is followed by two chapters, on Samuel de Champlain and Thomas Morton, celebrating their adventuresome and energetic contract with the wilderness and "with its natives … to which the Puritans so violently objected". These chapters are followed by what Williams calls the "madness" of Mather's defense of the witchcraft trials, which in turn is followed by his celebration of Sebastin Rasles's "sensitive and daring … close embrace of native things". Rasles is deemed a "moral source" whose "force" is "equal to the Puritans but of opposite character". The Rasles chapter is followed in kind by Williams's piece on Boone, whose "passionate, possessive" power is deemed to be full of a rich regenerative violence … when his history will be carefully reported". These two chapters are balanced by the chapter on Franklin, whose "Puritanism" is deemed to have created in him a "terror before the NEW", and a strength that denies itself". With this oscillating structure of oppositions Williams leads the reader back and forth through a carefully designed experience of his two traditions, damning Puritanism as an "IMMORAL source", and privileging Frontierism as a "regenerative" one.
What needs to be pointed out here is that the affinities and the contrasts which control this design are less historical than they are metaphorical. That is, the qualities by which Williams links and contrasts these key figures are generated aesthetically by the book's network of images and symbols, rather than concretely by recourse to information which might in even the most rudimentary of ways be termed historical. The book does use the historical record as a "source" or "origin" for its individual sketches, but the "history" it produces is finally subsumed by its central metaphoric network, a network which re-presents the past in terms of what can only be called a sexual mythology: the categories of Puritanism and Frontierism are given a kind of historical substance in the book, but as they are accorded the status of two opposing "forces" they are mythologized in a transformation which finds Williams sexualizing their particular qualities.
If Williams's critique of Puritanism has a single recurring theme it is his insistence that its denial of sexual pleasure was at the heart of the destructive legacy it produced. His preoccupation with the Puritan's "fury against unofficial sexual indulgence", its "stress of the spirit against the flesh", and what Williams calls its "lie" that sexual "pleasure is evil", is inextricably connected with his general deprecation of Puritanism's refusal to "touch" and "embrace" the New World. "The Puritans," he writes, "have damned us with their abstinence, [their] removal from the world".
This general preoccupation with the negative legacy of Puritanism's sexual repressiveness is given specificity when it surfaces in the network of metaphors which structure and inform his treatment of the book's key heros and anti-heros. For example, Williams's Benjamin Franklin is a man "terrorized" and "shocked" by his first sexual encounter, a man whose "praise" came for "making walls: not in bursting into flower". The metaphors marshalled to describe Franklin suggest sexual impotence, sublimation, repression: "His energy, never attained a penetrant gist; rather it was stopped by and splashed upon the barrier, like a melon, and his 'good' was scattered about him". His "crude energy," Williams continues, was "equalized" by "a colossal restraint," resulting in "complete … frustration". In contrast, Daniel Boone is praised for having "descended" to "the ground of his desire," for having a "power" which was "voluptuous," "passionate," and "possessive". While Franklin's energy and desire were "stopped," Boone's was "filled to over-brimming," and "he sought only with primal lust to grow close to" the land, in what Williams calls "an ecstasy of complete possession".
The book's recurring imagery of touch, embrace, penetration, and flowering, on the one hand, and withdrawal, denial and withering, on the other, is subsumed in the metaphorics which dominate these two descriptions, so that Williams's two traditions become characterised as opposed sexual forces. In his chapter on Sebastin Rasles this contrast is placed explicitly in the context of Williams's anti-Puritanism, and then raised to a more general level. Here, the opposition of Puritanism and Frontierism as sexual forces is transposed into a contrast between the Freudian categories of Eros and Thanatos. In praising Rasles's contact with the new world and its inhabitants Williams makes of him an emblem of Eros, the principle which he insists should replace Puritanism as a new moral "source." Williams intones that Rasles will be "another root", representing the morality of the erotic: "It is this to be moral… TO MARRY, to touch… to give to him … who will join, who will make, who will fertilize … create … hybridize … cross-pollenize—not to sterilize, to draw back, to fear, to dry up, to rot". Embedded in this contrast, of course, are Williams's two traditions, but evoked now as natural, universal forces of generation and death.
The central paradox of Williams's book, then, is that the more stridently it seeks to overcome history's "tyrannous designs," and the more insistently it asserts the need to use historical "records" and "books" as a "defense" against a history which has left the present "fixed" and "finished" like an "effigy", the more it must mythologize the past with which it is concerned. By structurally and thematically playing off the sexual repression and impotence of his version of Puritanism with the supposed sexual vitality of his Frontiersmen, Williams ends up methodically embedding his historical materials in a pervasive sexual metaphorics and assimilating that material into a struggle between the psychological forces of Eros and Thanatos, so that his history plays itself out at the level of romance and myth. In Williams's scheme of things, sexual energy is given transcendent importance; it over-determines his history, so that in his text, economic, political, and technological forces take a backseat to the forces of Eros and Thanatos.
"… Williams's book, despite its a-historicism, actually clarifies the ontological status of history."
The consequence of such an over-determination is that all of the historical forces in Williams's text become grounded in a dialectical struggle of opposed "Universal," "Eternal," and "Natural" forces which are explicitly a-historical. In fact, Williams takes recourse to a sexualized schema precisely because it grounds, orders, and explains the chaos of American history in a profoundly "Natural" way. In its purposeful confusion of fiction and history it confuses "Nature" and "history," and/or "Nature" and "culture." As it seeks to recuperate a particular tradition, his text locates the "problem" of American history in Nature, that is to say, it subsumes the complexity of history into a dialectic of Eternal forces which transcends the particular moments of its appearance. In so doing, Williams's historical material is ordered by a process of Naturalization, a process which, as it organizes the past into an explanatory order, renders history secondary to a "transcendent" struggle whose character is less historical than universal. The metaphorics of the book's explicitly sexualized historical explanation raises the level of Williams's discourse above history by creating a language for rendering its central problematic which grounds that problematic in a Universal struggle between the forces of Eros and Thanatos. Dependent as it becomes on such a language, and on the depiction of a struggle between these "universal" forces, its hope of recuperating history becomes transposed into its effort to create an essentially a-historical symbology which might explain it. With such an operation at the heart of its rhetoric, Williams's recuperative hope has its origins less in history than in the power of his metaphors.
Williams's strategy in In The America Grain, based as it is on a kind of recuperative aesthetics, is in its way emblematic of American Modernism's interest in history—whether that history be defined as regional, national, European, or Classical. We have seen that while his strategy makes operative the creative potential of an aesthetic historiographic practice, the contradictions which it generates are also a measure both of the dilemmas inherent in such a practice, and the extent to which they are an outgrowth of a nineteenth-century epistemological and representational crisis. The confusion of History and Nature in Williams's book is, for example, connected with its strategic conflation of history and fiction, a conflation which points to the seemingly unavoidable paradox of a post-Nietzschean aesthetic historicism like that which animates In The American Grain: the formal and critical power of historical discourse is given free rein in a work like Williams's, but at the same time history evolves in that work as a construct of the writer's aesthetic imagination. In such a work, history becomes among other things a hermeneutic discourse, a discourse always driven by strategic—that is to say, ideological—purposes.
Such a discourse, it might be argued—especially in light of the a-historical strain in Williams's book—is not history at all. But, paradoxically, it can also be argued that by virtue of its method and its philosophy Williams's book, despite its a-historicism, actually clarifies the ontological status of history. If we return to the book's metahistorical discourse we will recall that for Williams the "tyranny" of history's "designs" is precisely the illusion that it is privileged as fact and that it is ideologically innocent. In seeking to protect history from this "tyranny," Williams's book works specifically to undetermine these two illusions. Its reading of American history may have produced something more like a sexual myth of origins, but its critique of history, its insistent recognition that history is a product of representation, does constitute the necessary deconstruction of an innocent relationship between historical events and their existence in narrative. It is after all the "tyrannous design" of this innocent relationship which Williams's book seeks to mitigate. Moreover, his demystified conception of history as a product of competing discourses ("if there is agreement on one point in history, be sure there's interest there to have it so and that's not truth", draws its role as an ideological force among others explicit.
This rethinking of history's ontological ground, and this critique of traditional historicism, is a logical outgrowth both of the crisis in historicism we reviewed earlier and the recuperative hope which drives Williams's writing. The technique of In The American Grain constitutes a demystification of history's status as "fact"—the undermining of what Roland Barthes has called the "prestige" of the phrase "this happened"—because it approaches its material in the spirit of Nietzsche's and Adams's skepticism about "old formulas." But while Williams's appropriation of history as material for his art affirms Nietzsche's skepticism about the "objective" privilege of historical discourse over fictional discourse, it does not, therefore, posit history as a simple free-play of supreme fictions. Because it inherits from the nineteenth century the idea that history is the sum of its representations, it can affirm that history is "a living thing … undecided." However, the decisions Williams makes about history are grounded not in a conviction that they are fictions among a plenitude of fictions, but in the conviction that they are truthful because they are born of his artistic insight. "I seek the support of history," he writes, "but I wish to understand it aright, to make it SHOW itself".
Such a wish, as we have seen, is animated by Williams's desire to recover from history a "regenerative force." It thus participates in rethinking the relationship between history and its representations not to reduce history to the status of a fiction, but to ground itself in a practice which will allow Williams to produce a text which is at once a reading of history and an argument about it. With this strategy foregrounded, Williams's book becomes a self-conscious example of Hayden White's observation that "history … is never history of, it is always also history for." Because it is a history for America, rather than a history of America, the past emerges in In The American Grain as its product, not its topic. It is for this reason that Williams's book is, in the final analysis, ideologically skewed. Its historical analysis lapses into the creation of an over-determined (and over-determining) sexual myth, but its metahistorical premises demystify the relationship between history and its discursive origins. Its self-consciousness in this respect is probably more productive than the reading of American history it provides, for, as Terry Eagleton has written,
When history begins to "think itself" as historiography … the rupture thus established between thought and reality is not the guarantee of knowledge, though it is the precondition of one.
It is precisely this rupture which appears in the metahistorical observations which both punctuate Williams's text and determine its methodology. These observations, more than its arguments against Puritanism and for a renewed Erotic vitality, surely constitute its more important knowledge.
Paul L. Jay, "American Modernism and the Uses of History: The Case of William Carlos Williams," in New Orleans Review, Winter 1982, pp. 16-25.
Breslin, James, William Carlos Williams: An American Artist, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Conrad, Bryce, Refiguring America, University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Doyle, Charles, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.
Guimond, James, The Art of William Carlos Williams, University of Illinois Press, 1968.
Lawrence, D. H., Studies in Classic American Literature, T. Seltzer, 1923.
Williams, William Carlos, "The American Background," in Selected Essays, New Directions, 1969.
Guimond, James, The Art of William Carlos Williams: A Discovery and Possession of America, University of Illinois Press, 1968.
Guimond's book was one of the first full-length studies of Williams's work. Unlike many other books about modernist poets, Guimond's concentrates on the cultural background of the poet and on his relationship to his society.
Kutzinski, Vera, Against the American Grain, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Kutzinski, a professor in the English Language and Literature department at Yale University, provides a critical interpretation of Williams's relationship to his home continent.
Lowney, John, The American Avant-Garde Tradition, Bucknell University Press, 1997.
Lowney's concern is with the marketing of "avantgarde" art and its relationship to mass culture. He argues that, although we are encouraged to understand Williams's poetry as anti-popular, Williams actually desired mass popularity—and was not shy about encouraging his publishers to get out and sell his books.
Mariani, Paul, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Mariani's biography of Williams is the most comprehensive of the numerous lives of this poet. Williams's book is especially valuable for a reading of In the American Grain, for his thesis is that Williams is a particularly American poet.
Wagner, Linda Welshimer, The Prose of William Carlos Williams, Wesleyan University Press, 1970.
One of the first studies of Williams's prose, this book concentrates on Williams's fiction but sheds interesting light on how In the American Grain fits into Williams's larger oeuvre.