TPR Challenge #2 - William Carlos Williams and In The American Grain

Perhaps you are beginning to see how essential a part of reading it is to be perplexed and know it.  Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature.  (Adler/Van Doren, How to Read a Book, p. 123).

In preparing some class notes today, I was struck with how true this passage is - and how evident for me with William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain.  I have struggled mightily with this work, (am actually still struggling!) but I must admit to its edifying quality.  I have at times been perplexed, and knowing it has lead me to ask those questions that lead to greater insight.  Not always successfully, and not always with pleasure, but I have tried to engage myself with this prose-poetic version of American history.  So, while I will not claim wisdom, I have sat with my wonder for some time, and I continue to feel enriched by some of the things Williams has taught me in this book.

In brief, Williams is here trying to expose the understory of American history, and he hopes to accomplish this rather heroic task by channeling the voices of some of the contributors to that history-making.  From Eric the Red in the first section to Abraham Lincoln in the last, Williams relies upon primary sources to recreate, inhabit, or evoke those times and those people.  At times, he copies whole sections from those primary sources (and he does so without even a gesture at citation - a real frustration to this teacher), and in one instance, an entire chapter is just transcribed from the original source entirely.  Though I understand Williams' desire to capture an American voice (much of his life's work was preoccupied with the concept of American idiom), the blurred lines between his creation and that of the original author's did not always work for me. 

What did work for me was the language.  Williams is a poet, and his prose offers an experimental quality, a playfulness with word, form, and structure that are hallmarks of the poetic mind.  Again I will acknowledge the challenge of this type of writing.  It is not easily encountered; you do not read it breezily under a beach umbrella.  It forces you to be fully awake (one of the reasons reading it before bed has been such a problem) and fully engaged with the words.  But when you invest yourself in it, you are rewarded with stunning turns of phrase and evocative passages that are well worth the trouble. 

Here is this from "The Destruction of Tenochtitlan":
And bitter as the thought may be that Tenochtitlan, the barbaric city, its people, its genius wherever found should have been crushed out because of the awkward names men give their emptiness, yet it was no man's fault.  It was the force of the pack whom the dead drive. (27)

And this from "Pere Sebastian Rasles":
There is the Indian.  We are none.  Who are we?  Degraded whites riding our fears to market where everything is by accident and only one thing sure: the fatter we get the duller we grow; only a simpering disgust (like a chicken with a broken neck, that aims where it cannot peck and pecks only where it cannot aim, which a hog-plenty everywhere prevents from starving to death) reveals any contact with a possible freshness - and that only by inversion. (108)

In fact, this whole section has been one of the most provocative.  It occurs near the middle of the book, it is one of the longer sections, and it is the place where Williams inserts himself and his meeting with Valery Larbaud (occurring in the 20s in Paris while Williams was writing this book) into the awkward spot between Cotton Mather and Daniel Boone.  The chronology works because of the presumptive focus of the chapter, Rasles, a Jesuit missionary who lived among the Abnaki Indians.  The history of Rasles was new to me, and I appreciated the way Williams uses him as a foil to the much reviled Puritans.  Even though Williams was trying to inhabit the original voices and allow them to tell their own stories, here Williams could not restrain himself.  His capricious diatribe is thoroughly thought-provoking, but the intrusion of his voice is a distraction to the overall effort.  Despite the distraction, this section provides the thrust of what Williams believes about Americans, our relationship with history, and its relevance to our present.  And though he was writing about his contemporaries, his thoughts have a truthful ring still today.

Throughout, Williams has reminded me of Howard Zinn, another historian who had a particular version of history to tell and wasn't afraid to upend the apple cart in the process.  Williams actually provides a response to Larbaud's "cultural tolerance" that explains some of what I think both writers were trying to accomplish:

I grant you, I said, the stench of their narrowing beliefs has been made to cling too closely to the men of that time, but the more reason then to lift it out, to hold it apart, to sacrifice them if necessary, in order to disentangle this "thing" (115).

Interestingly enough, though, Williams finds himself trapped (as Zinn has been as well) in his own argument.  The stench of his beliefs clings too closely to himself, and only an astute reader will understand he, too, must be sacrificed.  Thus far, I haven't been that astute.  I've grappled with individual sections but haven't allowed my ideas to fully coalesce.  Emily at Evening All Afternoon has done a remarkable job of uncovering some of Williams' particular weaknesses, and besides admiring her analysis, I particularly appreciated her description of Williams' prose as "chewy." I encourage you to check it out.

I do not encourage you to "check out" The Paris Review interview with Williams.  Abstruse is really the best word for it.  And before you think I am condemning a writerly genius, I will explain.  Or rather, I will let the introduction to the interview explain:
In his last years, Dr. Williams's health suffered from a series of strokes that made it difficult for him to speak and impaired his physical vigor. (78)
The effort it took the poet to find and pronounce words can hardly be indicated here.  Many of the sentences ended in no more than a wave of the hand when Mrs. Williams was not present to finish them. (80)

These elements, combined with the habit of many minds to dwell upon things that aren't fully identifiable to the outside observer (Williams' preoccupation with the "measure" that makes the "idiom" fully possible), make the interview most difficult to digest.  But I did glean one passage that meant something to me.  Williams responds at one point with this:

I would gladly have traded what I have tried to say for what came off my tongue, naturally.  (84)

That struggle seems to me a lovely summation of what we all wrestle with: the tension between the created word, the attempt, and natural speech.  Williams wanted to get to that natural speech, he transcribed it into In the American Grain, but in trying, he left us with some beautifully crafted words, some irreplaceable efforts, and I, for one, am glad he tried.

By the way: thanks to Frances at Nonsuch Book for extending the invitation to join the nonstructured book group for August (whew - I just barely made it!).  I will look forward to another round soon!


  1. Your comparison to Zinn is so thought-provoking to me, because despite his faults I like Zinn for the exact reasons I struggled with Williams - his politics (though not perfect) are much more in line with mine, and if he's hypocritical or paternalistic, it's in a way that's not as visible to me. To a certain extent all historians, whether writing "creatively" or not, impose their own biases in their work, so I sometimes feel it's just a question of choosing the perspective with which one agrees...or which one finds most thought-provoking. There's no reason we SHOULDN'T have our own opinions or outlooks on history; my frustration with Williams was just that I largely disagree with his.

    But on the other hand, does our inability to achieve ABSOLUTE objectivity mean that we shouldn't try for some imperfect version? I'm reading Simone de Beauvoir's memoir right now and she talks about how, when she was a kid, it seemed pointless to (for example) practice the piano, because she knew she would never be able to release the Platonic essence of the piece, its most perfect (and therefore true) performance. I certainly wouldn't want to limit "writing about history" to "striving for the Platonic essence of objectivity," but at the same time I don't want to say that all attempts at balanced, fact-based reporting are useless or doomed. That said, my least-favorite type of history is the kind that pretends to be objective, or actually believes itself to be objective, while being obviously intensely biased—that wasn't Williams, to his credit. He makes it pretty clear that these are HIS opinions, through those dialog chapters and elsewhere. Hmm, food for thought.

    Anyway, it was good to have you reading along this month!

  2. Emily - I think you have actually made my point for me here. Yes, we admire the biased histories of those we already agree with. I, too, gravitate towards Zinn's views, but it can't be denied that they both saw their lens as THE lens. I was just arguing that to get at some semblance of truth, we must be willing to sacrifice the historian to get to the history. I agree with your point that all history has a bias, and I particularly agree with your point that the ones that claim to be objective are the more dangerous versions. Perhaps it's also true that Zinn was more open about his bias; Williams seems so self-righteous. He acknowledges his opinion; he just doesn't acknowledge the possibility of truth in any other opinion.

    As a writer and a teacher of writing (and piano, incidentally), I must argue against the insistence upon the Platonic essence. So much of what we accomplish is found in the process rather than the product. To remove yourself from the process is to miss the whole point.