In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams. (New Directions) $13.95
This collection of essays is an experiment to tell the story of American history through poetic prose impressions rather than facts and dates. There is no pretense to non-fiction, though Williams and his wife Flossie conducted voluminous research for this work. Each stylized essay, from “Red Eric” to “Abraham Lincoln,” is an attempt to distill the story into a drop of the life force driving the event.
There is no plain speech in this book, instead there is a cacophony of voices and styles. It sometimes feels more like looking at a painting than reading an essay. “Red Eric” is constructed of quick, sharp sentences, the stark style creating an impressionistic view of the harsh environs and personalities who make up the story. So stark in fact that the essay covers the lives of four generations in less than six pages. “The Destruction of Tenochtitlan” contains lists and lists of riches and foods, all of the things that so impressed Cortez. The language is lush, heavy with resources and religion. You see and feel the abundance before you read about it.
Because the modernist imagism is so overwhelming, the entire collection leans toward abstraction, and at times can be tedious to read. The visual imagery and the way things sound coming off the tongue very often feels gratuitous to the point of hindering the tale rather than working as an aid in the telling. As a reader I find myself wondering where I fit in.
With “Voyage of the Mayflower” the Puritans make their entrance, and they rear their ugly, covered heads very often after that. Williams seems somewhat obsessed with Puritan oppression and what he deems to be the resulting repression of touch in America. This lack of touch is mentioned in several pieces but he goes into far more detail about it in “Jacataqua”:
What is the result? The result is the thing that results, of course.
After navigating through 180 pages, patiently reflecting on these somewhat puzzling and chaotic essays, I want to know the result. I understand the overt sarcasm in “The Founding of Quebec” as a device to further illustrate the pompous foolishness of Champlain and his single-minded mission to create a colony for France without taking the land or native people into consideration. It was annoying, but at least I saw the reason for it. In “Jacataqua” most of America is abused, including his readers, and most especially women. After the above question and its smart-ass answer, he goes on:
Anyhow, it’s curious to pick up results, you’ll find tail ends of New England families—all burnt out; charming people; an old man marries a girl; male sons aplenty who sew and wash and make pies; embroider, select their mother’s hats and dress fabrics—and paint pictures: long skinny men with emotional wits who have smelt losses. A bastard aristocracy. Men who, when their friends disappoint them, grow nervous and cry all night. It is because there are no women. These men are more out of place in pushing young America than a Chinaman—or a Tibetan.
Williams proceeds with a fairly long diatribe on the uselessness of American women due to the repression imposed on them by the Puritans. The result of that inheritance: women and violence, the violence that women bring upon themselves by withholding from men what they need in order to properly run the world. Williams quotes Dr. Gaskins: “The ideal woman should end at the eyebrows and have the rest filled in with hair.” While he does admit that it is a cynical sentiment, he believes it is the practical answer to the immediate American need. In essence, women would be far more useful if they took a more pragmatic view of opening their legs for men and then allowing the men to go on their way.
In the American Grain loses it’s value when Williams veers from his original goal. If he had continued the essays as they began, as literary sketches that capture the spirit of American events and persons, I think it would be an important book. It feels very much as if he lost sight of that and got caught up in his own passions rather than the passions of the characters he was attempting to portray.
The question as to why this book was not well accepted when it was first published in 1925 seems easily answered to me. The real question is why it has had such a long run.
Joanne Baines is the founder of and event coordinator for the PondWater Society, a poetry salon based in the San Gabriel Valley. She is also largely responsible for the mostly irresponsible entries on HedonistReview.com.