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In the American Grain

A book by William Carlos Williams

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Williams the Poet Mounts an Expedition to Uncover the Genius of America

  • Jun 22, 2010
Although he is best known for his sparse, vivid poetry, William Carlos Williams devoted much of his considerable intellectual toil to writing prose. He was especially concerned with defining a new, distinctively American, poetic practice. To this end, he studied American history and literature in great depth, attempting to trace his own sensibilities through the turbid history of our continent. In his short introductory note, William Carlos Williams characterizes this work, In the American Grain, as an effort to “draw from every source one thing, the strange phosphorous of the life, nameless under an old misappellation.”

Hard to characterize, as almost all of Williams’ work is, In the American Grain is saturated with intensity, experimentation, and explosive prose. If anything, it is a (very) selective history of William Carlos Williams’ values and sensibilities, traced back through the historical personages and documents of the American continent—the New World. In roughly chronological fashion, Williams devotes chapters to such sundry characters—both well known and obscure--as Eric the Red, Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, De Soto, Pere Sebastian Rasles, Cotton Mather, Daniel Boone, Ben Franklin, and Edgar Allen Poe. Throughout, he draws attention to a developing American culture in each of these individuals. His quarry is elusive—and, he intersperses lengthy conversations between himself and a French interlocutor about the validity of his historical conclusions. As such, the book has a distinctively self-conscious tone, a surprising turn toward meta-narration in a work from the 1930s.

The prose is extremely lively and rich. William’s chapter on Tenochtitlan is a masterpiece of verbal mass and rhythm--he recreates the splendor of the Aztec city in paragraphs that are intricate and bulky, like carved stone blocks. A warning: this is not a conventional historical narrative. If you are not familiar with the historical personages Williams treats, you should research them on your own before you read Williams’ accounts. It is not his intent to provide a straightforward historical portraits of his subjects, but instead to discern their participation in a uniquely American way of being. Necessarily, Williams is at turns oblique and vague.

This is a difficult read, but supremely rewarding in its unique vision of the violent birth of a puissant American culture.


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June 22, 2010
I enjoyed this book immensely when I read it for college first year English (as an undergrad). It's been 10 years since my last reading, so this is a piece I will need to revisit in the near future.
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Quick Tip by . June 30, 2010
such a good author
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Tom ()
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Posted from Wikipedia - 06/22/10

William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine, having graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Williams "worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician"; but during his long lifetime, Williams excelled at both.

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Author: William Carlos Williams
Genre: American HIsotry
Publisher: New Directions
Date Published: 1933
ISBN: 0-8112-0230-5
Format: Paperback
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