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In the American Grain by William Carlos…

In the American Grain (1925)

by William Carlos Williams

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William Carlos Williams's essay collection—or long prose poem—or piece of imaginative nonfiction—call it what you will, In the American Grain attempts to inhabit some of the great personalities of American history, in a bid to explore the underpinnings of the collective American psyche. Williams approaches his subjects, who range from Viking cast-out Eric the Red, through Columbus and Daniel Boone and finishing up with a brief sketch of Abraham Lincoln, from a variety of angles, including quotations from primary sources, real or imaginary debates between contemporary (1920s) speakers, fictionalized monologues in the style of the subject's time and place, and poetic dissertations on the ongoing demons of our New World society.

I know a common opinion is that the "point" of a "review" is to give an impression of whether one liked a book or not. So I'll be up front about this: I'm really not sure whether I hated In the American Grain, or whether I quite liked it. I spent most of the duration of the book arguing with Williams, either spluttering with pen in hand, or grudgingly admitting his points—sometimes even cheering him on. The time I wasn't spending thus, I was appreciating the stylistic breadth of the book, and by extension, of American history and literature. All in all, there could be worse ways to spend a reading interlude than locked in debate with an opponent like Williams.

First, the things that I wholeheartedly enjoyed about the book: as noted, Williams makes use of many primary sources throughout In the American Grain, and incorporates them in different ways: sometimes he quotes directly from them; at others, he refers to them in supposed conversation, in yet other cases, he adopts the "voice" of the ship's log, religious treatise, diary, or autobiography in question and uses it in his own monologue on a subject. In a move reminiscent of The Waste Land, there is no clear marker to let the reader know when Williams is quoting verbatim and when he is mimicking a historical voice, so I'm not sure where I should congratulate him on good collage-work, where on good composition, and to what extent the division between those two doesn't even matter. Whether Williams's role is primarily that of a composer or an editor, though, the end result is a chewy combination of prose styles that captures the changing texture of American letters through the centuries. Some of my favorite bits from this milieu, just to give a sense of the variety here:

The opening sentences of the book, in the voice of Eric the Red:

Better the ice than their way: to take what is mine by single strength, theirs by the crookedness of their law. But they have marked me—even to myself.

From the chapter on Sir Walter Raleigh:

O Muse, in that still pasture where you dwell amid the hardly noticed sounds of water falling and the little cries of crickets and small birds, sing of Virginia floating off: the broken chips of Raleigh: the Queen is dead.

O Virginia! who will gather you again as Raleigh had you gathered?

From Cotton Mather's monologue:

The New Englanders are a People of God settled in those, which were once the Devil's Territories; and it may easily be supposed that the Devil was exceedingly disturbed, when he perceived such a People here accomplishing the Promise of old made unto our Blessed Jesus, That He should have the Utmost parts of the earth for his Possession.

I am very drawn to stylistic experimentation, and I admire Williams's project here. He's trying to establish the history of American speech, American thought, as distinct from that of Europe. In one of the conversational sections, he claims that Americans don't realize

that there is a source in AMERICA for everything we think or do; that morals affect the food and food the bone, and that, in fine we have no conception at all of what is meant by moral, since we recognize no ground our own. [...] And that we have no defense, lacking intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records..."

By examining, even inhabiting those same books and records, Williams hopes to provide himself and his readers with a sense of the very historical ground they are already unknowingly occupying.

But the focus on books and records also creates a methodological problem for Williams, or at least exaggerate one to which he is already prone. Because who, in pre-Revolutionary America, LEFT books and records? Why, it was the the educated white men (and a few educated white women, with whom Williams does not concern himself). Williams's emphasis on primary sources means that he privileges those who operated in a mode of writing down their experiences—which means that, for example, as much as he attempts sympathy for the American Indian, his take on the Native presence in the New World is woefully ethnocentric and romanticized—in a way that's, ironically, very Rousseau-esque, very European. Similarly, his attitude toward women and the feminine is bizarrely male-centric, especially considering that he's happy enough to name-drop such contemporary American female artists as H.D., Bryher, and Gertrude Stein when he mentions his six-week trip to Paris. Normally I'm pretty good at considering an author's work in the context of his time, but for some reason, possibly because Williams's big goal here is to advance a particular view of American history, I was roused to ardent disagreement with him. It was passages like this, on Daniel Boone:

There must be a new wedding. But he saw and only he saw the prototype of it all, the native savage. To Boone the Indian was his greatest master. Not for himself surely to be an Indian, though they eagerly sought to adopt him into their tribes, but the reverse: to be himself in a new world, Indianlike. If the land were to be possessed it must be as the Indian possessed it. Boone saw the truth of the Red Man, not an aberrant type, treacherous and anti-white to be feared and exterminated, but as a natural expression of the place...

or this:

The land! don't you feel it? Doesn't it make you want to go out and lift dead Indians tenderly from their graves, to steal from them—as if it must be clinging even to their corpses—some authenticity...


So much about these passages rub me the wrong way. I know it's only fair to look at Williams in context; the 1920s was a pretty bleak time for Native American/white relations. Still a decade away from the relatively enlightened tenure of John Collier as head of the Office of Indian Affairs, the United States Government was busy convincing the American public that the Indians were morally corrupt heathens who should be deprived of their remaining land and have their liquid property "put into trust"—aka stolen. The counter-argument advanced by well-meaning liberals was that the Indians, once a mass of noble savages, were now on the verge of an inevitable extinction (Williams says that "almost nothing remains of the great American New World but a memory of the Indian"), and that, instead of killing off the remnants of them for sport like the frontiersmen were doing in the West, white folks should look to the romantic past for lessons to be learned from this bygone race of "natural," "primitive" people. (Yet if the Abenaki disappeared before 1922, why do they currently have a website?) Indians became the desirable "other" in the progressive imagination, everything white men were not: natural, authentic, in harmony with their surroundings, untouched by cultural repression. Because Williams hates the Puritans, because he hates their refusal to "touch," their fear of contamination, their sexual frigidity, their artifice, he imagines a homogeneous mass of Indian civilization to which none of these things apply. It is easier to imagine these things, of course, if one never has to come into contact with an actual Indian, who might, being human, have her own complex set of hangups and cultural standards.

And so Williams himself becomes an example of the Puritanical refusal to reach out and touch the "other." He romanticizes, most of all, white men who have been close to the Indians: the priest Rasles, who lived with the Abenaki, Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone; Texas governor Samuel Houston, who "descended" to live with the Chippewa until his "reascension" into white society. But no Indian subjectivity is on offer here, no Indian biography told. "They" are not "us"; they are not the story of America. Williams does not attempt to inhabit Metacom, Tecumseh, or even Moctezuma in the same way he inhabits Columbus or Franklin, just as he never attempts to voice a woman for longer than two sentences. He idolizes white male individuals who are able to live among the natives, who have opinions about them, who have sex with them, and thinks it the most noble thing imaginable when white individuals refrain from killing native ones. But he very seldom presents a native person as an individual: the only times he does (Moctezuma and Jacataqua) they're either submitting to white authority or freeing a white man from the sexual prudery of Puritanical white women. And let's not get started on the fact that his primary problem with the Puritanical repression of white women is that they're no longer able sexually to satisfy white men. Or actually, let's.

Women—givers (but they have been, as reservoirs, empty) perhaps they are being filled now. Hard to deal with in business, more conservative, closer to earth—the only earth. They are our cattle, cattle of the spirit—not yet come in. None yet has raised benevolence to distinction. Not one to "wield her beauty as a scepter." It is a brilliant opportunity.

Watch me run to cash in on this "brilliant opportunity" to be a "cow of the spirit."

I mean, I'm no fan of the Puritans' sexual mores and white supremacist doctrines, don't get me wrong. And Williams's sentimental belief in the noble savage is certainly preferable to the opinion that all Indians should be killed as soon as possible, or that decent women should be devoid of sexuality. But the way he uses the Indians and women (and later, "all the negroes [he] has known intimately") as a crow-bar between himself and the Puritan ideology is extremely problematic to me. The frustrating thing, and one reason I have a hard time forgiving him these faults, is that he seems smarter than that, too smart and too cosmopolitan to fall victim to these predictable traps. He knows Stein; he knows Joyce; he knows Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier and H.D. He occasionally dances so close to acknowledging the subjectivity of women and people of color, and yet he always steps back from the brink. In the "Jacataqua" section, for example, in the midst of passages like the one quoted above, he says this:

She is a low thing (they tell her), she is made to feel that she is vicious, evil—It really doesn't do anything save alter the color of her deed, make it unprofitable, it scrapes off the bloom of the gift—it is puritanical envy. When she gives, it will probably be to the butcher boy—since she has been an apt pupil and believes that she is evil, believes even that her pleasure is evil.

For just a moment there, we see a human being convinced of her own malignancy, worn down by a sexual double-standard. But Williams then quickly springs back to his main concern, lamenting the effects of American white female frigidity on white American men. And white EDUCATED men at that, given his contempt for the butcher boy, which is a little ironic considering how many more people got educated in early America than in England due to those pesky Puritans and their mandated free public schools. Basically, his attitude reads, "It makes me so ANGRY that white American women are so frigid and can't sexually satisfy white American men!! The poor white American men are going CRAZY for lack of sexual satisfaction! (And incidentally, I guess it sucks that white American women have been taught that they're dirty whores, but mostly) it's just tragic that lack of sexual generosity is keeping white American men from realizing their true potential!" The destructive effects of Puritanism on the human psyches of the women in question (terrorism), or on the native peoples (genocide) is never as important to Williams as the inconvenience to white American men.

I know it's unrealistic to apply modern political mores to works from the past, but other folks in the 1920s were doing so much better than this. Hell, for my money Longfellow did better than this all the way back in 1855 with the "Song of Hiawatha." And that's disappointing in a book that promises so much in its style and its premise.
2 vote emily_morine | Aug 31, 2010 |
A major poet's take on some major figures in American History. Self consciously literary, but providing a fresh perspective. On George Washington: "Here was a man of tremendous vitality buried in a massive frame and under a rather stolid and untractable exterior which the ladies somewhat feared, I fancy. He must have looked well to them, from a distance, or say on horseback--but later it proved a little too powerful for comfort. And he wanted them too; violently."
  DLPatterson | Jun 21, 2006 |
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