In the American Grain
William Carlos Williams
New Directions, 2009: $13.95
Reviewed by Cooper Renner

Ulysses and The Waste Land, those two pillars of English language Modernism, appeared almost in tandem in 1922, both concerned with, among other things, manipulation of voice and myth. Only three years later William Carlos Williams published this book of essays likewise concerned with voice but rather more with history than myth, though myth lurks always nearby in any examination of national origins. As one might expect from Williams' poetry, which often stands contrary to the literary Modernism of his peers, In the American Grain is a contrarian look at early American history, a "warts and all" approach which must have seemed especially contentious in its time, when the United States was new to the circle of world powers and the '20s were roaring happily along.
Rick Moody, in his introduction to this new edition, quotes Williams' autobiography on the poet's intention of "examining [the] original records" of some of the explorers and founders: "I wanted nothing to get between me and what they themselves had recorded [. . .]" Thus, as Moody points out, the book is "a mix, sometimes a collage, of registers: of imagination, point of view, voice." This procedure makes for an uneven book, almost like an anthology, as Williams bores into the heads of such figures as Eric the Red, Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh. Readers may find themselves preferring some essays to others, simply because of the voice or style Williams has adopted for the subject at hand. Some of his most sympathetic treatments are for the French explorers -- Champlain, Pere Rasles -- whom he finds more open to the New World before them and less pinched and hemmed in by the Puritanism which transplanted so readily to the Colonies and has had such a deleterious effect on American culture. One of the remarkable things about this book is the way in which Williams' often caustic commentary on the America of his day speaks so directly as well to the America of a century or three earlier (and perhaps to 2009 too). Note, for example, these sentences from the chapter on the voyage of the Mayflower, his judgment on the United States:

It has become "the most lawless country in the civilized world," a panorama of murders, perversions, a terrific ungoverned strength, excusable only because of the horrid beauty of its great machines. Today it is a generation of gross know-nothingism, of blackened churches where hymns groan like chants from stupefied jungles, a generation universally eager to barter prominent values (the hope of an aristocracy) in return for opportunist material advantages, a generation hating those whom it obeys.

I am not a great student of American history, and many of my images of our past are those formed by a public school education in the '60s, when it was still conventional to praise greatness and ignore moral failure. Like many boys, I was entranced by Daniel Boone (and the much younger Davy Crockett and Sam Houston), and I found it quite interesting to read Williams' wholehearted endorsement of Boone's life and character, an Americanness Williams sees as neither an attempt to assimilate to the Indians (remember that in 1925 terms such as Indian and colored had not assumed their negative connotations) nor an adaptation of European modes to the New World. I was likewise particularly taken with his chapter on the Salem witch trials -- both subject matter and voice appealed to me -- and his dialogue on Aaron Burr, whom most of us, I suspect, know only as one of the great scoundrels and/or traitors of early American nationhood. Williams finds something entirely other at work in Burr, and whether you accept his argument or not, the "argument" of his two speakers is fascinating not simply for the minority view of Burr it presents, but also for what it posits about American values. Though Williams closes with a brief meditation on Lincoln, his final lengthy chapter examines the life and achievement of Poe, the writer whom Williams believes the first to break free of European apery.
Readers will certainly disagree with some of Williams' positions and may be genuinely puzzled as to how to interpret his short chapter on the "Advent of the Slaves" which gives heartfelt praise to African-Americans (though the terms he uses are negroes and niggers) while still seeming to accept somewhat stereotypical (though not condemnatory) views. (Likewise it seems curious that, in the lengthy quote above, "blackened churches" and "stupefied jungles" are linked.) A rather different case is his often laudatory examination of George Washington which concludes, nevertheless, with "He is the typical sacrifice to the mob -- in a great many ways thoroughly disappointing."
In the American Grain is not a single continuous narrative history, but rather a collection of exploratory and polemical essays. Readers are assumed to know already the main outlines of the American story and are free to agree or disagree with Williams' views. Fans of Williams' poetry are certainly encouraged to dip into this volume -- even if they do not read every essay -- for a wider appreciation of the poet's thought, and I can easily imagine more freewheeling American history professors assigning the book as a text for graduate students and upper-classmen, as a stimulant to discussion if nothing else.