In the American Grain


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.


In the American Grain was our August pick for the Non-Structured Book Group; join us in September for Tómas Eloy Martinez's Santa Evita.


  • Very thoughtful analysis Emily! As I may or may not have said in my post (since I was rather preoccupied by my cheerios-and-milk analogy), I loathed that, as you write, "there is no clear marker to let the reader know when Williams is quoting verbatim and when he is mimicking a historical voice." I suppose the rational response to take it *all* as imaginative re-creation, but I also loathe imaginative re-creation; one's own prejudices and the tints of one's conceptual lenses then taint the image of the real person in popular memory. (, of course, does "history," but I think the dangers are less) So Williams superimposes the prejudices of himself and his time onto the lives and more importantly, words, of others, and that is anathema to me. Then again, I have to say, I don't actually know what he said or didn't say - more than anathema, it was just as often too obstruse for me to see what he was trying to say. Thus I appreciate your analysis all the more for adding some lucidity to the equation.

  • What a fascinating "read" of this book. I am still languishing somewhere past the halfway point although I am trying to get finished tonight. I started with so much vigor and was really enjoying this one - even the difficulties of the prose. But, as the chapters are beginning to stack up, I'm growing more dissatisfied. For sure, though, I hadn't gotten underneath this book's skin enough to see what you have so lucidly exposed here, so thanks. I will try to finish without your thoughtful analysis shading my reading, but I really can't guarantee I'll be successful.

  • Gertrude Stein would eat WCW alive and crunch his bones.

    I had some similar puzzlements. I would note that WCW's Puritans are also ahistorically homogeneous. I think this is why he has to go out of his way to undermine and dismiss Hawthorne, in the Maypole and Poe chapters.

    It's why he can barely acknowledge Whitman at all. Whitman's very existence destroys part of the "we're all infected with the Puritan's fear of touching" idea. Williams knows "I Sing the Body Electric" better than I do!

    I'd forgotten that "cattle of the spirit" line, a total dud. Bad prose, bad poetry, bad ideas. (In that one line! Like you, I liked parts of the book quite a bit).

  • Cattle? Seriously? When I read the first part of your post I thought, wow this sounds good I'm totally going to read it. But then the second part has changed my mind. I think the book would cause my blood pressure to go up too much. Too bad too because I do like so many of WCW's poems.

  • Jill: That's so interesting that you find the danger of biases greater in creative re-tellings than in straight history. I tend to work from the opposite assumption: that a piece acknowledging its own "creative take" on history is LESS dangerous than a historian who presents his biases as objective truth. I can see both arguments, though. At least in the case of straight history (modern straight history, anyway), there is an attempt to hold the historian accountable with footnotes, citations, etc. Anyway, it sounds like our averse reactions were to opposite parts of this book - always a fascinating thing!

    Sara: Oh no, I hope I didn't ruin it for you. I liked that you brought up the jarring nature of the Rasles chapter, since that was the one during which some of my issues with Williams really gelled. Still, glad you found the reading valuable; I did, too.

  • Amateur Reader: Ha, I'm afraid Gertrude Stein would crunch my bones, too. :-) Yeah, I agree about WCW's weirdly homogeneous depictions of Puritans. And also (with maybe the exception of the Aaron Burr chapter?), he didn't seem exactly to acknowledge the Englightenment, which surprised me. I mean, the 18th century was a pretty boisterous, ribald time, but it was the thrift and circumspection (he might say repression) in Franklin and Washington on which Williams chose to focus. Franklin's more worldly side was a particularly awkward omission, I thought - almost as awkward as, like you point out, the lack of Whitman.

    Stefanie: Yeah, I feel you on the blood pressure thing. :-P I like a lot of Williams's poetry, too, and did enjoy the language in this book. I'm interested to read his book-length poem on Paterson, New Jersey at some point.

  • I had many of the same issues that you did with this, and at the same time liked some parts of it quite a lot. That cattle line was one of the parts that I was thinking of when I mentioned in my post that my jaw dropped...! Horrible. :)

  • Very interesting. I am intrigued by stylistic experimentation, so I'm curious what I would think of it. And I'd have a hard time with the narrow focus and the ethnocentricism as well. I had to read his poem Paterson in grad school, and he incorporated other materials into that work and also arguably had some troubling gender things going on there, so it sounds similar. Still, I liked the poem.

  • Enjoyed your precise observations here but think we diverge when it comes to point of view in the work, and the degree of WCW's actual presence. I agree with all of the disagreeable elements you identify but found them to be deliberately so. The voice is not so much his own but an amalgam of voices from the primary sources with poetic interpretation, a revelation of ugliness in the American past, his poetry a tacit acceptance of heritage with all its warts. I just loved reading it and found the language very powerful and dramatic.

  • Sarah: Yes. Though I liked the point you made in your post about "history" being an ongoing conversation - we needn't read Williams's as an attempt at some kind of definitive version.

    Dorothy: I am also very curious what you would think of it. As Frances's comment points out, I think one's perception of the racial & gender issues hinges on whether one feels those biases coming from Williams himself, or from the characters he's inhabiting...if you ever get around to it, I'd be fascinated to hear your thoughts!

    Frances: That occurred to me as well (placing the problematic attitudes in the book on the shoulders of the characters inhabited, rather than the author). Sometimes I was convinced that was the case, like in the "Advent of the Slaves" chapter. Other times, like in the Rasles chapter, I just couldn't quite go there with Williams, especially since he was casting himself as the speaking character. But it's obviously very subjective! Glad you loved it and also very glad you suggested reading it, especially for the luscious language. :-)

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography