William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey.
by Reed Whittemore.
Houghton Mifflin. 404 pp. $10.95.
The story of American literary modernism, as told until a few years ago, was doubly rare among intellectual histories: it was colorful and simple. At its center was the search for an American self, taking paradoxical form in expatriation, wandering, and exile. In part, the drifters and exiles of the 20’s were glamorous to their readers because they were glamorous to themselves—a statement true for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of course, but no less true for Pound, Eliot, or Gertrude Stein, who relished in their different ways the Jamesian drama of the decision not to go home. There were modernists, meanwhile, who never left home in the first place, like William Carlos Williams, whose one adult stint abroad, in 1924, was mainly as a tourist with a better-than-average list of people to look up. But while the image of the modernist as the “lost” or disaffected é migré predominated, the work of such homebodies as Williams and Wallace Stevens remained on the fringes of the modernist canon.
On either side of his six months abroad, home for Williams was Rutherford, New Jersey, where he was born in 1883. He grew up in a middle-class household dominated by his grandmother, a fierce old English widow whom the poet would cast, later, in the role of muse. His parents passed on to him some random literary and cultural enthusiasms, and were prosperous enough to provide an education, first in Switzerland, then at New York’s Horace Mann School, and then, beginning in 1901, at the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn began the lifelong friendship with Ezra Pound, an undergraduate from Idaho. At Penn, too, Williams undertook what he would sustain for most of his life, the simultaneous careers of poetry and medicine.
The earliest Williams poems were undistinguished; he later recalled one of them as “an ode—after Keats, I presume—on of all things the skunk cabbage.” It was not until World War I that his poetry first revealed its immense promise, which subsisted mainly in the poet’s willingness to bring his sensibility to bear, with revolutionary directness, on the commonplace and the ugly. If what resulted was not a Keatsian ode on the skunk cabbage, it was yet a new, American poetry of what was hardly more pleasant: the industrial suburbs of New Jersey that surrounded the Passaic River. “Ugliness,” writes Reed Whittemore in his new biography of the poet, was for Williams “a regular font for the poetic.” It “possessed him, drove him to his typewriter.” In ugliness, according to Whittemore’s fine reading of an early poem, “The Wanderer” (1914), Williams’s grandmother-muse assured him of finding not only the “real” and the “modern,” but also and especially the “beautiful,” in search of which Pound had by that time wandered from Philadelphia to the Grand Canal.
Prominent in Whittemore’s biography is the image of Dr. Williams in his attic at 9 Ridge Road, stealing time from his family and medical practice to turn out poems, plays, and prose uninterruptedly during the 20’s and 30’s. Though he had a following from the beginning—largely because of his association with “little magazines,” then as now the lifeblood of American poetry—it was not until the publication of the first books of his long poem “Paterson,” in the late 40’s, that a wider public recognition of Williams began. By 1953 he had won the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. Williams’s last book of poems, Pictures from Breughel, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, the year of his death. But even then, as the poet was bitterly aware, his work had not attracted sustained attention from the academic and professional critics.
In the last few years, the poetry, at least, has come increasingly to be acknowledged for what it surely is: among the work of American poets in this century, singularly powerful and alive. Behind this judgment stands a revaluation of the myth of a rootless modernism. As critics so diverse as Richard Ellmann, Hugh Kenner, and Harold Bloom endeavor to establish the importance to modernism of homeland, tradition, and “influence,” it is no wonder that not only Williams’s art, but also his life, with its complex but unequivocal commitment to what Whittemore calls the “normalcies”—paying the bills, serving on committees—has come to seem significant and brave.
In its attitude toward Williams’s modernism, Whittemore’s William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey partakes in its own way of the current revisionary impulse. The chapter he calls “Moment of the Twenties” is a good example. Williams spent most of that decade in his attic, producing, among other things, the book of historical-biographical sketches called In the American Grain. It is an extraordinarily difficult text, with an odd mixture of inwardness and historical narrative, and neither the conditions of its writing nor the nature of its project seem typical of its particular literary “moment.” But Whittemore’s acute reading shows not only the close relation between Williams’s personal tensions and fears and the “anti-puritan obsession” of the text, but also the extent to which, as a consequence of that relation, the book is indeed a “20’s” artifact: anti-puritanism is after all the animating impulse of, say, Tender Is the Night, though Williams’s treatment is both more heated and more thoughtful than the novel’s—closer, as Whittemore chooses to say, to Lawrence than to Fitzgerald.
It is not, precisely, a critical biography that Whittemore has written. Few individual works are studied in detail. Rather, the strength of this biography lies in its illuminating account of Williams in relation to the literary movements with which he had more or less to do at various points in his development, beginning with Imagism and Cubism in the early 1900’s, through Objectivism and Social Realism, to the Black Mountain and San Francisco schools of the 50’s. Whittemore is at his most skillful in demonstrating the poet’s participation in, and detachment from, the long parade of such “isms.” The drama of any writer’s career is the emergence of his individual voice from the competition of attachments, tastes, models. In Williams’s case it is the drama of his near-approach to poetic ideologies, his unfailing openness to their value, and his ultimate reassertion, after each encounter, of a unique poetic identity.
If ever Williams was in danger of being swallowed up along the way, it was not by a literary theory, but rather by those very “normalcies” he made a point of cultivating. Undeniably it was hard to live in the Passaic ugliness, and work among its diseases, while keeping a full set of artistic sensibilities finely tuned. But probably it was harder still to live the life of a middle-class professional, the life to which Williams was well-suited in many ways, without losing, in the dullness of comfort, the sharp edge of personality—the sharpness that was both dangerous and essential to his achievement as a poet. For all Williams’s talk about “variable feet,” for all his claims for the primacy of technical perfection—which Whittemore quite properly scants—Williams’s poems matter less for any sophistications of form than for their willingness to court disruption by the intrusion of shapeless, shape-destroying reality. They hold themselves permanently in a condition of risk. What seems ultimately admirable about Williams the modernist was not that he remained at home, which may after all have been the easy thing for him to do, but that he remained, as the poems testify, in so unaccommodating a frame of mind; that, though he never revolted, neither was he lulled to sleep.
Whittemore’s book is interesting and valuable; the main objections are to its style. Its plainspokenness, for example, reflecting Williams’s own famous anti-academicism, is laudable in itself, but occasionally results in oversimplification and pointless flippancy. As for the facts of Williams’s life, they have nowhere else been so completely gathered and arranged. Whittemore clears up for the first time the story of how Williams’s appointment as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress was delayed and finally made impossible by the political climate of 1952. On the whole, however, there is a curious sparseness of anecdote, and Whittemore does seem at times to be writing with an air of secrecy, as though entrusted with confidences he cannot betray. He has apparently had access to a great deal of material not available before now, but seems to feel that the moment for complete openness about Williams’s personal life has not yet come. Until it does, the present biography is certainly the most intelligent and thorough account we have of the poet’s life.