Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Investigating Americanness

William Carlos Williams

Many of the most prominent American modernist writers—T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and Ezra Pound—chose self-exile, creating salons and movements far from home in the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe.  But some chose to stay in the United States, and among them William Carlos Williams stands out as a major modernist who made the idea of "America" a central part of his aesthetic project.  Though Williams found great inspiration in the disruptive poetic and artistic energy coming from Europe, he believed deeply in articulating a uniquely American avant-garde.

A practicing physician in New Jersey, Williams's experiences as a small-town doctor provided a lifetime familiarity with racially diverse, immigrant, working- and middle-class patients. Drawing on the rhythms and expressive language of these Americans, Williams sought to craft a new poetic language. 

Williams was already writing in high school, but it was at the University of Pennsylvania that he began to truly thrive as a poet.  There, he became friends with fellow students Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle; his intense and rocky friendship with Pound was to last through their lifetimes.  Pound helped Williams leave behind the careful, imitative verse he had learned to write in school.

As a mature poet Williams, like Pound, emphasized the importance of  "the new."  But where Pound sought innovation among European contemporaries and in revived poetic traditions, Williams sought it in the democratic ideal of America: a place of self-invention, rugged struggle, and most importantly, the clean slate of a fresh, young language freed from Europe's aging social hierarchies.

A year after Eliot published The Waste Land, Williams published his own long poem, Spring and All.  Both works are discontinuous, difficult, virtuoso performances.  But where Eliot immersed the reader in tradition and history, Williams stripped language down to a plain idiom, producing a work intended as distinctly "American."  Like Pound's desire to "make it new," Williams emphasized fresh starts with the language of rebirth, filling his poem with images of New Jersey farmlands awakening after winter.

But while spring is hopeful by nature, Williams always emphasizes that it is followed by another winter.  All moments of innovation are only moments.  All must ultimately fail, overcome by the power of convention and tradition.  It is the continual struggle for spring—for freedom—that matters, and that define for Williams the American consciousness.    

Photograph of Louis Zukofsky
Photograph of Louis Zukofsky

Portrait of Louis Zukofsky from 1926.

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