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In the American Grain (New Directions Paperback No. 53)
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In the American Grain (New Directions Paperback No. 53)

3.94  ·  Rating Details ·  647 Ratings  ·  43 Reviews
Prose essays ranging in theme from Erik the Red and Christopher Columbus to Abraham Lincoln about what it means to be an American.

William Carlos Williams was not a historian, but he was fascinated by the texture of American history. He found in the fabric of familiar episodes new shades of meaning, new configurations of character and intent. He brought a poetic imagination
Paperback, New Directions edition, 234 pages
Published January 17th 1956 by New Directions (first published 1925)
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Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
A short note for those who may have an interest ::

William Carlos Williams’ 1925 essay collection ought to be read as supplementary by those reading William T Vollmann’s Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes. It is a compact attempt to survey an american spirit by way of its history. And more than the mere sweep collected in this slim volume, and Williams’ concern with the what and wherefore of what being american is all about, are his stylistic choices, mimicking the subject in its o
Feb 15, 2017 Jonathan rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-nonfic
"We are, too, the others. Think of them! The main islands were thickly populated with a peaceful folk when Christ-over found them. But the orgy of blood which followed, no man had written. We are the slaughterers. It is the tortured soul of our world. Indians have no souls; that was it. That was what they said. But they knew they lied—the blood-smell proof."

Those who struggle with the separation of "author" from "text", or, more specifically, the distance between the "ideas" and "views" of an
Aug 31, 2010 Emily added it
Shelves: read-in-2010
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 quotat ...more
A curious book. Very much of its time (1925), a time of the first great vogue for speculating on the savage subconscious of the nation--witness D.H. Lawrence's 'Studies in Classic American Literature,' and the Melville revival. (It is amusing when Williams dismisses the Augustan elegancies of an 18th century account of Daniel Boone as 'silly language'--his own quasi-Nietzschean vitalist rhapsodies are now just as dated as those pompous periods of Johnsonese.) Williams meditates on what are to hi ...more
Oct 09, 2016 Miriam rated it liked it
Didn't speak to me. I had a hard time catching the rhythm of the language; I didn't always know what he meant, no matter how many times I reread sections.

He lets the Spanish explorers off easy--Columbus, De Soto, Ponce de Leon, even Cortez are all men who came to the New World drawn by their visions, their ambitions, their desires, and they got swallowed and defeated by the New World, in one way or another. The Puritans, however, get his full wrath. Maybe he respects the Spaniards more, for at l
Nov 13, 2012 Erica rated it really liked it
I probably missed the point of a lot of this, which Williams assures me is part of what it means to be an american, but other passages stopped me cold, ~90 years after its first publication and in the midst of the current political cluster****: "A most confusing thing in American history, as we read it, is the nearly universal lack of scale," and, "morals affect the food, and the food the bone..."
There is a lot here that struck me as sort of a preface for later American writing, arguing (or ple
Sep 05, 2016 Richard rated it it was amazing
"Rather the ice than their way." This defiant declaration by Erik the Red when confronted with the choice of exile or converting to Christianity caught my attention immediately when I picked up this book fifteen years ago. I finished the first piece, put the book down, and didn't wind up reading the rest of the book until recently. I'm glad I came back to it. It's a collection of poetic essays on certain figures in American history, a meditation on the concept of "history" itself, and an explica ...more
Apr 02, 2008 Joe rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, criticism
Williams writing bravely and all that--unafraid to make radical statements on the character of America: "And this wealth, all that is not pure accident, is the growth of fear." And, of course, too impatient to explain the logical props on which his arguments stand, which is fine, since its style which is almost always half his point. That America, what it is, is the product of explorers being sold out by the European establishment, of men seeking a way outside of society to the soil, of men seek ...more
Dec 29, 2011 Matthew rated it really liked it
Using the same premise as Borges in his A Universal History of Iniquity, Williams here attempts to shed new light on history by writing short, fiction-esque accounts of historical topics which have fallen into cliché. The introduction states his intent in his trademark earthy, jumbled diction: "I have tried to separate out from the original records some flavor of an actual peculiarity the character denoting shape which the unique force has given... It has been my wish to draw... the strange phos ...more
Feb 17, 2009 Michael rated it really liked it
What it lacks as a book, it makes up in other ways. Through a series of historical sketches, Williams tries to suss out what it means to be, first a person, then a writer in America. It is to his very great credit that when he can't exactly answer the question, he doesn't guess or cheat... he feels towards an answer, goes as far as the language will take him, leaving us with a sort of impressionist historical criticism that will mean different things to different people and at different stages o ...more
GK Stritch
Aug 20, 2015 GK Stritch rated it it was ok
No more had Columbus landed, the flower once ravished, than it seemed as if heaven itself had turned upon this man for disturbing its repose. (p. 7)

I like knowing WCW's thoughts on Columbus and George Washington. I like knowing that he spent considerable time contemplating the history of this country. Being that his mother grew up in Puerto Rico, Columbus's time in Española must have captivated the young Carlito of Rutherford. When he writes of his hero Washington, he notes Morristown, Princeton
Feb 05, 2012 Carl rated it liked it
I'll confess that the book didn't capture me as much as I had hoped. Too much jumbled stream of consciousness about American history for me, and maybe the biggest fans of the book are ones with deep revisionist opinions about American history. He uses historical events as a launch pad for his own often obscure references, some of which are astute, and others which leave you scratching your head and wondering when the improvised lick was intended to return to the main tune. I appreciate the thrus ...more
Dec 26, 2007 David rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone who wonders what it means to be "American"
This is a difficult to read and powerful book. It addresses the question of what it means to "be" American or to "be" native. Think of it this way: from the time that the Americas were discovered by Europeans to present, our existence on this side of the ocean has been one of transplantation, not adaptation. What does it mean to be an American? What is the American spirit, the American Dream? WCW pulls no punches here and you get a blunt and critical assessment of American history from before co ...more
Jeff Buddle
Apr 17, 2014 Jeff Buddle rated it really liked it
He do America in different voices. Here we have WCW's examination of the American character from Erik the Red to Abraham Lincoln, Williams channels many voices to tell their stories. Each piece written in a style appropriate to the subject matter. Some of these are almost rolicking adventures, others are discursive mediations, and at least one reads like literary criticism. WCW is in fine modernist mettle here, requiring careful and slow reading if you want to unpack all that's on the page. He's ...more
Ed Smith
Nov 19, 2009 Ed Smith rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: poet & prose writes
I almost gave it 5 stars but you get the idea. We have here an American History lesson book about 200 pages from an American/New Jersey doctor.
A must read for poets and prose
writers alike. A classic in every word. The NY Times called it one of
200 most influencal books of ALL TIME.
His essays begin
From Lief Erickson to
Abraham Lincoln, these scetches are American, we are American, etc.
even though we(our ancestors) immigranted from old Europe 1600-1920.
Williams wrote most it in the NY Public Li
Feb 24, 2016 Jim rated it really liked it
American history as seen through the eyes of a major American poet. A patchwork of episodes, beginning with Red Eric, the discovery of the Indies, the destruction of Tenochtitlan, Ponce de Leon, the voyage of the Mayflower, Cotton Mather and the Salem witch trials, Daniel Boone and the discovery of Kentucky, Poor Richard, Aaron Burr, Poe, and Lincoln.

Even though the episodes are presented in chronological order, Williams doesn’t provide any historical context that would frame each episode for t
Aug 07, 2014 Graham rated it it was ok
Couple good turns of phrase, but the whole project seemed weighted down with overly ornate language and Williams' tendency to valorize whoever it was he happened to be writing about. Some sources have commented on the extent to which he was critical of colonialism within this text, but this attitude tends to be rare (if a reader can find it at all). But politics aside, there's little surprise Williams didn't get the renown of so many other Modernists. All the elements are in place, but the refer ...more
Margaret1358 Joyce
Aug 02, 2013 Margaret1358 Joyce rated it liked it
The syntax and meaning-making in this 'classic' 1925 collection of American essays by the early 20th C poet Wm Carlos Wms was very difficult, so I did not make it all the way through. It presupposed a huge familiarity with early American history, grammar and thought forms.It conveyed the writer's ambivalence about savagery as an imperative in the business of territorial dominance. Hard to comprehend how the author, a poet, and, incidentally, a physician,could have sustained such polarizing emoti ...more
José-antonio Orosco
A unique take on the American character. Takes an expansive view of "America"--including a discussion of the Spanish conquest of America, which reminds me of Octavio Paz's argument that North and Latin America are separated by different religious worldviews (Catholic and Protestant). Williams is at his best in criticizing the Puritan origin of the United States and how it has contributed to a culture of fear (best expressed through the utiliatrianism of Benjamin Franklin)
May 29, 2008 Rachel rated it liked it
I read this before I read Williams' "Paterson." I appreciated "In the American Grain" because it is Williams seeking to establish his American voice through the revision of American history. It rewrites the stories of (as Williams might like to declare) America's unsung - or not-quite-as-sung - American heroes, including Daniel Boone and Edgar Allen Poe. It's tedious, but it also reflects Williams' progression toward his later prose and poetry in "Paterson."
Dec 03, 2009 Michael rated it really liked it
Shelves: wcwilliams
"History must stay open, it is all humanity. Are lives to be twisted forcibly about events, the mere accidents of geography and climate?
It is an obscenity which few escape -- save at the hands of the stylist, literature, in which alone humanity is protected against tyrannous designs."

fulfills this project quite nobly, I'd say.
Nov 18, 2011 John rated it it was amazing
took me a while because i was savoring the hell out of it. not exactly essays, not exactly fiction, sort of like prose poems, sort of not, but each piece written in a style appropriate to the subject, a pivotal character in the early history of america, from eric the red to cortez to aaron burr to poe to lincoln. in sum an un-categorizable prism on the main character of america.
Nov 15, 2009 Kiyomi is currently reading it
This is probably one of the most thought provoking books I've ever read. William Carlos Williams writes about the Colonization of the New World with incredibly lyrical prose that always contain layer upon layer of meaning. This book has truly changed the way I think about the world and is a must read.
Kevin Tudish
Nov 02, 2013 Kevin Tudish rated it it was amazing
I read this years ago, but it remains one of my favorites. His take on the malignancy of the Puritan ethic is especially relevant in today's political climate, and illuminates its pernicious effect on the evolution of American culture.
Dec 02, 2008 Elie rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
Some parts of Williams' political analysis are spot on and breathtakingly phrased. Others, like his misogyny or his account of a naval battle over what seemed like 40 pages, not so much. Still worth reading.
Dec 23, 2007 Andrew rated it really liked it
Mostly brilliant series of essays on the formation of American culture. Published in 1925 and infused with Modernist flair. Some parts are dull, but there is something intriguing if not ingenious about reading a fictionalized journal of Sir Walter Raleigh that feels like The Waste Land.
Sep 09, 2008 Andrew rated it really liked it
Those who love Williams as a poet should read his fascinating takes on received history. Great, great stuff.
Joe B.
Aug 15, 2013 Joe B. rated it it was amazing
Hot damn.
Sep 03, 2013 pozharvgolovu rated it really liked it
Liked the language. Liked also the accent it puts in history, what is history if not language, anecdotes, phrases and ideas that allow people yo relate to each other? WCW is one of my fav authors.
Camilla Sofia
Oct 26, 2014 Camilla Sofia rated it it was amazing
A brilliant re-imaginging of the American life and the threads of myth that tie it to antiquity.
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William Carlos Williams was an American poet closely associated with modernism and Imagism. He was also a pediatrician and general practitioner of medicine. Williams "worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician," wrote biographer Linda Wagner-Martin. During his long lifetime, Williams excelled both as a poet and a physician.

Although his primary occupation was as a doctor, Will
More about William Carlos Williams...

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“And this moral? As with the deformed Aesop, morals are the memory of success that no longer succeeds.” 3 likes
“…those who belong properly to books, and to whom books, perhaps, do not quite so properly belong.” 2 likes
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