The Deceptive Ground of History: The Sources of William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain

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Author: Bryce Conrad
Editors: David M. Galens , Jennifer Smith , and Elizabeth Thomason
Date: 2002
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,508 words

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In the American Grain makes history not a matter of events, but a matter of language--or rather, of languages as itself an event. The underlying premise of Williams' book is that a history of America must be, in part, a history of language in America, a study of the tropes and verbal configurations which have historically defined the place. "Studies," in fact, is exactly what Williams terms In the American Grain in the epigraph to his book. Stating that he had not only read "letters," "journals," and "reports of happenings," but had "copied" portions of such "original records" directly into his text, Williams dedicates his work to the task of achieving a verbal archaeology, of excavating "the true character" of his historical sources from beneath "a chaos of borrowed titles." As he tells the French literary critic Valery Labaud in the discussion that forms the book's central chapter, "Père Sebastian Rasles," it is "only by intelligent investigation of the changes worked upon the early comers here, to the New World, the books, the records," that Americans can come to recognize "that what we are has its origins in what the nation in the past has been."Like his Columbus, who can imaginatively rediscover the New World only once he has acknowledged its loss, Williams renders the past open to aesthetic repossession in the present by cancelling out the myth of historical verisimilitude.

Williams enacts this process of investigation and recognition in the Rasles chapter, locating two seminal responses to America in the books of the Puritan Divine Cotton Mather and the letters of the French Jesuit Priest Sebastian Rasles. Mather and Rasles were contemporaries--but while Mather lived securely among his Puritan community of the elect in Boston, Rasles lived among the Abnaki Indians of Maine, "spending thirty-four years, October 13, 1689 to October 12, 1723, with his beloved savages, drawing their sweet like honey, TOUCHING them every day." Like Mather, Rasles sought to convert the Indians to Christianity, but unlike Mather, Rasles sought to do so by first converting himself to the Indians' way of life, learning to observe their customs, to partake of their diet, and to speak their languages. Williams stresses these points with excerpts from two lengthy letters Rasles wrote toward the end of his life. Quoting several passages in the original French and translating others into English, Williams particularly emphasizes Rasles' sensitive devotion to Indian speech: "He speaks of his struggles with their language, its peculiar beauties, 'je ne sais quo id' énergique,' he cited its tempo, the form of its genius with gusto, with admiration, with generosity." Rasles was not afraid "to hybridize, to crosspollenize" with the New World, and Williams points to "the figure 8 used by Rasles in his alphabet of the Abnaki language to signify the unique guttural sound characteristic of the Indian dialects" as evidence of Rasles' openness to that which could not be contained within the familiar lexicons of Europe.

Compared to Rasles' writing, Mather's language is hermetically sealed, bearing the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420043512