American Modernism and the Uses of History: The Case of William Carlos Williams

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Author: Paul L. Jay
Editors: David M. Galens , Jennifer Smith , and Elizabeth Thomason
Date: 2002
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,499 words

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By virtue of its insistently recuperative strategy, Williams's book affirms what Donato, by way of Kojève, and White each in their own ways suspect about the necessarily ironic condition of post-Hegelian history: In The American Grain is decidedly a post-historical history, for Williams deems the present which animates it to have its origins in a past which keeps repeating itself into the present. His twentieth-century America, that is, represents a cultural moment whose immediacy is grounded in the forms of a past tradition which is its central source, so that the present is conceived as a kind of dead representation of a deadening history.. . . Williams's book, despite its a-historicism, actually clarifies the ontological status of history.

But if Williams claims for his book the status of "history" (albeit a history redefined by its own rethinking of the word), we need to ask what kind of history it in fact produces. If it is aimed at protecting contemporary culture from history's " tyrannous designs," we need to examine critically the design which it provides for history, assessing the success of its strategy in terms of the extent to which it can claim, in any meaningful way, to be historical.

The design of Williams's version of American history is oppositional. The seeming paradox of his assertion that the past is both the source of America's present degradation and of its renewal is due to the fact that there are two diametrically opposed traditions in Williams's history. Its recuperative hope is keyed to what he calls the necessary "annihilation" of one of them--Puritanism. The tradition of the Other which his book seeks to privilege--depicted primarily in his chapters on Boone, Rasles, and Houston--is the tradition of a relationship to the new world which Williams wants to re-evoke as an antidote to the Puritan origins of the American self. The dichotomy he generates between what we might call Puritanism and Frontierism constitutes not only the structural design of his book--it actually becomes the history which it recounts.

As a structural design, the poles of his opposition oscillate through the middle and late portions of the book, forming a series of contrasts which structure and control the story it tells. Thus the "Mayflower" chapter on Puritanism is followed by two chapters, on Samuel de Champlain and Thomas Morton, celebrating their adventuresome and energetic contract with the wilderness and "with its natives . . . to which the Puritans so violently objected". These chapters are followed by what Williams calls the "madness" of Mather's defense of the witchcraft trials, which in turn is followed by his celebration of Sebastin Rasles's "sensitive and daring . . . close embrace of native things". Rasles is deemed a "moral source" whose "force" is "equal to the Puritans but of opposite character". The Rasles chapter is followed in kind by Williams's piece on Boone, whose "passionate, possessive" power is deemed to be full of a rich regenerative violence . . . when his history will be carefully...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420043513