William Carlos Williams, Spring and All, and the anthropological imaginary

Citation metadata

Author: Joshua Schuster
Date: Spring 2007
From: Journal of Modern Literature(Vol. 30, Issue 3)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,723 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

This essay examines the contexts of an "anthropological imaginary" that inform a close reading of William Carlos Williams's Spring and All (1923). It seeks to expand the associations of modernism and anthropology from the typical conflation of these terms with the poetry of T.S. Eliot and anthropologist James Frazer by linking Williams's interests with Franz Boas, the most established anthropologist in the United States at the time. Williams's focus on the local is similar to Boas's stress on site-specific observation. But Williams's local is the result of a pattern of dislocation in modernity, which Williams incorporates in his poems and turns back against the disembodied scientific language of anthropology that cannot record the participant-observer's disruption and desire.

Keywords: William Carlos Williams / Franz Boas / anthropology / poetry


The ethnographic reading of William Carlos Williams's poem "To Elsie" in Spring and All, first launched two decades ago by the anthropologist James Clifford, still holds up as a fitting interpretation. Clifford situates the poem as a moment of "ethnographic modernity"--"ethnographic because Williams finds himself off center among scattered traditions; modernity since the condition of rootlessness and mobility he confronts is an increasingly common fate" (3). Since then, Williams's opening lines "The pure products of America / go crazy" (1-2, CP 217) have become, perhaps too neatly, an anthem for ethnic pluralism over racial purity. But Clifford's rather odd definition of "ethnographic" as being "off center" from tradition suggests a more entangled narrative than simply praising what Williams calls life's "multiformity" (CP 189). Unfortunately, Clifford's promising reading is limited to one poem, which is oddly inadequate to the standards of ethnography that insist on interpreting all objects and activities within a larger site-specific, social context. A consideration of the range of anthropological issues (1) that coalesced around Spring and All, published in 1923, can help us understand how it was possible for Williams to argue for the local with an avant-garde poetics that relies on formal techniques of dislocation. What Clifford never spells out are the varieties of Williams's attitudes throughout the book toward conflicts in modern anthropology--his refusal of ritual and evolution in favor of imagination, replacing of tradition with desire, and combination of human vitalism with entropy, captured in poetry that rapidly shifts from observing quotidian individuals in New Jersey to anxieties about population flows and death.

Although some critics have begun to address the range of anthropological issues in modernist poetry, it is still the case that T.S. Eliot and his well-known affection for James Frazer stand in for most readers as shorthand for modern poetry's interest in anthropology. Yet the attention by modernist poets to anthropology is far more capacious. More recently, Marc Manganaro's Culture, 1922 fosters extensive analysis of anthropology and modernism, but he still continues the trend of centralizing Eliot as the modernist poet most convincingly linked to anthropological themes (that are, by default, primarily Frazerian). (2) As a consequence, Manganaro diminishes the critiques of Frazer (and Eliot) made by modernist poets and ethnographers alike, and...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A166241553