[(essay date spring 2000) In the following essay, Webb discusses what it meant for Williams to consider himself an American writer and what it is in Williams's writing that makes him distinctly American.]
There was a maggot in them. It was their beliefs. Bits of writing have been copied into the book for the taste of it. William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain
The Corpses of Dead Indians
"And America? What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place?" Ezra Pound asked William Carlos Williams in a letter in 1917. "You ... a "real american."!!? inconceivable!!!!" A "real american"--Pound cites himself as an example--has "the virus, the bacillus of the land" in his blood; Williams has "spanish blood," and in Pound's view, his poems are therefore "unamerican" (31). "You can idealize the place all you like," Pound wrote three years later, "but you haven't a drop of the cursed blood in you" (38). To Pound's embarrassment, Williams quoted the earlier letter in the 1918 prologue to Kora in Hell in order to contest Pound's account of what makes a writer an American writer (Imaginations 11). Surely, Williams suggests, Pound's endorsement of the view that T. S. Eliot's "La Figlia che Piange" is "the fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States" illustrates the absurdity of thinking that a poem is American by virtue of the author's "blood" (25). "Imagine an international congress of poets at Paris or Versailles," Williams writes.
Ezra begins by reading 'La Figlia che Piange.' It would be a pretty pastime to gather into a mental basket the fruits of that reading from the minds of the ten Frenchmen present; their impressions of the sort of United States that very fine flower was picked from.(26)
Eliot may have the "cursed blood" in him, but "La Figlia che Piange" is not an American poem. In Williams' view, it "conforms" to the antiquated standards of the literary establishment, the final stanza "straining after a rhyme" (25). "It adds to the pleasant outlook from the club window," but for this very reason it is not American (25). The poem is conventional, not new. For Williams, then, writing is American not because its author has American "blood," but because its author refuses to conform. This refusal defines the character of what Williams calls "the New World type," exemplified by "Montezuma or, since he was stoned to death in a parley, Gautemozin who had the city of Mexico leveled over him before he was taken" (24). Here Williams reverses Pound's formulation. Montezuma and Gautemozin are natives of the New World not because the "virus of the land" is in their "blood," but because their blood is in the land--literally: they are buried in stones or rubble. The "New World type" is therefore an identity defined not by "blood" but by the spilling of blood, specifically in resisting assimilation by European culture.
The fact that only dead Indians have achieved this sort of...