In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Carlos Williams

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies, References, and Archives
  • Biographies
  • Recordings

American Literature William Carlos Williams
by
Lisa M. Steinman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0243

Introduction

William Carlos Williams (b. 1883–d. 1963) is now recognized as an American poet who was a major influence on later poetry in English, especially on American poetry, although his reputation during his lifetime grew slowly. He also wrote plays, novels, short stories, translations, essays, and an autobiography. Often characterized as an early Imagist poet, who knew Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)—both also associated with Imagism—from their time together at the University of Pennsylvania, Williams equally experimented with other poetic styles, inspired by early-20th-century modernist movements in literature and the visual art including Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, and Precisionism. The number of genres and styles at which Williams tried his hand make it difficult to characterize his literary work or legacy succinctly. The son of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother who emigrated from Puerto Rico to the United States and settled in Rutherford, New Jersey, to raise their family, Williams grew up in a household where English, Spanish, and French were spoken; he attended secondary school outside Geneva, Switzerland, from 1897 through 1899. He then studied at the Horace Mann School in New York and entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, graduating in 1906, following which he interned in New York and studied pediatrics in Leipzig, Germany. While Williams is accurately associated with championing the local—including in his writing details of his life and work in his home town, to which he returned to set up a practice as a doctor working with patients who were often poor, immigrants, or minorities—Williams was not provincial. He knew German along with Spanish, French, and English; he was active in arts communities in the New York City area, and he edited or coedited a number of small arts magazines even as he earned his living as a doctor. His first two books of poetry—the self-published Poems (1909) and The Tempers (1913)—were not particularly notable or noticed, although by the time he published Al Que Quiere! (1917), Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), Sour Grapes (1921), The Great American Novel, and Spring and All (the last two both in 1923) his work attracted more attention, even if it was still at first not widely known. By 1963, he had published forty-nine books and pamphlets, won a National Book Award, and was posthumously awarded both a Pulitzer Prize and the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

General Overviews

Although Williams’s wide-ranging work is not easily summed up, there are a number of books that provide useful introductions, including the chapter on Williams in Miller 1965, a seminal study. Guimond 1968 focuses more on the world about and from which Williams wrote over the course of his lifetime. Two other early studies—Breslin 1970 and Weaver 1971—cover the wide variety of kinds of writing at which Williams tried his hand, and both emphasize as well, albeit each with a different thematic focus, the biographical and cultural contexts (especially the American context) that influenced Williams. Riddel 1974 concentrates on Williams’s use of language, to argue that it fits no single poetic tradition. Kenner 1975 did much to bring a broader readership to Williams, while others, especially in the 1980s, built on or revised these early views of Williams’s importance. Rapp 1984 repositions Williams as a late Romantic in the line of Emerson. Analogously, Tapscott 1984 relocates Williams’s developing poetics and style from the early to the late work in terms of a different, Whitmanian legacy of American Romanticism. Walker 1984 emphasizes the ways that Williams’s poems work in readers, but otherwise makes a case close to that made by Rapp the same year, while Cushman 1985 analyzes Williams’s use of language in and the visual layout of his poems.

  • Breslin, James E. B. William Carlos Williams: An American Artist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

    Early work, which offers commentary on the author’s experiments with the historical essay, short story, and novel, along with other works, arguing Williams’s writings across a number of genres draw on and inform views of the self in the early twentieth century in the United States; the book particularly emphasizes Williams’s thematic focus on creation and decreation.

  • Cushman, Stephen. William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Compelling analysis of Williams’s non-metrical and experimental poetry, which remains useful not simply because it looks closely at how Williams uses enjambment and the physical layout of poems on the page but also because it shows that Williams’s use of the term “measure” became for him a metaphor for how poetry worked, as well as a technical term describing his use of line breaks and stanzas.

  • Guimond, James. The Art of William Carlos Williams: A Discovery and Possession of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968.

    Overview of Williams’s work and development from his earliest 1909 volume of poems through his work in the 1950s, including plays, fiction, poetry, essays, and other prose. Focus is on Williams’s commitment to the local and the actual (modern and American) world as well as on cultural and familial influences. There is an early awareness of how gender figures in Williams’s imagination of matters both poetic and social.

  • Kenner, Hugh. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.

    Kenner has written other influential books and essays on literary modernism, most notably The Pound Era, but his discussion of Williams in A Homemade World (pp. 54–67, 85–90 et passim) is his most expansive treatment of Williams’s work. Discusses other at-the-time-underappreciated writers, such as Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens; Williams is said to resist Eliot’s use of tradition and to craft a new, specifically American language.

  • Miller, J. Hillis. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

    Takes a phenomenological approach (pp. 285–359), describing Williams’s insistence on the senses and characterizing his poetry as post-Romantic in that not depending on a dualistic view of the world (although later reassessments of British Romantic poets have since shifted how the adjective “post-Romantic” is used). Also offers astute readings of a number of Williams’s poems, from early to late, arguing that Williams eschews both the static referential meaning of words and pure abstraction to write what the study calls kinesthetic poems.

  • Rapp, Carl. William Carlos Williams and Romantic Idealism. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1984.

    Building on Miller 1965 and on Hegel’s definition of Romantic art (thus redefining Romanticism) as well as on Wittgenstein’s philosophy, this is nonetheless an accessible, intelligent approach to the central themes and tensions explored in Williams’s writings from his early essays to his final volume of poetry. The careful arguments about Williams, idealism, and realism also provide a useful history of critical debates about Williams’s views of the nature of art.

  • Riddel, Joseph N. The Inverted Bell: Modernism and the Counterpoetics of William Carlos Williams. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

    Although challenging, marks an important turn in Williams criticism, drawing on the critical theories of Derrida and on the writings of Heidegger to examine Williams’s poetic investigation, especially in Paterson, of what language can and cannot do, while theorizing the contradictions of and in language. Despite its own theoretical turn, the argument is that Williams’s work cannot be interpreted by appeal to philosophical abstractions given Williams’s insistence on the local and the decentered.

  • Tapscott, Stephen. American Beauty: William Carlos Williams and the Modernist Whitman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.7312/taps90238

    Argues that Williams’s structuring of his poems, his controlled tonal variations, and his overall use of language from “To Elsie” in 1923 through to Paterson V in 1958 draw on his understanding of Whitman to focus on the intersections of public and private realities. Explanation of how Whitman’s legacy was reconstructed by modernist writers is especially useful for readers interested in the malleability of literary histories over time.

  • Walker, David. The Transparent Lyric: Reading and Meaning in the Poetry of Stevens and Williams. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400857333

    To some degree in line with other critical arguments about how subjective expression is not the best way to describe Williams’s poetry and poetics, the argument here about “transparency” is that what in other poets’ work might be called an implied or dramatized poetic speaker is not evident in much of Williams’s (or Stevens’s) poetry. Instead, what is central is each reader’s experience and performance of the poems.

  • Weaver, Mike. William Carlos Williams: The American Background. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

    Early critical work, which usefully casts light on Williams’s poetry and prose by sketching how the various literary and art circles in which Williams moved—as well as Williams’s personal history and broader US history—inform Williams’s writings, ranging from Williams’s early years through to his later writings, focusing on the late long poem Paterson and on Williams’s insistence on the difference between English and American uses of language.

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