September 17th is the birthday of William Carlos Williams (1883- 1963). He was a practicing physician who wrote poems, short stories, novels, plays, criticism, an autobiography, and essays—a high modernist who grappled with the problem of America. Williams criticized Eliot and Pound for their obsession with European allusions and sought instead to maintain “contact” with “the local.” His epic poem Paterson) (published between 1946 and 1963) focuses on the New Jersey town in which he lived, and he collected a group of essays about American myths and heroes under the title In the American Grain (1925).
In a strange and wonderful essay titled “An Essay on Virginia” (1925), Williams simultaneously advanced and enacted a modernist–and more specifically cubist–theory of the essay while also critiquing Virginia, regionalism, and American democracy. Here is a snippet from it that displays the kinds of odd assertions and jarring juxtapositions Williams employs: “Every piece of writing, it matters not what it is, has unity. Inexpert or bad writing most terribly so. But ability in an essay is multiplicity, infinite fracture, the intercrossing of opposed forces establishing any number of opposed centres of stillness. So the history of Virginia has gone, even more so than in most of the states.” // Ned Stuckey-French