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Online Art Gallery // Volume 24

Paterson and Williams’s American Mythos

by Sean McCarthy

With Paterson, William Carlos Williams set about creating a new form of poetry that was as much a response to Eliot and the Modernists as it was a negation. By focusing his language on the mundane, the brutal and the beatific, Williams sought to juxtapose post-WWII America’s potential with Eliot’s landscape of European ennui in the years following the Great War. By incorporating various slices of Americana, including news-clippings, personal letters and folktales, Williams exposed his desire for a new literature, one that would lay the foundations for an American mythos, following in the tradition of Whitman decades prior. Williams’s use of prose in Paterson illuminates the project he had undertaken, under the guise of epic poetry; these selections work to incorporate the grand totality of American experience. From accounts of the genocide of Native Americans to letters from Allen Ginsberg, Williams works to show how the most beautiful (and horrible) aspects of American culture are found throughout the American social fabric. More importantly, he argues that it is an embrace of everything that makes up America, that which helps creates the history of this country, that which makes this a nation worthy of its own poetics. By working within the form of the epic, Williams firmly planted his flag among the legions of poets that sought similarly nation-building projects; but it is through his use of prose that Williams set himself apart from those who came before him. While Eliot’s project focused on capturing the spiritual wasteland he saw throughout Europe in the years after World War One, in an attempt to recreate the morality lost, Williams sought to expound upon the grandiosity of post-war America; as a land of overabundant natural resources and untapped potential (both culturally and spiritually), Williams saw in the United States a direct lineage, a continuation of the epic’s project. By focusing the prose sections of Paterson on the creation of a national mythos, Williams was able to present a reverent, yet critical, portrait of America. Despite all of Williams’s attempts to set himself apart from Eliot and the Modernists, they share a similarly idealistic notion about the restorative/redemptive aspects of poetry. While Eliot sought to recover the lost religiosity and spirituality of Europe, through a radical new form of poetry (one that incorporated the totality of religious/spiritual existence, via language and art), Williams sought to uncover America’s latent revelatory potential; not only is this move evidently distinct from Eliot’s, Williams’s project was, from the outset, a democratizing process. In Alba Newmann’s essay “Paterson: Poem as Rhizome,” the author states: “The subversion of conventions, the rejection of ‘classical’ values and aesthetics, and the transvaluation of the seemingly mundane, or even monstrous, into the celebrated create a text that is as much a tool of disorientation as it is one of orientation – because in disruption and disorientation there is the potential for discovery” (Newmann 54). It is within this process of disorientation that the reader finds the seeds of a democratic poetry; unlike Eliot’s works, with their constant reference and continual allusion, Paterson is a text contained.

Despite this containment, however, William Sharpe argues that “the reader of Paterson’s ‘newsclippings,’ unless he participates actively – will be stunned and confused by the apparent chaos” (emphasis mine (Sharpe 70)). As Newmann states, it is through this disorientation that discovery is made possible. While it is clear that Eliot, too, sought “disruption and disorientation,” Williams’s use of these processes demands participation in a manner that is fundamentally different from (or at odds with) Eliot’s sterility. Disregarding the first (seemingly unattached) section of prose (a letter from a woman to the poet), the reader’s initial encounter with news-clippings is one that may be used to illuminate Williams’s democratizing attempts. Recounting the tale of David Hower, this selection focuses on the unexpected discovery of natural riches; “Hower, a poor shoemaker – collected a lot of mussels – near the city of Paterson. He – submitted some of the (pearls) to a jeweler who gave him twenty-five to thirty dollars for the lot” (Paterson 9). Here, the reader is given a near-mythic tale of the potential of untapped natural resources present in the American landscape. This thematic is returned to time and time again throughout Paterson; discovery is one of primary movers of American culture. Despite this section’s accounts of the world’s largest pearls, it is the innocence of Hower’s discovery that sets his experience apart (and, arguably above) the others. Precisely because Hower set about collecting mussels as a readily available food source (“Hower – out of work and money, collected a lot of mussels”), his coming financial surprise bears none of the traditional trappings of a man out for riches. Additionally, his ignorance at what he finds within the shells of the mussels points to the arbitrariness of what humanity finds beautiful. This is not to say that humanity is incorrect in recognizing the beauty of pearls; but it does point to the fact that these seemingly innocuous and ultimately “useless” byproducts were deemed of enough worth to warrant the wholesale slaughter of mussels: “The Unios (mussels) at Notch Brook and elsewhere were gathered by the millions and destroyed often with little or no result.” Here, Williams points to how the desire for discovery, the desire for beauty, while undeniably beneficial for humanity, often leads to destruction on an untold scale. This notion is reflected in another passage focusing on the destruction of large numbers of aquatic animals. Later, in section “III” of “Book I,” Williams includes a news-clipping recounting another tale of incomprehensible destruction: “By the nightfall of the 29th, acres of mud were exposed, and the water had mostly been drawn off” (34). In this passage, “millions of fish” (“weighing from three to four pounds each”) have been exposed due to some sort of littoral draining; “There seemed to be no end to the stock of eels especially.” Once again, the reader is presented with a scene bordering on incomprehensible. Whether or not the reported numbers reflected reality, the scene is bursting with superfluity. Williams points to the impossible seeming nature of America’s bounty. Despite the economic returns available for capturing these eels (“.25 cents for the basket full”), the process becomes more a sport than a desire for sustenance: “The men and boys splashed about in the mud… Night did not put an end to the scene” (35). Indeed, many of the fish (excluding the eels) are left “all along the walk” (34). This spectacle isn’t rooted in a drive for survival (like Hower’s collection of mussels), but out of a desire for mastery, for sport. Even within the poem, this passage borders on the absurd, the horrifying. But Williams isn’t, necessarily, critical of the wanton destruction. Instead of judgement, the poet leaves the final line of the news-clipping: “All night long with lights on shore and lanterns over the mud, the work went on” (emphasis mine (35)). Even if the sheer amount of eels caught far exceeds the amount that will be paid for, or even eaten (there’s really no evidence the eels are going to be consumed), this is an occupation, a means to put one’s self into a communal effort that gives individuals (even boys) access to a collectivity that is central to Williams’s conception of the democratic essence of America. Even when the impulse is destructive, this (perverted) communion with nature, and amongst themselves, allows the men and boys in this passage to tap into something larger than themselves. This is but one aspect of Williams’s American mythos; partially reverent of the destruction, partially a reflection of Manifest Destiny, these passages highlight the sheer force of will that led to the America the reader sees today.

But it isn’t solely a focus on the destruction of nature that furthers Williams’s complicated and (potentially) problematic American mythos. In “Book III,” the reader is confronted with one of the most troublesome aspects of American history; namely, the genocide of the Native Americans.
Instead of simply relaying a/the history of the genocide, Williams includes a narrative passage (possibly) from “Extracts from a Work Called ‘Breeden Raedt’” (MacGowan 281). In this selection, a story of nearly unimaginable cruelty is laid out; Native Americans, (falsely) accused of stealing pigs from Dutch soldiers, are tortured, mocked and, finally, either executed or expire
from their massive wounds. Despite the protestations of female Native Americans, decrying the slaughter of their male counterparts, the Dutch continue in their “unheard of cruelty” (Paterson 103). Ending the passage, the Dutch exhume a Native priest, steal the valuables with which he
was buried, and leave his corpse “to the wolves that roamed the woods.” Similar to the manner in which the boys and men hunted the eels, in the earlier passage, the cruelty the Dutch pioneers committed upon the Native Americans serves no purpose other than as a form of entertainment, another murderous form of sport. Not content, solely, with stealing the Native Americans’ means to the natural resources of their land (“sea-shells. Bird feathers. Beaver skins”), these colonists “laugh[ed] heartily at the fun – [and took] so much delight – in such scenes” (103). Williams, here, levies no judgement toward “such scenes.” Instead, he includes them as natural parts of the American landscape. While this lack of judgement may seem, at first glance, problematizing of an attempt at constructing an American mythos to compete with the European literary establishment, it is integral to the story of this country; any attempt to exclude these atrocities would be disingenuous and entail fabrication. Just as some of the later poems of Paterson include vexing passages regarding sexuality and race, these problematics are central to American life, and Williams’s lack of judgement regarding them only furthers the notion that simply presenting them is a radical political position to take.

Central to Paterson’s acknowledgement of “the revelations of violence [that] are an intrinsic element” of the American landscape, is Williams’s notion of “contact” (Newmann 59). Williams himself states that through the poetic process, especially one in which “contact” is made possible, the very construction of national identity is produced (or, at least, maintained): “For native work in verse, fiction, criticism or whatever is written we mean to maintain a place, insisting on that which we have not found insisted upon before, the essential contact between words and the locality that breeds them, in this case America” (Contact 1). An exclusion of the history of this locality, no matter how artfully wrought, is rendered irrelevant, in Williams’s “model.” Indeed, Newmann acknowledges that it is through this notion of “contact” that Williams maintains a certain unflinching veracity in his construction of America through verse: “Such a model (with “contact” at its center) cannot resort to a jingoistic explanation of his interest in writing the American scene” (Newmann 53). Williams’s love of America is not simply an uncritical, nationalistic pride, nor is it a simple regurgitation of traditional American values. Ann Mikkelsen, in her essay “‘The Truth about Us’: Pastoral, Pragmatism and Paterson,” states, “Over the course of Paterson’s many narratives, Williams depicts various figures deemed
threats to the vision of an ethnically and politically pure body politic” (Mikkelsen 604). The very act of presentation, even if Williams never goes as far as empowering the “various figures” presented, is enough to qualify Williams’s undertaking as outside the bounds of any traditional epic. Even when Williams does incorporate romanticized mythology and folktales into the fabric of his poem, it is in a manner that doesn’t have the “feel” of a poem such as Eliot’s The Waste Land. Whereas Eliot utilizes various European mythologies and allusions from the continent’s literary and religious canons, Williams grounds the more fantastical aspects of his work in notably mundane sources. By focusing his mythic construction on an insistence on “locality,” Williams ensured that, even when reaching for unbelievable tall-tales, his work would never stray far from the “verisimilitude [of] the object [Williams] had in mind” (Paterson xiv).

The “Merselis Van Giesen” passage is illustrative of this principle (133). In this selection, the specter of America’s unfortunate history of “witch hunts” is raised. But even though the full tragedy of those wrongfully executed is contained within this unclimactic story, there is an irony here that isn’t present in some of the other accounts Williams represents throughout the poem. While the slaughter of Native Americans is presented matter-of-factly, the Van Giesen’s tale contains a recognition of the improbable nature of its contents. Even the narrator of the passage disbelieves the story recounted, describing it as “a curious story illustrative of the superstition of the day.” When recounting the female Van Giesen’s insistence that a black cat haunted her at night, the narrator implies skepticism, through their use of italics: “An uncanny fact about this visitation was that no one else could see the cat.” Despite this apparent disbelief, the tale continues, stating that the entire town not only believed Van Giesen to be bewitched, they also immediately fingered a suspect and prescribed a means to ending the “spell.” While these aspects of the folktale are presented without apparent irony, the male Van Giesen’s use of “a pair of silver sleeve buttons” in lieu of “a silver bullet” is heavily ironizing of the narrative’s characters’ solemnity. But even contained within the humor of the “silver sleeve buttons” is a mythicization of pioneer (read: American) ingenuity. And even within the air of superiority exhibited by the narrator of the passage, the earnest belief of the story’s inhabitants remains central to the narrative: “So they waited, she in a tremor of hope and dread – hope that the spells afflicting her would soon be ended; dread that some new torment might come to her from this daring attempt of her husband.” Throughout Paterson, the reader is confronted with the notion that Manifest Destiny wasn’t solely a geographic project, but one that sought to bend reality to its American will as well. This conformation of reality to a collective will is present at the Van Giesens’ tale’s end. Merselis shoots “the invisible feline, which emits an apparently audible “snarl that was a scream” (133-34). The implication that the “snarl was [actually] a scream” pulls the story from a singular fantasy into a shared reality. Merselis, convinced by apparent evidence of his wife’s bewitching, encounters the husband of the suspected witch. Told that the man’s wife had been “troubled with a sore leg for some time” (emphasis mine), Merselis asks to “see that sore leg” (134). After noticing “a fresh wound,” Merselis is convinced that the wound was “just where his silver sleeve button had struck the unfortunate creature when she had last visited his wife in the form of the spectral black witch cat!” The narrative states that this put an end to “those weird visitations.” But even though the story relays this conclusion, the passage ends on information that does nothing but to ironize everything that had preceded it: “Merselis Van Giesen was assessed in 1807 for 62 acres of unimproved land, two horses and five cattle.” The inclusion of this incredibly irrelevant information is placed at odds with the surreal earnestness of the tale just relayed; not only is the assessment included from long before the “black cat” story, it adds nothing to the contents of the tale.

This isn’t the only place within Paterson that the reader is confronted with seemingly inconsequential information. The recounting of Cornelius Doremus’s possessions in section “II” of “Book I,” at first glance, initially seems irrelevant too (33). But the “interview” passage of section “II” of “Book V” gives the reader some insight into Williams’s inclusion of this information. “Anything is good material for poetry. Anything. I’ve said it time and time again” (222). Beyond this, however (and just above the previous passage), is evidence towards Williams’s project’s motivations: “We poets have to talk in a language which is not English. It is the American idiom.” The list of Doremus’s possessions is part of this American idiom. Through its very documentary nature, the inclusion of this passages points to the minute detail Williams takes in the construction of this national mythos; these materials, down to the cent, are just as foundational to American history, Williams argues, as the stories contained in the poem regarding the actual Founding Fathers. Every person, even every animal, that has played into the locality of the poem, plays a part in constructing history, and therefore the nation. There is no hierarchy, here, simply a leveling, democratizing process, one which Williams clearly cultivates through and in his verse. Mikkelsen echoes this democratizing tendency, locating it within “contact:” “Williams understood the local as the site of ambiguous national identity – as such, it is the site possible national renewal or an instance of the obstacles faced in overcoming the association of pollution with gender, sexual, ethnic, or racial differences” (Mikkelsen 608). It is through Paterson’s “innovative” rhetorical moves and unorthodox inclusions (at least within the epic framework), that Williams “attempt[s] to imagine how the new national self should be recomposed from a disorderly array of possibilities” (606). Not only does Williams’s inclusion of such passages make order out of these possibilities, it gives a sense of traceable lineage to American history. But, as Newmann argues, Paterson “is a map and not a tracing” (Newmann 65). Quoting Deleuze and Guattari, Newmann states, “this map ‘fosters connections between fields [and]… is open and connectable in all of its dimensions.’ It is an interactive exploration of an indeterminate number of points of contact: the intersections of heterogeneous materials, often unexpected, always productive.” History, in Williams’s conception, isn’t something to harken back to, to allude to; it is active, productive. His use of American history, as opposed to Eliot’s use of European history, isn’t sterile: “Embrace the / foulness” he implores (Paterson 103). It is a recognition of the “foulness,” an inherently democratic recognition, that gives much of Paterson the force it yields.

But it isn’t solely “foulness” that drives Paterson. And it isn’t solely the brutal aspects of American history that Williams puts to use in his poem. One of the most (culturally) “productive” prose passages comes very early in the text. Just pages into section “I” of “Book I,” the reader encounters Sam Patch. Unlike many of the other prose selections, and despite Patch’s untimely accidental death, this passage is a purely joyous embrace of the pioneering spirit. While many other prose sections’ sources are news-clippings and journalistic in nature (namely, they are recounted in a third-person narrative form), this passage is a personal anecdote, including personal judgements from the narrator levied at Patch: “He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears” and “Patch had declared so frequently that he would jump from the rocks that he was placed under arrest at various times. He had previously been locked up in the basement under the bank with a bad case of delirium tremens” (Paterson 15). Even before Patch can perform his stunt, the narrator is building the man into something of a myth, albeit a flawed madman: “Some thought he was crazy. They were not far wrong.” Patch proceeds to dive from great heights to recover a piece of bridge being constructed, a moment that marked “the starting point of Sam Patch’s career as a famous jumper” (16). After the intrusion of verse (including a line stating Patch’s exploits were “A wonder!”), Patch’s myth picks up, already exploding to fantastical limits: “After this start he toured the West, his only companions a fox and a bear which he picked up in his travels.” Listing his various high dives (including the first jump from Niagara Falls), Patch’s tale culminates in his death: “his body wavered in the air – He struck the water on his side and disappeared.” Even in death, however, Patch’s story embodied the mythic and fantastic: “Not until the following spring was the body found frozen in an ice-cake.” Novel until death, Patch’s tale ends on a familiarly humorous note, one that exposes Williams’s appreciation of the absurdity at the heart of the American mythos: “He threw his pet bear once from the cliff overlooking the Niagara rapids and rescued it after, down stream.” By utilizing humor in the more “folky” stories (and discarding it when solemnity is called for), Williams clearly delineates between the endearing aspects of American history, and the genuinely tragic.

All of these (seemingly disparate) passages, presented together, raise an inevitable question: what, then, does Williams’s American mythos look like? Turning to the poet’s correspondence with Allen Ginsberg, the reader is given some (potential) insight into Williams’s forward and downward-looking project. “I envision for myself some kind of new speech – different at least from what I have been writing down – in that it has to be clear statement of fact about misery (and not misery itself), and splendor if there is any out of the subjective wanderings through Paterson,” Williams quotes Ginsberg as writing (173). There is no doubt that Williams incorporates Ginsberg’s correspondence not only because it speaks to his own project, but precisely because it furthers it; it represents a continuation. Just as Ginsberg evokes Whitman (“I have a whitmanesque mania & nostalgia for cities”), Williams includes these letters in a clear move to establish a literary genealogy (210). This move is just as much elucidation as it is, evidently, self-aggrandizement. Because, here, the reader can see Williams defining his project via comparison, and through doing so, giving the reader insight into what Williams sees as imperative toward the “America idiom.” Newmann helps further define this move: “Williams and Ginsberg share an interest in bringing to light the uncelebrated aspects of Paterson. Their resistance to canonical assertions of value, in favor of a local, ‘hands on’ approach is another iteration of ‘contact,’ as well as a possible response on Williams’s part to Eliot [and the Modernists]” (Newmann 61). Once again, an emphasis on locality, a return to sites of “contact” remain the basis for Williams’s desire for an American epic. Through the rejection of “canonical assertions of value,” and “a recognition of vernacular value,” Williams revolutionized the epic while simultaneously moving beyond its very framework (58). Without this “resistance,” Williams’s use of prose throughout Paterson, as Sharpe correctly intuits, would result in nothing other than “chaos.” Instead, through resistance, Williams is able to utilize the “ambiguous national identity” created through “contact,” and incorporate a wider breadth of a more diverse population than the traditional epic allows (e.g.: the practical monogeneity of Homer’s epics). Calling, again, on Ginsberg’s words in Paterson, the reader is given an example of this diversity: “Also I have been walking the streets and discovering the bars – Do you know this part of Paterson? I have seen so many things – negroes, gypsies, an incoherent bartender – I wonder if you have seen River Street most of all, because that is really the heart of what is to be seen” (Paterson 193). This diversity, rooted in the local, Williams and Ginsberg believe, affirms the project of Paterson, if only because it is a recognition of “the splendor which [Ginsberg] carries within – and which all free men do” (173). “[T]here is no universal except in the local,” Williams argues; Ginsberg furthered this notion: “I – inherited your experience in [the] struggle to love and know [our] own world-city” (Selected Letters 224, Paterson 173). In the universalizing locality (of a city), Williams saw the “ethical obligation to create the conditions for greater social inclusion” (Mikkelsen 606). Through the creation and utilization of the American idiom, Williams sought to ensure this obligation was acknowledged and attempted.

“Cities are a second body for the human mind, a second organism, more rational, permanent and decorative than the animal organism of flesh and bone: a work of natural yet moral art, where the soul sets up her trophies of action and instruments of pleasure” (Paterson 94). This insistence not only that cities are an externalization of the human mind, but a work of “moral art,” is central to Williams’s conception of Paterson “as merging the identity of man and city together in an inseparable relationship” (McKee 144). By recognizing the potential toward a higher (and more artful) morality made possible in the locality of a city, Williams saw the (re)generative function of epic poetry; by imagining “the province of the poem [as] the world,” and by insisting on the creation of a shared, collective reality made possible through the poem-as-idiom, Williams “as the self-appointed representative voice of this new civic body, oversees this site of cultural and aesthetic reevaluation” (Paterson 100, Mikkelsen 606). While this self-
appointment moralizes Williams and his project in a manner that is (arguably) at odds with some of the scenes present in Paterson, it is very much in line with the democratizing effect already
explored. Despite (or, possibly, because of) the misogyny, homophobia, and ambivalent racialization seen throughout Paterson, Williams’s “cultural reevaluation” seems all the more urgent. Returning to Mikkelsen’s argument (that solely by “depict[ing] various figures deemed threats to the [traditionally held American] vision” Williams is performing a radical form of political representation), the reader is given some freedom to interpret Williams’s more problematic passages in a manner that is in keeping with his democratizing project; additionally, Williams himself, in his 1951 introduction to the poem, stated that he approached his subject with an emphasis on the fact that he was not “going to be – evangelical about it” (Paterson xiv). Representation, without a moralizing intent behind it, was enough for Williams’s purposes. This paradoxical representation is illuminated in one of the work’s earliest prose passages: the “monster in human form” scene, in which a man with a head equiproportionate to his body is described by a Revolutionary soldier (Paterson 10). Even when the Other is presented in purely exploitative terms (“He is visited by great numbers of people”), and even when the prose section is used to denigrate the Other (“His features are coarse, irregular and disgusting”), Williams’s own use of these sections remains non-judgmental; immediately preceding and following this prose section is Williams’s bracketed exclamation (and insistence) that the scene (and its focus) is “miraculous” and “A wonder! A wonder!” More importantly, however, is the role this “monster” plays within the narrative relayed; despite the fact that “his limbs are small and much deformed,” and despite that “he has never been able to sit up [and] cannot support the enormous weight of his head,” this poor man became a part of American history, if only through his proximity to its foundational myth (“General Washington made him a visit”). Disregarding the man’s physical incapacity, Williams’s inclusion of his story (especially in light of its connection to Revolutionary era mythology) points to the work his very being exacted. Just as Doremus’s possessions, at first blush, seem irrelevant to Paterson (yet are not), so too is this passage paradoxically integral to American history (at least in Williams’s conception); Williams’s American mythos isn’t solely the province of the heroic and the notable. What sets American history apart from the European history Eliot utilizes in his poems, Williams argues, is everyman’s claim to its narrative.

Williams’s choice of setting is central to this claim. In the author’s note preceding the poem, Williams elucidates his choice: “Thus the city I wanted as my object had to be one that I knew in its most intimate details. New York was too big – I deliberately selected Paterson as my reality – Paterson has a definite history associated with the beginnings of the United States” (xiii). Williams sought to make the setting of his poem as accessible as possible; somewhere between the megalopolis of New York, and the “suburb” where Williams resided in New Jersey, Paterson functioned not only as a genealogical survey of American history, it also worked (democratically) to present a (near) universal representation of American life. Mikkelsen presents this geographic location as central to Williams’s political aspirations in the poem, framing Williams’s radical new poetic form as a reconstruction of the pastoral: “Instead of rejecting all aspects of modern urban life, Williams offers pragmatically pastoral accounts of life in the city and suburbs that embrace the ‘filth’ of society and human nature while they excoriate those forces that attempt to determine and demean human existence” (Mikkelsen 618). Furthermore, Williams’s attention to the most miniscule (and indeed microscopic) aspects of the American landscape, including “individuals associated with dirt,” allows him a democratizing perspective on how the poetic landscape functions to give representation to traditionally ignored aspects of American society: “As Williams’s poetry reveals – in modern society, [people] such as women or people of color, cannot be excised from a national narrative such as the pastoral, without destroying the greater body that is the nation” (618). By locating the population intrinsically within the geography of America (in the “dirt”), Williams exposed how every American citizen plays a central role in creating the foundation of this country, regardless of how small their claim to the traditional (non-poetic) narrative of America. It is through this radical repositioning of the subaltern as fundamental that Williams’s democratic project finds the “Beautiful Thing” spoken of throughout Paterson (Paterson 101). Representation, especially accurate or faithful representation, in Williams’s conception, holds just as much power in the poetic process as does any of the traditional measure of powerful poetry. It is the added power of political representation that directed Williams toward the creation of this new, pragmatic pastoral form. By embracing a form traditionally held to homogenize (“[there’s a] link between a pastoral ideology and efforts to define the United States as an ethnically pure, legally stable, and economically viable entity”), Williams’s recreation of the pastoral, in an effort to give poetic voice to as much of the American landscape as possible, marks a definitive step away from the Eurocentric canonicity of the Modernists and every group of poets that preceded them (Mikkelsen 604).

By setting his epic in a city that “has a definite history associated with the beginnings of the United States,” Williams made a clear move to position his poem in a similarly grandiose temporality (as far as America’s short history would allow) as that of Eliot’s The Waste Land. Paterson sought to build a vision of America that incorporated its totality, from its earliest history up through the modern era; more importantly (and somewhat comparably to Eliot), Williams wanted to present American life as morally corrupt while still retaining the hope of salvation through poetry. Where Williams’s project clearly delineated itself from the Modernists, however, was the inclusion of aspects of the American landscape that are traditionally held to detract from the creation of an American mythos; namely, the inclusion of groups and peoples’ that continue to be marginalized, and a recognition of the natural destruction that is central to the foundation of this nation as economic super-power. While Williams’s democratic representation of certain unsavory moments in American history is, by no means, perfect (little is written about slavery; Williams’s misogyny is readily apparent throughout), it does mark a distinct shift away from Eliot’s romantic conception of Europa. By “embrac[ing] the foulness,” Williams created a mythos that was more readily available (and serviceable) to a wider audience than Eliot’s poem could ever hope to be; by ensuring the “the province of the poem is the world,” Williams was able to draw in more of America (both in terms of within the poem itself, and the audience that could access the work) that traditional epic framework would allow. Central to the American myth is an (idealized and arguably unattainable) notion of democracy; Williams expertly captures this within his poem, and nowhere is this more apparent than within the prose selections utilized throughout the text. By including radically disparate passages that represent the wide range of the American landscape, Williams’s epic goes far beyond the scope o traditional epic poetry. And while any epic’s project is ultimately, at heart, that of nation building, Williams’s project is idealistically pragmatic in its recognition of (nearly) all aspects of American life. Through an accurate representation of the United States’ history, blemishes, scars and all, Williams ensure his project would maintain a certain historical veracity that cannot be discounted. Paterson captures America, truthfully, in a manner The Waste Land never could perform in regards to Europe/England. “To make a start,/ out of particulars/ and make them general,” is the location of beauty within Paterson; it is also the location of its radicality (Paterson 3). It is through this very generality (made out of particulars) that gives Paterson’s American mythos its generation and allows for its purchase as the American epic.


McKee, Adam R. “Paterson: William Carlos Williams’s Image of the City.” William Carlos Williams Review 31.2 (Fall 2014): 141-158.

Mikkelsen, Ann. “‘The Truth about Us’: Pastoral, Pragmatism, and Paterson.” American Literature, vol. 75, no. 3, 2003, p. 601.

Newmann, Alba. “Paterson: Poem as Rhizome.” William Carlos Williams Review 26.1 (Spring 2006): 51-73.

Sharpe, William. “‘That Complex Atom’: The City and Form in William Carlos Williams’s Paterson.” Sagetrieb 18.2-3 (2002): 243-56.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Edited by Christopher MacGowan, New Directions Paperbooks, 1995.

Williams, William Carlos. Untitled Manifesto. Contact 1 (December 1920): 1.

Williams, William Carlos. Williams to Horace Gregory, 5 May 1944. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, ed. John Thirlwall. New York: New Directions, 1957. 224.

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