In the American Grain

In the American Grain

In the American Grain

In the American Grain

Synopsis

William Carlos Williams was not a historian, but he was fascinated by the texture of American history. Beginning with Columbus's discovery of the Indies and moving on through Sir Walter Raleigh, Cotton Mather, Daniel Boone, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Aaron Burr, Edgar Allan Poe, and Abraham Lincoln, Williams found in the fabric of familiar episodes new shades of meaning and configurations of character. He brought a poetic imagination to the task of reconstructing a live tradition for Americans, and what results is one of the finest works of prose to have been penned by any writer of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

"History, history!" says Dr. William Carlos Williams, and then with brilliant asperity continues, "We fools, what do we know or care?"

The quantum of irony in Dr. Williams' remark, though clear enough, should be carefully considered, and in the way I read it, it might well be taken as a warning. History is a humiliating subject for any man to think of knowing: and however much, however little we know of it, we always care, and that is where the trouble is likely to begin. The desire to know history is a near relative of the desire to know truth, and that is where, for most of us, a pit lies waiting. It is a deep pit, overlaid with an innocent branch or two, cut down from a nearby tree, and among a scattering of wilted leaves, there are easily plucked twigs and tamed, resistant grasses. At its sides and at an attractive distance, one also finds rare specimens of jungle flora. It is a pretty place and only a very few of the so-called professional historians come back from it alive. For the moment I can remember the names of only three who came back whole: Herodotus, Edward Gibbon and Henry Adams, and of these, Herodorus, being the eldest and most respectable, is best known as "the father of lies."

Perhaps there has always been a great number of different kinds of people who were eager to think of themselves as historians. Perhaps this was always so, but during the last few years, there seems to have been an increase of their published work; they seem to have become more vocal, more insistent that the field of history is theirs to have and to hold . . .

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