Beautiful Blood, Beautiful Brain

And approaching the end of the novel in his mind as be sat there with his wife sleeping alone in the next room he could feel that something unusual had happened. Something had grown up in his life dearer than -- It, as the end. The words from long practice bad come to be leaves, trees, the corners of his house -- such was the end. He had progressed leaving the others behind him.

-- The Great American Novel

WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS forces the kinds of questions we address to natural disasters, reports of miracles and works of genius. How? Why? From what inexplicable source?

He was an American original. In his 79 years Williams led at least two lives, and at manic intensity. For some forty years he practiced medicine -- obstetrics and pediatrics -- in the small industrial town of Rutherford, New Jersey. He saw by his own account a million and a half patients and delivered 2,000 babies. This was from 1910 until 1951, before the era of doctoring by answering service and beginning the medical day with a call to the stockbroker. Williams worked like a slave at medicine. It brought him neither fortune nor special rank. Instead, it gave him and us that other life beyond value, a life of art.

While stealing time between patients, catching images and ideas between house calls, scribbling at midnight, William Carlos Williams laid the foundation of the most consequential one-man body of modern literature in American history -- a total of 49 books in every literary form we know and in forms we still have trouble classifying. He wrote some 600 poems, four full-length plays, an opera . . .

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