chapters iv & v of williams’ the great american novel: “the word is the thing”

IV


That’s all very fine about le mot juste but first the word must be free. — But is there not some other way? It must come about gradually. Why go down into hell when —

Because words are not men, they have no adjustments that need to be made. They are words. They can not be anything but free or bound. Go about it any way you chose.

The word is the thing. If it is smeared with colors from right and left what can it amount to?

I’d hate to have to live up there, she said with a frown. It was the soul that spoke. In her words could be read the whole of democracy, the entire life of the planet. It fell by chance on his ear but he was ready, he was alert.

And the little dusty car: There drawn up at the gutter was a great truck painted green and red. Close to it passed the little runabout while conscious desire surged in its breast. Yes there he was the great powerful mechanism, all in his new paint against the gutter while she rolled by and saw — The Polish woman in the clinic, yellow hair slicked back. Neck, arms, breast, waist, hips, etc. This is THE thing — The small mechanism went swiftly by the great truck with fluttering heart in the hope, the secret hope that perhaps, somehow he would notice — HE, the great truck in his massiveness and paint, that somehow he would come to her. Oh I wouldn’t like to live up there!

FOG HOLDSUP LINERS say the head lines. It is a blackness, a choking smother of dirty water in suspension. — You should have been here this morning. You could look out and see nothing but a sea of cloud below us. Right at our feet the fog began and stretched off as far as the eye could perceive.

Up out of the trees with a whirr started the sparrows. With a loud clatter the grouse got up at his feet. The ground was full of mushrooms. Everything, no matter what it is must be re-valuated.

The red grass will soon open into feathers.

Peter Broom, yes sah, my grandfather sah, the greatest man in Prince George County. He had three hundred children.

So many things, so many things: heat.

What then are you trying to say in THIS chapter? And what of your quest of THE word? What of A.N.T. ant?

Why someone has offended Wells. He has retorted with NEO-ACADEMICIAN: And: No new form of the novel required. Lack of substance always takes the form of novelty mongering. Empire must be saved! Saved for the proletariat.

On the side of the great machine it read: Standard Motor Gasoline, in capital letters. A great green tank was built upon the red chassis, FULL of gas. The little car looked and her heart leaped with shy wonder.

Save the words. Save the words from themselves. They are like children. Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Save them while they’re still young. Words must not be allowed to say, to do — Geld them. They are not REALLY words they are geldings. Save the words. Yes, I repeat SAVE THE WORDS. When Voronoff would have had words to transplant, interstitial words — he said save the words.

And what has anything Wells says to do with serious writing. FIRST let the words be free. The words are men, therefore they are not men. They cannot, must not, will not be mustered of the people, by the people, for the people. They are words. They will have their way.

Puh, puh, puh, puh! said the little car going up hill. But the great green and red truck said nothing but continued to discharge its gasoline into a tank buried in the ground near the gutter.

And the fog had coalesced into rain. Rain to soak the firewood the boys had left beside their old fire, like good scouts, for those to come after and the great car continued to discharge.

V


What then is a novel? Un novello, pretty, pretty Baby. It is a thing of fixed form. It is pure English. Yes, she is of Massachusetts stock. Her great grandfather was thrown out of the Quaker church for joining the Continental army. Hates the English. Her life is a novel — almost too sensational.

The story of Miss Li — so well told.

Qu’avez-vous vu? Or they that write much and see little. Not much use to us.

Speak of old Sun Bow pacing his mesa instead of Felipe Segundo in the barren halls of El Escorial — or asleep in his hard bed at one corner of the griddle.

My mother would have a little Negro boy come with a brush and sit at her feet and brush her legs by the hour.

Expressionism is to express skilfully the seething reactions of the contemporary European consciousness. Cornucopia. In at the small end and — blui! Kandinsky.

But it’s a fine thing. It is THE thing for the moment — in Europe. The same sort of thing, reversed, in America has a water attachment to be released with a button. That is art. Everyone agrees that that is art. Just as one uses a handkerchief.

It is the apotheosis of relief. Dadaism in one of its prettiest modes: rien, rien, rien. — But wait a bit. Maybe Dadaism is not so weak as one might imagine. — One takes it for

granted almost without a thought that expressionism is the release of SOMETHING. Now then Aemilius, what is European consciousness composed of? — Tell me in one word. — Rien, rien, rien! It is at least very complicated. Oh very.

You damned jackass. What do you know about Europe? Yes, what in Christ’s name do you know? Your mouth is a sewer, a cloaca.

Complicated consciousness quite aside from a possible re-valuation. It has no value for ME. It is all very interesting and God knows we have enough to learn. The swarming European consciousness. But there it is much simpler — No good to us.

Swarming European consciousness: Kreisler and Ysaye were the only ones with any value. They had a few pennies over and above expenses. They swarm here now for something to eat. But the funniest are the ones from Russia; each excoriates the playing of the other and calls the other a Sheeny. Wow!

Really you are too naive. They are merely reacting to the American atmosphere — It is their work that counts. And besides a virtuoso is not really creative in any serious sense. Would a great artist, say Kandinsky —? In any case it all seems to preoccupy you so, and in a book about America, really —

Take their work. I resent it all. I hate every symphony, every opera as much as a Negro should hate Il Trovatore. Not perhaps hate it in a purely aesthetic sense but from under. It is an impertinence. Where in God’s name is our Alexander to cut, cut, cut, through this knot.

Europe is nothing to us. Simply nothing. Their music is death to us. We are starving — not dying — not dying mind you — but lean-bellied for words. God I would like to see some man, some one of the singers step out in the midst of some one of Aida’s songs and scream like a puma.

But you poor fellow, you use such inept figures. Aida has been dead artistically in Munich for fifty years.

Wagner then — Strauss. It is no difference to me. Tear it all apart. Start with one note. One word. Chant it over and over forty different ways.

But it would be stupid —

It would, if it were what I mean — it would be accurate. It would articulate with something. It would signify relief. Release I mean. It would be the beginning.

Do not imagine I do not see the necessity of learning from Europe — or China but we will learn what we will, and never what they would teach us. America is a mass of pulp, a jelly, a sensitive plate ready to take whatever print you want to put on it — We have no art, no manners, no intellect — we have nothing. We water at the eyes at our own stupidity. We have only mass movement like a sea. But we are not a sea —

Europe we must — We have no words. Every word we get must be broken off from the European mass. Every word we get placed over again by some delicate hand. Piece by piece we must loosen what we want. What we will have. Will they let it go? Hugh.

I touch the words and they baffle me. I turn them over in my mind and look at them but they mean little that is clean. They are plastered with muck out of the cities. —

We must imitate the motivation and shun the result. We are very few to your many -But what is all this but waste energy.

No it is not. It is as near as I can come for the present to the word. What good to talk to me of Santayana and your later critics. I brush them aside. They do not apply. They do not reach me any more than a baby’s hand reaches the moon. I am far under them. I am less, far less if you will. I am a beginner. I am an American. A United Stateser. Yes it’s ugly, there is no word to say it better. I do not believe in ugliness. I do not want to call myself a United Stateser but what in — but what else am I? Ugliness is a horror to me but it is less abhorrent than to be like you even in the most remote, the most minute particular. For the moment I hate you, I hate your orchestras, your libraries, your sciences, your yearly salons, your finely tuned intelligences of all sorts. My intelligence is as finely tuned as yours but it lives in hell, it is doomed to eternal — perhaps eternal — shiftings after what? Oh to hell with Masters and the rest of them. To hell with everything I have myself ever written.

Here’s a man wants me to revise, to put in order. My God what I amdoing means just the opposite from that. There is no revision, there can be no revision —

Down came the rain with a crash. For five days it had been pending. With a loud splash it seemed to strike the earth as if it were body meeting body. The poplar leaves swirled and swirled. The gutters were wedged with water.

Oh you fool you are thicker than rain drops.

Give me to Musorgski. I am tired. Take me to the opera tonight and let me see Nijinsky dance his Till Eulenspiegel for I am tired to death with looking for sense among American poets. Igor will retrieve my courage. I could sit and listen in his lap for ever. Were not the American Indians Mongols? Or they must have been. Why could they not have been Chinese? Why could not the early Emperors have discovered America? Tell me, wet streets, what we are coming to, we in this country? Are we doomed? Must we be another Europe or another Japan with our coats copied from China, another bastard country in a world of bastards? Is this our doom or will we ever amount to anything?

Drown me in pictures like Marsden, make me a radical artist in the conventional sense. Give me the intelligence of a Wells. God, Ford is so far beyond him that what Wells says really sounds sensible.

Must it be a civilization of fatigued spirits? Then give me Ford. My God it is too disgusting.

Great men of America! O very great men of America please lend me a penny so I won’t have to go to the opera.

Why not capitalize Barnum —?

Bravo, bravo mon vieux! A noble apostrophe to your country but don’t you realize that it is not a matter of country but the time — The time.

For God’s sake Charlie bring a lemon pie.

So they lay in the little brook and let the cold water run up their bare bellies.

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“it is joyce with a difference”—chapter iii of w.c. williams’ the great american novel

III

It is Joyce with a difference. The difference being greater opacity, less erudition, reduced power of perception — Si la sol fa mi re do. Aside from that simple, rather stupid derivation, forced to a ridiculous extreme. No excuse for this sort of thing. Amounts to a total occlusion of intelligence. Substitution of something else. What? Well, nonsense. Since you drive me to it. —

Take the improvisations: What the French reader would say is: Oui, ça; j’ai déjà vu ça; ça c’est de Rimbaud. Finis.

Representative American verse will be that which will appear new to the French . . . . prose the same.

Infertile Joyce laments the failure of his sterile pen. Siegfried Wagner runs to his Mama crying: Mutti, Mutti, listen, I have just composed a beautiful Cantata on a theme I discovered in one of father’s operas.

In other words it comes after Joyce, therefore it is no good, of no use but a secondary local usefulness like the Madison Square Garden tower copied from Seville — It is of no absolute good. It is not NEW. It is not an invention.

Invention, I want to buy you some clothes. Now what would you really like to have? Let us pretend we have no intelligence whatever, that we have read ALL there is to read and that Rimbaud has taught us nothing, that Joyce has passed in a cloud, that, in short, we find nothing to do but begin with Macaulay or King James, that all writing is forbidden us save that which we recognize to be inadequate. NOW show your originality, mon ami. NOW let me see what you can do with your vaunted pen.

Nothing could be easier.

My invention this time, my dear, is that literature is a pure matter of words. The moon making a false star of the weather vane on the steeple makes also a word. You do not know the fine hairs on a hickory leaf? Try one in the woods some time. You will grasp at once what I mean.

But Joyce. He is misjudged, misunderstood. His vaunted invention is a fragile fog. His method escapes him. He has not the slightest notion what he is about. He is a priest, a roysterer of the spirit. He is an epicurean of romance. His true genius flickers and fails: there’s the peak, there in the trees — For God’s sake can’t you see it! Not that tree but the mass of rocks, that reddish mass of rocks, granite, with the sun on it between that oak and the maple. — That is not an oak. Hell take it what’s the use of arguing with a botanist.

But I will not have my toothpicks made of anything but maple. Mr. Joyce will you see to it that my toothpicks are not made of anything but maple? Irish maple. Damn it, it’s for Ireland. Pick your teeth, God knows you need to. The trouble with writing of the old style is that the teeth don’t fit. They were made for Irishmen — as a class.

Tell me now, of what in your opinion does Mr. Joyce’s art consist, since you have gone so far as to criticize the teeth he makes? — Why, my dear, his art consists of words.

What then is his failure, O God. — His failure is when he mistakes his art to be something else.

What then does he mistake his art to be, Rosinante? — He mistakes it to be several things in more or less certain rotation from botany — Oh well it’s a kind of botany you know — from botany to — to — litany. Do you know his poetry?

But you must not mistake his real, if hidden, service. He has in some measure liberated words, freed them for their proper uses. He has to be a great measure destroyed what is known as "literature." For me as an American it is his only important service.

It would be a pity if the French failed to discover him for a decade or so. Now wouldn’t it? Think how literature would suffer. Yes think — think how LITERATURE would suffer.

At that the car jumped forward like a live thing. Up the steep board incline into the garage it leaped — as well as a thing on four wheels could leap — But with great dexterity he threw out the clutch with a slight pressure of his left foot, just as the fore end of the car was about to careen against a mass of old window screens at the garage end. Then pressing with his right foot and grasping the handbrake he brought the machine to a halt — just in time -though it was no trick to him, he having done it so often for the past ten years.

It seemed glad to be at home in its own little house, the trusty mechanism. The lights continued to flare intimately against the wooden wall as much to say:

And what is good poetry made of
And what is good poetry made of
Of rats and snails and puppy-dog’s tails
And that is what good poetry is made of

And what is bad poetry made of
And what is bad poetry made of
Of sugar and spice and everything nice
That is what bad poetry is made of

Here I am back again. The engine sighed and stopped at the twist of the key governing the electric switch. Out went the lights with another twist of the wrist. The owner groped his way to the little door at the back and emerged into the moonlight, into the fog, leaving his idle car behind him to its own thoughts. There it must remain all night, requiring no food, no water to drink, nothing while he, being a man, must live. His wife was at the window holding the shade aside.

A rebours: Huysman puts it. My dear let us free ourselves from this enslavement. We do not know how thoroughly we are bound. It must be a new definition, it must cut us off from the rest. It is in a different line. Good morning Boss said the old colored man working on the railroad and started to sing: Jesus, Jesus I love you. It was Sunday, he was working on the railroad on Sunday and had to put up some barrier. It is an end to art temporarily. That upstart Luther. My God don’t talk to me of Luther, never changed his bed clothes for a year. Well, my dear, IT’S COMING just the same. To hell with art. To hell with literature. The old renaissance priests guarded art in their cloisters for three hundred years or more. Sunk their teeth in it. The ONE solid thing. Don’t blame me if it went down with them. DOWN, you understand. First through the middle of the rose window. You are horror struck. One word: Bing! One accurate word and a shower of colored glass following it. Is it my fault? Ask the French if that is literature.

Do you mean to say that art — O ha, ha. Do you mean to say that art — O ha ha. Well spit it out. Do you mean to say that art is SERIOUS? — Yes. Do you mean to say that art does any WORK? — Yes. Do you mean —? Revolution. Russia. Kropotkin. Farm, Factory and Field. — CRRRRRRASH. -Down comes the world. There you are gentlemen, I am an artist.

What then would you say of the usual interpretation of the word "literature"? — Permanence. A great army with its tail in antiquity. Cliché’ of the soul: beauty.

But can you have literature without beauty? It all depends on what you mean by beauty.

There is beauty in the bellow of the BLAST, etc. from all previous significance. — To me beauty is purity. To me it is discovery, a race on the ground.

And for this you are willing to smash —

Yes, everything. — To go down into hell. — Well let’s look.

“a novel must progress toward a word”—chapter ii of w.c. wiliams’ the great american novel

First published in Paris in 1923 in an edition of three hundred copies, W.C. Williams’ The Great American Novel is, in his words, "a satire on the novel form in which a little (female) Ford car falls more or less in love with a Mack truck." But it is also a serious attempt to write a novel that goes beyond the received set of novelistic conventions. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Williams’ novel was published only one year after James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

II

I’m new, said she, I don’t think you’ll find my card here. You’re new; how interesting. Can you read the letters on that chart? Open your mouth. Do you have headaches? No. Ah, yes, you are new. I’m new, said the oval moon at the bottom of the mist funnel, brightening and paling. I don’t think you’ll find my card there. Open your mouth—Breathe—A crater big enough to hold the land from New York to Philadelphia. New! I’m new, said the quartz crystal on the parlor table—like glass—Mr. Tiffany bought a car load of them. Like water or white rock candy—I’m new, said the mist rising from the duck pond, rising, curling, turning under the moon—Unknown grasses asleep in the level mists, pieces of the fog. Last night it was an ocean. Tonight trees. Already it is yesterday. Turned into the wrong street seeking to pass the power house from which the hum, hmmmmmmmmmmmmm—sprang. Electricity has been discovered for ever. I’m new, says the great dynamo. I am progress. I make a word. Listen! UMMMM- MMMMMMMM —

 

Ummmmmmmmmm—Turned into the wrong street at three A.M. lost in the fog, listening, searching—Waaaa! said the baby. I’m new. A boy! A what? Boy. Shit, said the father of two other sons. Listen here. This is no place to talk that way. What a word to use. I’m new, said the sudden word.

 

The fog lay in deep masses on the roads at three A.M. Into the wrong street turned the car seeking the high pitched singing tone of the dynamos endlesslyspinning in the high banquet hall, filling the house and the room where the bed of pain stood with progress. Ow, Ow! Oh help me somebody! said she. UMMMMMM sang the dynamo in the next street, UMMMM. With a terrible scream she drowned out its sound. He went to the window to see if his car was still there, pulled the curtain aside, green—Yes it was still there under the light where it would not be so likely to be struck by other cars coming in the fog. There it was as still as if it were asleep. Still as could be. Not a wheel moved. No sound came from the engine. It stood there under the purple arc-light, partly hidden by a pole which cast a shadow toward him in the masses of floating vapor. He could see the red tail light still burning brightly with the electricity that came from the battery under the floor boards. No one had stolen the spare tire. It was very late.—Well, said he, dropping the shade and thinking that maybe when he was busy someone might easily come up from the meadows and take the spare tire—Well, I suppose I had better see how things have progressed.

 

And so he backed out into the main street and turned up another block. And there he saw. The great doors were open to full view of the world. A great amphitheatre of mist lighted from the interior of the power house. In rows sat the great machines saying vrummmmmmmmmmmmm. Stately in the great hall they sat and generated electricity to light the cellar stairs with. To warm the pad on Mrs. Voorman’s belly. To cook supper by and iron Abie’s pyjamas. Here was democracy. Here is progress—here is the substance of words— UMMMMM: that is to say meat or linen or belly ache.— Three A.M. To be exacttwenty-eight minutes past three.

 

And all this was yesterday—Yesterday and there at her window I saw her, the lady of my dreams her long and sallow face, held heavily near the glass, overlooking the street where the decayed-meat wagon passes and the ice cream cart rumbles with its great power and the complicated affairs of the town twitter toward the open sewer in the meadows by the Button Factory. Orange peel, tomato peel floating in a whitish, soapy flow—Her face without expression, the lady I am dying for, her right shoulder as high as her ear, the line of the shoulder sloping down acutely to the neck, her left shoulder also raised so that her head seemed to lie loose in a kind of saddle.

 

Supreme in stupidity and a fog of waste, profit in what is left. Oh what delectable morsel is left. Blessed hunchback, scum of loves weekly praying in all churches— which by the way take up the very best sites in the town. There she sat, her body low down below the window frame, only her face showing, and looked at me dully, looked because I looked— and my heart leaped up to her in passionate appeal that she should be my queen and run with me over the foggy land—Forward—Onward and upward forever.

 

So saying the day had progressed toward the afternoon and under the poplars the dried leaves had begun to collect. It had been unbearably hot. September is a hot month. The leaves had fallen one by one. No wind. One by one pushed off by the buds which swollen by the heat had thought that winter was over. Off with you. You stand in the way of progress, say the young leaves. Sitting on his chair he seemed like any other man but to get to the bed he suddenly descended to the floor. On his long arms—he Apollo, and using the stumps of his legs, apelike on all fours and talking quietly he swung himself up over the edge of the bed and lay down.

 

Over the field—for the fog had left the grasses in the early morning when the sun came up with majestic progression, haughtily leaving the dropping city under him—over the field—for it was late in the afternoon and the sunlight shone in with his poor broken legs, crippled as he was -the sun shone in from the west. The car had turned in to the wrong street and he had gone into the store where the paralyzed Scotchman whom he had never seen before put him on the way—climbing into his bed sent his rays almost level over a patch of red grass hot and blinding. Over the field the heat rose and in it even from a distance due to the blur of light on their wings a great swarm of gnats could be seen turning, twisting in the air, rising falling—over the grass, fringed with the progressing sun.

 

But with great sweeps and sudden turns a dozen dragon flies seeming twice as large as they really were, from the sun blurring their transparent wings, darted back and forth over the field catching and eating the gnats. Swiftly the gnats progressed into the dragon flies, swiftly coalescingand from time to time a droplet of stuff fell from the vent of a feeding dragon fly,—and the little sound of this stuff striking the earth could not be heard with its true poetic force. Lost. Lost in a complicated world. Except in the eyes of God. But a word, a word rang true. Shit, said the father. With this name I thee christen: he added under his breath.

 

And yet—one must begin somewhere.

 

Deeply religious, he walked into the back yard and watching lest the children see him and want what they shouldn’t have he approached the grape vines. Selecting a bunch of Delawares he picked it with some difficulty spilling a few of the fruit. Then he walked to the other side and found some blue ones. These too he ate. Then some white which he ate also one by one swallowing the pulp and the seeds and spitting out the skins. He continued to cat but no word came to satisfy.

 

Somehow a word must be found. He felt rather a weight in his belly from eating so many grapes. He, himself that must die someday, he the deeply religious friend of great men and women in incipience, he couldn’t find a word. Only words and words. He ate another bunch of the grapes. More words. And never THE word.

 

A novel must progress toward a word. Any word that —Any word. There is an idea.

 

His brother was ill. He must go home. The sun will soon be on the Pacific coast. To bed, to bed—take off the clothes beginning on the outside and working in. How would it be to take off the underwear first, then the shirt—

 

Progress is damn foolishness—It is a game. Either I have or—a thieves’ game. Hold me close, closer, close as you can. I can’t hold you any closer. I have been stealing. I should never touch anything. I should never think of anything but you. I love another. It is a word. I have left you alone to run wild with a girl. I would be tame. Lies flicker in the sun. Visions beset noonday. Through the back window of the shoe-shine parlor a mass of golden glow flashes in the heat. Come into my heart while I am running—jumping from airplane to plane in midair. I cannot stop: the word I am seeking is in your mouth—I cannot stop. Hold me against -You are wrong, wrong Alva N. Turner. It is deeper than you imagine. I perceive that it may be permissible for a poet to write about a poetic sweetheart but never about a wife—should have said possible. It is not possible. All men do the same. Dante be damned. Knew nothing at all. Lied to himself all his life. Profited by his luck and never said thanks. God pulled the lady up by the roots. Never even said thank you. Quite wrong. Look what he produced. Page after page. Helped the world to bread. Have another slice of bread Mr. Helseth. No thank you—Not hungry tonight? Something on his mind.

 

The word. Who.

 

Liberate the words. You tie them. Poetic sweet-heart. Ugh. Poetic sweetheart. My dear Miss Word let me hold your W. I love you. Of all the girls in school you alone are the one

Dramatize myself make it sing together as if the world were a bird who married to the same mate five years understood in the end transmigration of souls.

 

Nonsense. I am a writer and will never be anything else. In which case it is impossible to find the word. But to have a novel one must progress with the words. The words must become real, they must take the place of wife and sweetheart. They must be church—Wife. It must be your wife. It must be a thing adamant with the texture of wind. Wife.

 

Am I a word? Words, words, words—

 

And approaching the end of the novel in his mind as he 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 had come to be leaves, trees, the corners of his house—such was the end. He had progressed leaving the others far behind him. Alone in that air with the words of his brain he had breathed again the pure mountain air of joy—there night after night in his poor room. And now he must leave her. She the—He had written the last word and getting up he understood the fog as it billowed before the lights.

 

That which had been impossible for him at first had become possible. Everything had been removed that other men had tied to the words to secure them to themselves. Clean, clean he had taken each word and made it new for himself so that at last it was new, free from the world for himself—never to touch it—dreams of his babyhood—poetic sweet-heart. No. He went in to his wife with exalted mind, his breath coming in pleasant surges. I come to tell you that the book is finished.

I have added a new chapter to the art of writing. I feel sincerely that all they say of me is true, that I am truly a great man and a great poet.

 

What did you say, dear, I have been asleep?

 

w.c. williams’ the great american novel: trying to write himself out of the prison house of language

In the early 1920s in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams had serious doubts that the "Great American Novel," as it was then conceptualized, could ever be written. Though generally known for his revolutionary work in poetry, Williams was also quite an experimentalist in prose, claiming in Spring and All that prose and verse "are phases of the same thing" (144). Williams showed concern for the future of American literature in general, including that of the novel. In response to what he viewed as specific problems facing the American novel, problems with American language, and problems inherent in the nature of language itself, Williams created The Great American Novel in 1923. Williams was troubled by the derivative nature of American novels of the time, their lack of originality, and their dependence upon European models; the exhausted material and cliché-ridden language of the historical novels of his day; the tendency of such novels to oversimplify or misrepresent the American experience; and the formulaic quality of genres such as detective novels. At the heart of The Great American Novel is Williams’s concern with how these conventional novel forms obscure the play of language and fail to engage readers in the defamiliarization that drives his poetics. Growing out of these underlying premises, The Great American Novel engages the techniques of what we would now call metafiction to parody worn out formulas and content and, ironically, to create a new type of novel that anticipates postmodern fiction.

—from April Boone, “William Carlos Williams’s The Great American Novel: Flamboyance and the Beginning of Art.” William Carlos Williams Review, Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2006.

Bookseller Photo 

 

The first chapter of William Carlos Williams’ The Great American Novel:

I
THE FOG
 

If there is progress then there is a novel. Without progress there is nothing. Everything exists from the beginning. I existed in the beginning. I was a slobbering infant. Today I saw nameless grasses— I tapped the earth with my knuckle. It sounded hollow. It was dry as rubber. Eons of drought. No rain for fifteen days. No rain. It has never rained. It will never rain. Heat and no wind all day long better say hot September. The year has progressed. Up one street down another. It is still September. Yesterday was the twenty-second. Today is the twenty-first. Impossible. Not if it was last year. But then if wouldn’t be yesterday. A year is not as yesterday in his eyes. Besides last year it rained in the early part of the month. That makes a difference. It rained on the white goldenrod. Today being misplaced as against last year makes it seem betterto have white — Such is progress. Yet if there is to be a novel one must begin somewhere.

Words are not permanent unless the graphite be scraped up and put in a tube or the ink lifted. Words progress into the ground. One must begin with words if one is to write. But what then of smell? What then of the hair on the trees or the golden brown cherries under the black cliffs. What of the weakness of smiles that leaves dimples as much as to say: forgive me— I am slipping, slipping, slipping into nothing at all. Now I am not what I was when the word was forming to say what I am. I sit so on my bicycle and look at you greyly, dimpling because it is September and I am older than I was. I have nothing to say this minute. I shall never have anything to do unless there is progress, unless you write a novel. But if you take me in your arms— why the bicycle will fall and it will not be what it is now to smile greyly and a dimple is so deep— you might fall in and never, never remember to write a word to say good-bye to your cherries. For it is September. Begin with September.

To progress from word to word is to suck a nipple. Imagine saying: My dear, I am thirsty, will you let me have a little milk—This to love at first sight. But who do you think I am, says white goldenrod? Of course there is progress. Of course there are words. But I am thirsty, one might add. Yes but I love you and besides I have no milk. Oh yes, that is right. I forgot that we were speaking of words. Yet you cannot deny that to have a novel one must have milk. Not at the beginning. Granted, but at the end at least. Yes, yes, at the end. Progress from the mere form to the substance. Yes, yes, in other words: milk. Milk is the answer.

But how have milk out of white goldenrod? Why, that was what the Indians said. The bosom of the earth sprays up a girl balancing, balancing on a bicycle. Rapidly she passes through the first— the second eight years. Progress, you note. But September was rainy last year and how can it ever be dry again unless one go back to the year before that. There are no words. It cannot be any otherwise than as this is built the bosom of the earth shrinks back; phosphates. Yet to have a novel— Oh catch up a dozen good smelly names and find some reason for murder, it will do. But can you not see, can you not taste, can you not smell, can you not hear, can you not touch—words? It is words that must progress. Words, white goldenrod, it is words you are made out of—THAT is why you want what you haven’t got.

Progress is to get. But how can words get.—Let them get drunk. Bah. Words are words. Fog of words. The car runs through it. The words take up the smell of the car. Petrol. Face powder, arm pits, food-grease in the hair, foul breath, clean musk. Words. Words cannot progress. There cannot be a novel. Break the words. Words are indivisible crystals. One cannot break them—Awu tsst grang splith gra pragh og bm—Yes, one can break them. One can make words. Progress? If I make a word I make myself into a word. Such is progress. I shall make myself into a word. One big word. One big union. Such is progress. It is a novel. I begin small and make myself into a big splurging word: I take life and make it into one big blurb. I begin at my childhood. I begin at the beginning and make one big— Bah.

What difference is it whether I make the words or take the words. It makes no difference whatever.

There cannot be a novel. There can only be pyramids, pyramids of words, tombs. Their warm breasts heave up and down calling for a head to progress toward them, to fly onward, upon a word that was a pumpkin, now a fairy chariot, and all the time the thing was rolling backward to the time when one believed. Hans Anderson didn’t believe. He had to pretend to believe. It is a conspiracy against childhood. It runs backward. Words are the reverse motion. Words are the flesh of yesterday . Words roll, spin, flare up, rumble, trickle, foam— Slowly they lose momentum. Slowly they cease to stir. At last they break up into their letters— Out of them jumps the worm that was— His hairy feet tremble upon them.

Leaving the meeting room where the Mosquito Extermination Commission had been holding an important fall conference they walked out on to the portico of the County Court House Annex where for a moment they remained in the shadow cast by the moon. A fog had arisen in which the egg-shaped white moon was fixed—so it seemed. They walked around the side of the old-fashioned wooden building—constructed in the style of the fine residences of sixty years ago and coming to the car he said: Go around that side as I will have to get in here by the wheel. The seat was wet with dew and cold — after the exceptionally hot day. They sat on it nevertheless. The windshield was opaque with the water in minute droplets on it—through which the moon shone with its inadequate light. That is, our eyes being used to the sun the moon’s light is inadequate for us to see by. But certain bats and owls find it even too strong, preferring the starlight. The stars also were out.

Turning into the exit of the parking space he stopped the car and began to wipe the wind-shield with his hand. Take this rag said the other, with one hand already in his trouser pocket. So the glass was wiped on both sides, the top and the bottom pane and the cloth— which looked a good deal like a handkerchief— was returned to the owner — who put it back where it came from not seeming to mind that it was wet and dirty. But of course the man is a mechanic in a certain sense and doesn’t care.

On the highway they began to encounter fog. It seemed in the rush of the car to come and meet them. It came suddenly, with a rush and in a moment nothing could be seen but the white billows of water crossed in front by the flares of the headlights. And so it went all the way home, sometimes clearer, sometimes so thick he had to stop, nearly— ending in his own bed-room with his wife’s head on the pillow in the perfectly clear electric light. The light shone brightest on the corner of her right eye, which was nearest it, also on the prominences of her face.

Her right arm was under her head. She had been reading. The magazine Vanity Fair, which he had bought thinking of her, lay open on the coverlet. He looked at her and she at him. He smiled and she, from long practice, began to read to him, progressing rapidly until she said: You can’t fool me.

He became very angry but understood at once that she had penetrated his mystery, that she saw he was stealing in order to write words. She smiled again knowingly. He became furious.