William A. Lehn
English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Born in the shadows of Manhattan in Rutherford, New Jersey on September 17, 1883 to British and Dominican immigrant parents, William Carlos Williams lived in the same town for most of the seventy nine years of his life. Williams spent a few of his early teen years studying abroad in Geneva and Paris before ultimately enrolling in Horace Mann High School in Manhattan. At Horace Mann, Williams started writing the poetry that would partly define his life. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School where he met fellow poet Ezra Pound. He earned a medical degree in 1906, and furthered his medical training with a study of pediatrics at the University of Leipzig in Germany before returning home to Rutherford to set up his medical practice. It was here where Williams makes a solid contribution to the genre of working class literature.
Williams is often regarded as a major part of the modernist movement and ran in the circles of such renowned artists of his time as Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Salvador Dali to name a few. While he was offered the opportunity to become part of an exclusive obstetrician/gynecology practice after his medical residency, Williams get into the practice of medicine for economic benefit. He eschewed his class status and used his advanced education and skill as a physician to care for the immigrants and natives of his own northern New Jersey and this compassion is evident in his writing.
His dual life as a physician provided much inspiration for the themes of the working man he wrote about. Often he was interrupted by his source of inspiration, his patients, and this abruptness was vivid in his writing. He once said he often never revised. Williams's health began to decline after a heart attack in 1948 and a series of strokes, but he continued writing up until his death on March 4, 1963, the same year he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems.
William Carlos Williams addresses several working-class themes that would include this renowned writer into the canon of working class literature. While often regarded as a writer of the professional-class, Williams dealt with themes very integral to the plight of the working class. These issues include: poverty, distrust of authority, work shaping one's life, urban blight, struggle, gender issues, and class consciousness.
From his occupation as a family practitioner, Williams had a wealth of first hand experience with those of the working class. Although an industrial town, Rutherford would be considered affluent compared to the surrounding North Jersey communities it served. Cities like Newark, Passaic, Kearny, Paterson, and Hackensack were where the immigrant and first generation Americans made their homes. These people were laborers, and they were Williams' patients. Robert Coles offers insight to Williams's life in William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America. He explains that when Williams was asked by a college professor where he got his language from Williams responded, "From the mouths of Polish mothers" (63).
Williams wrote about America in the early twentieth century and about what it meant to live in America. Williams brought to life in his writings the struggles and diversions that other writers neglected. He looked at what made the United States, its people and their daily existence, and he used words that were representative of the language of the day. Coles adds that "Williams could not stop wondering what it means to be an ordinary American citizen -- a factory worker, an office worker, a shop-keeper, a 'laborer'" (xi). This understanding of the common man is evident in his work. In I Wanted to Write a Poem (1958), Williams describes himself as "obsessed by the plight of the poor" (63).
In Spring and All, Williams uses the poem "To Elsie" to personify life in America in a poem to his wife. He writes of "mountain folk from Kentucky or the ribbed north end of Jersey 'its deaf-mutes, thieves' of 'young slatterns, bathed in filth from Monday to Saturday'" (130). His style is quick and terse yet thoroughly descriptive in its assessment. It seems that Williams knew intimately the girl that was thrown up into a world that was "so hemmed round with disease or murder" (131). The reader can infer that Williams was the doctor's family that the girl went to work for at the age of fifteen. His "hard pressed house in the suburbs" (131) was where she would become someone like his wife, "some Elsie" with "ungainly hips and flopping breasts"(131).
In "The Right of Way", Williams catalogs images that most people would consider trivial, but he found to be quite revealing of the American culture he lived and dealt with on a daily basis. Williams writes, "I saw / an elderly man who / smiled and looked away / to the north past a house ... Why bother where I went? / for I went spinning on the / four wheels of my car / along the road until / I saw a girl with one leg / over a rail of a balcony (120)". In "The Red Wheel Barrow", one of his most famous poems, Williams looks at the usefulness of often overlooked items: "so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / beside the white / chickens" (138). He writes with such fervor to allow the voices of the ones bathed in filth all week, the farmer, and the one legged girl be heard.
Another theme evident in Williams's work that would call for his inclusion as a working class author is distrust. In their essay "Toward a Theory of Working-Class Literature" Renny Christopher and Carolyn Whitson argue that "The working-class aesthetic usually involves a distrust of authority" (75). In Paterson, Williams offers a view that we should not trust the Federal Reserve Banks. He warns "Every one of us is paying tribute to the money racketeers on every dollar we earn through hard work" (91). He writes that it's not so bad that a man must work hard for what he makes, but to pay it to a system that is a "private monopoly"(90) is ludicrous. In White Mule, Joe Stecher seeks to distance himself from his present employers by going into business for himself.
In a conversation with Mr. Lemon, his financial backing, Stecher condemns his present job situation: "he unions are dishonest, just as dishonest as the bosses"(262). It is this distrust of his bosses and his contempt for unions that has driven Stecher to his present situation. Placed in the awkward position of trying to force his employers hand for more money for his workers by the words of a unionizer, Stecher flares up and retorts "I'll be God damned if I'll pay you a nickel -- for your crookedness" (97). While most critics of working-class literature see unions as largely positive, unions and bosses, through the eyes of Stecher, are no different in regard to the plight of the working man, and Williams brings this issue to the forefront in this work.
William Carlos Williams breathes life into the plight of the average person. He brings to literature his experiences as a doctor and caretaker of many who could not even afford to pay their bills. Because of this recurring theme in his work, William Carlos Williams fits in among the great writers of both the modernist movement and of the ever burgeoning working-class studies movement.
This bibliography is not inclusive but a starting place where you can explore the connection between William Carlos Williams and working-class studies.
Bremen, Brian, A. William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture. Oxford University: New York, 1993.
Brain Bremen analyzes the trilogy of White Mule (1937), In The Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952) which chronicles the life of one family Joe and Gurlie Stecher and their pursuit of the American dream. Bremen explores Williams's distrust of authority that Joe finds himself confronting through out the texts (154). He also looks at the intersubjectivity that racial, ethnic, gender and economic identities and differences share in the three texts(154). Additionally, Bremen clarifies Williams's probing of class and money with the character of Gurlie.
Cirasa, Robert J. The Lost Works of William Carlos Williams: The Volumes of Collected Poetry as Lyrical Sequences. Associated University Press: Madison, 1995.
Robert Cirasa analyzes "Proletarian Portrait,""The Waitress,""To an Old Jaundiced Woman," from An Early Martyr and Other Poems, and "The Crowd at the Ball Game,""The Right of Way,""To Elsie,""Spring and All," from Spring and All and many other poems by Williams to show its relevance to working-class literature.
Coles, Robert. William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America. Rutgers University Press: Rahway, 1975.
Robert Coles brings to light interesting facts about Williams the physician and his profound effect on Williams the writer. Coles breaks his book into three parts: "The Passaic Stories,""Arrival in America," and "Survival in America". Even more profound than the book is the introduction where Coles explains the reasons why Williams is entrenched in the causes of the working class and why he was enamored with the everyday experiences of the working-class man (ix-xi). Each part looks at different aspects of Williams's work in relation to working-class ideals. In "The Passaic Stories," Coles offers a background on Williams and explores his epic poem Paterson and its associations to working class literature (17). Williams deals at length with issues of poverty, unwanted children and race in Paterson and Coles provides insight into all these issues of working class literature. "Arrival in America" starts out with some rather poignant quotes from Williams and his obsession with the "plight of the poor" (63). Coles also provides in depth analysis of the Stecher trilogy. This analysis continues in "Survival in America" as well.
Johnson, Bob. “A Whole Synthesis of His Time”: Political Ideology and Cultural Politics in the Writings of William Carlos Williams, 1929-1939. American Quarterly. Vol. 55 Issue 2. June 2002.
Bob Johnson provides criticism on "Dawn of the Day", a short story by Williams set during the Great Depression that delves into issues of class consciousness and race during the depression. Johnson also explores Williams's use of inter-racial sex in the construction of black working class females against "the dominant imagery of a white and bourgeois America" (182). He also offers insight into Williams's An Early Martyr and Other Poems, which include "To Be Hungry Is To Be Great", "To A Poor Old Woman" and "To an Old Jaundiced Woman". All three poems romanticize the poor and feeble (202).
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson.. Third printing. New Directions: New York, 1951.
Williams epic poem about a river and the city that rose from it. Many working class themes are explored here. The distrust of the Federal Reserve Banks (91), a woman who fears her violent husband (38), the buildings where residents of Paterson live and the conditions under which they work and survive (50). William Carlos Williams breathes life into the plight of the average person. He brings to literature his experiences as a doctor and caretaker of many who could not even afford to pay their bills. Williams looked at everyday situations in the lives of these poor people and set these images to poetry using very simple words.
Williams, William Carlos. White Mule. New Directions: New York, 1937.
The first book in the trilogy of the Stecher family; White Mule looks at the rise of Joe and Gurlie Stecher. Titled after the nickname for their premature daughter Flossie, White Mule deals with many issues in working class studies. From distrust of authority and poverty to marital relations and gender differences and having one's life shaped by work, Williams exposes all of these topics in the story of one family's quest for the American dream.
Williams, William Carlos. Imaginations. Fifteenth printing. New Directions: New York, 1970.
This small anthology includes Williams's book Spring and All. Spring and All has many poems that convey the plight of the common man and the everyday occurrences. Some are: "The Right of Way", a ride in a car; "Shoot it Jimmy", a scene at a night club; "To Elsie" catalogs things that are truly American; "The Red Wheelbarrow", something so simple but so necessary; "A Crowd at the Ball Game", collective pacifism and leisurely activities of the working-class. Things most people take for granted, Williams goes to extremes to shed light on.
Find all about William Carlos Williams at this website sponsored by the University of Texas.
Criticism of his work can be found at William Carlos Williams Review
View this unique interpretation of "The Great Figure" presented by the Voices & Visions project by Annenberg/CPB Multimedia Collection.