Skip to main content

The Mirror Up to Nature

ISSUE:  Spring 1983
William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked. By Paul Mariani. McGraw-Hill. $24.95.

Whatever you do do not prettify me,” Walt Whitman once told Horace Traubel; “include all the hells and damns.” Traubel ultimately went Whitman one better by including in With Walt Whitman in Camden just about everything the gabby old man said during his last years, and his work seems to have established a precedent. Like other recent American literary biographers, Paul Mariani respects the integrity and exhaustiveness, perhaps even the incipient compulsiveness, of Traubel’s method in this hefty life of William Carlos Williams, who was our century’s most fully realized incarnation of the Whitmanian attitude and who uttered plenty of cuss words of his own. The result is a generous, spirited book, crammed with detail and insight. It is likely to be widely, deservedly praised for the scholarly thoroughness and sympathetic narration that make it a monument to a classic American writer.

Mariani’s extensive researches have for the first time and perhaps definitively brought together the vast amount of evidence concerning Williams. His stubbornly, disarmingly frank narrative coordinates, elaborates, and confirms or corrects the various preliminary accounts of Williams’ life by Reed Whittemore, Mike Weaver, and others, among whom was Williams himself. He produced a formidable amount of autobiographical writing of greater or (frequently) lesser accuracy. This sorting out the hints and legends, and setting matters straight, has long needed doing, since, for Williams, writing and living were equally expressions of a genius for self-creation. Illuminations of the life illuminate the work, either by providing necessary information, as in the case of the previously baffling “Aigeltinger,” or, more rewardingly, by revealing the creative interplay between text and experience, as in the composition of Paterson, which is here read with unprecedented fullness and richness.

Because Williams’ personality has attracted so much curiosity and because he himself so often exploited it, Mariani’s book of necessity adds little to what has for some years been common knowledge about large biographical patterns. But it does unveil a remarkable character in the midst of life, and it adds immensely to our apprehension of both the texture and essence of his world and days. Here are the idealistic upbringing, the extended innocence, the simultaneous apprenticeships in medicine and poetry, and the tempestuous friendship with Ezra Pound, which became one of the fundamental relationships in modern literary history. Here also are the awkwardly undertaken, but deeply fruitful and lovely marriage to Floss; the insistent, disruptive extracurricular satyrism; the timely attraction to Europe and the subsequent commitment to Rutherford, New Jersey; the interminable quarreling with all manner of cultural and political authority. Above all, here are the ins and outs of a writer’s career with its continuities and interruptions, alliances, enmities, false starts, and happy endings—its early flowering in the heyday of the avant-garde; the long, frustrating slide into relative obscurity under the shadow of T. S. Eliot during the thirties and forties; and the painful, triumphant later years, when Paterson was ripping itself free.

From the deluge of incident and detail in which such stories are told Williams emerges raw, noisy, and unmistakable. He was profane, often coarsely so, belligerent, pig-headed, egotistical, and temperamental to a fault. On the other hand, he was a spontaneous democrat, generous of time and attention, radically compassionate and honest, Rabelaisianin energy and diction. Despite severe restrictions of vocation, residence, family commitment, and, in later years, physical infirmity, he somehow mastered the first American lesson: to be free, as Emerson put it, and make free.

Mariani dramatizes these characteristics in an inside narrative. Whenever practical the point of view is Williams’ own. Indicators of authorial distance or manipulation are as much as possible suppressed, and the biographer abandons his distinctive voice in favor (often too insistently) of quotation and paraphrase, so that Williams is ostensibly allowed to control his own story. The device and the necessary adjustments of it are often handled skillfully, as in the evocative shift of point of view to Floss during the account of Williams’ last days and death. Mariani is thus able to keep a steady focus on Williams’ perception of his experience and exploit the increasing emotional and intellectual resonance of his extraordinary amount of detail. His impersonation also allows him to release Williams’ jaunty, salty voice. The biography deserves serious attention as an attempt to imitate the processes of perception, cognition, imagination, memory—the rhythms and proportions of life itself.

Which leads us to the problematics of holding the mirror up to nature (to use Williams’ own allusion). The collapsing of narrative distance allows a useful verisimilitude, but it threatens the biographer’s functions of choice and judgment. In his admirable passion not to impose himself on his subject, Mariani too often becomes uncritically and unselectively derivative of it. The fault is, to borrow Williams’ critical vocabulary again, a “plagiarism after nature,” which leaves Mariani and his reader at the mercy of Williams’ descriptions, interests, and whims—his opinion of the fried oysters at Child’s in 1925, for instance, or his umpteenth reaffirmation of the redemptive capacities of the imagination. There are too many such unsorted details and mechanical repetitions, even though by using them Mariani keeps respectable company. He shares with some of the most ambitious and influential contemporary biographers a weakness for what I suppose is the fallacy of imitative form: the tacit assumption that events (the evolution of Paterson, say) that are characterized by repetition, digression, interminability, and frustration are best represented in a narrative that is itself characterized by repetition, digression, interminability, and frustration. I am not sure what to call the related fallacy that assigns textual proportions less according to the intrinsic importance of an episode or period than according to the amount of available documentation. At least it is puzzling that the busy, formative first 38 years of Williams’ life are considered in 186 pages of Mariani’s narrative, while the final 21, when the character was fixed, and events, although often dramatic, more or less predictable, occupy 309. No one would ask Mariani to slight the stirring emergence of Paterson in old age, but it seems likely that his relative emphases are due primarily to the fuller public and private record of the later years.

Whether he was being positive or negative, Williams was not always the best judge of himself or his achievements, and the biographer who takes him at his word risks erraticism and superficiality as well as giantism. When Mariani succumbs to such dangers, his fault is not of scholarship or articulation so much as it is a failure of curiosity, or perhaps an unwillingness to conceive himself in an adversary relationship to his subject. He notes, for instance, that Williams probably last corresponded with John Riordan in July 1927, but neither explains nor (apparently) asks why the correspondence, with its enthusiastic spirit of comradeship and discovery, was ended. The narrative contains hints about both men that could help to account for the rupture (if it was a rupture), but they are neither isolated nor worked into the sequence of cause and effect. Similarly, we are entitled to know more—if simply that there is nothing more to know—about Myra Marini, the young woman, one of his patients, whom Williams was “seeing” in 1930, and who is described only in an inconclusive sentence and a cryptic annotation. We might also wonder why Williams’ “nameless religious experience” of despair, dehumanization, and anonymity, which Mariani assigns to 1906, seems so at odds with the relentlessly optimistic idealism he was expressing to his brother at the same time. Mariani reports Williams’ terrifying but liberating episode exclusively in terms of a familiar letter to Marianne Moore of 1934, when Williams would more naturally have conceived of drastic psychological or spiritual phenomena in negative terms than he would during the cheerful days of his 23rd year. The letter is paraphrased without scepticism or disclaimer, and Mariani makes no attempt to account for inconsistencies in Williams’ tone.

Such episodes are not, finally, integrated into the narrative of a life. They are accumulated and remain to some degree extraneous. Mariani’s reliance upon them often makes his Williams less a mediated, shaped biography than a collection of biographical data. It lays out, so to speak, a field where researcher and reader meet, where the facts are made known so that every reader may weigh the evidence and, in a sense, compose his own biography, Judgments apart, I suppose I am saying nothing to which Mariani would take exception, since I am describing what seem to me the aims and achievements of the biographical genre of John Unterecker’s Hart Crane, Joseph Blotner’s Faulkner, and Lawrance Thompson’s Frost, to name only a few examples. These writers have responded to a demand for the exhaustive and definitive which has clearly come to be deeply felt by a generation of intellectuals who have known too much of partiality and revisionism. Like his colleagues, Mariani undertakes difficult and honorable labors. Like them also, he risks submerging in masses of unassimilated detail the personal honesty, intelligence, and appetite for life he brings to his work. Or worse, he endangers the identity and authority of his subject. Even the authors of the gospels understood that there is much about a man that we neither need nor care to know.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading