It is difficult to characterize this book, which consists of a series of roughly chronological chapters, each of which deals with a person or an event important in shaping (or representative of) "the American grain." Williams begins with Red Eric (Eric the Red), whose son Leif Ericsson "discovered" the North American continent, and continues with chapters on Columbus, Cortez, Ponce de Leon, De Soto, Walter Raleigh, the Pilgrims, Champlain, Cotton Mather, Daniel Boone, George Washington, and so forth.

In each case the focus is on character and impact--not so much "impact" on the historical panorama, but "impact" on the emerging and evolving American character (or grain). In that sense the book might be considered an impressionistic biography of the childhood and adolescence of the American spirit.

About halfway through the book in a chapter entitled "Père Sebastian Rasles" (p. 105), Williams steps into the narrative as a first person narrator describing events that occurred during "my six weeks in Paris." Here he connects the development of American literature, as exemplified by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D. and other expatriates, to American cultural history, in this case the evolving conflict between the New England puritan culture and a Catholic influence that filtered down from Quebec (personalized in the form of the Jesuit priest for whom the chapter is named).

The clearest statement of the American grain occurs in a chapter called "Jacataqua." Consider this: "The United States without self-seeking has given more of material help to Europe and to the world . . . than have all other nations of the world put together in the entire history of mankind." (p. 175) "It is this which makes us the flaming terror of the world . . . with hatred barking at us from every sea." (p. 176) "America adores violence, yes. It thrills at big fires and explosions." (p. 177) And so forth. Williams’s observations remain pretty much on target in 2003, nearly 80 years after he wrote them.


This book is a modernist experiment, a history composed of fragments of narrative and brilliant, but idiosyncratic, insight. In I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet (see annotation in this database), Williams speaks about the enormous amount of research that he and his wife Flossie did for In the American Grain. But the research was selective, and the result is nothing like a history in the ordinary sense.

The prose is often magnificent; for example, the chapter on Cortez and the fall of Montezuma ("The Destruction of Tenochtitlan") contains a rolling, rhythmic prose that reads very much like poetry (which is ironic, coming from a poet who eschewed traditional rhythm in his poems). Williams also has a peculiar "take" on certain of his characters, most notably Aaron Burr, whom he presents as a hero of American history, who has been unjustly maligned, both by his contemporaries and by subsequent generations.


New Directions

Place Published

New York



Page Count