Modernism, Medicine, & William Carlos Williams

Crawford, Hugh

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Feb-18-1997


This is a fascinating book on the relationship of science, medicine, and medical education to the rise of modernism in literature. Crawford uses Williams' work to connect the worlds of literature and medicine. He discovers in Williams' early poems and stories the dominant themes of clarity, cleanliness, objectivity, and authority; these themes also characterize early 20th century science. In Williams' later work, Crawford shows how the poet moved toward a more subjective and relativistic aesthetic, a change that reflects subsequent developments in science, especially physics, and signifies the emergence of "post-modernism" in literature.

Williams' first principle was clarity. As a physician, it was important that he observe human reality with a clear eye so that he could intervene to transform it. Direct apprehension of reality was also for him the source of poetry. He found beauty in the concrete experience of everyday life, but was skeptical of theories and abstractions. Along with clarity, cleanliness and objectivity also characterize Williams' worlds.

But clarity is not, in reality, so clear. To see clearly in a medical way, the physician must first learn to observe the world in a specialized manner in the "theater of proof," a metaphorical extension of the stage on which professors demonstrate anatomical structures or surgeons demonstrate operations. Like medical educators, the poet also creates a theater of proof. While the reader may experience clarity and simplicity in the poem, these effects are actually staged by the poet, who chooses "clean" words and manipulates reality to achieve the desired simplicity. In both medicine and poetry, the practitioner unveils the truth by using manipulative and authoritarian techniques.

In the last chapter, Crawford shows that Williams' later work presages a post-modern, relativistic world. While the earlier Williams speaks of clarity, simplicity, science, and authority, Patterson and the post-World War II poems reveal complexity, fragmentation, and subversion.


This is an effective book of cultural and literary criticism. It stimulates new ways of thinking about Williams' writing, and especially about the relationship between his medical and aesthetic beliefs. The book will be useful mostly to those who are interested in the history of major 20th century literary movements (modernism, post-modernism), or who have a specific academic interest in William Carlos Williams. Many of the insights, however, will also be useful to the broader audience of those who read or teach Williams' poems and short stories.


Univ. of Oklahoma Press

Place Published

Norman, Okla.



Page Count