William Carlos Williams on America

Here is a quote from In the American Grain by Williams Carlos Williams. He became famous for his poetry, but this creative non-fiction work has stood the test of time. When it was first published (1925), however, it didn’t get much of a reception.

It is now about 10 years shy of a century when it was published, although many of the writings it contained probably were written well before that. In 1925, it was a very different world. It was during a time when the top tax rates had been drastically dropped and before they’d be raised again in the following decades, before the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, before World War II Era social programs and Progressivism, before television and Hollywood became the major forces they are today, before the largescale commercialization and commodification of the 1950s, before the social turmoil and Vietnam War troubles of the 1960s, before the dark times of the 1970s and the materialistic cynicism of the 1980s, before the Cold War had begun and way before global Islamic Terrorism. It was a time when America was still coming into its own and few yet envisioned the country as a global superpower that could challenge the great empires. Heck, the shift from a rural to an urban society was still in process. It was the Roaring Twenties.

Conservatives look to the past for when America was great. I get the sense that Williams had a different opinion. Speaking about America, he described it this way (Kindle Locations 1149-1152):

It has become “the most lawless country in the civilized world,” a panorama of murders, perversions, a terrific ungoverned strength, excusable only because of the horrid beauty of its great machines. To-day it is a generation of gross know-nothingism, of blackened churches where hymns groan like chants from stupefied jungles, a generation universally eager to barter permanent values (the hope of an aristocracy) in return for opportunist material advantages, a generation hating those whom it obeys.

Has America changed much since then? It is hard to feel convinced that we’ve become a better people. I think Williams may have captured (at least an aspect of) the Soul of America.

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