Posted by: Sally Ingraham | September 2, 2010

In the American Grain

american grainby William Carlos Williams

Ah, history. What a fascinating mash up of popular opinion, slap-shot reporting, eyewitness accounts, “truth” wilder than fiction, and a whole slew of other nonsense. Do we know or care anything about it? Is it even possible to know it, really?

I have been interested in history as a story for most of my life, believing in its subjectivity, taking its so called facts with a whole margarita glass rimful of salt. Williams’ concept for this book – to write stories that reveal and explore his own impressions of historical events and figures – really appealed to me. In fact the first piece in the book, which brings Eric the Red’s voice to life, brought back fond memories of a similar story that my little sister and I wrote together when I was a teen and she was a wee one. In our home-schooled freedom, we got out library books and researched the coming of the Viking to the New World, then wrote (and illustrated!) our own impression (a rip-roaring tale!) of the events. What fun.

I wouldn’t call Williams’ book fun, per say. I didn’t really enjoy it, to my curious dismay. The writing was rather good, for the most part, if also rather incomprehensible at times. Again, the concept was very appealing, and with each piece I set out to be challenged and intrigued by Williams’ take on whatever character or plot out of history that he tackled – be it Cortez, the voyage of the Mayflower, Daniel Boone, the “advent of slaves”, or Poe. I was certainly challenged…and found myself more often than not struggling to understand Williams’ views on Native Americans and females, striving to keep it all in context, and remember that he wrote the book in the 1920s. But…there were moments when my jaw dropped and I actually exclaimed out loud in astonished disagreement, and this is unusual given my normally mellow reading state. Moments like that took time to recover from, and so of course my reading experience was jarring to say the least.

So not my favorite book of the year, but not one I entirely disliked. Once again, the concept of the book was fabulous. Did I mention that Williams reconstructed his style and tone for each piece so that it matched the setting or character that he was re-imagining, blending his own words seamlessly into quotations from source texts? He succeeded quite well with that too, so I’m won over somewhat by the writing experiment that the book is. I’m not sorry I read it. Thanks to Frances for picking such an interesting book to be our August read for the non-structured book group! For September, we’ll be reading Tómas Eloy Martínez’s Santa Evita.


  1. I feel you on the women & Native Americans thing, although after I got over my dismay (well, became accustomed to it anyway) I actually kind of enjoyed “arguing” with Williams and deconstructing how his attitudes were of his time. There was definitely ample material for deconstruction!

    • Haha, I’d kind of like to peep into those notes you mentioned in your post! I bet that’s some fascinating reading. You’re right, I did kind of get used to Williams’ thought process. I wish I had had more brain power while reading it, so I could have deconstructed it more. August hampers my reading at the best of times, and this past month was a real killer. I think I only read one other book aside from the Williams…!

  2. I remember that project on Leif Ericson we did! I wonder where it is, it would be fun to read 🙂

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