William Carlos Williams:
An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Center
William Carlos Williams was born on September 17, 1883, in Rutherford, New Jersey, the same town where he would die nearly eighty years later. His father, William George Williams, was a British-born merchant who, since childhood, had lived in the Caribbean. His mother, Rachel Elena Hoheb, was from Puerto Rico and had studied painting in Paris. The couple moved to Rutherford shortly after their marriage in Brooklyn, New York. Williams, and his younger brother Edgar, attended elementary school in Rutherford, and in 1898 studied at Château de Lancy, a boarding school near Geneva, while their father was in Buenos Aires on a year-long business trip. In the fall of 1899, Williams started high school at Horace Mann in Manhattan, commuting roughly an hour and a half each way from Rutherford to Morningside Heights.
Williams entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1902, as a student in its medical program. At Penn, Williams formed friendships with fellow student Ezra Pound, as well as painter Charles Demuth, who was studying art at Drexel, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), a student at Bryn Mawr. These friendships encouraged Williams to explore his aesthetic ambitions and would remain important throughout his life. Pound, in particular, was a chief foil in Williams' development of his vision of American literature. The two writers shared a life-long, if at times contentious, friendship. In his prologue to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), Williams would call Pound "the best enemy United States verse has" because, from Williams' perspective, Pound favored that which mimicked the European over that which was American. It became one of Williams' aesthetic missions to create a distinctively American literature—one which drew on American diction, rhythms, forms, and themes, and which was rooted in the particularities of the local.
Following medical school, Williams interned first at the French Hospital and then at Nursery and Child's Hospital in New York, resigning from the latter on principle rather than sign his name to a hospital report containing figures he could not verify. Williams next studied pediatrics in Leipzig. While in Europe, he visited Pound in London and had a brief taste of the literary scene there. Upon returning to Rutherford, Williams established a medical practice in his hometown and, in December of 1912, married Florence Herman. The couple would have two sons, William and Paul.
In 1909, Williams privately printed a volume of his poems in Rutherford; and then in 1913 he succeeded in publishing The Tempers with Pound's publisher, London-based Elkin Matthews. While many of his literary peers led bohemian lives in Greenwich Village and Paris, Williams juggled his writing with his life in suburban Rutherford and his busy medical career. In his 1951 Autobiography, Williams wrote that early on he had made the decision that he would "not 'die for art,' but live for it, grimly! And work, work, work (like Pop), beat the game and be free (like Mom, poor soul!) to write, write as I alone should write."
During the late 1910s, Williams would sometimes meet with a group of writers associated with the little magazine Others at the house of Alfred Kreymborg in Grantwood, New Jersey. He also made commutes into Greenwich Village to visit with writers like Marianne Moore, Marsden Hartley, Kay Boyle, Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy, and Lola Ridge. In 1920, Williams founded the little magazine Contact with writer Robert McAlmon. He also continued to contribute his own writing to various little magazines and during the early 1920s published Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920), Sour Grapes (1921), Great American Novel (1923), Spring and All (1923), and In the American Grain (1925). Much of this last book was written during a sabbatical year, half of which he spent in Europe. Though Williams did make several extended trips to Europe during the 1920s, he chose not to become an expatriate like so his many of his peers. In 1926, he won the Dial award for his poem "Paterson," a precursor to the long-poem of the same name he would publish in five books beginning in 1946.
In 1931, Williams contributed to the "Objectivist" issue of Poetry magazine, with fellow poets Louis Zukofsky, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen and others. In the 1930s, Williams continued to publish extensively, including two volumes of collected poems and the short story collections The Knife of the Times (1932) and Life Along the Passaic River (1938). Williams' fiction often depicted the local middle- and working-class figures that he encountered in his medical practice.
During the late 1930s, Williams, who always had a difficult time finding a stable publisher, began publishing with the fledgling press New Directions. Its founder, James Laughlin, brought out Williams' 1937 novel, White Mule, and served as his principal publisher throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. In 1950, though, Williams was wooed by a former New Directions editor, David McDowell, into a lucrative contract to publish several volumes of prose with the more commercial Random House.
Living at a remove from modernism's literary colonies, Williams was a diligent correspondent throughout his life. In addition to carrying on extensive correspondences with his literary peers, he responded to almost anyone who wrote to him, including many young writers. During the 1940s, he met and began a correspondence with aspiring writer Marcia Nardi, whose desperate and sometimes accusatory letters he incorporated into his epic poem Paterson.
For much of his life, Williams felt neglected in comparison to some of his better-known contemporaries; however, in the 1950s he began to achieve some the renown he desired. Members of a younger generation of writers, like Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, sought him out as a literary mentor. Such recognition, however, was offset by several medical and personal setbacks. In 1948, Williams suffered a heart attack, and throughout the 1950s he suffered a series of strokes and wrestled with bouts of depression. In the midst of this, Williams also commenced his periodic interviews with scholar John C. Thirlwall, who hoped to write a biography of the poet. Williams' own Autobiography had caused tensions with some of his old literary compatriots, including a major rift with his one-time friend Robert McAlmon.
Williams also experienced disappointment when his nomination to the post of Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress was sidetracked by McCarthy-era questions about his politics and personal associations, including his friendship with Pound. Ill-health and frustration led him to surrender the appointment. He did, however, that same year receive the validation of sharing the 1953 Bollingen Prize with Archibald MacLeish. Williams was increasingly asked to give readings around the country, and would do so as his health allowed. Julian Beck produced a successful off-Broadway run of Williams' play Many Loves in 1959, which the poet was able to attend.
In 1961, Williams experienced another round of debilitating strokes, leading him to give up on his writing. He died on March 4, 1963. Williams' funeral in Rutherford was attended by his family and townspeople, as well as several younger writers from New York--including Gilbert Sorrentino, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Joel Oppenheimer--who had come to pay homage to the poet. Later that year, Williams was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Pictures from Breughel, and Other Poems (1962) as well as the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for poetry.
The William Carlos Williams Collection consists of manuscripts and correspondence by Williams; manuscripts, correspondence, and research notes about Williams by scholar John C. Thirlwall; and correspondence about Williams by other authors. Major works represented in draft form include Williams' Life Along the Passaic River (1938) and Thirlwall's edition of the Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams (1957). Correspondents represented include David McDowell, Marcia Nardi, Bonnie Golightly, and Srinivas Rayaprol. The collection is arranged in four series: I. Works, 1936-1960, undated; II. Correspondence, 1928-1961, undated; III. John C. Thirlwall Materials, 1951-1971, undated; and IV. Correspondence by Other Authors, 1946-1968, undated.
The Works series includes a typescript of Williams' 1938 short story collection, Life Along the Passaic River, as well as a printed copy of his play A Dream of Love (1948) with handwritten corrections. Additional manuscripts in this series include a draft version of Williams' foreword to his Autobiography (1951), a typescript of an essay on the artist Emanuel Romano, and a typescript of The Train Ride, an unpublished story tied to a passage in Williams' Autobiography. Also present is Williams' typescript introduction for a collection of his short stories with publisher David McDowell—the collection was published by New Directions instead and this original introduction was abandoned. Typescript and galley proof drafts of John C. Thirlwall's edition of The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams are located in Series III.
Series II. consists of correspondence to and from Williams. The majority of letters in this series date from the 1940s and 1950s. The largest accumulation of letters consist of those to and from Williams' editor David McDowell. These letters document Williams' decision in 1950 to break with his principal publisher since 1937, James Laughlin of New Directions, and publish several volumes with McDowell at Random House and then McDowell, Obolensky. Also present are Williams' thirty-five letters to writer and New York bookstore owner Bonnie Golightly. Of note are over thirty of Williams' letters to Marcia Nardi, the poet whose own letters to Williams served as the basis for the "Cress" passages in his long poem Paterson. Williams' generosity toward younger writers and admirers is reflected in his correspondence with Srinivas Rayaprol and Daniel Langton. The poet's letter to Anna Wirtz, a curious reader, is particularly noteworthy for its explication of his most famous poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow." Additional recipients of multiple letters include Oscar Baradinsky, Kay Boyle, and H. R. Hays.
Series III. consists of works on and research materials about William Carlos Williams by scholar John C. Thirlwall. Thirlwall was an English Professor at the City College of New York who published, with Williams' cooperation, an edition of the poet's selected letters. This series includes two draft versions of that work: a typescript, with numerous editorial corrections and printer's notations, and an uncorrected galley proof. Thirlwall also interviewed Williams over several years for a never published biography. Carbon copy transcripts from some of these interviews are located in this series. Interview transcriptions pertaining to Williams' literary peers, life, and writing are found in folder 2.10; whereas Williams' comments on specific poems are recorded in transcript excerpts in 2.11 and a printed copy of The Collected Earlier Poems in folder 3.2. Additional materials in this series include correspondence pertaining to Thirlwall's work on Williams and typescripts of and research materials for his article, "William Carlos Williams' Heart Beat and his 'Measured Line' in Poetry." The series also includes two photographs of Williams in folder 2.8.
Series IV. Correspondence by Other Authors consists largely of letters between David McDowell and a variety of figures concerning William Carlos Williams and his works. McDowell served as one of Williams' publishers and editors during the 1950s, first at Random House and then briefly at his own firm of McDowell, Obolensky. Additional correspondence by others includes six letters from Williams' wife Florence (Flossie) to Bonnie Golightly and four letters from James Laughlin to Marcia Nardi.
This collection was previously accessible through the Ransom Center's card catalog and has been re-cataloged. The materials are generally in good condition.
Open for research
Purchases and gifts, 1961-1995 (R 942, R1027, R2897, R3377, R4103, R4591, R5374, R7152, R11685, G9033, G10239, R13411, R13444)
Elspeth Healey, 2010