William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), White Mule. Penguin Modern Classics1971
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is probably best known for his pared-down, brief poems like The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say (I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox…), or urban poetic epics like Paterson (he lived most of his life in New Jersey). After an early flirtation with the Imagists – his second volume of poems was published in 1912 with the support of Ezra Pound, whom he’d met at university in Pennsylvania – Williams’ writing style was to change direction towards a more radical modernism; he rejected the highly allusive and multilingual intellectual European style of Eliot, adopting instead a voice that was distinctively American vernacular, with his mantra ‘no ideas but in things’.
Williams also wrote prose fiction and non-fiction; one of my tutors at Bristol University, Charles Tomlinson (a British poet who died in August of this year) introduced me to modern American writing, and in particular that of Williams and Wallace Stevens, two poets he admired. He in his turn had an enormous influence on my own literary interests; he’s much missed – a genuinely kind and sensitive teacher.
I was interested in following up my reading of another American poet’s prose work, E.E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room, about which I wrote here last week, with that of Williams: what sort of novel would this paediatrician-poet create? Published in 1937, White Mule was the first in a trilogy of novels about the immigrant Stecher family’s struggle to assimilate in New York City. Its title derives, according to something I read online, but I don’t recall seeing it in the novel, from the baby, Flossie, whose fierce kick is likened to that of White Mule whiskey.
The plot is minimal: the novel opens with the birth of Gurlie and Joe Stecher’s second child:
She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her.
The baby is sickly and cantankerous, and her mother’s response on learning her sex is at first callous and negligent: ‘Another girl. Agh. I don’t want girls. Take it away and let me rest.’ She takes out her annoyance on Joe, telling him he’ll now have to earn more. And here one of the novel’s central themes emerges: Gurlie wants to live the American Dream, and as a woman is incapable of achieving her ambition on her own; she urges Joe to be more assertive:
You are too careful, you have no daring, you must bluff!
Never, said he.
You must. In America bluff is everything…be a better bluff than they are…But you are too timid. I could do it. But now is the time. You have two daughters now and I am not going to sit down and be a hausfrau. I am going to live and see the world and I must have money. And you are going to make it for me…If you think I’m going to stay here and have babies one after the other and nothing else you fool yourself. You tell those people you want more money or quit. If you don’t, I quit.
The style is akin to that of Williams’s poetry: spare, idiomatic, concrete, almost monosyllabic. There’s minimal punctuation and no quotation marks for speech, or paragraphing to differentiate speakers’ utterances. Free indirect discourse abounds, as when Joe muses that outburst of Gurlie’s:
Watching her eyes flash, the very insensibility of her fire somehow excited him in spite of himself. It was something he did not understand but there it was. Foolish or reasonable, but there it was. He could understand that all right…It was his own wife. She had the brains of a chicken – but that was his hard luck. He had married her, hadn’t he? That wasn’t her fault…What did he care? He felt admiration – a borrowed resentment against the world momentarily possessed him. Yes, she was right. He was abler than the rest…
Notice how the stream of Joe’s untutored, barely articulate thoughts is complemented by the narrator’s higher-register observations. He and Gurlie make a formidable team. Go out and fight them, she tells him: ‘It is a free country. If you don’t fight for it you get nothing – but to be called a fool. You owe it to me to fight.’
Joe, a printer, was once a firebrand union member, but at the time the novel opens he’s turned gamekeeper, having become disillusioned with the corruption of union officials: as foreman in his printing works he does the owner’s bidding in pushing the workforce to ever greater output with minimal financial reward, taking great pride in his own technical printing skill. The printers eventually call a strike, which Joe resolutely defies and fights, even risking his own life as the hostility grows. But his ungrateful boss fails to recognise his loyalty, and doesn’t even give him a raise when the strike ends. Gurlie is disgusted with him.
This is really Flossie’s novel. Much of the book relates her precarious infancy as a succession of youthful, inept nursemaids take unprofessional care of her; her mother finds her a chore. Williams’s clinical expertise as a pediatrician is apparent in his wonderful descriptions of the infant’s development:
For a fact the baby liked it immensely in that hot room, if actions mean anything, for it lay completely relaxed on its back, its head moving slowly about as if it were viewing the room though its eyes didn’t seem to focus on anything…The baby was playing up to the girl’s gentle voice and easy manner to perfection. With half closed eyes, it moved first a finger then an arm as if talking some mysterious sign language.
When malnutrition, neglect and infections weaken Flossie dangerously, her mother is advised to take her into the country for a healthier environment. Taking her other daughter with her (she’s five when Flossie is born), Gurlie lodges with a frugal, elderly Norwegian couple at their farm in upstate New York. Flossie thrives in the regime there, and Gurlie loves rural life, having been raised on a farm in Norway – she feels ‘cooped and tormented by city exigencies.’
By the novel’s end Joe appears to have made a deal with another printer-entrepreneur to start up his own company, a development which will please his driven wife.
This is an artistically more ambitious and skilfully realised work than The Enormous Room, with a more artful structure and rounded portrayal of character and relationships. At first I found the abrupt shift of scene from the city to the country farm odd and felt it unbalanced the novel, and the open ending, with an apparently inconsequential rural event, unsatisfactory. On reflection, however, I’ve come to see that it points forward to the next novel in the sequence, and I find I do want to stay with the account of this abrasive, dysfunctional family, which manages simultaneously somehow to persuade me that they’re more than just a force to reckon with – they become a symbol of America’s thrusting, upwardly mobile immigrant-founded citizenry: they’re people who, despite their unattractive selfishness and truculent ambition are credible as flawed, striving human beings.
The novel closes with a description of Flossie and other children watching the menfolk (some are from Boston) shoot their rifles:
The children were standing back in a fascinated circle, the baby’s face smeared with berry juice, her hands sooty: quite part of it all.
She has survived the ordeal of her first year in America and has become ‘part of it all.’ An American. But the cost to Joe has been high as he struggles to maintain his integrity in the face of corrupt unions on the one hand and greedy, corrupt employers – whose number he is about to join in order to get ‘In the Money’ – on the other.
We are all, in our diverse ways, immigrants, craving integration and assimilation while maintaining our independence and hoping for our families to flourish. Would Flossie thrive today, I wonder?