"'I SPEAK OF FIERCELY CONTESTED THINGS:'" WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, DEMOCRACY, AND THE AESTHETICS OF A "USABLE PAST"

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2004-11-17

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Title of Dissertation: "'I SPEAK OF FIERCELY CONTESTED THINGS:'" WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, DEMOCRACY, AND THE AESTHETICS OF A "USABLE PAST"

Kevin L. Jessar, Doctor of Philosophy, 2004.

Dissertation Directed By: Professor Elizabeth B. Loizeaux, Department of English

Exploring Williams in relation to progressive historians and literary critics of the 1910s and 1920s, this study places the poet in debates on modernist poetics, social change, and the uses of history, and builds on outstanding work of recent critics who explore Williams' writing as a defense of democratic principles in an illiberal age. Williams' "poem including history" furthered a progressive social agenda by moving beyond the economic determinism of his progressive peers to a kind of emotional determinism, what I call an "affective economics."

Williams historicized adaptation and an affective stance of extreme receptivity to the "moment," as his vision of the "usable past." There was no period of uncorrupted grace but only the ever-continuing necessity of adapting to the present moment, the often-feminized "primary." Where Eliot envisioned the "present moment of the past," Williams espied a repeating impregnating moment of "contact" and "touch" -- an historical, ever-recurring present. Democratic renewal and contact with the primary were reinforced by the ability of individuals to decide for themselves without "intermediate authority," to respond to their moment.

Williams' stylistics in Paterson and In the American Grain encoded a democratic ethos by compelling readers to exercise individual prerogative jeopardized by corporate power, fascism, and communism. His aesthetic animated the subject position of reader and writer, making the reader write his or her own imaginative history, based, paradoxically, on inhabiting the subject position of representative figures of the past and of the poet himself as they confronted the primary and a secondary culture that would suppress it. Williams thus structured a "participatory aesthetic" to engage the reader in the historical dialectic of "contact" and fearful "withdrawal." In Paterson this dialectic was particularly refracted through fearful, dissonant encounters with contemporary female figures orienting us back to the "primary."

Believing writers were a "passionate regenerative force" for society, Williams hoped his "new line[s]" would create "new mind[s]." He wanted to release "personality," the "personal" element, that writers of imaginative histories argued was endangered in a distinctly anti-liberal age and make readers define for themselves a relation to the primary through a "usable past."

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