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Caliban’s Gait: The Postcolonial “Progress” of American Exploratory Poetics in William Carlos Williams’ The Great American Novel

Zachary Finch
p. 101-116


Quel genre de langage Caliban aurait-il fini par parler s’il avait refusé de rentrer avec Prospero en Europe ? C’est cette même question que posa D.H. Lawrence en 1923 dans l’introduction de ses Studies in Classic American Literature, l’année où William Carlos Williams, de son côté, publiait The Great American Novel, anti-roman iconoclaste qui rejetait la notion de progression narrative en faveur de ce que Michel de Certeau aurait appelé la tactique de la pratique. La violence faite aux mots et les heurs propulsifs du langage de Williams cherchaient à libérer l’écriture des fonctions autoriales d’imitation et de preuve de compétence discursive. Cet article analyse les traits calibanesques des tactiques poétiques radicalement anti-européennes de Williams pour montrer que le caractère expérimental de ses premiers poèmes en prose réhabilite une forme de liberté de l’auteur d’une manière qui anticipe, un demi-siècle plus tôt, l’observation de Foucault selon laquelle les livres ont commencé à avoir réellement des auteurs dans la mesure où les discours pouvaient être transgressifs.

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1D.H. Lawrence quotes Shakespeare’s Caliban three times in the introductory chapter of Studies in Classic American Literature, published in 1923 on the cusp of a rising wave of critical interest about the United States and its foundational literary traditions. Lawrence’s refrain, “Ca Ca Caliban/Get a new master, be a new man” suggests that the most pressing question for American literature remains what kind of “new master” the American writer, freed from a colonial European parentage, might come to acquire (1923, 11). As Lawrence observed, echoing de Tocqueville before him, the “will of the people”, so often exalted by Americans as their new sovereign, only establishes tyranny in another form. “Free?” Lawrence asked. “Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch the moment he shows he is not one of them” (9). Instead of this perilous coordination of freedom with submission to a social majority, Lawrence famously hoped that the American writers would discover their discursive freedoms by eventually submitting to what he called IT—“IT being the deepest whole self of man” (13). Lawrence leaves this uppercase “IT” provocatively undefined, though in the following chapter of the Studies he intimates that “IT” may be something approximating the Freudian id: a “passional impulse”, “the gesture of creation”, “IT is the author, the unknown inside us or outside us” (26). Three years previously, in an essay published for New Republic entitled “America, Listen to Your Own”, Lawrence located the unknowable portion of the author in terms of desire itself, “something which urges inside a young race like sap, or like pregnancy, urging toward fulfillment” (1936, 90). “This urge you must never betray and never deny”, Lawrence insists, imagining a poetic practice that would be “more than all tradition, more than all law, more than all standards or monuments” (90).

21923 was also the year that saw the publication in France of 200 copies of The Great American Novel by William Carlos Williams. This anti-novel set out to liberate writing from the past, and from the past’s stranglehold upon the creative potentialities of the present. With much the same spirit that produced the iconoclastic work of the far better known Spring and All, Williams’ still under-examined Great American Novel waged an attack on the very principle of discursive mastery. Williams was vehemently rejecting poetic practices which conformed to literary models that perpetuated postcolonial forms of cultural enslavement—models based upon imitation and proof of discursive competence, as well as upon forms of narrativity consistent with cultural concepts of development and progress. Indeed, Williams sought to “savage” nearly all of the traits we associate with participating in a linear literary tradition.

3The satirical title of The Great American Novel makes clear his position that the United States is not yet ready to be encompassed by a single work, an authored “classic” that would galvanize, circumscribe, and consolidate a tradition that is distinctly American. That is, Williams is not concerned with the institution of new identities, whether new genres of personhood or new genres of literature. He is instead preoccupied with the verbal character of free agency. The Great American Novel affirms the movement of a highly unruly text whose primary “errand” is not to tame the wilderness by making it productive, but to make errant tracks across the American ground through a wildly unproductive practice.

4The distinction between “production” and “practice” is of the essence in understanding the stakes of Williams’ adventure. Giorgio Agamben offers a clear delimitation of these concepts in his study of modern aesthetics The Man Without Content. Whereas production is marked by the reification of creative forces that bring about something—a finished work—into being, practice constitutes “the very condition of man [sic] as an animal, a living being” (69). Praxis is made visible not through finished works, but rather “by the very principle of motion (will understood as the basic unit of craving, desire, and volition) that characterizes life” (69). The moniker “great American novel” refers necessarily to a product—one whose appearance in the literary marketplace would confer legitimacy upon a culture that sees itself as “great” yet which awaits a primary exemplar for this greatness to be made citable, and re-citable. Yet as we will see, Williams eschews the very principles of such a “production”, in favor of what Michel de Certeau has called “the tactics of practice” (xvii). His ambush upon the European form of the novel is intended to signify something essentially “American” that cannot be objectified or described, but can only be exercised and enacted. In so doing, Williams purveys the myth of Americans as “poets of their own acts” in De Certeau’s phrasing (xviii). In the end, wholeness for Williams resides exclusively within the present tense of writing itself, through a practice that embodies a highly propulsive, erratic, vectoral movement forward at the cost of self-consistency, legibility, narrative coherence, and structural unity.

5The opening sentences of the text represent how difficult it is to begin moving from scratch. It is “like trying to use muscles that have perhaps never been used”, in Lawrence’s words.


If there
is progress then there is a novel. Without progress there is nothing. Everything exists from the beginning. I existed in the beginning. I was a slobbering infant. Today I saw nameless grasses—I tapped the earth with my knuckle. It sounded hollow. It was dry as rubber. Eons of drought. No rain for fifteen days. No rain. It has never rained. It will never rain. Heat and no wind all day long better say hot September. The year has progressed. Up one street down another. It is still September. Down one street, up another. Still September. (1971, 158)

6So The Great American Novel begins—its sentences driving blindly under conditions of near-zero visibility. “The fog” implies the opacity of whatever white page faces the writer trying to make inroads without the inertia of any existing literary tradition. The windlessness of the dry September day indicates the dangerous status of being “becalmed” like a ship with slackened sails. Of course, Williams’ allegorical craft is not a ship on the waters, but a Ford car aimlessly moving “up one street down an other.” The short, stuttering sentences suggest the difficulty of ever getting out of first gear, out onto an open highway where the syntax might accrue some degree of eloquence. They clamor forward with a sputtering anti-eloquence instead—an inability to master the granular particularity of words in a fluid, progressive manner embroidered with the decorative pirouettes and flourishes of the classic periodic sentence. Rather than the breezy facility produced by linguistic mastery, Williams begins this anti-novel by articulating the very opposite of mastery—the difficulty of work, a poetics of effort. If this work feels like an ethical practice, it is because this writing requires that the will be completely engaged, in order that it might overcome those conditions that obstruct it. In Williams’ case, the conditions that inhibit his beginning the great American novel are quite simply his insistence that there are no existing traditions at his back, no existing lines of flight in which he may participate.

I am a beginner. I am an American. A United Stateser. Yes it’s ugly, there is no word to say it better. I do not believe in ugliness. I do not want to call myself a United Stateser but what in—but what else am I? Ugliness is a horror to me but it is less abhorrent than to be like you even in the most remote, the most minute particular. For the moment I hate you, I hate your orchestras, your libraries, your sciences, your yearly salons […]. (1971, 176)

7The narrator of The Great American Novel often performs an exaggerated version of a Caliban who has not only refused to follow Prospero back to Europe, but who has also refused to master the givenness of literary language. For belles lettres, Williams deliberately substitutes the ugliness of brutes lettres, in order to give voice to an iconoclastic American aesthetics, peppered with invective, that we might dub the “Caliban-esque” sensibility in modern American poetics. The Caliban-esque rejects traditional notions of mastery, fluency and progress. It often stutters and curses. Embracing what Emily Dickinson once referred to as the “spasmodic” gait of an untamed discourse, it is decidedly “idio-syntactic”, polyglot, unlearned, vulgar, insolent, misshapen, corporeal and crude (174). “My intelligence is as finely tuned as yours”, Williams writes, “but it lives in hell, it is doomed to eternal—perhaps eternal—shiftings after what? Oh to hell with Masters and the rest of them” (Imaginations 176). “Masters” may indeed be Edgar Lee Masters, author of the successful Spoon River Anthology published in 1915, but more generally designates the very idea of “masters”, and of mastering a tongue. In short, Williams’ Caliban-esque sensibility renounces the description of authorship as the successful display of competence or of mastery within an existing discourse, and advances the Foucauldian notion that “discourses really began to have authors... to the extent that discourses could be transgressive” (382).

8This notion of American literature as so primitive that it had not yet cultivated its own language was thoroughly engrained by the time Williams was writing this text in 1922. Three years earlier, for instance, the critic Waldo Frank had introduced his influential book Our America by writing that “America is a turmoiled giant who cannot speak” (4). This allegorical creature “has not yet reached that pitch where the voice bursts forth and is clear and understood” mainly because American writers have been so preoccupied with “the parroting of foreign phrases, lip service to the maturity of England and of France” (4). Along with nativist critics like Gorham Munson and Van Wyck Brooks, Lawrence was busy making much the same argument: “What a young race wants is not a tradition nor a bunch of culture monuments”, he exhorted, but rather “faith in your own unrevealed, unknown destiny” (1936, 90). In order to realize the truly “aboriginal spirit” of American literature, writers “must take up where the Red Indian, the Aztec, the Maya, the Incas left it off” (90).

9The Great American Novel illustrates both the desirability and the impossibility of such an undertaking. Yes, its narrator seeks a primal relationship with language and with the “spirit of place”, but repeatedly finds himself alienated—sometimes comically, sometimes angrily—from the ostensibly organic succor of words. Either words are discarded as dead husks, and the literary masterpieces that they comprise are but “pyramids, pyramids of words, tombs” (160), or else the words with which Williams’ belated narrator comes into actual contact patently refuse to yield their true, organic substance. “To progress from word to word is to suck a nipple”, Williams speculates, yet in reality, he continually fails to extract the nourishing “milk” they should contain. Walking among the grape vines in his backyard, the narrator tries grape after grape, “but no word came to satisfy” (165). This lack only whets his appetite: “He ate another bunch of the grapes. More words. And never THE word” (165). What results, then, from the insufficiency of words is Williams’ suggestion that it is not possible even to begin to write a novel.

10Since the substance that Williams seeks cannot be wrested from an original relationship with words, the true potentiality of writing rests with movement among and between these words. “Movement must not be confused with what we attach to it”, Williams would write in a 1930 review of Gertrude Stein (1971, 350). Indeed, when writing of his contemporaries, Williams reserved highest praise for descriptions of the metonymic mobility of their practices. Marianne Moore’s poetry, for instance, embodies a “swiftness impaling beauty” that yields “a pleasure that can be held firm only by moving rapidly from one thing to the next”, while Stein’s work remains honorably dedicated to the truth that “the rescuing of the intelligence...must always be considered aimless without progress” (313, 350). To be sure, Williams learned a great deal about the errant force of a kind of Caliban-esque writing from Stein. We sense in Williams’ prose poetry of the early 1920s the same propulsive forward motion that characterizes her insistent grammars, which refuse to backtrack, to go back on their words. “My God what I am doing means just the opposite from [revision]”, declares Williams in the Novel. “There is no revision, there can be no revision”, he insists, associating revision with the fatal backward glance of Orpheus (176).

11As Hugh Kenner noted in his brief essay on The Great American Novel, “[al]though they go through all the motions of taking flight”, Williams’ sentences finally “never bear the reader aloft;” instead they mimic the “ineffectual motions of flight” (90). This is especially the case in the first six chapters of the book, when the movement of the language is deliberately hobbled— the “crippled” gait of the writer seems to be “using the stumps of his legs, apelike on all fours” (164). The words themselves are likely to “roll spin, flare up, rumble, trickle, foam” until “[a]t last they break up into their letters—Out of them jumps the worm that was—His hairy feet tremble upon them” (160). The “hairy feet” of this figure suggest a barefoot Neanderthal who is moving across the ground of language, a kind of poacher and gatherer: “Selecting a bunch of Delawares he picked it with some difficulty spilling a few of the fruit. Then he walked to the other side and found some blue ones. These too he ate. Then some white which he ate also one by one swallowing the pulp and the seeds and spitting out the skins” (1971, 165). His movement is always tethered to those biological processes that Agamben sees as definitive of the concept of writing as praxis.

12When Williams in later life reflected upon The Great American Novel, he described its plotline as driven by “a little (female) Ford car [that] falls more or less in love with a Mack truck” (1951, 155). Although no such plotline actually exists to make the novel “cohere”, the figure of the automobile does function as the text’s proxy protagonist. As critic Roy Miki has argued in the essay “Driving and Writing”, Williams perceived “an original connection between the car as a technological object and a (new) writing technique—improvisational form—that he aligned so closely with...the modernist concern with the experience of movement” (114). Whereas the medium of words might be hollow, the experience of trafficking in and through words could attain an emancipatory mobility. Williams’ automobile is continually turning “into the wrong street at three A.M. lost in the fog, listening, searching” but never finding its way. “While driving”, Miki recognizes, “at least while we are conscious of being in the act of it, there are no fixed laws” (115). In The Great American Novel, there is “no one to drive the car”, as Williams puts it in the poem “To Elsie.” Instead, it is the negative capability of the car itself that becomes the chief avatar of the writer at work, pursuing his “race on the ground” (1971, 171).

13In this manner, Williams’ novel “revolution” depends upon the axis of syntax and the gait of grammar, more than it hinges upon diction. Despite the fact that it has been long overshadowed by criticism devoted to Spring and All and In the American Grain, The Great American Novel stands squarely at the headwaters of an American tradition of exploratory writing predicated upon the principle of action. What a mid-century innovator like Charles Olson, for instance, will take from Williams is above all this notion of a poetic text as a field of action that moves syntagmatically through the rapid-fire register of disparate particulars. When Olson writes of “the literal speed of light by which a man absorbs, instant on instant, all that phenomenon presents to him”, he is codifying the emphasis on speed that Williams had displayed in a more chaotic, under-theorized manner (161). In Williams’ Autobiography of 1951, a year after Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” first appeared, he quite literally left it up to Olson to provide the “dogma” that might explain “the essentials of my work in making the poem” (334). Williams quotes verbatim the first several pages of “Projective Verse” without interruption, including the following crucial passage: processual poetry demands that the writer “get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perception, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen” (qtd. in Williams, 1971, 330).

14Olson also pointed out how “our management of daily reality as of the daily work” relates to the mobility required of the action poet (240). The William Carlos Williams archives at SUNY Buffalo contain many scraps of poetry and prose written on small prescription pad paper in Williams’ scrawled hand. Hasty jottings from the Paterson years help us to remember the radically emergent quality of Williams’ writing, which was always linked to the “daily work” of being a pediatrician perpetually on call. Certain moments of The Great American Novel refer directly to the pedestrian vectors of work and the contingencies of the daily: “Well, I had better see how things had progressed” the narrator says in Chapter II, referring to his daily rounds (163).

O America! Turn your head a little to the left please. So. Now are you ready? Watch my hand. Now: Lohengrin in Italian sung at Manhattan—San Carlo Company Revives Wagner Opera, with Anna Fitziu as Elsa.
Sweet kisses that come in the night—O Argyrol!
Rain, rain, for three days and three nights.
In the night a caesura. Suddenly the fire bell begins to ring. I wake with a start and hear the small boy calling from the next room. (177)

15Here Williams pivots from the scene of a doctor examining his patient (“turn your head a little to the left”), to a quotation of a newspaper headline (“‘Lohengrin’ at Manhattan” was a New York Times headline on October 8, 1921), to a quotation of a popular song lyric (the sheet music of “Sweet Kisses That Came in the Night” was first published in 1919), to a brief weather report, and finally to the writer awakening from a dream into the reality of a five-alarm fire. Instead of a narrative that “progresses”, this doctor-writer attends to whatever comes crashing or limping through the doors of the hospital—or the doors of perception. The heterogeneous “stuff” of the text—the “what have you” of content—is not arrayed into a finely crafted collage. It is rashly transcribed, catch-as-catch-can, in order to approximate the speed of a life lived on call. “If a patient came in at the door while I was in the middle of a sentence”, he describes in the Autobiography’s Foreword, “bang would go the (type writer)—I was a physician. When a patient left, up would come the machine” (1951, xiv). Williams’ speed functions as a barometer of the emergencies taking place all around us. Unlike Lawrence’s utopian imagination of the “whole man”, Williams embodies a more splintered form of modern subjectivity, which produces a poetics defined by, in Olson’s words, “energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself, all the way over to, the reader” (240). “The poet should be forever at the ship’s prow”, Williams describes in the Prologue of Kora in Hell (1971, 28). Unlike Odysseus, who lashed himself to the mast at the center of the craft, Williams prefers to run the risk of being ripped to pieces, sea-spray in the face, in order to be the first person to experience something equivalent to the jolt that Columbian sailors of the late 15th century experienced the moment they first spied the coast of the Americas.

16When it first arrives at the beginning of Chapter VII, the phrase “Nuevo Mundo” represents the response of the senses as they come to perceive the reality of an unknown world. Occurring about a third of the way into The Great American Novel, this phrase becomes “the word” which Williams had been vainly seeking, the word upon which a novel might be founded. “Nuevo Mundo” is an important variation on Pound’s dictum “make it new.” Whereas Pound’s phrase emphasizes the aesthetic act of making, Williams’ phrase is actually a cry articulated at the moment of contact between external and subjective worlds. Importantly, this cry occurs in time—Williams has taken six chapters in order to discover it. In the ensuing chapters, Williams’ text recounts numerous vignettes about historical figures including Brigham Young, Pancho Villa and Aaron Burr—all of whom were chosen due to their sometimes violent antagonisms toward existing structures of authority, whether in the form of the “Mountain Meadow Massacre” in which Mormons slaughtered a party of emigrants passing through the Utah Territory, of Pancho Villa’s raids on American towns north of the Mexican border, or of Aaron Burr’s trial for treason against the U.S. government in 1807. These renegade figures come to define “the American background” against which a finally “American novel” might eventually come into relief.

17This discovery of “content” seems to have been less intentional than it was an effect of the spatial and temporal practice Williams has been advancing. “You have no notion what you are going to write from one word to the other”, Williams writes, ventriloquizing his detractors (1971, 196). Yet it is precisely this lack of foreknowledge—what Gertrude Stein calls “writing what you are writing” as opposed to “writing what you are going to be writing”—that lays the ground for Williams’ discovery of American figures (152). Stein’s essay “Henry James” describes the improvisational character of this process of discovery: “You make a discovery, it is a coincidence, of course yes a coincidence, not an accent but an access, yes a coincidence which tells you yes. Yes it makes it possible to make the discovery” (164). For Stein, discovery arises from the “coincidence” of two words placed side by side (“the words next to each other make a sound”). For Williams, far more wedded to the outer world than Stein, discovery arises out of the placement of two distinct observations—or out of the displacement of one perception by another.

18According to poet Lyn Hejinian, this process of linguistic displacement is the principle hallmark of metonymy. “Metonymy moves attention from thing to thing”, she writes in the essay “Strangeness”—“its principle is combination rather than selection” (148). For Hejinian, metonymy defines the thrust of a modern/postmodern writing committed to realism, whose inherent strangeness “results from a description of the world given in the terms ‘there it is,’ ‘there it is,’ ‘there it is’ that restores realness to things in the world and separates them from ideology” (158). Hejinian’s definition of metonymy is relevant in the context of Williams because she so keenly observes that the notebooks of historical explorers, faced with terra incognita, tend to be metonymic: confronted by the inassimilable details of an unfamiliar terrain, explorers and natural historians have no option other than to write in a way that “maintains the intactness and discreteness of particulars” (148). The radical empiricism of metonymy is more useful for this purpose than metaphor, if only because metaphor is the act of the “imagination”, whereas realism supposes that the real world is even stranger than our imaginations of it. In Williams’ own words from the Prologue to Kora in Hell, “the coining of similes is a pastime of a very low order, depending as it does on a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question” (1971, 18).

19As The Great American Novel develops, the reader’s attention is shuttled not only from “thing to thing”, but from voice to voice. The text features a jarring plethora of American idioms as it moves between various stories and discursive registers without the clear transitions that might help to mark the changes and hence unify the text into a work. Adopting what Hugh Witemeyer has called a “magpie method” of composition, the Novel includes “Williams’ own experience, stories he has heard of other people’s lives, actual and imaginary conversations, personal and business correspondence, advertisements, newspapers, history books, poems, manifestoes” (2). Witemeyer illustrates how some of this material was copied directly into the text, sometimes with few alterations. Section XVII includes significant tracts from an article about Appalachia entitled “Mountain Mothers” published in Ladies’ Home Journal in December 1920 (3). Unlike Eliot’s The Waste Land, Williams does not indicate his source or even the fact that an act of direct appropriation has taken place. According to Witemeyer, Williams deliberately opens up himself up to the charge of “plagiarism” (a crime which Williams vehemently attacks throughout Spring and All).

20Williams anticipates objections to this “transgression” at key moments of the novel. “A favorite trick of the Mayo Indians”, he tells us “is, if they meet a man with good clothes, to take what they want and let him go on in his drawers” (1971, 189). In a similar manner, Williams approximates a “native” style through a series of thefts and raids, appropriations, impersonations, ruses and thefts. The self-consciously heterogeneous warp and woof of The Great American Novel, then, comes to imitate the “art of weaving” that Williams associates with “Indians of the American Southwest”:

The word bayeta is merely Spanish for baize. Great quantities of this were made in England for the Spanish and Mexican trade, the major part of which was of a brilliant red color. In this way English baize became Spanish bayeta to the Indians of the American Southwest. Familiar with the art of weaving, these Indians unraveled the bayeta, retwisted it into one, two or three strands, and then rewove it into their blankets, which are now almost priceless. This old blanket was picked up by the author in a New Mexican corral, for the purpose of wiping his buggy axle. It was covered with filth and mud. A number of washings revealed this glorious specimen of the weaver’s art. (206)

21This faux-ethnographic or “documentary” prose style becomes one of Williams’ discursive strands in the second half of the Novel. For Williams, an authentically American writing would be truly a métissage, a hybrid practice consisting of strands whose very origin may never be entirely decipherable. This explains why Williams chose to conclude his novel with an anecdote about the industrial production of “shoddy”, a kind of cheap wool made by taking old fabrics, decomposing them, then reconstituting them into yarn. The novel’s penultimate paragraph imagines the Jewish-American industrialist who “took any kind of rags just as they were collected, filth or grease right on them the way they were and teased them up into a fluffy stuff which he put through a rolling process and made into sheets of wadding” (227). Hence, we discover the relationship between the indigenous art of weaving, the industrial manufacture of new fabrics out of old, and the modernist bricolage of Williams’ own work.

22When asked to lecture on his theory of the novel many years later, an occasion he recounted in the Autobiography, Williams said he did not have any such theory, before going on to elaborate an enigmatic critique of the genre. “[T]here are no primitive novels”, he claimed, because novelists are too interested in concealing what he called “the cruel nudity” of life (1951, 369). The concept of the “progress” undertaken by a novel presumes that some final conclusion will eventually be revealed, but for Williams the conventional novelist’s work is ultimately just a sensational sort of striptease. “You take off the garments a chapter at a time” but in the end we understand that the characters were mere “clothes horses.” “Can you possibly imagine Henry James without an accompaniment of corsets and Prince Alberts with striped trousers?” Williams jokes. “The iconoclast at work” within the novel form, on the other hand, would reveal that beneath these mannerist trappings there exists nothing but “a cipher” (369). This revelation, he offers in conclusion, “should, as did Henry James’s work, usher in the classic age, the poem” (369).

23This description echoes D.H. Lawrence’s feeling that “the real American day hasn’t begun” and won’t be able to begin until, in Lawrence’s words, American writers “pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance, and see what you can of the dusky body of IT underneath” (1923, 7, 8). For Williams, the brute physicality of the body is a reality he associates primarily with poetry. The arrival of such poetry heralds an era in American literature which Williams calls classic; however this “classic” era is always, in some sense, still to come. If literary history “progresses” toward the sort of poem that Williams has in mind, this requires the destruction of old forms that have molded and mastered the imagination. The Great American Novel testifies to the fact not just that the conventional novel has run its course, but that the future of an authentically “novel” writing (i.e. poetry) must overrun the constraints of authorial mastery. It must obey the singular gait of the indigenous, uncouth Caliban-esque writer whose commitment to the local means he must refuse the temptations of discursive fluency, structural wholeness and generic integrity. Above all, the future of American exploratory writing, as envisioned by Williams, must remain committed to the principles of a practice that remains perpetually in motion, active in the most transgressive and wayward of manners. The future of modern American literature must embody the condition that Williams associates with “The Dog Rib and Yellow Knife Indians”— North American tribes whose members, Williams claims, “are so poorly clad that they have to be continually moving, for if they stop for even half an hour at a time their hands become completely numb” (1971, 212).

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De Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

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Frank, Waldo, Our America, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919.

Hejinian, Lyn, The Language of Inquiry, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Kenner, Hugh, “A Note on The Great American Novel”, William Carlos Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays, J. Hillis Miller ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Lawrence, D.H., Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, E. D. McDonald ed., London: William Heinemann, 1936.

-----, Studies in Classic American Literature, New York: The Viking Press, 1923.

Miki, Roy, “Driving and Writing”, William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet, C. F. Terrell ed., Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1983.

Olson, Charles, Collected Prose of Charles Olson, D. Allen and B. Friedlander eds., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Pizer, John, “Involution in The Great American Novel: Reflections on Williams and Walter Benjamin”, William Carlos Williams Review, 13 (2), Fall 1987.

Stein, Gertrude, Writings 1932-1946, C. R. Stimpson and H. Chessman eds., New York: Library of America, 1998.

Williams, William Carlos, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, New York: Random House, 1951.

-----, Imaginations, New York: New Directions, 1971.

Witemeyer Hugh, “Plagiarism in The Great American Novel: The Ethics of Collage”, William Carlos Williams Review, 23 (1), Spring 1997.

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Bibliographical reference

Zachary Finch, « Caliban’s Gait: The Postcolonial “Progress” of American Exploratory Poetics in William Carlos Williams’ The Great American Novel », Caliban, 35 | 2014, 101-116.

Electronic reference

Zachary Finch, « Caliban’s Gait: The Postcolonial “Progress” of American Exploratory Poetics in William Carlos Williams’ The Great American Novel », Caliban [Online], 35 | 2014, Online since 13 December 2013, connection on 21 June 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Zachary Finch

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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