In the American Grain
This is not a book you chew and swallow in a single day. Dubbed a literary classic and authored by a famous American poet, this book of essays on American history is idiosyncratic in style and uniquely personal in content. The twenty-one essays differ widely. Some, such as “Cotton Mather and The Invisible World,” or the chapter on John Paul Jones, contain extended selections from original documents. Here, period language is allowed to simply speak for itself. Other essays, like the ones on Daniel Boone and Aaron Burr, embrace conclusions quite different from those of more prosaic writers. I found the first half, on the Spanish adventurers and their brutal collisions with indigenous people, to be the most accessible. Here are gorgeous, unstoppably flowing images of a magical, savage Eden, the America first encountered by Europeans 500 years ago. Certain themes appear repeatedly, such as the single-minded greed of the first immigrants, from conquistadors to pilgrims. The seeds of many of our present ills and conflicts, Williams believes, are to be found in our brief and violent history. There is a source in America for everything we think and do. In support, Williams has dug deeply into primary documents, but the reader will never forget he is foremost a poet. In the American Grain is not an easy read, but even 84 years after publication, it remains as radical, as fresh and as important as it was in 1925.