“Willie” (who eventually became known to friends and family as bill) was an introspective, imaginative child who fell in love with language at a young age. both of his parents were born and raised outside the united States in multilingual, cultivated households. in his Autobiography, Williams credits his father, William George Williams, for stimulating his literary imagination by reading Shakespeare out loud to him when he was a little boy. Williams’s mother, elena, had studied art in Paris in the 1870s. Wallace Stevens noted in a letter to vivienne Koch in early 1947 (item #54) that Williams’s mother “ . . . seems to account for a great deal in him.” the house Williams grew up in contained many books in Spanish, French and english; both his parents were avid readers.
William George traveled often for work, spending long stretches in South america on business. Willie and his younger brother ed were raised primarily by their mother, elena, and her mother-in-law, the boys’ paternal grandmother, emily. the copy of hans christian andersen’s Fairy Tales and Stories inscribed by elena to the boys seems to have stuck in Williams’s mind: in a satirical letter lampooning british authors published in The New English Weekly in July 1932, he described virginia Woolf as “more like some creature from hans christian andersen’s fairy tales than a human being."
In 1897, Willie and Ed were enrolled by their mother at Château de Lancy, a boarding school in Geneva, while William George was on a year-long business trip in Buenos Aires. At the international prep school, the Williams brothers found themselves surrounded by boys from Europe, Russia, Asia and South America. The note from one teacher in his spelling textbook (“Finally, a notebook for your scribbles!”) suggests that Williams was frequently writing or doodling in his classes (see item #122). He also loved exploring the campus in his free time, taking long walks and collecting flowers, such as asphodels, the central image in his acclaimed poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”
In the fall of 1898, after a year at Château de Lancy, the Williams boys went to the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, but they were insufficiently fluent. They withdrew from the school after a semester and were tutored privately by Elena’s cousin, Alice, for the rest of the school year. The family returned to New Jersey in 1899, and after a dismal year at Rutherford Public High, the boys began commuting to New York to attend the prestigious Horace Mann school. Elena wanted her elder son to follow in the footsteps of her beloved brother Carlos and become a doctor, and so Williams was encouraged to focus on his science courses. Some of the friends Williams made at Horace Mann made lasting impressions, such as his friend Aegeltinger who frequently helped him with his math homework, and whom William remembered fondly in the poem “Aigeltinger.”
Although Williams graduated from Horace Mann with a C average, he earned one of his few As from his favorite English teacher, William Abbott. In Abbott’s class, Williams got his first real taste of formal poetry, studying Milton and Wordsworth. Williams’s book Selected Essays is dedicated to Abbott, “the first
The copy of Alfred Kreymborg’s Mushrooms, inscribed by Williams to his mother upon its publication in 1916, is significant for several reasons. Kreymborg was among the first to champion Williams’s work, publishing his poetry in Others, the journal he founded in 1915 and which Williams became instrumental in helping edit and publish. Kreymborg was at the center of a circle of poets that included Stevens, Marianne Moore, H.D. and many others.
Other books included here hint at Williams’s interests outside of poetry – for example, Edward Angly’s Oh Yeah? is a wry critique of capitalism and political corruption. The themes of social justice and the economic hardships of the working class run throughout Williams’s career, rising to the fore in such works as Spring and All, An Early Matryr and Paterson II. William Henry Hudson’s memoir of his childhood in Buenos Aires, Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life, reflects Williams’s obsession with documenting his own life, which is an undercurrent in much of his work, from Kora in Hell, through to his Autobiography and I Wanted to Write a Poem (an oral biography comprising conversations he and Flossie had with journalist Edith Heal in the mid-1950s).
Cid Corman’s For Sure, a presentation copy gifted to Williams and his wife just three years before Williams’s death, marks an important literary friendship Williams cultivated late in his life. In the late 1940s, Sidney “Cid” Corman (1924-2004) started “This is Poetry,” the first American radio program devoted to poetry. During the 15-minute weekly broadcast, Corman would read poems on air by his favorite living poets, which included Theodore Roethke, Robert Creeley and Marianne Moore. In 1951, after Creeley’s failed publishing endeavor, Corman launched Origin (see item #194), a literary magazine that featured work by Stevens, Williams, and many others. Each issue was focused on one author, and the journal came to be very highly regarded, enjoying a long print run of 35 years.55 Corman also started the publishing house Origin Press, which published, among other works, Louis Zukofsky’s “A” in 1959, with an afterword by Williams (see item #204).
Many critics liken Corman’s poetic style to Williams’s, particularly his preference for simple idiomatic language and short lines. The two men, who met at Yaddo, corresponded frequently in the 1950s, discussing issues of craft and the purpose of poetry. Williams wrote an essay inspired by one of their lively exchanges: “On Measure – Statement for Cid Corman,” which appeared first in Origin (Spring 1954) and was reprinted in Williams’s Selected Essays. According to Paul Mariani, “it is clear that Corman engaged Williams’s critical mind in a way that not even [Charles] Olson or Ginsberg did.”
For more information on the publications in this Collection, see From the Library of William Carlos Williams.