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“Rolls Rough”: William Carlos Williams on the Thrills and Ills of Automobility

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press

William Carlos Williams has consistently been coupled with automobiles both in the popular imagination and in his scholarly reception. In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, Adam Driver’s character drives around Paterson, New Jersey, writing and reading poetry, not least that by Williams.[1] The wonderful Voices & Visions documentary on Williams, aired on PBS in 1988, begins with a driver on the open road who then stops to write poetry on his “William C. Williams, M.D.” prescription pad. The coupling of driving with the long poem Paterson (1946–1958), which Jarmusch’s film solidifies, is anachronistic, as little driving occurs in that poem, where we can read for example in Book Five (1958) that “you can’t see anything / from a car window.”[2] Rather than in Paterson, it is in Williams’s earlier work, and especially that from the 1920s, where he comprehensively develops a technique of perspectival collage which harnesses the view from the driver’s seat. Indeed, in the Voices & Visions documentary, Marjorie Perloff calls Paterson “a definite retreat” from Williams’s experimental early work.[3] In this early work Williams inhabits the automobile to both display and interrogate an aesthetics of mastery and dominance, especially of women and nature. After the financial crash of 1929—which was in part brought on by the expansion of personal credit after the market for cars became saturated during the 1920s—we can see Williams associating the automobile and Henry Ford with stagnation and a lack of mastery, leading to his retreat from automobility as a source of poetic inspiration.[4]

Scholars have made conflicting assessments of the arc of Williams’s poetic career. The seminal study of Williams and machines is Cecilia Tichi’s Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (1987), which foregrounds modernist aesthetics of speed, showing how Williams “worked to exploit both velocity per se and the imaginative grasp of the pressing moment.”[5] Tichi captures Williams’s double vision, whereby he “successfully resists the aesthetic peril of contemporary life even as he exploits its tempo and rhythm” (251–52). Yet Tichi argues that “Williams never abandoned his poetics of kinetics and efficiency. He became, on the contrary, increasingly explicit about machines made of words in the decades following the 1920s” (287). By contrast, Perloff has argued that his later poems “turn their back on the very principles that made Williams a central figure in twentieth-century poetics,” and suggests that Williams retreated from imagist principles due, in part, to the increasing dominance of mass-media images. [6] Documenting this stylistic shift, Henry M. Sayre has commented that “the aesthetics of the machine” were “finally antagonistic to at least a part of his sensibility.”[7] For Sayre, Williams struggled to reconcile the demand for verbal economy with his more subjectivist, loquacious impulses, with the latter ultimately winning out over the former. Yet Williams’s turn toward a greater vernacular inclusivity in his poetics after his seminal works from 1923—Spring and All and The Great American Novel—was not merely a question of style and media. While Williams’s imagism was inseparable from his early experiences of driving, with the Great Depression he came to increasingly figure the automobile as stalled junk, and to seek a poetic vision beyond its ken. Take for instance his statement in The Embodiment of Knowledge (written from 1928–1930) that “as soon as we make it we must at once plan to escape—and escape. By this we understand the escape of man from domination by his own engines.”[8] He echoes this sentiment decades later in Pictures of Brueghel and Other Poems (1962) —which Tichi claims shows Williams’s enduring concern for machines made of words, and which Perloff sees as an aesthetic retreat—asking, “how / shall we / escape this modern // age / and learn / to breathe again.”[9]

While one could fill a small shelf with studies on cars in American literature, there are no books dedicated to automobiles and poetry.[10] The most recent book-length engagement with cars and modernism is Enda Duffy’s The Speed Handbook (2009), which makes clear the centrality of the automobile to modernism’s culture of speed. Duffy attends to how “the apparently mundane act of looking either from the vantage point of a moving car or out of a car window became in the early twentieth century a characteristic gesture of a radical reevaluation of human looking aided by technology.”[11] This crucial insight into the relationship between looking and driving is at the heart of my own reading of Williams’s modernist breakthrough. Duffy sets up an untenable opposition, though, between high and popular forms of modernism, and comes to the conclusion that “pop culture . . . trumped high culture in its understanding of the new technology” (191). Duffy claims that high modernist writing—mainly fiction— “lack[ed] the means necessary to represent” car rhythms, and that its pacing was closer to that of the flaneur (140). The typical modernist poem for Duffy appears to be T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915). In valorizing pop culture’s embrace of speed, Duffy misses the central, if ambiguous, role of automobility for poets such as Williams and Gertrude Stein. As Tichi put it decades earlier, “Williams and [Stein] wrote in the very symbol of speed and mobility, the automobile” (245).

Recent scholarship on petrocultures has foregrounded the complicity of cultural production with the ills of petromodernity—a term which Stephanie LeMenager defines as “modern life based in the cheap energy systems made possible by oil.”[12] In Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (2014), LeMenager shows how “the natureculture of petromodernity” emerged in the US in the 1920s, so that by the mid-twentieth century walking could be part of a refusal of automobility, a periodization that accords well with the arc of Williams’s career (69, 73). Frederick Buell has pointed out how in petromodernity “people’s bodies and psyches are refigured as oil-electric-energized systems, and avant-garde artists become the experts who most aggressively convert these energetics into new styles, new aesthetics, new poetics.”[13] The connection Buell suggests between petromodernity and poetic innovation remains largely unexamined, though, since petrocultures research, like research on cars in American culture more generally, has focused on narrative-driven genres such as novels and films, rather than experimental poetry.[14] Rather than being an aggressive enthusiast of petromodernity, Williams has a vexed relationship to oil and cars, which leads him to eventually turn away from the vantage point of the automobile, and to turn instead towards a pacing closer to that of the flâneur.

Williams bought his first car in October 1913, a Ford Model T that freed him from his mare and buggy (the mare was named Astrid), which he had been using to make his house calls as general practitioner in Rutherford, New Jersey, and the surrounding area.[15] It was nearly a year after he had married Florence, and the same year as the Armory Show, which Williams may or may not have attended.[16] As his oldest son Eric attests, Bill was a reckless, at times aggressive, and overexcited driver (Eric Williams, “Cars,” 1). In the course of his career driving around Rutherford, Williams delivered thousands of babies, work which energized him, and in between calls he would sit in his car jotting down poems about women in labor, about driving, and of course about wheelbarrows and other industrial products. As James Flink has shown, it was middle-class professionals, mainly physicians like Williams, who were responsible for the spread of the automobile beyond the luxury market (Automobile Age, 28). Cotton Seiler has noted how

especially for the working-class and middle-class white men who would acquire automobility with the advent of the low-cost Ford Model T in 1908, driving’s compensatory value depended on cars being what the early critics (and more recent ones) maintained they were: instruments for the display of blithe, arrogant, potentially destructive power—“insolent chariots,” as one later author would put it.[17]

Seiler outlines the centrality of speedy driving to a masculine version of consumer self-possession where “one’s competence behind the wheel indicated the capacity to thrive in capitalist modernity” (Republic of Drivers, 45). Indeed, we can see Williams putting his own automotive competence on display in The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (1967):

To drive the streets at all seasons is also my delight, alone in my car, though it is only to return home at the end of an hour. It is not unexciting, either. It is a formal game. It is also moderately dangerous. The duels with the other guy—or woman—who takes a wide swing into the right of way are a test of skill. Any moment’s heedlessness is a potential accident. I pride myself on my escapes. No cowboy on the range could be happier in the chances he takes. Once a car and a coal truck were coming down Union Avenue abreast, over the crest of the hill. I was coming up at a good speed. There was no chance, apparently, to avoid a crash. I was lucky, of course, but it gave me a big kick to drive in over the gutter to my left, dodge between two trees, ride twenty feet up the sidewalk, duck out again between trees and skim past a police car following the coal truck.

“Hi, Doc!” is all they said. (307–8)

Driving could be dangerous, but this danger provided an opportunity for showing mastery and skill. The “formal game” of driving has, furthermore, parallels with the imagist and collage aesthetics Williams developed after he began driving. Williams’s recklessness had its victims, though, namely his wife; in speeding over a railroad crossing, Floss’s head hit the tin roof of their Ford, crushing a vertebra, and causing her neck problems for the rest of her life (Mariani, New World, 183).

Williams’s experience as a driver before mass automobility took root has parallels with his position as a county doctor, a sort of craft vocation that was in the process of becoming obsolete. As the above quotation from The Autobiography attests, he styled himself as a kind of cowboy-gentleman, all the while protected from police interference by his professional standing and his whiteness. In contrast to the small New Jersey world that he first navigated his Model T through as a doctor, mass automobility was something else altogether, full of traffic and roadside debris. The sheer increase in the number of cars on the road during this period is astounding: in 1900 around eight thousand automobiles were registered in the US (Seiler, Republic of Drivers, 36). By 1910, just before Williams acquired his first car, that number had increased by 450,000, and by 1929 the number of registered cars was just over 23.1 million (36–37). Henry Ford himself coined the term “mass production” in 1926 to describe the dominance of the assembly line, two years before his famous River Rouge Plant was completed, and one year before production of the Model T ceased (Flink, Automobile Age, 47). While Williams began as an early driver of the Model T, during the 1920s he became one of the mass, during a decade when “automobility became the backbone of a new consumer-goods-oriented society and economy that has persisted into the present. By the mid-1920s automobile manufacturing ranked first in value of product and third in value of exports among American industries” (188). No longer just another commodity, cars became an industry at the heart of the American economy, as well as the lifeblood of the petroleum industry.

Williams is distinctive among modernists for critiquing both romantic conceptions of nature and modern fetishizations of technology, while elaborating an ecopoetics where the car is both a condition for, and delimitation of, aesthetic experience. As Joshua Schuster has written with Williams in mind, “modernists abandoned a transcendental idea of nature and hitched an experimental aesthetics to a multifarious combination of art and science on a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing planet.”[18] For Schuster, the ecological poem, rather than being concerned with an externalized nature, might just as soon be a commodity poem which “sees itself in connection with as well as in distinction from the world of goods that circulate around the planet” (168). Williams used the car to negotiate the relationship between art and commodities, creating ecological collages of commercial materials including oil trucks, fashion magazines, and broken-down cars. In claiming that there are “no ideas but in things” (1927) and that a poem is a “machine made of words” (1944), he sought to harness the powers of US industry toward poetic ends, while more or less subtly critiquing the status of actual poetry in American culture.[19]

Just as Williams was captivated by the productive powers of US industry, powers which he sought for poetry, he was likewise captivated by the productive powers of women. As Guillermo Giucci puts it, “the woman and the car went together. Both belonged to the same world of objects. There was no incompatibility between the eroticism of industrial and corporeal products.”[20] In accord with his poetry of things, Williams had no problem objectifying women as so many parts, a logic we can see at work in “The Young Housewife” (1916) and Spring and All. Yet he also worried over the effects that automobility had on young women when “the products of America go crazy,” as he puts it in the latter book.[21] In these early writings, including “Romance Moderne” (1919), Williams repeatedly thematizes driving’s threat to women, while his own driving poems mechanize his male gaze. Ultimately women and cars part ways for Williams, a struggle staged in The Great American Novel in terms of maternity, where mothers and cars vie for generative power. The paradox here is that mothering is itself central to automobility, as Deborah Clarke has shown in crafting the term “‘automotive maternity,’ a condition in which one’s role as a mother relies, at least in part, on one’s place in car culture—as driver and as vehicle.”[22] In “The Five Dollar Guy,” Williams’s all-but-neglected story published in New Masses in 1926, maternity has won the upper hand over automobility, but it is still inextricably associated with oil trucks and cars, the joys of which have become degraded.

Over a twenty-four-year arc—from “The Young Housewife” to “Sketch for a Portrait of Henry Ford” (1940)—Williams used the automobile to develop a poetics of driving, but later left it behind as junk which had little to offer his “retreat” from mass culture (as Perloff put it). This retreat was, in part, a bid to keep intact the craft of his poetic vocation, which relied on his experience as a cultural outsider in suburban America. Finally, the trajectory of Williams’s career begs the question, which Anne Raine has posed, of whether modernist aesthetics are inseparable from petromodernity, and if rejecting the latter requires at once devaluing the former.[23]


Early Poems

Williams’s early modernist poems were a departure from his Keatsean juvenilia, and driving was central to this transition. The automobile provided Williams with a distinct vision and experience that was crucial for his imagist innovations, which reached their apex in Spring and All. From the beginning Williams figured automobiles as dangerous, especially for young women. In “The Young Housewife,” Williams’s first poem to take place completely inside the automobile, his own position as solitary driver is compared to that of the solitary housewife. But there is a stark imbalance of power between these two modern figures, encapsulated in the subtle violence perpetuated by the automobile. While troubling, this poem is elegant and understated in comparison to the later poem “Romance Moderne,” where the poet’s transgressive sexuality causes a car crash that leaves him in the ditch, recalling F. T. Marinetti’s origin story for Italian futurism in “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909). Unlike the futurists, though, neither of Williams’s poems celebrate the destructive powers of technology for their own sake. Rather, in these poems Williams stages the tension between art and technology in ways that would come to define his work.

Here is “The Young Housewife” in its entirety:

At ten A.M. the young housewife


moves about in negligee behind

the wooden walls of her husband’s house.

I pass solitary in my car.


Then again she comes to the curb

to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands

shy, uncorseted, tucking in

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

to a fallen leaf.


The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.[24]


The self-possession provided by the poet’s car is inseparable from what Rachel Blau DuPlessis has read as the poem’s “mechanism of ‘the [male] gaze.’”[25] One can’t help but wonder how many times the poet has driven past the same house “again” in order to be able to account for so much activity. There is a clear imbalance between the poet and housewife, for while she is kept within “the wooden walls of her husband’s house,” the poet drives by “solitary” but free in his machine (emphasis added). Unlike “the ice-man” and “fish-man,” the poet has no discrete function to perform. Nevertheless, his final act is to “bow and pass smiling.” Why is he bowing, and how does one bow while driving? This minute formality indexes a difference between the violence of “the noiseless wheels of my car,” which “rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves,” and the poet’s middle-class propriety. This propriety helps explain the policeman’s comment to the reckless driver in The Autobiography: “Hi, Doc!” Perhaps only a gentleman who bows while driving could be accorded such permissiveness, and yet this bowing while driving remains odd, as it seems to collapse the distance between the performance of social niceties before and after the emergence of automobiles.

Indeed, central to “The Young Housewife” is the distance between people that the automobile inaugurates. Linda Kinnahan has argued that here “the poet’s claim to mastery is shown as a form of destruction. While recognizing in himself the pull to mastery, Williams enacts a critique of a poetics, and ultimately of a cultural ethos, that chooses mastery over contact.”[26] “The Young Housewife” is full of contact, though, but mostly between things: wooden walls and negligee, stray ends of hair, leaves and car. These things are the erotic constraints that the housewife and the poet have in common. She is “tucking in / stray ends of hair” at the moment that Williams’s syntax is itself “tucked in,” or broken, to continue at the beginning of the next line. The poet is also “tucked in” to his automobile while his gaze and fantasy sprawl outward, which is fitted to make a poem. Rather than describing the housewife’s beauty as triumphant, though, the poet will “compare her to a fallen leaf,” and perhaps his bow mirrors her falling. Since Walt Whitman, “leaves” must also call to mind the pages of a book—Leaves of Grass—and the poems therein. That the doctor’s car unscrupulously crushes these leaves reveals the automobile as destructive of the unmediated poetic intimacy that Whitman imagined between the poet and his readers. In contrast to Whitman’s fantasy of immediate contact, in “The Young Housewife” the destructive “rush” of the doctor’s car makes for the only explicit contact between poet and world, where the “crackling” of leaves signals the constraints on intimacy that “sound” the depths of this poem.

While in “The Young Housewife” the poet’s automobile destroys leaves, Williams imagines the relationship between machinery and organic growth differently a few years later. In “Belly Music,” his closing statement for the final issue of the little magazine Others (July 1919), Williams updates Whitman’s imagery by linking leaves to engines: “Poets have written of the big leaves and the little leaves, leaves that are red, green, yellow and the one thing they have never seen about a leaf is that it is a little engine. It is one of the things that make a plant GO.”[27] More than the connection between leaves and motors, though, Williams is after the motor behind his own poetry, which he is at pains to assert as primary to any mere empirical thing: “The Artist: He writes in order to escape the mechanical perfection of sheer existence. He writes to assert himself above every machine and every mechanical conception that seeks to bind him. He writes to free himself, to annihilate every machine, every science, to escape defiant through consciousness and accuracy of emotional expression” (“Belly Music,” 63). Williams’s anxiety over the predominance of machines in American culture is in full bloom here, anticipating the conflict between machines and artworks that Adorno articulated half a century later: “modern works . . . must show themselves to be the equal of high industrialism, not simply make it a topic.”[28]

Williams plays out the conflict between a romantic conception of nature and a machine aesthetic in his 1919 poem “Romance Moderne.” The poem begins by describing the view of a “flickering mountain” in the “rain and light” and “a lake,— / or brown stream rising and falling / at the roadside.”[29] One might be reminded of Mont Blanc, which was so central to romantic conceptions of the sublime. This vision, though, is contrasted with “the other world— / the windshield a blunt barrier” (“Romance Moderne,” 147). The barrier between what is inside the car and the view outside is compounded by a sexual drama within the car. As A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan’s notes to the Collected Poems bluntly paraphrase “Romance Moderne,” “the poet is flirting with a young woman in the back seat of an automobile, while her husband and the poet’s wife are seated in front” (Collected Poems 1, 496–97). Not content to flirt with the driver’s wife, though, the poet has a go at the driver himself, and thereby manages to break through the boundary between the car and the outside world:

Lean forward. Punch the steersman

behind the ear. Twirl the wheel!

Over the edge! Screams! Crash!

The end. I sit above my head—

a little removed—or

a thin wash of rain on the roadway

—I am never afraid when he is driving,—

interposes new direction,

rides us sidewise, unforeseen

into the ditch! All threads cut!

Death! Black. The end. The very end—

(“Romance Moderne,” 148)

The poet’s bravado here appears to be self-defeating. Breaking through the boundary of his marriage, the boundary between passenger and driver, and that between the car and the outside world leads to death. But the poet’s attempt to take control of the car, and the deathly consequences of his actions, are as farcical as they are serious. He survives despite himself.

Sitting by the roadside after the crash the blustering poet attempts to balance the pathetic and the grandiose:

I would sit separate weighing a

small red handful: the dirt of these parts,

sliding mists sheeting the alders

against the touch of fingers creeping

to mine. All stuff of the blind emotions.

But—stirred, the eye seizes

for the first time—The eye awake!—

anything, a dirt bank with green stars

of scrawny weed flattened upon it under

a weight of air—For the first time!—

or a yawning depth: Big!

Swim around in it, through it—

all directions and find

vitreous seawater stuff—

God how I love you!—or, as I say,

a plunge into the ditch. The end. I sit

examining my red handful. Balancing

—this—in and out—agh.

(“Romance Moderne,” 148–49)

The poet painfully and ecstatically attempts to balance the “in and out” of his perspective, which resides somewhere between the romantic vision of a mountain in the rain and the actuality of a pile of dirt by the roadside. It is first by sitting in a ditch, though, that he sees the stars; the poet’s “eye” is “awake!” Finally, the poet has made contact: “the touch of fingers / creeping to mine.”

Williams may well have been influenced in writing this poem by Marinetti’s futurist manifesto, which had been published in Italian, French, and English ten years previously. In the manifesto, Marinetti and his friends race cars into the night until the poet, confronted by two bicyclists in the road, rolls over into a ditch:

Oh! Maternal ditch, nearly full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your bracing slime, which reminded me of the sacred black breast of my Sudanese nurse. . . . When I climbed out, a filthy and stinking rag, from under the capsized car, I felt my heart—deliciously—being slashed with the red-hot iron of joy![30]

Arising from this ditch Marinetti and co. declare their manifesto “to all the living men of the earth” (“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” 51). The tract ends: “Lift up your heads! // Standing erect on the summit of the world, yet once more we fling our challenge to the stars!” (53). While the futurists arise triumphant from the dirt, Williams’s poet sits in the ditch contemplating a handful of it.[31] As Peter Halter puts it, “whereas the futurists saw modern urban space as the epitome of collectivity and mass identity, Williams still retains the individual in a central role.”[32] Williams’s individual is vulnerable and the poet of “Romance Moderne” can’t fling himself to the stars he sees from the ditch, because these “green stars” are—we learn after the line break—“scrawny weed.” This double vision between stars and the ditch is formalized, then, in the enjambment of the poem, a technique that Williams will further develop in Spring and All.

In “The Young Housewife” and “Romance Moderne” we can see Williams struggling to negotiate between a romantic inheritance and modernist iconoclasm. “The Young Housewife” reveals how the car provides for a mechanistic male gaze while at once being a palpable constraint on intimacy. The poet’s frustration over this constraint leads to explicit violence in “Romance Moderne,” and a confrontation with dirt and dejection. Marinetti’s “maternal ditch” becomes the birthing ground of modernism for these “living men,” a theme which returns, in somewhat inverted form, in Williams’s The Great American Novel. As we shall see in Spring and All, Williams shared with the futurists a belief that destruction could lay the ground for new creation, just as winter is a harbinger of spring.


The Great American Novel

The Great American Novel, first published in 1923 in Paris, confronts the strained relationship between commodities and avant-garde art, which are both remade from recycled material. In his search for uniquely American materials for his work, Williams compares the generative powers of automobility to those of birthing mothers. Indeed, the poet himself becomes a distracted mother, comically attempting to protect the claims of American avant-garde art through tending to the labors of both actual mothers and machines. This zany mothering through machines stands in contrast to the dangers of the automobile so prominent in Williams’s poetry. Put generally, his poetry tends toward tragedy, while the prose includes a fair share of comedy.

In the beginning of the novel, the doctor-narrator is brooding: “Tell me, wet streets, what we are coming to, we in this country? Are we doomed? Must we be another Europe or another Japan with our coats copied from China, another bastard country in a world of bastards?”[33] What is new in America, asks the novel’s narrator? “If there is progress then there is a novel. Without progress there is nothing. . . . Words progress into the ground. One must begin with words if one is to write” (Williams, Imaginations, 158). These new words, both innovative and primal, screech forth from a car ride in the early pages of the novel: “Turned into the wrong street seeking to pass the power house from which the hum, hmmmmmmmmmmmmm—sprang. Electricity has been discovered for ever. I’m new, says the great dynamo. I am progress. I make a word. Listen! UMMMMMMMMMMMM—” (162). Here Williams finds a new language in the double-edged roar of machines. This primal hum of American machinery provides a native and dynamic riposte to European erudition. But this awesome dynamism might, in turn, itself threaten the imaginative life of poetry.

The hum of machinery also vies for supremacy with the screams of a mother in labor:

The fog lay in deep masses on the roads at three A.M. Into the wrong street turned the car seeking the high pitched singing tone of the dynamos endlessly spinning in the high banquet hall, filling the house and the room where the bed of pain stood with progress. Ow, ow! Oh help me somebody! said she. UMMMMMM sang the dynamo in the next street, UMMMM. With a terrible scream she drowned out its sound. He went to the window to see if his car was still there, pulled the curtain aside, green—Yes it was still there. (Williams, Imaginations, 162)

The “UMMMM” and “hmmmm[ . . . ]” that machinery express become the source for a new, generative birth meant to exceed the “fog” that Williams associates with European modernism: “But Joyce. He is misjudged, misunderstood. His vaunted invention is a fragile fog” (168). The hum of machinery, while evincing the powers of American innovation, are nevertheless drowned out by an even more primal scream—that of the woman in labor. As Lisa Siraganian notes in a compelling reading linking Williams’s novel to progressive ideas about maternity, “the woman matches and even exceeds the social and technological progress of modernity—we might even say that by giving birth, the maternal body turns into a symbol of progress.”[34] Williams’s narrator seems uncertain, though, of whether to give the mother or his car primacy. Indeed, it is as if maternal labors cannot help but remind the doctor of his automobile, for while the baby is born and the mother is screaming for help, the doctor is checking on his car.

Thirty-five years after its publication, Williams reflected that The Great American Novel was “a travesty on what I considered conventional American writing. People were always talking about the Great American Novel so I thought I’d write it. The heroine is a little Ford car—she was very passionate—a hot little baby.”[35] Calling the car “a hot little baby” makes apparent the car’s sexualization. There is, furthermore, something queer about the family car in part IX of the novel: “The little car purred pleasantly to itself at the thought of the long night. Oh, to be a woman, thought the speeding mechanism. For they had wrapped something or other in a piece of newspaper and placed it under the seat and there were pictures there of girls—or grown women it might be, in very short skirts. Steadily the wheels spun while in the paper were printed these words” (Williams, The Great American Novel, 190). What follows is text from a women’s fashion magazine; Williams readily plagiarized such magazine articles in his novel.[36] The androgynous car—spurred by consumer culture—imagines becoming a woman, while at an earlier moment in the novel the little car fantasizes about a romantic liaison with a Standard Motor Gasoline truck:

This is THE thing—The small mechanism went swiftly by the great truck with fluttering heart in the hope, the secret hope that perhaps, somehow he would notice—HE, the great truck in his massiveness and paint, that somehow he would come to her. (Williams, Imaginations, 171)

Here the car longs for the attentions of a truck while, as we have seen, in his autobiography Williams turned dueling with a larger, slower truck into high comedy. In his novel, then, Williams is able to turn the masculine bravado of his autobiography inside out, and instead inhabits the role of titillated woman. The “secret hope” for an oil truck’s attentions will return in “The Five Dollar Guy.”

In confronting the relationship between commodities and art, the narrator of The Great American Novel positions himself as the ultimate zany mother of the story, with the “little baby” as his cute child. As Sianne Ngai writes of cuteness:

Cuteness solicits a regard of the commodity as an anthropomorphic being less powerful than the aesthetic subject, appealing specifically to us for protection and care. As [Lori] Merish puts it, the cute “always in some sense designates a commodity in search of its mother,” thus “grafting commodity desire onto a middle-class structure of familiar, expressly maternal emotion.”[37]

In comparison with the electric power plant, the sound of which it mimics, the automobile is indeed “little.” The car is also a commodity in search of its energy-mother, “seeking the high pitched singing tone of the dynamos,” which fill the room where the actual mother is giving birth. The pains of this actual mother harass the doctor, in contrast to the cute straining of the little Ford. The doctor, as Merish would have it, must tend to and protect the car first and foremost, and so he himself becomes a mother figure here, birthing an American modernism essentially, but problematically, coupled to machines.

Ngai shows how the avant-garde’s dalliance with an aesthetics of cute objects is a confrontation with its own powerlessness. In attending to the sensuous life of his little Ford, the doctor seeks to harness its power for experimental literature, while protecting his art from commercial ends. Turning cars into poetry is hard work, though, especially since driving is part of the doctor’s ceaseless labor. In this way, The Great American Novel also instantiates Ngai’s category of the zany, which is “explicitly about [the] politically ambiguous intersection between cultural and occupational performance, acting and service, playing and laboring” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 182). Williams worked at all hours, both at being a doctor and a cultural producer, and the car was a crucial site where these occupations joined. “I am alone only while in the car,” he writes in A Novelette (1932). “What then? Take a pad in the car with me and write while running” (Williams, Imaginations, 290). As Ngai puts it, “although zaniness is playful in all its manifestations across genres, media, and cultural strata, it is an aesthetic of action pushed to strenuous and even precarious extremes” (Our Aesthetic Categories, 185). This zaniness, like the reckless driving Williams brags about in his autobiography, can verge on buffoonery as Williams attempts to assert the dignity of his art in an inhospitable social climate.[38]

The Great American Novel was, in Williams’s own estimation, “shoddy.” As he wrote to Ezra Pound on August 16, 1922, “haphazard as it is, it still has something of the nature of the mass that engages my attention here and so better be printed as it is—or destroyed” (quoted in New World, 204). In the novel, Williams affirms his pulp as authentically American, and finds support for this view among the mass-produced products of the machine age: “You know the army coats the boys wore. They were 70% shoddy. It’s all wool but the fibre has been broken. It makes a hard material not like the soft new woven woolens but it’s wool, all of it” (Imaginations, 226). As April Boone explains: “On the one hand, the description provides an implicit critique of some literary works created like the shoddy cloth,” namely commercial pulp. [39] “On the other hand, there is a sort of admiration for the ingenuity of the method of producing shoddy, which breaks up the old and patches it together into something new, like the hard edges of modern art” (Boone, “Flamboyance,” 20–21). The Great American Novel portrays American art as a mass-produced assemblage akin to the country’s industrial products. The shoddiness of the novel defamiliarizes the premises of realism while implicitly critiquing the supremacy of utility associated with American machines. The automobile, in particular, allowed Williams to write a “travesty” such as The Great American Novel, to be coarse, zany, unstylized, and cute, to craft “a kind of fetishism that protects against fetishism, in part by coinciding with a kind of reification” (Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 103). In fetishizing a fictional Ford, Williams is able to allay the threat to art posed by actual cars, a threat which as we’ve begun to see also emerged in his poems, where the automobile is even more explicitly linked to his own dangerous sexual energies.

Spring and All

Williams’s confrontation with technology and the automobile in the bricolage of The Great American Novel fed into the composition of his fourth book of poems, Spring and All, which was also published in 1923. Some of these poems appeared the same year in a little book by Williams called Go-Go suggesting, as Paul Mariani puts it, “a poetry of rapid transit, like the ‘Go-Go’ of the traffic signals, instead of ‘Stop-Stop’” (206). This going is also reminiscent of Williams’s statement in “Belly Music” that a leaf “is a little engine. It is one of the things that make a plant GO.” The leaves of spring, then, are little engines that make both plants and poetry go. Mixing poetry and prose, Spring and All provides its own kind of bricolage, breaking new ground for Williams, and for modernism more generally. As the title suggests, Williams is preoccupied with spring and new beginnings here, and he provides a conscious contrast to the pessimism about spring that begins Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922).[40]

Developing on his earlier poems, the poet-driver of Spring and All finds self-possession through the automobile, which also facilitates the integration of diverse things and people into a kaleidoscopic poetic technique. While in “Romance Moderne” the modern perspective from inside the car clashed with a romantic outside, here, as Roy Miki puts it, “the mind finds itself inside an outside, and when the driving begins, the driver enters the play of a doubleness: not only an inside experienced as an outside, but now as well an outside experienced as an inside.”[41] In Spring and All the poet-driver is himself adamantly of, rather than separate from, the surrounding world. This is a book full of commodity poems that demand contact in a world populated by things, and potentially thingly human relations, which the poet strives to both grasp and invigorate through his own imaginative powers. Women are central to these thingly human relations, which are now “inside” the poem: at one point a woman’s leg itself becomes a poetic line. There is also an abiding anxiety over the effects of modernization on women, as in the famous poem “To Elsie,” where the maladies of modernity are figured as an absence of capable drivers: “no one to drive the car.” The poet is himself, as we’ve seen, both a capable and dangerous driver, and Spring and All emerges, I’d like to suggest, out of the tension between the aspiration to be doctor/driver/mother/poet and the ever-present threat of moral dissolution and crashing.

In the book’s first lines of verse, we encounter a world of wet trees, mud, illness, and clouds, all seen while driving:

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen


patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees[42]

Presumably the poet is driving to work during the influenza pandemic. As T. Hugh Crawford writes:

The opening poem of Spring and All—“By the road to the contagious hospital”—is a twofold paradigm . . . in which the narrator catalogs the symptoms of the coming spring as he witnesses them through the window of his car. Thus the automobile (and other transportation and communication technologies) not only lets physicians see things hidden from view but also constructs those objects as symptoms or details by bringing to bear the medical gaze as part of the theatre of proof.[43]

In the age of the house call being a county doctor was both a mode of intimacy and isolation for Williams, part science and part craft. Poetry had a similar status for him, as it meant attending to facts as well as harnessing the power of the imagination. Attending to ideas in things did not, then, mean slavishly giving things priority over the imagination, nor trying to subtract the poet’s own personality from the world, as Eliot’s version of modernism appeared to suggest one should.[44]

The gaze of the driving doctor is on display throughout Spring and All, and accounts not only for the content in view, but also the poems’ structure and lineation. In what has come to be called “The Right of Way,” the driver’s kaleidoscopic perspective is inscribed in the poem’s individual lines that are syntactically linked together, while each assert the priority of their own subject.

In passing with my mind

on nothing in the world

but the right of way

I enjoy on the road by

virtue of the law—

I saw

an elderly man who

smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—

a woman in blue

who was laughing and

leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half

averted face

and a boy of eight who was

looking at the middle of

the man’s belly

at a watchchain—

The supreme importance

of this nameless spectacle

sped me by them

without a word—

Why bother where I went?

for I went spinning on the

four wheels of my car

along the wet road until

I saw a girl with one leg

over the rail of a balcony[45]

Here Williams develops his signature line breaks to stunning effect, so that a myriad of actors transform the driver’s vision. This vision is premised on legally having “the right of way,” which was affirmed by the police officer’s permissiveness toward Williams’s reckless driving in The Autobiography.

This poem’s “radical discontinuity” can cause us to ask whether it is the driver’s mind, the right of way, the law, the boy of eight, or the woman in blue, that is the dynamo of the poem’s progression.[46] There is a centrifugal logic to this movement, represented in the “four wheels of my car” and counterpoised by the “watchchain” holding the boy motionless. As in “The Young Housewife,” the doctor’s gaze, facilitated by driving, is explicitly sexual. His vision follows a line of engagements until it encounters the broken line of a girl’s leg hanging over a balcony. This stopping point suggests a meeting of gazes, or balconies—Matisse called the automobile’s windscreen a “mobile balcony”—which the poem inscribes in its lineation (quoted in Speed Handbook, 158). As Susan McCabe points out, “Williams here literalizes enjambment—a word that derives from the French ‘jambe’ for leg, thus linking his ‘revolution in the conception of the poetic foot’ to its metaphoric bodily significance.”[47] For a brief moment—as long as a short line—we are led to believe that the girl only has one leg, suggesting her vulnerability in relation to the spinning wheels of the man’s car, until suddenly—at the next line—the leg is above the driver, tantalizingly secure in comparison to the driver’s aimlessness.

In Spring and All the automobile is the vehicle for a free-associative play of materials, not least industrial ones. At the same time, the car demands an attentive driver, who provides an auto-mobile structure and measure. Indeed, Williams melds machine and human in the prose from Spring and All: “the imagination is an actual force comparable to electricity or steam” (207). Without the poet’s imagination to order the energies of the machine age, human flourishing is threatened. As Christopher Edwards puts it, “driving, for Williams, seems to serve an implicitly humanistic function.”[48]

Aside from “The Red Wheelbarrow,” the most famous poem in Spring and All is what comes to be titled “To Elsie.” Here “The pure products of America / go crazy” for want of any stabilizing tradition:

and young slatterns, bathed

in filth

from Monday to Saturday

to be tricked out that night

with gauds

from imaginations which have no

peasant traditions to give them


but flutter and flaunt

sheer rags—succumbing without


save numbed terror

under some hedge or choke-cherry

or viburnum—

which they cannot express—[49]

With imaginings debased by consumer goods, these workingwomen are led astray into the bushes, like “sheer rags” lacking the ability to “express” the new if shoddy bricolage of pulp which, as we have seen in The Great American Novel, Williams associated with his own art. The modern worldview of these workers is analogous to the frenetic perception these poems themselves put on display; is not the watch chain that catches the boy’s attention in the previous poem itself a gaud for the imagination? The same forces that threaten the imagination also provide, in short, a model for how to constellate the diverse objects and experiences of modern life.

Indeed, part of the pathos of “To Elsie” is that the doctor is not saved from the poem’s indictment against America:

sent out at fifteen to work in

some hard pressed

house in the suburbs—


some doctor’s family, some Elsie—

voluptuous water

expressing with broken


brain the truth about us—(218)

This “truth” is the degraded condition of the imagination, which material and sensual impoverishment attests to:

while the imagination strains

after deer

going by fields of goldenrod in


the stifling heat of September


it seems to destroy us


It is only in isolate flecks that


is given off


No one

to witness

and adjust, no one to drive the car (218–19)

The automobile that gave coherence to “The Right of Way” has here run amok. Yet the negative inflection of this poem’s final line—“no one to drive the car”—at once reveals its opposite, since the doctor is not only witness to, but also composer of, the perspective offered on his characters’ dissolution.

The conflict between commodities and art that Williams staged in The Great American Novel is resolved in Spring and All as a new perspective and form—a “new realism,” as Charles Altieri would have it—where the driver’s vision holds the scattered things (including people) of modern life together by the penetrating bricolage of a compassionately vexed poetic gaze.[50] This is a highly tenuous resolution, though, for the “no one” of the final lines of “To Elsie” suggests that the logic of automobility is beyond individual control. Indeed, after Spring and All Williams begins to move away from the tightrope walk of affirming imaginative art through machines and increasingly figures the automobile as stalled junk, available for poetic reflection, but no longer the center of generative energy that it was in 1923.

“The Five Dollar Guy”

Schuster has asked, “Where is the Oil in Modernism?,” and one place we can find it is in a seldom-read story by Williams, “The Five Dollar Guy,” published in the inaugural issue of New Masses in May 1926 (162). This story is, like many of Williams’s stories, framed as a doctor’s visit to a patient. In this case, the doctor-narrator visits a mother to check on her third, newborn, child. The woman relates how the attendant at “the filling station for the Mex Pet Gas and Oil Co.” down the street has promised her a joy ride in his Mex Pet oil truck, and that “the Boss down there” made sexual advances while she walked by one night with one of her children.[51] Williams neglected to alter the name of the gas station and the boss in the story—Henwood—before publication and was charged with libel, a suit which he settled to the tune of $5,000, the equivalent of a year’s salary (Mariani, New World, 254–55). This experience was part of a shift in Williams’s attitude to the automobile, which we can see confirmed in his later poems on automobility. While in “The Young Housewife” the poet fantasized about a woman seen inside her husband’s house while driving, here the doctor-poet is himself inside a woman’s home, bantering away about cars and (mostly imagined) sexual escapades. Rather than writing from the frenetic perspective of a driver as in Spring and All, the view from “The Five Dollar Guy” is contemplative, and it is a junked car that attracts the doctor’s poetic attention. As in The Great American Novel a sexualized maternity is at the center of this story, suggesting how the generative powers Williams associated with mothers will come to outlast his fascination with cars.

The narrator begins the story philosophically, stating that “all the forenoon” he had been thinking of this:

To put down, to find and to put down some small, primary thing, to begin low down so that all the color and the smell should be in it—plainly seen and sensed,—solidly stated—with this we should begin to have a literature; but we must begin low. It is not to write intriguingly, to fabricate a fascinating tissue of words (so I had been thinking) but to get down to one word where that is fastened upon the object, and so to begin to write—some plain phrase: that would be story enough. (Williams, “The Five Dollar Guy,” 19)

As in The Great American Novel, Williams is preoccupied here with words that will be generative for an art of direct contact with things. Yet words prove to be both as “low down” and as slippery as oil. When the young mother tells the narrator about the offer of a joy ride in an oil truck he replies “that it’s a good thing to have a load of gas behind you when you go for a joy ride,” which the woman laughingly interprets two ways (19). The narrator then looks out the window and reflects, “it flashed across my mind that here it was, the inexplicable, exquisite, vulgar thing—rarest of the rare in the imagination, the trodden and defeated atmosphere of perfection” (19). From the window, the doctor sees a yellow bench in the yard, upon which lays a mongrel dog of the kind “loved by the poor” for having a “soft, delicate texture of richness” found nowhere else in their experience (19). He then turns his attention to the rest of the yard:

At the back was a shack where one might shed chickens or, after them, a Ford. The Ford, flat-tired and written on the sides with witticisms half rubbed out, ROLLS ROUGH, the door hanging open, the hood of the engine flapping like a loose cap, the seat busted in and the stuffing showing—the Ford stood with the off wheels in the garden, sunken, abandoned. (29)

Everything in the yard, furthermore, “had been pushed sideways to the edges to make room in the center for—what? The ground was trampled. The dog was asleep” (29). When the mother starts talking about her prospective joyride, the narrator replies, “Believe me, I’m going to get a truck myself” (29). The mother then teases him, wondering whom he’ll pick up, without asking him why he doesn’t just use his “own closed car” for the same purpose. The story ends with her description of how the boss, who lives at the filling station, offered her five dollars if she’d come inside one night, despite her having a child with her. The man even had a pet anteater, which he showed the child.

Rather than providing “one word  . . .  that is fastened upon the object,” the meanings of words proliferate in the story, so that “pet” at once refers to the Mex Pet truck, petroleum, pets, and (sexual) petting. The softness of the pet mongrel in the yard contrasts, furthermore, with the dilapidated Ford bearing the witticism “ROLLS ROUGH,” which puns on the finery of a Rolls-Royce. The Mex Pet truck stands as a potential escape from quotidian struggles of the poor with such “richness,” captivating the imagination of both the doctor and the mother. Yet while they both fantasize over joyrides, it is through attending to the “low down” “primary thing” of a broken-down Ford that “we should begin to have a literature.” American literature, for Williams, begins and ends with cars and oil. Williams is attracted to a dilapidated Ford precisely because it can’t go anywhere, can’t become other things, in the way that oil seeps into everything after being brought up from “low down.” Yet the words inscribed on this low down thing are themselves a slippery joke on automobility. To roll rough, to be vernacular, is here paradoxically to not roll at all. While talking about joyrides, Williams’s narrator nevertheless figures the end of driving as the place where “contact” with primary things begins.

This story seems to ask who, in the age of automobility, is not “a five dollar guy”? Indeed, the pay the boss offers the mother for coming inside is the same pay Henry Ford was famous for offering his factory workers in 1914, in part as an attempt to stem extremely high rates of worker turnover. Ironically, Williams earned not $5, but had to pay $5,000, after publishing his story. As if to try and recoup this loss, two years later Williams bought $5,000 worth of oil shares in Atlantic Refining, which he again lost in the crash of 1929 (Mariani, New World, 270, 297). The fortunes of oil and literature are, in short, intermingled for Williams. Writing directly about the (personal) politics of oil cost him, though, and may have inhibited him from expanding on the topic. Doubtless, the experience of publishing “The Five Dollar Guy” troubled Williams, and cars became much less prevalent in his subsequent poems, as he aimed to craft an imaginative vision beyond automobility.[52] Rather than cars leading to contact in this story, the most poignant connection is that between the doctor and mother, suggesting how motherhood will outlast joyrides as a creative source for Williams.

The Descent of Winter and Later Poems

Williams’s conception of driving, cars, and gasoline shifted as the twenties wore on and automobility became for the first time a mass phenomenon. Henry Ford wrote of mass production in the 1920s, and in the 1930s Ford met intense public criticism for the violent union busting—overseen by the retired boxer Harry Bennett—that led to riots at The River Rouge Complex, and strikes at Ford factories throughout the country.[53] The General Motors Corporation was equally anti-union, but after the dramatic sit-down strike of 1937 where workers occupied production plants for forty-four days straight, GM was forced to recognize the United Auto Workers, which was shortly followed by union recognition at the notoriously anti-union U.S. Steel.[54] For Williams—who published in communist journals such as New Masses throughout the 1930s—the attraction of automobility as a vehicle for individual creativity waned markedly. Ford himself displayed a similar skepticism toward automobility in the same period, opening Greenfield Village to the public in 1933 near River Rouge, where visitors could explore buildings and streets from the America of his childhood and earlier, a bygone America before automobiles. Williams’s alienation from mass automobility is apparent in The Descent of Winter (1928), as well as in later uncollected poems including “The Moon—” (1930), “View of a Lake” (1935), and “Sketch for a Portrait of Henry Ford” (1940). In this later writing, gasoline is figured as suffocating poetry, and mass automobility and its detritus as monotonous, degraded, and deadening.

In The Descent of Winter Williams writes that “there is not excellence without the vibrant rhythm of a poem and poems are small and tied and gasping, they eat gasoline, they all ate gasoline and died.”[55] While eating gasoline kills poems, cars contribute to a deadening monotony. This automotive, or indeed Fordist, monotony, nevertheless leaves room for the kind of contact with mothers that we saw in “The Five Dollar Guy”:

Oh, blessed love, among insults, brawls, yelling, kicks, brutality—here the old dignity of life holds on—defying the law, defying monotony.

[ . . . ]

Oh, blessed love—the dream engulfs her. She opens her eyes on the troubled bosom of the mother who is nursing the babe and watching the door. And watching the eye of the man. Talking English, a stream of Magyar, Polish what? to the tall man coming and going.

Oh, blessed love where are you there, pleasure driven out, order triumphant, one house like another, grass cut to pay lovelessly. Bored we turn to cars to take us to “the country” to “nature” to breathe her good air. Jesus Christ. To nature. It’s about time, for most of us.[56]

Here an “old dignity” defies the same automotive “law” which was the engine behind “The Right of Way,” and now signals not a generative, cruising point of view, but rather “monotony.” Whereas in “The Young Housewife” the poet can imagine the housewife’s home as a self-enclosed world, much as he himself is in his car, in The Descent of Winter one house is like any other, with cars, ironically, offering a means of escape to “nature.” This escape is fictional, though, holding up a separation between machine and nature that is elided by the “modern” where “there are no sagas—only trees now, animals, engines.”[57] While engines may be—like poems—graspable things, they have begun, with mass automobility, to deaden creativity. Yet “blessed love,” epitomized by the “troubled bosom of the mother,” defies the law of automobility.

Despite gasoline and cars suffocating poetry, the narrator of The Descent of Winter still allows that car production can inspire great art: “Henry Ford has asked Chas. Sheeler to go to Detroit and photograph everything. Carte blanche. Sheeler!”[58] And indeed, Charles Sheeler’s photographs, and his subsequent paintings of Ford’s River Rouge Complex—completed in 1928—evince a cubist realism analogous to Williams’s imagism. This excitement over Sheeler’s professional success does not extend, though, to exalting car production or Henry Ford. On the following page of the book the monotony of work in Fordism makes the United States appear as “a Soviet State decayed away in a misconception of richness. The states, counties, cities, are anemic Soviets. As rabbits are cottontailed the office-workers in cotton running pants get in a hot car, ride in a hot tunnel and confine themselves in a hot office—to sell asphalt, the trade in tanned leather” (Williams, Descent of Winter, 308). Such repetitive work and commuting are necessary in order to keep the roads paved, so that people can drive their “hot” cars to work. The Ford, which was a cute “hot little baby” in The Great American Novel, is here enervating, producing heat only to keep the machinery of profit-making running. Williams even derides the pollution caused by factory production.[59]

Black and White photo of Towers and Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927
Fig. #1. Charles Sheeler, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company. 1927. © 2020. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

Strikingly, in the one moment where the first-person poet explicitly emerges as driver in this book, it is grass that catches his attention:

I make really very little money.

What of it?

I prefer the grass with the rain on it

the short grass before my headlights

when I am turning my car—

a degenerate trait, no doubt.

It would ruin England.[60]

The poet is still drawn here to a peculiarly American complex of machinery coupled to poetry, the latter being invoked as “short grass” reminiscent of Whitman’s Leaves, but also of the grass “lovelessly” cut for pay earlier in the book. Since the poet isn’t making much money, though, he is saved from the threat of selling out his art. Indeed, he appears proud here of his own nativist degeneracy, and his modest means distinguish him from the mania for possessions coupled to the monotony of suburbia, traffic, and offices. Rather than exuberant, driving here is melancholic.

Williams wrote his last self-contained driving poem, two years after The Descent of Winter, in the spring of 1930:

The Moon—


through bedrooms

makes the car

ride upon the page

by virtue of

the law of sentences


through roofs

behind reedy trees

it is the night

waking to

smells of lechery[61]

This poem encapsulates Williams’s confrontation with automobility over the preceding decades. Rather than gazing into the home of the housewife, as the driver in “The Young Housewife” does, here the poem is “bulleting / through roofs.” “The law of sentences” echoes “the right of way” that the driver of that eponymous poem from Spring and All has “by virtue of the law,” as well as the “law” coupled to “monotony” in The Descent of Winter. The right to drive and write this way are still of a piece, then, but the line between driving and making poetic sentences collides as the poem itself dives “through bedrooms” and finally “the night / wak[es] to / smells of lechery.” As in “The Five Dollar Guy,” driving has become associated with sexual depravity in ways beyond aesthetic, or indeed legal, redemption. Significantly, this poem lacks a driver—the subject of the poem is at once the car and the night—highlighting the social ill of having “no one to drive the car.”

The line of sight of “The Right of Way,” which is intimated in “The Moon—” structures a poem Williams wrote five years later, “View of a Lake,” which appears in An Early Martyr and Other Poems (1935). Mariani writes that Williams “knew that the images in a poem like ‘View of a Lake’ were nearly random lens shots, chance images thrown off at odd moments and not serious attacks on the structure of the poem” (New World, 368). While Lawrence Buell has lauded Williams as a poet of an “unofficial countryside” of abandoned industrial places where nature has reasserted itself, he nevertheless considers this poem a mere “five-finger exercise compared to Paterson.[62] This poem has been overlooked in much the same way that the three ragged children in it look intently away from automobility. “View of a Lake” raises the question of what, in Williams’s imagist poetics, remains in the Depression years, when the once exciting advance of automobility has stalled, or turned to junk.

The poem begins on a highway below a recently blasted-away rock surface, which has left a “waste of cinders” strewn across the slope where

stand three children


beside the weed-grown


of a wrecked car


immobile in a line

facing the water[63]

As in “The Five Dollar Guy,” a wrecked car focuses the poet’s vision, which is transposed to that of the children: “They are intent / watching something / below—?” (“View of a Lake,” 380–81). The vision of these children extends the vision of the drivers, who are themselves fixated on the children.



remains a sycamore

in leaf

Intently fixed


the three

with straight backs



the stalled traffic

all eyes

toward the water (381)

What is it that the children see? We know, at least, what they fixedly look away from: stalled traffic, highway construction, and the chassis of a wrecked car. The children’s gaze may be the “primary thing” that captures the drivers’ attention, not least because they are looking away from an automobility that has here stalled, and which is clearly connected to the waste, wires, and concrete flanking the highway. The “line” of this gaze has a similar logic to “The Right of Way,” where the driver’s view finally lands on a woman’s leg. Here, instead, the children’s ragged view extends beyond that of the driver’s mechanized male gaze. The poet’s stalled gaze retains its descriptive powers, but they are powers tempered by the views of others. Indeed, Robert von Hallberg has shown how description, rather than ideological grandstanding, was its own kind of inclusive politics for Williams in the 1930s, an inclusivity that was already apparent in The Descent of Winter.[64]

Five years after composing “View of a Lake,” Williams wrote “Sketch for a Portrait of Henry Ford” (1940), which also attends to automotive detritus and—as in “To Elsie”—connects that detritus to a propulsion beyond human control:

A tin bucket

full of small used parts

nuts and short bolts

slowly draining onto

the dented bottom—

forming a heavy sludge

of oil—depositing

in its turn steel grit—


Hangs on an arm

that whirls it at increasing

velocity around

a central pivot—

suddenly the handle gives

way and the bucket

is propelled through

space   .    .    .[65]

As in “The Right of Way” and “View of a Lake,” where the poet’s automotive gaze follows a line of objects and others’ gazes, in “Sketch” Williams likewise utilizes a dialectic between centripetal self-possession and centrifugal dispersion. But whereas in “The Right of Way” the poet’s perspective remains intact as his car wheels continue aimlessly, joyously, spinning, here “the handle gives way” and the contents of the bucket “full of small used parts” goes flying off through “space.” It would seem that this flight is the cost of maintaining an imaginative vision unreceptive to the views of others, as The Descent of Winter and “View of a Lake” seek to be. Henry Ford’s creation, we might deduce, is beyond his control, so that—as Mark Steven reads this poem—“an exemplary capitalist subjectivity [has been replaced by] the means of production.”[66]


In light of the awesome tragedy of Ford’s success and the crisis of the Great Depression, Williams was unable to continue writing “machines made of words” “full of small used parts” coated with “oil” and “grit.” In contrast to the poet’s automotive perspective in Spring and All, in Williams’s subsequent work automobility became both monotonous and stalled, while its detritus has been let loose, propelled beyond human aims. In Paterson (1946–1958) walking largely took the place of driving as the means of personal poetic transport, while the few cars in Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems (1962) are critically seen from without, not experienced from within. Whether or not Williams’s retreat from automobility was at once an aesthetic retreat from the high water mark of his earlier writings (as Perloff suggests) remains open for discussion. If Williams’s most successful works are inextricably coupled to automobility, then it is hard not to worry, as Raine does over modernism in general, that our attachment to modernist aesthetics shows up our addiction to petromodernity. This would be a hasty conclusion, though, as Paterson in particular remains highly regarded. Furthermore, there is another generative impulse in Williams’s work, namely maternity. The tension between maternity and automobility can also be seen in other work from the period, most notably perhaps Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932–33), where a child enclosed in the ground like a seed is shown to be the generative origin of the powers encapsulated by Ford’s assembly line. These murals have a striking synergy with Frida Kahlo’s focus on maternity in her paintings; she had a miscarriage while in Detroit with her husband. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is just one example of a road novel that foregrounds maternity, not least in its startling final scene.

The arc of automobility in Williams’s work from “The Young Housewife” in 1916 through to “Sketch” in 1940 encompasses both cars and oil, as well as objectified women and mothers. Whereas the first car poems show Williams coupling the automobile to his own dangerous sexual energies, in the 1920s we can see his emerging concern for the victims of automobility, not least young women. In The Great American Novel, in particular, Williams stages the generative powers of maternity alongside those of automobility as a means of thinking through the stakes of his own poetics. Are his driving poems inherently destructive, we might imagine him asking? Are the generative powers of motherhood a better, more ameliorative source for art in a modernity saturated by small and large commodities, financial speculation, oil, and junk? One of the striking aspects of “The Five Dollar Guy” is how Williams refuses to romanticize the life of his patients; the isolated mother in the story bonds with the doctor over their shared sexual fantasies around automobility. The imagistic vision of the self-possessed poet-driver comes into question here, as well as in the final poems I’ve considered. Along the route of such a white, masculinist vision lies destruction, which might be subverted through taking in the views of others, such as those of the children looking beyond the debris of automobility, toward something neither the driver nor the reader can yet see.


This article began as a chapter of my doctoral dissertation in English at the University of Notre Dame, which was supervised by Stephen Fredman and Laura Dassow Walls. I rewrote it at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion, with funding from the Swedish Research Council (registration number 2018-01552). I am grateful to Marius Hentea for inviting me to present a version of this article at the Work-in-Progress Seminar at Gothenburg’s Department of Languages and Literatures. The feedback I received from my anonymous reviewers at Modernism/modernity has not only shaped the direction of this article, but also that of my book project. Finally, Anne Fernald’s editing has made my writing clearer.

[1] Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch (2016; New York City, Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street).

[2] William Carlos Williams, Paterson, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions Books, 1992), 211.

[3] Marjorie Perloff in Richard P. Rogers, Voices & Visions: William Carlos Williams, PBS, 1988. Available at See also Perloff’s article in the book accompanying this series, where she considers Paterson “static and repetitive.” “William Carlos Williams” in Voices and Visions: The Poet in America, ed. Helen Vendler (New York: Random House, 1987), 198.

[4] James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 216–20.

[5] Cecelia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 231.

[6] Marjorie Perloff, Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 58.

[7] Henry M. Sayre, “American Vernacular: Objectivism, Precisionism, and the Aesthetics of the Machine,” Twentieth Century Literature 35, no. 3 (1989): 310–42, 328.

[8] William Carlos Williams, The Embodiment of Knowledge (New York: New Directions, 1974), 62–63.

[9] William Carlos Williams, “An Exercise,” in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Vol. 2, 1939-1962, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1991), 427–28, 428.

[10] Aside from works I will engage with directly in this article, see (in order of publication date) Cynthia Golomb Dettelbach, In the Driver’s Seat: The Automobile in American Literature and Popular Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976); Rogen N. Casey, Textual Vehicles: The Automobile in American Literature (New York: Garland, 1997); Kris Lackey, RoadFrames: The American Highway Narrative (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997); Daniel Miller, ed., Car Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2020); Deborah Paes de Barros, Fast Cars and Bad Girls: Nomadic Women’s Road Stories (New York: Peter Lang, 2004); Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr, eds. Autopia: Cars and Culture (London: Reaktion, 2004); Jeremy Packer, Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Gordon E. Slethaug and Stacilee Ford, eds., Hit the Road, Jack: Essays on the Culture of the American Road (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012); Ricarda Vidal, Death and Desire in Car Crash Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2013); Ann Brigham, American Road Narratives: Reimagining Mobility in Literature and Film (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); Lynne Pearce, Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016); Susan McWilliams Barndt, The American Road Trip and American Political Thought (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018). Gijs Mom has, for his part, written of an “autopoetics,” but this term has for him mainly—though not exclusively—encompassed novels (Atlantic Automobilism: Emergence and Persistence of the Car, 18951940 [New York: Berghahn, 2015], 141–48). Mom, in effect, follows the conclusions of “Jens Peter Becker [who] in his analysis of American autopoetic literature found surprisingly few poems in which the car played a carrying role” (Atlantic Automobilism, 509). Nevertheless, Mom repeatedly refers to the works of William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein. See his Atlantic Automobilism and Globalizing Automobilism: Exuberance and Emergence of Layered Mobility, 19001980 (New York: Berghahn, 2020).

[11] Enda Duffy, The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 161.

[12] Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 67.

[13] Frederick Buell, “A Short History of Oil Cultures; or, The Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance” in Oil Culture, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 69–90, 79.

[14] An exception to this rule is Melanie Dennis Unrau’s doctoral dissertation, “‘Tend the rusted steel like a shepherd’: Petropoetics of Oil Work in Canada” at the University of Manitoba (2019).

[15] Paul L. Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 98, 104. Williams appears to misdate the acquisition of his first car to 1911 in The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams ([New York: New Directions Books, 1967], 127). Along with Mariani, Williams’s son Eric also dates Williams’s acquisition of his Ford to several years later (Eric Williams, “Cars,” William Carlos Williams Newsletter, vol. 3, no. 2 [1977]: 1–5, 1).

[16] On the discrepancies in Williams’s memory regarding the Armory show see Mariani, New World, 785–86n100.

[17] Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 43.

[18] Joshua Schuster, The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2015), 16.

[19] William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Vol. 1, 19091939, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1991): 264; Williams, Collected Poems 2: 54.

[20] Guillermo Giucci, The Cultural Life of the Automobile: Roads to Modernity, trans. Anne Mayagoitia and Debra Nagao (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2012), 171.

[21] William Carlos Williams, “XVIII,” in Collected Poems 1: 217–21, 217.

[22] Deborah Clarke, Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 77.

[23] Anne Raine, “Modernism, Eco-anxiety, and the Climate Crisis,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus, vol. 4, cycle 3, Nov. 21, 2019.

[24] William Carlos Williams, “The Young Housewife,” in Collected Poems 1: 57.

[25] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 19081934 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 33.

[26] Linda A. Kinnahan, Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 64–65.

[27] William Carlos Williams, “Belly Music” (1919), in “The Early Career of William Carlos Williams: A Critical Facsimile Edition of His Uncollected Prose and Manuscripts,” Eric White, William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 30, no. 1–2 (2013): 63.

[28] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 33. On Williams’s anxiety about the relationship between technology and culture see Lisa M. Steinman, Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).

[29] William Carlos Williams, “Romance Moderne,” in Collected Poems 1: 147–50, 147.

[30] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” in Futurism: An Anthology, ed. Lawrence S. Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 49–53, 50.

[31] For an incisive reading of “Romance Moderne,” which places the futurists’ misogyny and the end of Williams’s poem alongside Mina Loy’s contemporary feminist satire of futurism, see Kinnahan, Poetics of the Feminine, 58–63.

[32] Peter Halter, “Williams and the visual arts” in The Cambridge Companion to William Carlos Williams, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 43.

[33] William Carlos Williams, Imaginations, ed. Webster Schott (New York: New Directions, 1970), 176.

[34] Lisa Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 105.

[35] William Carlos Williams, I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of the Works of a Poet, ed. Edith Heal (New York: New Directions Books, 1977), 38. In The Autobiography Williams writes that The Great American Novel is “a satire on the novel form in which a little (female) Ford car falls more or less in love with a Mack truck” (237).

[36] Hugh Witemeyer, “Plagiarism in ‘The Great American Novel’: The Ethics of Collage,” William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 23, no. 1 (1997): 1–13.

[37] Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 60.

[38] Walter Benjamin’s reflection in “Central Park” is instructive here: “Baudelaire was obliged to lay claim to the dignity of the poet in a society that had no more dignity of any kind to confer. Hence the bouffonerie of his public appearances.” (Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, ed. Michael W. Jennings, trans. Howard Eiland, et. al. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006], 143.)

[39] April Boone, “William Carlos Williams’s The Great American Novel: Flamboyance and the Beginning of Art,” William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 26, no. 1 (2006): 1–25, 20.

[40] In his Autobiography Williams writes of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922): “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated” (174). For a favorable reading of “The Waste Land” as an ecological poem in contrast to Williams’s supposed naturalism, see Matthew Griffiths, The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 42–58.

[41] Roy Miki, “Driving and Writing” in William Carlos Williams: Man and Poet, ed. Carroll F. Terrell (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1983), 111–28, 114.

[42] William Carlos Williams, “I,” in Collected Poems 1: 183.

[43] T. Hugh Crawford, Modernism, Medicine, & William Carlos Williams (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 89.

[44] See T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975), 37–44.

[45] William Carlos Williams, “XI,” in Collected Poems 1: 205–6.

[46] Jon Chatlos, “Automobility and Lyric Poetry: The Mobile Gaze in William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Right of Way,’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 30, no. 1 (2006): 140–54, 150.

[47] Susan McCabe, Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 128.

[48] Christopher Edwards, “‘Then he kissed it with his bumper’: The Autovehicular Posthumanisms of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and William Carlos Williams,” William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 33, no. 1–2 (2016): 42–62, 60.

[49] William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie/XVIII,” in Collected Poems 1: 217–19, 217.

[50] Charles F. Altieri, The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 11.

[51] William Carlos Williams, “The Five Dollar Guy,” New Masses, vol. 1, no. 1 (May 1926): 19.

[52] I have taken the phrase “beyond automobility” from a paper that Jennifer Wenzel gave as part of a stream on “Cars” that I organized for the 2021 conference of the American Comparative Literature Association, entitled “Automobiles Beyond Automobility in Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit.” In her paper, Wenzel shows how in Mean Spirit (1991) cars are used in ways for which they were not intended, such as becoming greenhouses for growing tomatoes, which resonates with the poetic uses of Williams’s junked Ford.

[53] See Steven Watts, The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century (New York: Vintage Books, 2006), 444–62.

[54] See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 19291945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 308–15.

[55] William Carlos Williams, “10/23,” in Collected Poems 1: 295.

[56] William Carlos Williams, “10/28,” in Collected Poems 1: 296–99, 298–99.

[57] William Carlos Williams, “11/1,” in Collected Poems 1: 301–2, 302.

[58] William Carlos Williams, “11/6,” in Collected Poems 1: 306–8, 307.

[59] William Carlos Williams, “11/8,” in Collected Poems 1: 308–9.

[60] William Carlos Williams, “11/28,” in Collected Poems 1: 315.

[61] William Carlos Williams, “The Moon,” in Collected Poems 1: 326.

[62] Lawrence Buell, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U. S. and Beyond (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2001), 112.

[63] William Carlos Williams, “View of a Lake,” in Collected Poems 1: 380–81, 380.

[64] Robert Von Hallberg, “The Politics of Description: W. C. Williams in the `Thirties,” ELH, vol. 45, no. 1 (1978): 131–51.

[65] William Carlos Williams, ”Sketch for a Portrait of Henry Ford,” in Collected Poems 2: 12–13.

[66] Mark Steven, Red Modernism: American Poetry and the Spirit of Communism (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 130.