restricted access A Literary Friendship: William Carlos Williams and Alva N. Turner
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A Literary Friendship:
William Carlos Williams and Alva N. Turner

Alva Nola Turner began corresponding with William Carlos Williams in the summer of 1919, when he mailed Williams some poems for possible inclusion in Others. Williams was immediately intrigued by this garrulous letter writer from a tiny community in Illinois where he was nicknamed by the locals "Prod" for "prodigal son," or sometimes "Mayor." Their subsequent correspondence continued over four decades, and despite hopes expressed periodically over the years they never met (SL 44). Williams always found Turner's poetry uneven, and he could not keep up with what sometimes became a daily barrage of letters from his correspondent. He assisted Turner in placing his poems and prose, for years planned an essay on Turner's life and work, addressed a cryptic comment to him in The Great American Novel, and gave a representatively detailed and gossipy letter from Turner an important place in Book One of Paterson. Four of Williams's letters to Turner appear in Selected Letters, the arrangement of which characteristically led to an extended correspondence between Turner and editor John Thirlwall—but that is another story.

Turner described himself in a 7 May 1925 letter to Williams as "the most obscure man of letters, today, in America" despite having appeared in print regularly since "sixteen years of age" (Y).1 He usually sent Williams clippings as his work appeared while an accompanying letter would often provide colorful annotations. Turner's work appeared in publications ranging from the local to the national. The local included Baylor University's Lariat, The Ina Observer, The Ewing Graphic, The Mount Vernon News, Jefferson Daily Republic, and The Effingham News—while those with a broader circulation included Judge, St. Louis Republic, The Editor, The Threshold, The Washington Post, and Poetry World. In addition [End Page 159] Williams himself published Turner in Others and Contact, and helped Turner to appear in Poetry, View, Quarterly Review of Literature and several anthologies.

Turner's letters to Williams discuss many subjects, including poetry and poets, magazines and their editors, the origins and shifting meanings of words, and his various physical ailments. But the most frequent subjects are the details of his day, the disputes and reconciliations with various members of his family, and the more general details of his past. Running through the letters and much of the poetry, too, is Turner's sense of dreams and opportunities lost, and his growing sense of resignation. Although Williams told Turner on 1 July 1919, after receiving one very personal letter, "your autobiographical letter upset me completely" (Y), Turner's self-deprecating, garrulous, informal, and detailed style clearly fascinated Williams and reinforced his idea of Turner as a kind of "pure product of America" both part of and at odds with his environment.

Like Williams, Turner lived most of his life in the same area, among communities even smaller than Rutherford, and many of Turner's poems, when they are not about his own experiences and reflections, are about people he knows or has met from nearby towns. Williams's letter to Turner of 27 October 1920, written in a mood of ambivalence towards his own community, is perhaps revealing of the parallels that Williams saw between his and Turner's situations: "You are so far beyond your environment by sheer instinct that the community you live in would be destroyed by your mere presence did it not make an example of you, keep you subdued. These are the fools and their breed is unnumbered. Yet you love them. You can afford to love them because you can understand what they are, the good that they generate among them" (SL 46). In a more pithy way Williams told Turner in a 1921 letter, "You are a wreck, a normal man adrift in a pack of lunatics" (Y). As is often the case with Williams, he did not separate his interest in the man from his work and surroundings. He told Turner in an 11 July 1919 letter "as far as I know you are the only existing American poet totally uninfluenced by modern European culture." Williams's plan "to portray you for the two or...