This essay responds to two works reproduced in facsimile in this Special Issue of the William Carlos Williams Review: William Carlos Williams's 1918 translation of Rafael Arévalo Martínez's short story "The Man Who Resembled a Horse" (32-43) and an early, 1923 version of "The Discovery of the Indies" published in the little magazine Broom (84-92). This latter work was subsequently included with revisions in In the American Grain (1925), Williams's collection of essays on the history of the United States. Despite obvious generic differences, both works exemplify the use of translation, quotation, and re-writing that are so important to Williams's definition of American newness and, moreover, suggest several sources for the phrase "New World" that is a leitmotif in Williams's work. While this phrase is so common as to be cliché, an exploration of these sources illuminates his specific association of this phrase with Spanish and Latin American literary traditions and, by extension, with a model of the Americas that includes both Latin America and the presence of Latinos within the United States.
The figure of Columbus was central to Williams's development of a Latino literary imagination; Columbus's encounter with the "New World" of the Americas exemplified the encounter with newness that Williams came to believe was central to the (Latin) American experience. "The Discovery of the Indies" was only the most important of Williams's multiple literary explorations of Columbus's life. An earlier project—nearly as important by virtue of its magnitude, but critically ignored because it does not survive in the archive—was Williams's early translation of a play on the discovery of the Americas by the Spanish Golden Age playwright [End Page 181] Lope de Vega, The New World Discovered by Christopher Columbus (El nuevo mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón). Although there is little direct evidence of how Williams understood El Nuevo Mundo, the themes of heroism, encounter, and racial mixture in the play come to have important resonances in Williams's work in the years following his translation. This essay argues that a close reading of the 1923 and 1925 versions of "The Discovery of the Indies" and of Williams's 1916 translation "The Man who Resembled a Horse" offer evidence of Lope de Vega's influence on Williams's work. But where Lope looked at the Americas from a European perspective, Williams based his New World poetics in a primitivist model in which the Americas and Americans—native, mestizo, and even creole—represent not only sexual deviance but also artistic innovation.
This shift towards an American perspective must be understood in the context of Williams's larger project as a modernist and as a Boricua writer, a writer of Puerto Rican heritage living in the United States (Sánchez González 42-70). Williams worked throughout his life to develop an avant-garde poetics that would allow him to integrate what he once called "forces from the outside" into a distinctly local American idiom (SE 160-61). During the 1910s and 20s Williams was working to establish the relationship of Spanish-language literature to this project. I have argued elsewhere that Williams's early translations, completed with his father, sought to bring avant-garde writing into the U.S. that would establish Latin America as a literary peer (Hayden 19-26). With In the American Grain, Williams developed a work that both modeled and argued critically for an understanding of the Americas as linked by a shared history. While not a translation in any strict sense, In the American Grain is based in collage, rewriting, borrowing, sampling, and other translative practices, and draws on texts written originally in English, French, and Spanish. With both his translations and his collage works from this period, Williams worked to establish an American idiom based in the multiple languages and literary resources of the Americas.
Aesthetic form (translation, collage) and political imperative are deeply tied in Williams's work; he uses parallel or identical language to describe acts of translation and the work of founding a...