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WILLIAMS'S STETCHER TRILOGY: "THE PURE PRODUCTS OF AMERICA" Linda Ray Pratt* The Americanization of the immigrant is one of the great themes in American life, but literary treatments have usually focused on its more romantic versions. Literary and subliterary works have made familiar such images as that of the ideal quest for a life of "freedom," the heroic saga of frontier settlement, or the tragic story of immigrants who got trapped in the grinding economic oppression of American business and city slums. A substantial number of immigrants, of course, fell into none of these categories, but few literary treatments exist of the immigrant family who came to America for a better material life, endured several years of deprivation, worked hard, and with skill and energy made it into the middle or upper-middle classes. One noteworthy literary presentation of the immigrant story of modest success and apparent acculturation is the trilogy written by William Carlos Williams about the Stetcher family. Despite the fact that Williams's emphases in these books—White Mule (1937), In the Money (1940), and The Build-Up (1952)—vary from novel to novel, this trilogy offers a complex and realistic study of a pattern of assimilation that is central to American experience. While these novels are better literature than is generally conceded by readers who prefer Williams's poetry, they are also compelling portraits from historical and sociological perspectives. The Stetcher trilogy avoids the usual cliches of the Americanization story and retains its balance and objectivity in a critical study of what America made of the immigrants and what the immigrants made of America. Williams's trilogy pursues the theme of assimilation in three ways: the behavioral and structural patterns of assimilation common among immigrant groups in America; the psychological and moral changes in the individuals who undergo this process; and the implications for the "Linda Ray Pratt is a Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Her previous publications include essays on Arnold and Tennyson in Victorian Poetry and on American culture and modern poetry in Southern Review, Steinbeck Quarterly, and Southern Quarterly. She has an article on Frost in Arizona Quarterly and was on sabbatical in 1980 at work on a book on the function of myth in Tennyson, Eliot, and Yeats. 42Linda Ray Pratt national life and character of such stories when multiplied by the millions who came to America in the nineteenth century. In the Stetchers, Williams illustrates the process of assimilation on two distinct levels. Milton M. Gordon, in his important and often reprinted article "Assimilation in America," defines behavioral assimilation as "acculturation," or "the absorption of the cultural behavior patterns of the 'host' society."1 The other, and much more difficult , level is that of structural assimilation, the process of "the entrance of the immigrants and their descendants into the social cliques, organizations, institutional activities, and general civic life of the receiving society."2 Subsequent historians have used Gordon's definitions and largely agree with his conclusion: Structural assimilation, then, has turned out to be the rock on which the ships of Anglo-conformity and the melting pot have foundered. To understand that behavioral assimilation (or acculturation) without massive structural intermingling in primary relationships has been the dominant motif in the American experience of creating and developing a nation out of diverse peoples is to comprehend the most essential sociological fact of that experience.3 The lives of Williams's characters reflect both levels of assimilation, exploring the motives and costs behind acculturation and revealing the limits of their structural assimilation. In addition to the treatment of the sociological pattern of acculturation , Williams portrays the psychological and moral changes which accompany assimilation. The Stetchers find that they have irretrievably given up the Old World heritage without having in fact been accepted as fully American. Joe and Gurlie Stetcher both do and do not want to be Americanized. In their desire for money and social acceptance they largely reject European ways, but other psychological and cultural needs cause them to continue to embrace European history and old world values of craftsmanship, class, and decorum. Williams suggests that their struggle to become well-to-do "Americans" while holding themselves...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 41-54
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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