- Media, Mimesis, and the Figure of the Orphan in William Carlos Williams’s Life Along the Passaic River
“The finest short stories are those that raise, in short, one particular man or woman, from that Gehenna, the newspapers, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual. To be responsive not to the ordinances of the herd (Russia-like) but to the extraordinary responsibility of being a person.”-William Carlos Williams, “A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)”
“He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.”-Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass
“The world’s an orphan’s home.”-Marianne Moore, “In Distrust of Merits”
In his 1938 short-story collection Life Along the Passaic River, Williams emphasizes the discrepancy between realist verisimilitude and modernist self-reflexivity to dramatize the plight of the poor due to general economic conditions, particularly through the metaphor of the orphan. In addition, figurations of family, both positive and negative, offer an imaginative survey of possibilities and pitfalls for remedying the orphan’s predicament. The signs of personal dignity and creativity that permeate Williams’s collection of stories testify to the capacity and culture of marginalized people. Such accomplishments are all the more admirable for existing in the face of being cut off, or orphaned, from beneficial resources that ought to be available. Williams’s narrative map of Passaic reveals how such achievements help people cope with the losses symbolized by orphanhood. In what follows, several stories will be singled out as figuring the orphan (the first date of publication follows each title in parentheses): the title story (1934), “The Girl with the Pimply Face” (1934), “The [End Page 53] Use of Force” (1933), “Jean Beicke” (1933), “A Face of Stone” (1935), “Under the Greenwood Tree” (1938), and “World’s End” (1938).
In the title story, which also opens the volume, Williams draws the reader into his fictive world by following the contours of the Passaic River and a variety of human activities in relation to it.1 The syntax of the opening sentence pays homage to the landscape by imitating the river’s drift, but it also carefully establishes the urban setting of the collection by calling attention to the factory on the river as well as the children playing along the river’s banks. The visual appeal of the first sentence has a cinematic intensity, zooming in on “a spot of a canoe filled by the small boy who no doubt made it” (FD 109). Williams also includes a soundtrack to his “midstream” portrait when he alludes to “a sound of work going on there” from the Manhattan Rubber Co. By carefully situating his reader in this richly elaborated world, Williams sets the stage for the participant-observer ethos of much of his collection and conjures a vivid reality.2 In Robert Gish’s words, “the narrator […] is so moved to empathy that he passes beyond voyeur to participant through the telling and retelling of their lives” (66).
At the same time, in the very next paragraph Williams reminds his readers of the mediated quality of his portrait by focusing on the children’s cry of “Paper!” (FD 109). In doing so, Williams unites his commitment to a local, historicized realism with a self-reflexive form of representation common in modernist writing. He makes readers notice the variety of material modes or media (visual as well as linguistic) available for depicting Passaic. And he draws attention to his own manner of representation, the formal techniques for rendering that world. By uniting what Stephen Halliwell calls mimesis as referential imitation to mimesis as perspectival world-making in the opening scenes of this first story in the collection, Williams invites his readers both to experience the world of Passaic, New Jersey, “first-hand” through an absorbingly realistic verisimilitude and to notice his artistic creation of that world through a modernist self-consciousness about form (5).3 In other words, a realist mimesis is generally content-based, while a modernist mimesis is more oriented toward the process of creation necessary for representation. Realism seeks to mirror its object, whereas...