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  • Ivory Towers and War Machines:William Carlos Williams and the Humanities under Fire
  • Tony Barnstone

[The world of art] is a battleground, not a bland Elysium, but at the same time we will realize that the battle is taking place within a world that can and does contain it. It is a battleground where differences of emotional and intellectual opinion may be engaged to the enhancement of the soul. It is a battleground where men contend to enlarge their vision and to refresh and engage their minds and emotions. From which, or by virtue of whose works, the man of affairs, if he give them the play they merit, may draw refreshment and power.

—William Carlos Williams (RI 92)

We’ve got to keep on the major line of attack. It’s an attack. Drill it into them. It’s an attack.

Don’t forget the lessons to be learned, still to be learned from the methods of Gen. Patton during the last war.

—William Carlos Williams to Richard Rubenstein (April 29, 1950)1

Have been batting away at the Rhetoric. (It will become, I guess, a study devoted to showing how deep and ubiquitous are the roots of war in the universal scene and the human psyche—a study extending from our meditations on the war of words.)

—Kenneth Burke to William Carlos Williams, Nov. 19, 1945. (89)

“Two bald men fighting over a comb.” That was Jorge Luis Borges’s succinct summary of the war between Argentina and England over the islands the British call the Falklands and the Argentines call the Malvinas. Borges’s jest recalls Henry Kissinger’s comment that the battles among academics are so bitter because so little is at stake. And yet, this was not always the case. During the Second World War, some academics called for a great shake-up that, had it been successful, might have eliminated the liberal [End Page 33] arts and humanities as we know them from advanced education. You might expect William Carlos Williams to have been a strong supporter of the liberal arts in such a time, but he had such a strong animus against academics, and was himself so notoriously undervalued by academics until the last decade of his life, that during the war he saw them as his enemies in the battle for American culture.

In fact, the volcano metaphor he used for the Second World War’s catastrophic energies in “Catastrophic Birth” (a poem to be discussed later) was anticipated a few years earlier in an essay titled “Let us order our world,” in which the volcano is depicted as necessary to dislodge those scholars who were doing “a covert digging in,” trying to “keep their establishment unaltered by anything that has taken place from peace to peace […].” We should therefore

imaginatively conceiv[e] the war as a great volcano of nascent and unaligned values to be recombined in a better, more humane, more politically satisfactory order than ever before in the history of the world. [. …] For good must be brought out of every convulsion of the world if we are men of imagination—by which we live.

(Williams 21)

The world-wide convulsion of the Second World War was an opportunity to break up old oppressive orders and create a new order, but—despite his political rhetoric—by this he didn’t mean replacing fascism with democracy, but rather a replacing of traditional metrics with avant-garde forms of ordering the poem. As we will see, Williams’s loyalty to the cause of the avant-garde was extreme enough that he showed little sympathy for those academics he saw engaged in “covert digging,” even if it meant that they were to be gassed out of their trenches in the universities by a wartime shift of values toward practical education. For Williams, the poem must be reinvented as both practical and impractical, both machine and flower, in order to save us from a dehumanized machine consciousness that he associates with both the Germans and the Academy.

1. The Defense of the Academy

If there was such a “digging in” as Williams feared, it seems that it was more overt than covert, a...