Likely Stories: On the Evolution of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens

J.T. Welsch (York St John University)

  • A version of this paper was given (with the title “The Skeleton of the Times”: Evolutionary Theory and the Orthogenetic Poetics of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens) at the Modernist Studies Association conference, Buffalo, NY, October 2011.

History is its own sort of fiction, and ideas don’t always obey chronology. As story-loving creatures, we’re inclined to believe in something often called the Darwinian Revolution, when the bombshell of Darwin’s findings swept away the foundations of so many other stories we had told ourselves. Fortunately, a more complex historical tale may be just as compelling. In Plato’s Timaeus, which includes perhaps the earliest Western theory of evolution, the character Timaeus admits that, at best, it is ‘account no less likely than any other.’ ‘We must be content,’ he adds, to ‘accept the likely story’. The risk of reducing arguments about evolution to a struggle between rationalism and religious faith is forgetting the extent to which the value of any idea is its strength as a fiction. Rather than convince us at the level of empirical proof, the idea must first and last compel the poetic imagination. In that, it needs to appeal to an existing and coherent view of the universe, while also refreshing that sense of wholeness with a new frame. As a narrative, it should include a sense of progress, in both its content and metaphors, while enacting the possibility of discovery and change with its own newness. Finally, within this structure of discovery, a ‘successful’ idea about the world will re-affirm our own sense of wholeness and agency, our potential for progress in relation to the natural universe.

In an essay discovered and published after his death, William Carlos Williams sounds at first as if he means to uproot all empirical Science (which he villanizes with a capital ‘S’), by suggesting that Sir Francis Bacon, ‘along with others started the fiction of science to add to its actuality of simple act of discovery and deduction. They were seduced … tinctured by the metaphysics and religious beliefs of the time (as Darwin was also at a later date) into belief that it had found a system which it had only to follow in order to come out into a blinding and comprehensive fullness which would be the sum of all the ages had acquired.’ More curiously though, rather than wholly dismissing science for its ‘fiction’, Williams explains that the real ‘truth’ of these ‘fictions’ is precisely that they have ‘infested the minds of all great men’, having been ‘the alluring bait which has drawn them on.’ At last, he writes, ‘It could be shown that all necessary work begins in fiction.’

Wallace Stevens’ more sustained preoccupation with the deeper ‘truth’ of fictions will be more familiar to most, and especially that which he refers to as the ‘supreme fiction’ in later work. In this, the critic Milton Bates suggests an almost religious conviction, telling us ‘Stevens thought it not only possible to believe in a fiction but also inevitable.’ Like Williams, Stevens’ faith in the ‘truth’ of fictions inverts the usual relationship between imagination and empirical knowledge. In his essay, ‘Imagination as Value,’ Stevens elaborates on Einstein’s famous ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’, saying: ‘As for the present, what have we, if we do not have science, except the imagination? And who is to say of its deliberate fictions arising out of the contemporary mind that they are not the forerunners of some such science?’

The relationship between these two poets and the evolutionary discourse of their time stems from their shared belief in the truth of a compelling fiction. In their own ways, Williams and Stevens draw a sense of wholeness, progress, and individual creativity from the evolutionary fictions circulating in New England at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Therefore, by re-examining the historical role of these fictions for these two writers, we might feed our own desire, as readers and critics, for cohesion, purpose, and individual resourcefulness, reconstructing new ‘likely stories’ of influence, and the meaningful fictions of their writing lives.

The Eclipse of Darwin

There is a certain irony that the developments in evolutionary science coinciding with the first thirty years of both these men’s lives, a period which Julian Huxley dubbed ‘the eclipse of Darwin’, should have been so non-linear and often directionless – which is to say, so Darwinian – as various narratives battled for survival in public and specialist minds. Nevertheless, the most prevalent theories in the US, especially those emanating from Harvard and Boston, can be summarised in terms of emphasis on a purposeful, forward-moving development among species. Whether we trace this ‘progressivism’ back to philosophical or theological ancestors in American Transcendentalism, Puritanism, Romantic Idealism, and German Naturphilosophie, or to scientific forebears in Jean-Baptiste Lamarck or Herbert Spencer, one of the most crucial aspects of 19th-century evolutionary theory for both Williams and Stevens seems to have been the extent to which its muddled lineage allowed them to adapt an Idealism in some ways as old as Plato to their modernity. For this reason, I refute wholeheartedly the tendency to read these or other canonical Modernist poets as ‘post-Darwin’ in any straightforward sense. Nevertheless, while both poets remain inevitably ‘tinctured by the metaphysics and religious beliefs of the time’, as Williams puts it, I suggest their self-consciousness of this historical ground leads to their more radical use for likely fictions.

Joan Richardson, in a biography which she introduces as ‘following an evolution of Stevens’s consciousness’, invokes the abiding myth of a ‘Darwinist revolution,’ which, in conjunction with so-called Freudian and Einsteinian revolutions, is said to herald modernist thought. Thus, for Richardson, as for many readers of a writer who mentions ‘God’ as often as Wallace Stevens does, Darwinism appears as shorthand rival to faith. Stevens’ upbringing, writes Richardson, left him ‘Charged both with the rigorous religious tradition that had led his forebears to see themselves as the elect on whose survival the founding of the New Jerusalem depended and with the new scientific theory of the biological survival of the fittest.’ On the contrary, I would argue that Stevens’ personal negotiations with faith and science, indebted as they are to this Puritan idealism and Romantic and Transcendentalist reiterations, correspond in several crucial aspects to the anti-Darwinian theories of evolution predominant in New England at the time.

Contrary to contemporary discussions regarding a stark choice between God and Darwin, the science historian Peter Bowler reminds us that the ‘widespread assumption that science and religion are at war with one another’ was first formulated by T.H. Huxley in 1860, then known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, in order to promote his prize-fight Oxford debate with the Bishop Wilberforce. In the US, however, the decades following the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species are marked by persistent and pervasive attempts to reconcile a changing view of biological history with various notions of deeper purpose or design. Drawing especially on the ideas of ‘acquired inheritance’ or ‘use inheritance’ first proposed by the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and adapted by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, American thinkers battled over their own versions of Neo-Lamarckism. Centred around Boston and Harvard, informal groups such as the Saturday Club and the later Metaphysical Club – with members Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the botanist Asa Gray, and a second generation in Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Peirce – provided a crucial incubator for an American story of evolution which emphasised purposeful, unified linearity and individual progress. Likewise, complementing the philosophical discussions among these public intellectuals, Robin Schulze explains that ‘American biologists and geologists were particularly tenacious in their attempts to wed Darwin’s theory with an orderly, progressive world view.’

Richardson argues that Stevens, who spent three years at Harvard in the late 1890s, would have inherited such ideas through his parents. ‘Though Stevens did not claim familiarity with the work of Peirce,’ she admits, Stevens (via his father, who likely read Peirce’s articles in Popular Science) was ‘nonetheless heir to the same strains of thought that engendered in the philosopher a desire to justify God’s ways to man by bridging the gap made by Darwin between the scientific outlook on the place of human beings in the world and the threatened religious view.’ Whatever means by which Stevens came into contact with Peirce’s hybrid of empiricist, idealist, and transcendentalist philosophies – as much Hume as Emerson or Kant – various strains of it still thrived at Harvard during his time, and with his mentor, George Santayana, if nothing else. It was also during Stevens’ Harvard years that he received (from his mother this time) a Christmas present of Emerson’s twelve-volume complete works. Joseph Carroll goes as far as to say ‘this gift was perhaps the most important he ever received’, since ‘Emerson exercises a deeper conceptual influence on Stevens’ poetic cosmology than any other writer.’

A key aspect of Stevens’ ‘poetic cosmology’ we might attribute to Emerson’s influence is the distinctly neo-Lamarckian (and un-Darwinian) emphasis on the individual’s creative potential within a wider sense of progress. While at Harvard, a letter from his father assured Stevens that ‘the best lesson’ he would learn, in Cambridge or in life, was ‘a knowledge of the pleasure of real independence by Self Support.’ Already in his final year at Reading High School, Stevens had won an oratorical competition for his speech on the virtues of ‘the self-made man’, telling the judges: ‘We cannot help but admire the man, who with indomitable and irrepressible energy breasting the wave of conditions, grows to become the concentration of power and worth.’

In his recent book on The Ethics of William Carlos Williams’s Poetry, Ian Copestake shows the enduring extent to which Williams’ Unitarian upbringing instils his poetics with a ‘distinct conception of selfhood’ and ‘self-realization’. As with Stevens, Carl Rapp has also argued that ‘Williams’ whole way of thinking is demonstrably Emersonian.’ Underlining the context of that influence, Rapp speculates ‘that Emerson’s Essays were among the volumes Williams read in his father’s library along with The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man’. This relates to an anecdote near the start of Williams’ Autobiography, where he remembers his father offering him ‘a dollar apiece’ to read Darwin’s books. ‘I took him up,’ he says. ‘It was well-earned cash.’ Rather than regard Emerson and Darwin as competing influences, however, Williams’ later claim to precocious Darwinism seems mostly intended to project a sense of modernity back onto his youth, and in that way demonstrates his own use for such self-fictions. For instance, an earlier account of the same anecdote in 1923’s The Great American Novel is undercut by Williams’ suggestion that ‘The fad of evolution is swept aside. It was only mildly interesting at best.’ We might see the same irony in Williams’ later dismissal of Emerson for being ‘too English’ or in Stevens’ critique of Whitman, the ‘poseur’, when those names no longer served their progressive fictions.

Wholeness in Fragments, and the Force of Imagination

Less than it indicates an acceptance of ‘post-synthesis’ Darwinism as such, a shift in Williams’ and Stevens’ references to evolution between 1923 and the 1950s progresses mostly in terms of the functional role of these fictions. In making this claim, however, I admit that my own sense of their ‘progress’ depends on a narrative imposed on scattered textual fossils from those years. The American palaeontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, one of the main rivals involved in the ‘Bone Wars’ of the 1870s and 80s, fighting over dinosaurs in Colorado and Wyoming, was among the most prominent advocates of Neo-Lamarckism in the US. As a Quaker, one of Cope’s contributions to this soon-to-be entirely discredited theory was that evolution was coordinated with a divine plan by way of supernaturally (rather than environmentally) inspired periods of accelerated change. Readers of Modernism might see such a phenomenon occurring in the watershed years of 1922-1923. Although Williams famously claimed 1922’s The Waste Land ‘set me back twenty years’, there is no denying the parallel ‘Copean’ leap forward represented by his Spring and All and Stevens’ Harmonium, both published the following year. This was also only two years before the Scopes Monkey Trial would take the fictions of evolution and creation far too literally to be of much poetic use – as predicted by Stevens in Harmonium’s ‘Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock,’ telling us that

People are not going
To dream of baboons…

The titles of these breakthrough volumes alone – Spring and All and Harmonium – signal the importance of wholeness as these poets grapple more desperately with the old battle between materialism and idealism (not science and religion) in their early work. Whether we trace their preoccupations with wholeness (and thus fragments) back to Emerson’s ‘central Unity’ and ‘Over-soul,’ or to Coleridge’s ‘Allness and Oneness,’ or further still to Plato, they have another obvious relation in the ‘argument from design’ underlying the late-19th century race for ‘missing links’ and the fossils supposed to express that greater whole in their fragments. Moreover, regardless of whether this constructed unity was seen ‘illustrating the wisdom and goodness of the Creator’, as the founders of the still prestigious American Naturalist introduced their journal in 1867, there is a sense – in Williams and Stevens, as in Emerson and Coleridge – that the cosmological wholeness reflects back onto the integrity of the creative subject. ‘There is a unity, of course,’ says Williams, ‘it is the individual himself.’

For Williams and Stevens, and again, for Cope and other disciples of the palaeontologist Louis Agassiz at Harvard, the individual organism’s potential is connected to the wider design by a creative, epiphenomenal force, which both poets call the ‘imagination’. Like the ‘indomitable and irrepressible energy’ by which young Stevens’ ‘self-made man’ will ‘breast the wave of conditions’, which is to say, adapt to his environment by his own volition, Williams’ repeatedly defines the ‘imagination’ as an ‘energy’ or a ‘force’ or an ‘energizing force’ or ‘actual force comparable to electricity or steam’. In terms of its capacity for revealing unity, for Stevens, ‘the imagination is the power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.’ In this way, their comparable (if, admittedly, unique) understandings of creative practice seems cognate with Cope’s hypothesis of a vital creative force by which individual organisms express natural history’s greater design, even before we notice how often Williams, the less overtly religious, refers to the imagination as a ‘higher plane’, ‘higher level’ and ‘higher power’. The central power driving the evolution of their poetics has another obvious relative in the ‘élan vital’ driving Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which they both would have encountered after its translation in 1911, and all of which may share the primitive ancestor of Plato’s ‘demiurge’.

In his later writing, Stevens formulates this relationship between parts and wholes in terms of a ‘supreme fiction’. This is not to deny how the individual speaker of Harmonium’s ‘Misery of Don Joost’ contains its own divine natural history, as

my body, the old animal
Knows nothing more.

However, the ‘supreme fiction’ – and its corresponding notion of the ‘major man’ – might apply even more explicitly to the holistic design intimated by echoes between living and extinct species, as an ineffable ideal towards which each actual poem strives, and thereby intimates. The idealist fictions of non-Darwinian evolution, along with the ‘supreme fiction’ and ‘ideas of order’ which carry Stevens forward from one fragment to the next within the ‘whole Harmonium’ of his oeuvre, needn’t be disregarded for their lack of empirical truth, in so far as they express a greater poetic truth by their creative construction.

In Williams’ Great American Novel, the word ‘progress’ appears in no less than five separate sentences on the first page, from which point Williams endlessly pursues this all-encompassing fiction with a conviction made deeper by its apparent irony. And in the prose passages of Spring and All, the abiding fiction for the great spring-like progress the author heralds is ‘evolution’ itself: ‘EVOLUTION HAS REPEATED ITSELF FROM THE BEGINNING,’ Williams declares, invoking a circular fiction, which may be repeated from the ‘beginning’ and at the moment of writing ‘is approaching the end’, but which nonetheless asserts this linear, forward progress and holistic power.

Again, taking this same view of progressive development, we might adopt a similarly compelling fiction of the way these two poets evolve from the tumultuous struggle between idealism and materialism in their early books to a more resolute investigation of these fictions’ power, mainly by way of constructing new ones. In Williams’ ‘Asphodel, that Greeny Flower,’ a poem evolving out of his attempt at a supreme history in Paterson,

Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle,
a voyage of discovery if there ever was one

is remembered as another childhood origin myth alongside the voyage of Columbus. In 1907, Stevens wrote to his then-girlfriend, ‘I’d rather see you going to church than know that you were as wise as Plato and Haeckel rolled in one…’ referring to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist whose, again, more-poetic-than-true ‘recapitulation’ theory remained a cornerstone of Neo-Lamarckism. Only by viewing these poets’ evolution in the context of this more complex history of evolutionary theory can we appreciate the duality posed by Stevens’ late concession – in a 1955 National Book Award speech, the year he died, and the same year Williams’ ‘Asphodel’ appeared in his mythically spiritual Journey to Love – that the purpose of such awards is to ‘remind’ the poet that ‘he lives in the world of Darwin and not in the world of Plato’ – a practical circumstance from which, nonetheless, he takes no ‘true satisfaction’.

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