The International Exhibition of Modern Art, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, opened in New York City’s Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue on February 15, 1913. The exhibition, which quickly became known as the Armory Show, presented the work of more than 300 modern painters and sculptors, and like the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring or the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, it galvanized the art world by attracting as much outrage as approbation. “That’s not art!” shouted Theodore Roosevelt. Not only painters but American writers and musicians were delighted by this home-grown eruption of modernist scandal, and Herbert Leibowitz maintains in his new biography of William Carlos Williams, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams, that the Armory Show was a watershed in Williams’s career, an event that transformed a backwoods imitator of Keats into a great American poet.
But there’s a problem here. “Bill did not attend the first Armory Show,” remembered Williams’s wife, Floss, “though he always insisted he did.” Williams did claim in his autobiography, published in 1951, that he’d attended, but he was in fact remembering a later exhibition; having spent his life championing the idea of American art, he needed to imagine himself participating in what had became a highly symbolic moment in the history of American modernism. Sharing that need, Leibowitz doesn’t mention Floss Williams’s memory, eager to perpetuate a well-known but misleading tale, one that skews our sense of Williams’s career toward equally misleading notions of what constitutes innovation not only in recent American poetry but in the history of poetry at large.
This lapse is not an isolated event in Leibowitz’s book. The last major biography of Williams, Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, published in 1981, is filled with enthusiasm for its subject but so weighed down with biographical minutiae that the book becomes difficult to read. Leibowitz has set out to compose a more streamlined account of the life (“If William Carlos Williams was a sometime womanizer,” he asks ominously, “does it matter how many women he took to bed?”), while also insisting that the biography of a writer must include substantial accounts of the writing itself (“Without his poems and letters, [Hart] Crane is just another tormented alcoholic”). Today, Williams’s achievement as a writer ought to feel as assured or as controversial as Byron’s or Tennyson’s, but Leibowitz has inherited a good dose of Williams’s defensiveness, and, as his discussion of the Armory Show suggests, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You” relies heavily on Williams’s retrospective comments about the life and work, often leaving the more interestingly conflicted historical record untouched.
“And America?” asked Ezra Pound of his good friend Williams, “What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place?” William George Williams, the poet’s father, never renounced his British citizenship. As a child, he had sailed with his mother from England first to New York City and then, after she remarried, to the Caribbean, where they ultimately settled in Puerto Plata, a port city in the Dominican Republic. After William George married the daughter of a Dutch businessman, Raquel Hélène Rose Hoheb, who had grown up in Puerto Rico and studied painting in Paris, he moved the family to Rutherford, New Jersey. There, the young William Carlos grew up speaking English and Spanish, and he was sent along with his brother, Edgar, to the Horace Mann School in Manhattan; for a year, while their father was traveling on business in South America, the boys attended an international school in Switzerland. Williams would send his own sons to this school, the Château de Lancy, thirty years later.