Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 1, No 1 (2007)

William Carlos Williams’ A Novelette: an American Counterproposal to French Surrealism

Céline Mansanti


In June 1930, transition, an American literary magazine printed in France between 1927 and 1938 under the direction of Franco-American journalist and poet Eugene Jolas, published “The Simplicity of Disorder”— three chapters from William Carlos Williams’ lesser-known work, A Novelette. Although Jacqueline Saunier-Ollier considers A Novelette “the work by Williams that was most influenced by surrealism,” it has received very little critical attention; in fact, only one article has been devoted to A Novelette so far. There are two main reasons for this critical neglect. First, A Novelette has a hybrid style, in spite of its generic form. It oscillates between novelistic and short story form, and between prose and poetry. Second, this paper will show that the history of the novel’s publication was problematic.

In a paper published in a special issue of the William Carlos Williams Review, which was devoted to Williams’ relationships to surrealism, Dickran Tashjian shows how Williams gives his personal definition of the issues and modalities of automatic writing in his 1936 manifesto “How to Write.” In this manifesto, Williams does not view automatic writing in a Freudian sense as the French surrealists do. On the contrary, he develops a Jungian philosophy inspired by his reading of Jung’s “Psychology and Poetry” in the June 1930 issue of transition – i.e., the same issue in which “The Simplicity of Disorder” is published. Unlike Dickran Tashjian and Jeffrey Peterson, I argue that Williams’ experiments are not “automatic writing” but “spontaneous writing.” Indeed, Williams dismisses outright the psychological work that “automatic writing” entails. For example, in this passage of a letter to James Laughlin, he says: “To hell with them. I’m afraid the Freudian influence has been the trigger to all this. The Surrealists followed him. Everything must be tapped into the subconscious, the unconscious …”

This paper aims to show that six years before “How to Write” was published and even before Williams had read Jung’s article in transition, “The Simplicity of Disorder” posed a critical challenge to French surrealism. Rather than “cutting a trail through the American jungle without the use of a European compass,” Williams uses the compass of French surrealism to follow a different path.

Furthermore, this analysis of A Novelette approaches Williams’ work as a stimulating and seminal response to French surrealism. Although Williams does not show any particular interest in the French surrealists’ signature themes (the city, night time, strolling, mystery, the Woman, chance, etc), he is eager to rethink surrealist writing according to three main axes. The poet develops a “spontaneous writing” which is unlike that of the French avant-garde. Though he characterizes it as less solemn, less conceptual, and less symbolic, he insists that it is uniquely American and more concrete than French surrealist writings. For Williams, writing is not an end in itself, but a way to show urgency. He uses spontaneous writing to express physiological relief, which is often sexual or excremental. The conclusion of this paper will show that transition plays a crucial role in generating a specific American literary surrealist current years before the official American Surrealist movement was created in 1966 in Chicago, and before Breton’s exile to the U.S. during World War 2.

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