The role of the environment and nature, and their decay in the face of industrialization in William Carlos Williams' Paterson.
Although Williams died in 1963 and did not live to see how contemporary culture has come to have an increasingly more informed understanding of humanity's place in the world and its relationship with nature, he appears to have anticipated some of the modern environmental movement's ideas about the importance of the environment and the landscape, not only as poetic subjects, but as something to be cherished and protected because of its interrelationship with humanity. For example, in her 1962 book Silent Spring, credited with starting the modern environmental movement, Rachel Carson shares Williams' concerns about industrialization and the environment. In the introduction for the 2002 edition of Silent Spring, Linda Lear argues that the book "contained the kernel of social revolution" (vii) in the face of postwar United States' industrial development. Like Williams, Carson had extensive education in both the humanities and science, and was able to understand the scientific principles behind the destruction of the environment, particularly the use of pesticides such as DDT. Also like Williams, she came from a place (Springdale, Pennsylvania) where industrialization had destroyed an otherwise pristine riverside town that became "a grimy wasteland, its air fouled by chemical emissions, its river polluted by industrial waste" (xiii). The first chapter of Silent Spring tells the story of an idyllic American town where nature was unspoiled and the air, water, plants and other natural resources were clean, healthy and plentiful. Then, "a strange blight crept over the area" (Carson 2) and the people and animals began to fall ill, with many dying. Everything became still and the sounds of nature were muted, and Carson explains that "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves" (3). Like Carson, Williams recognizes the role of humankind in the destruction of the environment and Paterson is his anticipation of what would become the modern environmental movement.
This essay explores the role of the environment in Williams' Paterson from an ecocritical/ecopoetic perspective, evaluating the text in terms of its portrayal of the environment and nature, while concentrating on the relationship between the poetry and the physical environment described in it, and the tension/interaction between the rural and urban settings and their elements of the wilderness, the river, the mountain, and the city. To a lesser extent, this essay also examines how Williams' historical analysis of Paterson outlines the ecological history of the area. More broadly, this essay looks at Paterson from the perspective of environmental literature and what Greg Garrard calls "the relationship between the human and the non-human, throughout human cultural history and entailing the critical analysis of the term 'human' itself" (5). In retrospect, and in its broadest sense, Paterson can be classified as an ecopoem, having a discernible tone of reconnection towards nature, resistance towards anti-ecological perspectives such as unchecked industrialism and technological advancements, and contains a vision for an improved, healthier and more beneficial relationship with the environment. Additionally, the long form of the poem allows for Paterson to be much more nuanced when addressing environmental concerns than shorter forms of poetry. Paterson can be seen as text "that investigates--both thematically and formally--the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception" (Gander). Although other scholars such as Lothar Honnighausen disagree with this assessment, stating that Williams' "discussion has tended to focus more on literary history and aesthetics than on politics [and that] such neglect of the sociopolitical dimension would be unacceptable in ecopoetical poem" (279), Paterson is clearly underscored by environmental concerns and the role of society in the corruption of the landscape.
Leonard Scigaj suggests "that language is a positive instrument that can promote authentic social and environmental relations between humans and their environment--relations that can lead to emancipatory social change" (33). Indeed, two of Williams' characteristic poetic pursuits in Paterson are the search for an adequate poetic language, that American idiom, and the interchange of man and certain aspects of his environment in order to compel a new awareness in citizens of the city. Mark Long explains that "generations of readers have come to understand Williams's poetics through the phrase 'No ideas but in things,' those deceptively simple words found in the opening lines of the book-length poem Paterson. The phrase signifies a poetics predicated not on ideas but rather on things, underscoring a poetic project that seeks immediate contact with the world" (58).Williams draws parallels between a decaying environment and what he perceives to be a decaying humanity to underscore an ethical dilemma between progress and the advancement of society, and the cost to its citizens; furthermore, Williams' treatment of the city and its surrounding areas as a living organism allow him to point at the negative effects of industrialization over an environment that is inextricable from the human condition.
Williams' concern with industrialization and the decay of the environment has been well-documented. In his exploration of Williams' 1923 volume of poetry, Spring and All, Josh Wallaert explains that:
in 1921 the town of Rutherford passed its first zoning ordinance. During the next fifteen years, the population was to grow by fifty percent, as the construction of the Holland Tunnel linked New Jersey to metropolitan New York. Williams was not removed from the social and environmental concerns of his time. He wrote a letter to the Rutherford Republican to propose that a new high school be built on the Peter Kipp estate rather than in a busy commercial district downtown, and he later joined efforts to preserve the woods as a public park. (93)
Wallaert's passage shows that Williams was not only aware of threats to the environment, but also felt an ethical responsibility to protect it, and took steps to contribute to ecological conservation efforts. Similar to Paterson, Spring and All combines sections of prose and free verse, and according to Joshua Schuster, "can help us understand how it was possible for Williams to argue for the local with an avant-garde poetics that relies on formal techniques of dislocation" (116). The formal elements that Williams implements in Paterson had already been tested in Spring and All, and the fragmented quality of the poem's narrative serves as a backdrop for the fragmented relationship between the individual and the environment. For example, in the poem "Spring and All," Williams seems to be previewing the environmental concerns that will later be addressed in Paterson:
All along the road the reddish purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy stuff of bushes and small trees with dead, brown leaves under them leafless vines-- Lifeless in appearance, sluggish. ("Spring and All" 1924)
The description of a stark landscape where vegetation is struggling to survive and where the environment is decayed foreshadows how these poetic elements will be subsequently implemented in Paterson. Although the condition of the landscape in this passage is the result of natural processes and the life cycle of the countryside, it is the interruption of these organic processes that become the central concern in Williams' views on industrialization and its effects on the environment in Paterson.
Choosing Paterson, New Jersey as the canvas upon which he would capture his vision of American history, modern society, and the changes caused by and happening to both, Williams voices his concerns on the themes of industrialization, dehumanization, economic stagnation, and a socio-political system that he sees as becoming increasingly dated. In the first two books of Paterson, these themes are woven together by a constant motif: beauty as a subjective, concrete notion, and its subversion through images of corruption, decay, and death, particularly regarding the natural landscape. By Books III, IV, and V, the corruption pervades both the rural and urban settings, no longer allowing the prevalence of the unspoiled landscape alluded to in Book I.
In Paterson's opening lines, the initial description of the city and its surroundings as a slumbering giant is characterized by an idyllic, paradisiacal atmosphere:
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He lies on his right side, head near the thunder of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep, his dreams walk about the city where he persists incognito. Butterflies settle in his stone ear. (6)
This imagery in this passage is distinctly beautiful, and is characterized by the raw power of unspoiled nature, without any mention of human influence. Williams' descriptive, visual language evokes a tranquil scene where nature has run its course and is in perfect serenity and order. Nevertheless, the idyllic qualities of the scene are instantly subverted by the natural decay of the landscape, characterized by images of "oozy fields ... dead grass ... withered weed-stalks" (7). The use of such imagery following the initial description of the landscape transforms an otherwise beautiful scene into a desolate setting, characterized by rotting vegetation and images of death, decay and stagnation, thus subverting any idealized or romanticized notion of natural beauty and ecological balance. By inserting the image of a naturally decomposing locale, Williams established the need for natural decay as a crucial part of the perpetuation of life. Later, Williams goes on to explain role of humans in the interruption of these natural processes:
Half the river red, half steaming purple from the factory vents, spewed out hot, swirling, bubbling. The dead bank, shining mud. (36)
This description of how the waste products from the factories have ruined the river summarizes Williams' views on human influence over the environment, progress, and the industrialization of Paterson, thus the nexus between the rural and urban spaces is established with the advent of an invasive, interloping, man-made industrial complex. Human intervention has disrupted the natural cycle of decay and renewal, and these lines also show how every element of the rural, idyllic, paradisiacal Passaic Falls has been corrupted by human hands. Thus, for Williams, the idea of a wilderness where nature is uncontaminated by industrial progress embodies his vision of "the elemental character of the place" (xiv), without the influence of humanity.
Further exploring this idea, Lee Rozelle argues that "central to Paterson is the idea that body, place, and city interrelate directly--the molecular, the ecological, and the urban" (110). This unification of human body, soul, and landscape manifests itself as the Giant Paterson, which is man, city, and myth:
... a mass of detail to interrelate on a new ground, difficulty; an assonance, a homologue triple piled pulling the disparate to clarify and compress. (19)
These lines show that Williams is trying to capture the way the interrelationship between man and environment should be, recognizing that although sometimes perceived as separate, man and environment are inextricable from each other. Interestingly, these lines also seem to describe Paterson itself as a poem that is trying to reconcile a myriad of poetic, historical, autobiographical and mythical elements, and arrange them into the new American idiom; that poetic voice that will allow humankind to integrate itself into a relationship with nature.
Williams' concern with place and the local resonates with a connection to nature and the environment and the search for the American idiom needed to describe them. In Paterson: Language and Landscape, Joel Conarroe claims that "in choosing to use local setting and local subject matter, Williams demonstrates his affinity with another profoundly American writer, Henry David Thoreau" (11). Indeed, Williams seems to share the transcendentalist belief that the individual should be close to nature and distance himself from a corrupt and stagnant society, but he goes further in addressing the potentially cataclysmic effects that humankind can have on the environment. Thoreau's seminal transcendentalist text, Walden, or Life in the Woods, is an account of the time he spent two years and two months living on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Walden became part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self-reliance (Thoreau 850). In Walden, Thoreau was putting into practice what Ralph Waldo Emerson had previously suggested in Nature. Thoreau decided to implement Emerson's plan to "go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society" (Emerson 497). By leaving his comfort zone and the urban setting, and communing with nature, Thoreau attempted to sever the ties that bind the individual to society and that are detrimental to his well-being. Furthermore, Thoreau anticipates the notion of a prevailing interconnectedness between man and his environment in the biosphere; that is the totality of Earth's ecosystems. In Walden, Thoreau explains how he felt that contact between the individual and an unspoiled nature would be beneficial for both, and outlines the reasoning behind his decision to go into the woods:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. (915)
Thoreau felt that he could no live a full life by remaining constrained by a corrupting society and what he perceived to be the evils of Western materialism and consumerist culture. He also displays a willingness to strip away most of what is artificial in his life in order to be in solitude and in contemplation of nature. This summarizes the tenets of American transcendentalists, who exalted thought and self-knowledge as the most important aspects of the human condition. The individual must transcend the material world. The individual's conscience was paramount for transcendentalists and they also believed that conflicts between right and wrong should be settled from within and not by the conventions of society. Another extremely important item in the Thoreau's list of relevant things was the strength of the mind, and the inherent capacity for good in the individual. Thus, Thoreau becomes "an avatar for first-wave environmental critics" (Le Menager 394), who asserted the primacy of the connection between man and environment. However, Williams had the hindsight and historical knowledge of many decades after Thoreau's death in 1862 to fully grasp the magnitude of the damage that humans could do to the environment.
Like Thoreau, Williams finds himself in a world where society and industry are eager to advance in terms of progress, but not in what he feels are the best interests of the individual and the environment. Neither can visualize a world in which any outward improvement of life or any industrial advancement can bring inner peace and contentment. Both see man as part of nature and the current state of society as decayed and corrupt. In this manner, Williams sees the role of modern man in relation to nature to be tense and chaotic:
Walking-- Thickets gather about groups of squat sand pine, all but from bare rock ... --a scattering of man-high cedars (sharp cones), antlered sumac. --roots, for the most part, writhing upon the surface (so close are we to ruin every day!) searching the punk dry rot. (44-45)
This passage presents an image of a speaker who is walking through the woods, where he is observing the lack of order in the vegetation. The identification of sand pines, cedars, and sumacs suggest an initial familiarity with the landscape. The speaker truly understands these trees and has a strong appreciation of the landscape and its natural processes, thus spanning the chasm between man and nature that Williams is trying to bridge through the new American idiom. This relationship with nature goes beyond Thoreau's notion of merely joining the environment and benefiting from its advantages; it establishes the inextricability of man and nature, and the need for humankind to protect the environment.
For Williams, however, it is through poetry, not introspection that man can come to understand nature. Nevertheless, the Williams-Thoreau parallels prevail in analysis. Much like Thoreau's relationship with Walden Pond, Williams' attachment to the Passaic River allows him to hold on to the idyllic imagery of the past:
My serpent, my river! genius of the fields, Kra, my adored one, unspoiled by the mind, observer of pigeons, rememberer of cataracts, voluptuary of gulls! Knower of tides, counter of hours, wanings and waxings, enumerator of snowflakes, starer through thin ice, whose corpuscles are minnows, whose drink, sand. (192)
The previous passage evokes a memory of the river as timeless, remaining pristine throughout all the seasons, remaining calm without the influence of any interloper such as man. The insertion of this vision of the wilderness' landscape into Paterson suggests that there is something to strive for; a goal that is attainable if the continuous corruption of the environment is stopped and the damage done by industrialization is reversed.
Williams' idea of the river as central to the environment in Paterson has been held for some time and has been the source of scholarly exploration. Louis Martz maintains that "the basic image of Book I was the Passaic River, metamorphosed into a symbol of the flow of all human mind, including the mind's half-conscious sense of powers beyond itself; the falls of the Passaic seemed to represent the power of the poet to interrupt, refract, and coalesce the flow into a quivering and terrifying scene of beauty" (qtd. in Quinn 95). The river is at times a powerful poetic symbol, a force of nature, and a source of fertility and life that is "terrifying" for those who do not understand it. Although it is susceptible to the actions of man, the river also has the capacity of influencing him:
with the roar of the river forever in our ears (arrears) inducing sleep and silence, the roar of eternal sleep ... challenging our waking--. (Paterson 17)
These lines show the power of an uncorrupted river, capable of bringing peace to the individual, providing serenity and tranquility, and allowing him to sleep peacefully. It "challenges our waking," counteracting the influence of industrialization by evoking a feeling of contentment. What need is there for progress when such beauty and peace is readily available?
John Elder explains that poetry "becomes a manifestation of landscape and climate, just as the ecosystem's flora and fauna are" (39). Elder's position explains William's choice of the city of Paterson and its surroundings as the location for his poem. The damage done to Paterson's ecosystem at the hands of man and, in a broader sense, in the name of progress, is the defining factor in the parallel between the decaying of Passaic Falls and Williams' viewof the decay of contemporary society. It is this environment that Williams' "imagination must 'repair,' 'rescue' and 'complete'" (Fiero 965). The Passaic River, the central, life-giving force of the landscape, is also described as corrupted in the present, mirroring Williams' perception of the corruption of both man and society:
Smash the world, wide! --if I could do it for you-- Smash the wide world . a fetid womb, a sump! No river! no river but bog, a swale sinks into the mind or the mind into it, a? (Paterson 170)
In these lines the reader encounters a corrupted image of fertility (the "fetid womb)" and elements of stagnation and inactivity ("bog ... swale"), along with blank spaces where language seems to have failed to comprehend the abysmal conditions of the environment, and the flow of the river has been stymied. As a whole, the image presented above describes the deplorable conditions for which Williams holds industrialization and progress to be at fault, turning the Passaic into "the vilest swillhole in Christendom" (In the American Grain 195). Thus, the river that Conarroe describes as Williams' "symbol of all beginnings" (82) no longer serves as such, instead becoming the embodiment of modern environmental corruption, stagnation and death. By the 1950s, companies like Diamond Shamrock, a leading producer of Agent Orange, was knowingly and systematically contaminating the river with the toxic byproduct dioxin. Tom Moran explains that "the company knew even in the 1950s that dumping dioxin was illegal, and set up an alarm system to warn employees when inspectors were sniffing around" ("The Attempted murder ..."). Moran also chronicles the steps taken to cover up these actions by exposing how "workers at Diamond Shamrock were ordered to dump dioxin into the Passaic River in Newark, and then to march out at low tide and knock down the toxic mud piles with rakes so that no one would know" ("The Attempted murder ...").
James M. O'Neill and Scott o'Fallon chronicle the history of pollution in the Passaic:
By 1880, Paterson's factories had begun to foul the river. And the tidal flow--the Passaic is tidal from Newark Bay to the Dundee Dam in Garfield--swept Newark's sewage and factory discharges upstream and down. There were efforts to indict manufacturers for polluting the river, but the owners just threatened to take their factories elsewhere and throw thousands out of work. Because of the bacteria in the river, the death rate from typhoid was among the highest in the nation in Newark by the 1890s. A New York Times reporter traveling the Passaic around that time wrote that Paterson's silk mills, tanneries and slaughter houses poured their "flood of filth" into the river, causing it to resemble a "vile, inky fluid." He found hundreds of dead fish. Untreated sewage from Rutherford, Passaic and many other towns spilled into the river. The smell was so bad that riverfront homes in Harrison were abandoned by 1895 and there were reports of acid fumes peeling the paint off some buildings. The cities abandoned their drinking water intakes below the Great Falls. Paterson's intake was moved five miles north to Little Falls in 1897, but the river was growing dirty even there. A sewer line was built to carry waste from Paterson to Newark Bay, but the river continued to be fouled. There was so much gunk that the Passaic caught fire near Kearny in 1918. Firefighters tried to douse the flames, but a film of oils, creosote, sawdust and refuse continued to burn on the river, menacing a nearby munitions warehouse. ("Polluted Passaic River Suffers ...")
Williams' extensive knowledge of the history of the area meant that he was aware of everything that had happened to the environment of his Man-City. O'Neill and Fallon further explain that an attempt to clean the river was made in 1970, seven years after Williams' death, but President Nixon put an end to it, and it was not until 1972 with the passing of the Clean Water Act that real action began to take place in order to address the damage done to the river ("Polluted Passaic River Suffers ...").
Williams' critique of progress is centered on the figure that he feels is the instigator of the destruction of the Passaic River: Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, the founder of the American financial system, is seen as the primary culpritin the destruction of the environment in Paterson. In one of the prose sections of Paterson, Williams narrates:
Even during the Revolution Hamilton had been impressed by the site of the Great Falls of the Passaic. His fertile imagination envisioned a great manufacturing center, a great Federal City, to supply the needs of the country. Here was the water-power to turn the mill wheels and the navigable river to carry manufactured goods to the market centers: a national manufactory. (70)
This section of prose summarizes not only the historical beginnings of the destruction of the environment in the Passaic Falls, but offers an implicit description of the utilitarian, economically driven outlook held by Hamilton and other industrialist visionaries. Instead of seeing the beauty of the falls, Williams suggests that all they saw was the sheer amount of natural resources available to be exploited in the name of industry and progress, leaving behind a city that "is something less than elegant" (Conarroe 50). This prose passage, however, appears within a much broader context. In the passages dealing with Father Klaus Ehrens' homily, Williams effectively outlines a dialogue between two ideologies: Hamilton's utilitarian, economically motivated mentality, and their rejection, seen in Father Klaus' epiphany. Father Klaus narrates, "And the Lord said to me, Klaus, get rid of your/money. You'll never be happy until you do that" (Paterson 69), establishing the potentially divine worth of avoiding the greed that Williams sees behind the industrialist mentality.
Another element of Paterson's setting, in terms of the environment and landscape, is the Mountain. Sister Mary Bernetta Quinn explains that "in establishing the elemental character of the place, the poet describes two titanic figures: masculine (Paterson the city) and feminine (Garrett Mountain)" (92). In contrast to the Passaic River, the Mountain "is not presented in a single, chartable series of images, but proliferates in several directions at once" (99). This means that the Mountain's complexity as a poetic symbol in Paterson comes from its connection to most, if not all, of the women that appear throughout the poem. More importantly, the Mountain represents the female counterpart of the Giant Paterson, "a giantess, stretching against the man-city" (Conarroe 100):
And there, against him, stretches the low mountain. The Park's her head, carved, above the Falls, by the quiet river; Colored crystals the secret of those rocks; farms and ponds, laurel and the temperate wild cactus, yellow flowered ... facing him, his arm supporting her, by the Valley of the Rocks, asleep. Pearls at her ankles, her monstrous hair spangled with apple-blossoms is scattered about into the back country, waking their dreams--where the deer run and the wood-duck nests protecting his gallant plumage. (8-9)
The Mountain, as seen above, is the environment's equivalent of the Earth-mother. Her all-encompassing, protective nature allows for the flora and fauna to thrive in her proximity. Conarroe observes that "the 'pearls at her ankles' is later explained ... [as] the discovery of mussels in Notch Brook. The spoiling of these pearls as described in this passage is typical of the ... senseless rapes suffered by the maternal principle" (100), also seen in the draining of the lake and the frenzy of the gathering of eels by the people of Paterson. The people's greed drove them to basically raze the riverbed in order to catch every fish they could, not because they needed them for food, but because could carry them by the wagonload in order to sell them and make easy money. The Mountain, also initially a pristine, immaculate, and untouched natural image is corrupted by human intervention, emphasizing the continuous role that, according to Williams, man, and society in general play in their own destruction.
Later on, the Mountain is also presented in the role of a protector of fertility and reproduction who has been thwarted by the corruption of the landscape:
The flower spreads its colored petals wide in the sun But the tongue of the bee misses them They sink back into the loam crying out. (11)
The "tongue of the bee" missing the petals signifies an interruption of the process of pollination, and by extension, a break in the reproductive process of plants, the cornerstone of any ecosystem. Conarroe proposes that this interruption is an image of the "failure of communication between the sexes ... and the failure of marriage" (101). The failures of communication and marriage are later seen in Book IV's episode involving the fragmentary conversations between Corydon, Phyllis and Paterson, where traditional ideas of romantic relationships are subverted:
Corydon & Phyllis You must have lots of boy friends, Phyllis Only one Incredible! Only one I'm interested in right now What is he like? Who? Your lover Oh him. He's married. I haven't got a chance with him You hussy! And what do you do together? Just talk. (153)
This passage shows the failure of the communication between the sexes and of marriage, two integral parts of civilized society that are shown by Williams to be inadequate. Williams' disapproval of a society that corrupts and destroys the environment extends to the institution of marriage, an institution that is artificial and that interrupts natural communication, making language fail. Williams criticizes people who fall into social norms "and marry only to destroy, in private, in/their privacy only to destroy, to hide/(in marriage)/that they destroy and not be perceived/in it--the destroying" (Paterson 107).
The Mountain's association with the feminine and its corruption also parallels the corruption of the environment. Furthermore, the Mountain's role as Paterson's consort is defined in poetic statement:
The scene's the Park upon the rock, female to the city --upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts (concretely). (43)
Thus, the Mountain's multivalent role as the embodiment of the feminine, the counterpart of the Giant, and the protector of fertility, is established as an essential component of both the setting and the poem, susceptible to the environmental corruption and decay caused by society's industrial goals. If Paterson the city is the representation of the mind of modern man, then by instructing his thoughts upon the Mountain, she is becoming corrupted by the mere proximity of the city and its industrial facilities.
Where the Passaic River and Garrett Mountain embody the rural elements of Paterson, the city is the epitome of the urban elements of the poem. A city, by its definition as a large, permanent settlement of people, is the ultimate transgression against the environment. It is also the pinnacle of civilized society; the ultimate symbol of man overcoming nature by creating his own space within it. Paterson the city is constrained by the rural elements that surround it, and it is in the liminal spaces between the city and its rural surroundings that the corruption of the environment is more easily identifiable. In one of the many self-reflexive passages of Paterson, Williams questions the benefits of progress, social conventions, and the city itself:
Doctor, do you believe in "the people," the Democracy? Do you still believe--in this swill-hole of corrupt cities? Do you, Doctor? Now? (109)
That "swill-hole" of a city is the Paterson of the present: a Paterson that has succumbed to urbanization. If one subscribes to the premise that everything that is confined within the urban areas is lost and corrupted beyond rescue, one must look at the instances in the poem where the urban and the rural meet in order to observe the damage done in the name of social progress. For example, the prose passage dealing with the confrontation between some of Paterson's citizens and a mink demonstrates an encounter between the urbanized population and a wild creature. Some of the citizens "tried for a while to hit it with their clubs but were unable to do so" (49), a statement that presents the reader with an attempt to prevent an intrusion of the natural environment into the urban setting; an attempt emblematic of the general separation of the urban man from the wilderness, regardless of the fact that it is the urban man who encroaches onto it. In the same manner, Hamilton's vision of the great industrial hub in a place that had not been developed epitomizes the attitudes prevalent at the time, where man and river meet and man immediately implements methods to subjugate and control nature.
The modern scientific principle of urban heat islands (UHI), defined as "built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas ... [that] can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness and mortality, and water quality" ("Heat Island Effect"), is a well-established, contemporary environmental issue. Although not a major environmental concern or point of scientific study during Williams' lifetime, the principle of increased heat in urban areas had been identified by British manufacturing chemist and an amateur meteorologist Luke Howard in his 1819 book The Climate of London, Deduced from Meteorological Observations, Made at Different Places in the Neighbourhood of the Metropolis. Howard observed that "in the denser parts of the metropolis, the heat is raised, by the effect of population and fires" (288) and that urban temperatures were higher on an average of 1[degrees]-2[degrees]C, and in some instances up to 12[degrees]C. The increased temperatures of a burgeoning industrial hub like Paterson would have been observable, thus establishing the area as an urban heat island. The economic and environmental costs to Paterson's citizens would have been palpable, and these costs would have been reflected in the quality of life of the people. This concern on what is happening inside the city however, suggests "the foreboding notion that technological and urban developments might well erode both nature and community in an unending push for unregulated replication" (Rozelle 101). In short, Paterson's preoccupation with uncontrolled urban growth and technological and industrial advancement is summarized in the poetry:
knowledge the contaminant Uranium the complex atom, breaking down, a city in itself, that complex atom, always breaking down to lead. (177)
Having experienced the advent of the Atomic Age and the onset of the Cold War, Williams had a clear view of the terrible, destructive potential of unchecked scientific progress and technological advancement. By using the image of uranium as a parallel to the city, he demonstrates how progress can have an adverse effect and damage both humanity and the environment. ultimately, the city, and urbanity in general, are defined by their counterparts: the wilderness and the rural. It is the interaction of these elements that frame Williams' concerns with environmental impact of unimpeded industrial progress. Williams' anxieties about the effects of industrialization on the environment are also captured in the aftermath of the flood in Book III:
Where the water has receded most things have lost their form. They lean in the direction the current went. Mud covers them --fertile (?) mud. If it were only fertile. Rather a sort of muck, a detritus in this case--a pustular scum, a decay, a choking lifelessness--that leaves the soil clogged after it, the glues the sandy bottom and blackens stones--so that they have to be scoured three times when, because of an attractive brokenness, we take them up for garden uses. An acrid, a revolting stench comes out of them, almost one might say a granular stench--fouls the mind. (Paterson 140).
Paterson also draws deeply from historical sources in order to provide information on the ecological past of the region. For example, at different points of the poem, the reader learns that in 1857, the area began to be harvested for pearls (9), fished for sport (11), and that "the last wolf was killed near the Weisse Huis in the year 1723" (97). Williams considers the events affecting the environment to be of great historical importance. In his consistent theme of the parallels between social and environmental decay due to pollution, he makes it clear to the reader that he considers a healthy environment a vital and indispensable part of a better world. In the same manner, he was keenly aware that the majority of the population did not share his concerns. He then goes on to summarize the historical account of what was happening in the mountains and the woodlands of the area, as well as in the United States in general, where there was not only the exploitation of natural resources, but also the exploitation of people. This issue is addressed through the chronicling of the displacement of the native peoples and the arrival of African slaves. Notably, the displacement of the native peoples also explains how a purportedly civilized society deals with what it deems to be primitive races. These races, paradoxically, seem to be much more in communion with nature and are able to better grasp the magnitude of the damage done by an advanced society. For Williams, the factual and ecological histories of Paterson are interlaced, and they help explain the problems of civilized society by contextualizing the role of humankind within the larger scope of the environment. Williams describes a society that behaves as "tho' they wished death rather than to face/ infamy, the infamy of old cities/a world of corrupt cities" (Paterson 107), thus preferring to remain as it is rather than strive for beauty. This also seems to imply a vicious circle where the industrial effects on the environment cause humanity to adopt increasingly damaging behaviors. The more industrialized that Paterson becomes, the more its citizens conform to the aftermath of Hamilton's industrialist vision, because it is a "city founded upon a 'plan' and therefore prediction (not the first habitation in North America to be so founded, but perhaps the first large industrially-based project to be so planned) that seems to go awry because of facts or fields or forces unpredicted in the plan" (Hahn 80). Consequently, with industrialism out of control, the citizenship further damages the environment by participating in the industrial process, thus perpetuating this cycle. In this sense, Paterson is what Carla Bilatteri describes as "a poem commonly read as Williams's imaginative attempt to address, and, hopefully, to transform, the destitute condition of the real" (58). Williams is trying to find the ever-elusive American idiom in order to contribute to the betterment of society.
The question is, then, does Williams offer a possible solution to the problem of the decay of the environment and its corruption at the hands of humanity? Is he making a definitive statement on about the relationship between humanity and environment? If one looks closely at the numerous instances where Williams addresses environmental concerns, the reader can deduce that a solution is outlined. First, Williams' belief in the connection of man and nature is clear. That interconnectedness is homologue to "the first Law of Ecology: 'Everything is connected to everything else'" (Rueckert 108), thus the line between Williams and environmental literature is established. Second, the environmental decay and corruption presented in Paterson underscore the need for a sort of harmony and balance between humanity and nature. This harmony and balance once existed, in the times before Hamilton envisioned the Passaic Falls and its surroundings as an industrial hub to be exploited. Third, the corruption of the landscape and the destruction of beauty in Paterson are the direct result of the realization Hamilton's industrialist vision, thus ascertaining the cause-and-effect relationship between industrialization and environmental corruption. Fourth, like Thoreau, Williams believes that the social and political structures of the United States are both corrupted and corrupting, and that the individual needs to go back into a close association with nature in order to find true peace and live a full life. Finally, society itself, as seen by Williams is corrupted, forcing the individual into a vicious cycle that leads humanity to become increasingly damaging to the environment. That damage, in turn, ultimately harms the individual by forcing him to participate in what Williams believes to be a doomed system.
Consequently, Williams' possible solution has to address both the environmental problems identified in Paterson and the corruption of society that have been outlined in this essay. This solution must operate on two levels. On one level, in the transcendentalist tradition, the individual needs to distance himself from the corrupting influence of society and its political structures. Once this happens, the individual can contemplate his relationship with nature and achieve peace. on the second level, society itself has to stop accepting environmental damage as an inevitable result of progress and take active steps in order to protect nature, even if it means the destruction of the corrupted city by turning into a blank slate. The Paterson fire of 1902 is one of the most relevant events in the history of the city. Richard Walter chronicles some of the events:
The Fire was discovered in the trolley car sheds of the Jersey City, Hoboken and Paterson Railway Company ... A high wind was blowing, and the tinder-like building was swept by the flames. All the engines in the fire department were called out. The fire evaded the heroic efforts of the firemen to stay its progress. Fanned by the gale, it swept away the business center of the city ... Not counting sheds or outbuildings, 459 buildings were destroyed, among them large business houses, banks, City Hall, five churches and the Free Public Library, with its 37,000 volumes. The insurance loss is approximated at $8,800,000, and the property loss at $6,000,000. Five hundred families lost their homes and everything they owned. ("A History of Paterson")
Despite the harm this fire caused by human negligence did to Paterson's infrastructure, economy and to its status as one of the foremost industrial centers in the united States, Williams does not see the blaze as a wholly negative event. In Paterson, Williams reflects on the aftermath of the flames:
flames, a chastity of annihilation. Recreant, calling it good. Calling the fire good. So be it. The beauty of fire-blasted sand that was glass, that was bottle: unbottled Unabashed. So be it. An old bottle, mauled by the fire gets a new glaze, the glass warped to a new distinction, reclaiming the undefined. A hot stone, reached by the tide, crackled over by fine lines, the glaze unspoiled Annihilation ameliorated: (Paterson 118).
In this passage, Williams does not see the Paterson fire of 1902 as a destruction or ending, but as an opportunity for renewal and change. The notion of "annihilation ameliorated" suggests that the fires destruction of the city could hinder the industrial development that Williams sees as the annihilation of the environment. Furthermore, the image of the bottle transformed by the fire into something new, points to the possibility of a repurposing of Paterson the city itself. Even the image of the library aflame, where the knowledge of the past is burning, is seen as "a defiance of authority" (Paterson 119), and an opportunity to begin anew.
The fragmented, sometimes disjointed structure of the poem's narrative resulting from the combination of poetry and prose parallels Williams' vision of the fragmented relationship between the individual and the environment. The poem's form mirrors that fragmented quality, but is also an attempt to reconcile man and nature. Paterson's long poem form is characterized by a detailed, nuanced search for a language, for the American idiom, that allows Williams to explore the "the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city ... [and] to use the multiple facets which a city presented as representatives for comparable facets of contemporary thought thus to be able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and hate him' (Paterson xiii). In short, the long poem form allows Williams simultaneously to outline and investigate history, industrialization, the corruption of society, the crisis of the environment, and the search for that purely American idiom. Such an undertaking would perhaps be impossible with another poetic form. Although Paterson remained an unfinished literary work, it is a text rife with opportunities for academic exploration from an environmental literature and perspective.
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--. Paterson. new York: new Directions, 1992. Print.
-. Spring and All. new York, NY: new Directions, 2011. Print.
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Carlos D. Acosta-Ponce
University of Tulsa
United States of America
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|Author:||D. Acosta-Ponce, Carlos|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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