Media, Mimesis, and the Figure of the Orphan in William Carlos Williams’s Life Along the Passaic River

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2014


“The finest short stories are those that raise, in short, one particular man or woman, from that Gehenna, the newspapers, where at last all men are equal, to the distinction of being an individual. To be responsive not to the ordinances of the herd (Russia-like) but to the extraordinary responsibility of being a person.”

-William Carlos Williams, “A Beginning on the Short Story (Notes)”

“He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.”

-Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass

“The world’s an orphan’s home.”

-Marianne Moore, “In Distrust of Merits”

In his 1938 short-story collection Life Along the Passaic River, Williams emphasizes the discrepancy between realist verisimilitude and modernist self-reflexivity to dramatize the plight of the poor due to general economic conditions, particularly through the metaphor of the orphan. In addition, figurations of family, both positive and negative, offer an imaginative survey of possibilities and pitfalls for remedying the orphan’s predicament. The signs of personal dignity and creativity that permeate Williams’s collection of stories testify to the capacity and culture of marginalized people. Such accomplishments are all the more admirable for existing in the face of being cut off, or orphaned, from beneficial resources that ought to be available. Williams’s narrative map of Passaic reveals how such achievements help people cope with the losses symbolized by orphanhood. In what follows, several stories will be singled out as figuring the orphan (the first date of publication follows each title in parentheses): the title story (1934), “The Girl with the Pimply Face” (1934), “The Use of Force” (1933), “Jean Beicke” (1933), “A Face of Stone” (1935), “Under the Greenwood Tree” (1938), and “World’s End” (1938).