Small Man on Campus



Williams ca. 1920.

From letters William Carlos Williams sent to his mother as a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. During his time there, Williams, born on this day in 1883,  joined Mask and Wig, the nation’s oldest all-male collegiate musical comedy troupe, and landed speaking roles in at least two productions. He was a varsity fencer and the art editor of the med-school yearbook, which awarded him the superlative “most versatile.” He also met Ezra Pound, beginning a long and sometimes turbulent friendship; here Williams mentions some of their earliest days together.

Ca. October 1902

My dear Mother: Today, Sunday, it has rained continuously. I went to church today for the first time at the Y.M.C.A., here in the college.

My first acquaintance is a young fellow about my age from Buffalo, a freshman but not in my department. He takes his meals with me and is, as far as I know, a gentleman of high morals—his name is Van Winkle and he comes here on a scholarship. Therefore, as you can judge, he is not one of the fast crowd, which is very easily distinguished by its speech as well as by its looks. Through him I met another young fellow who is a junior in the college. This last one is a very popular man here, not in athletics but in social life. He sings very well. He is also writing a book on “The famous graduates of Pennsylvania.” He is a prominent figure in the Y.M.C.A. and is in every way a gentleman. Of course I don’t have anything to do with him, as he is quite a big man here, but I expect through him to get into the Mask and Wig Club.

With love to you and Ed and Mrs. Dodd, I remain your loving son.

Willie C. Williams


December 9, 1902

My dear Mother: We have been having awful weather here … I went to the dance … and I certainly was glad I had a dress suit, for every other fellow there had one … I went downstairs and was introduced to about fifteen young ladies. Of course I asked each one for a dance and trusted to luck to determine whether they knew how or not … I had the first dance with Miss Ecob. It was a two-step, and I got along all right but next came a waltz. Oh, boy! I don’t know who my partner was but I do know that she can’t dance the waltz. We started. At the first step I knew something was wrong; about halfway round the room I started to walk up the front of her dress. I descended hurriedly and excused myself as best I could. We started again. Pretty soon she started on a journey up my leg. This was too much for me and I backed out. As I went upstairs for repairs I saw her contemplating me with a sad, disgusted look on her face. After this I sat out all the waltzes. Not a single person there knew how to dance a waltz … After a while I began to get acquainted and just then everybody went home. My only regret is that I now I have started I may be invited to more dances and it is either a case of refusing or finding a gold mine somewhere. I don’t like these kinds of dances much, because they are too formal. The people I met are too sporty for me.


March 30, 1904

Dear Mama: The reason I didn’t write last Sunday was because I was out of town. My friend Pound invited me to spend Saturday and Sunday with him … His parents are very nice people and have always been exceptionally kind to me. Mrs. Pound had prepared a fine meal … After supper Pound and I went to his room where we had a long talk on subjects that I love yet have not time to study and which he is making a life work of. That is literature, and the drama and the classics, also a little philosophy. He, Pound, is a fine fellow; he is the essence of optimism and has a cast-iron faith that is something to admire. If he ever does get blue nobody knows it, so he is just the man for me. But not one person in a thousand likes him, and a great many people detest him and why? Because he is so darned full of conceits and affectation. He is really a brilliant talker and thinker but delights in making himself just exactly what he is not: a laughing boor. His friends must be all patience in order to find him out and even then you must not let him know it, for he will immediately put on some artificial mood and be really unbearable. It is too bad, for he loves to be liked, yet there is some quality in him which makes him too proud to try to please people. I am sure his only fault is an exaggeration of a trait that in itself is good and in every way admirable. He is afraid of being taken in if he trusts his really tender heart to mercies of a cruel crowd and so keeps it hidden and trusts no one.