The "Jackson Whites" & "To Elsie"

Note: This comment is provided by a member of the "Alumverse" course for Penn alumni, Spring 1996.

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 1996 07:50:53 -0400
Subject: The "Pure" Products of America

"Pure" Products? Now that is an interesting title for a poem about the impure, the foul, the I-can't-control-myself. Self who is lusting to join the Others who don't even care to control themselves. I think some see WCW as the guy who can't control himself. True, but I also think he is speaking for "Every(american)man." Perhaps a bit of history would give some context...

Anyone ever hear of the Jackson Whites? At least into the 1970's (maybe still, though hard to believe they can still withstand the onslaught of suburban development) there were a "tribe" of isolated people who lived on a mountain in northern New Jersey. By the 1930's their once-remote mountain was no longer remote. It was not far from where WCW lived. They were distinctive for their 18th Century accents (what we call "hillbilly"), their tawny skin, Caucasian features and recessive genes that gave many of them six fingers, mental retardation and other genetic defects after a few centuries of being their own first cousins no times removed.

They owned the mountain which they had inhabited for 200 years and almost never let an outsider onto their land. Talk about a Wall! They were descended from runaway slaves, Indians and white women "camp followers"of George Washington's forces (who were trampling around Northern Jersey in 1777 or thereabouts). The name Jackson's Whites referred to the "white slavery" which the women escaped by their retreat with the other outcasts to thei mountain. So for two centuries, these folks kept themselves almost completely isolated on their mountain and armed themselves to enforce it. Strangers were simply not allowed. Although an occasional journalist or anthropologist would write about them.

I suspect that WCW's Elsie is of that "purely American" tribe. I think that adds just a bit of irony here, dontcha think?

- Conni Bille

Several years after this message was posted to the web, we received a complaint from a resident of this region. Conni Bille responded as follows:

I am the author of the poetry analysis which made reference to the Jackson Whites in the context of trying to explain William Carlos Williams' comments about "Elsie." She was the subject of his poem "To Elsie" written in the 1930's. Williams lived in Passaic, where I think he had absorbed local folklore and local prejudices. Well, read the poem yourself and see if you think he was identifying her as a member of the Jackson Whites. This was total conjecture on my part. (You will find the line about the "pure products of America" in the poem.)

My comments about the Whites were meant to explain his odd comments about her. I assumed that other members of the poetry study group would not be aware of the folklore about the Jackson Whites, which I conjectured was at the core of Williams' weird sexist and racist attitude towards "Elsie". But the dialog about the poem and about William Carlos Williams was not published in its entirety to the Web - only that snippet.

The Web is amazing. By using search engines to locate "words," information is taken completely out of context. In the past 4 years I have received several email messages from people who wanted to know more about the Jackson Whites - or Jackson's Whites. I have always told them that I really did not know and they need to do their own research. One writer asked "who is WCW?" - completely unaware that I was writing about William Carlos Williams, the poet. That was my first clue that people were searching the Web for "Jackson Whites" and found that page completely out of context. No one ever asked me about the poem.

I first learned about the Whites in the early 70's from a graduate student in Appalachian folklore who was doing oral histories from different parts of Appalachia. So what I wrote reflected local folklore and myths about the Whites, not facts.

I regret that in passing along folklore to explain a line in a poem. it made folklore appear to be "reality" and I apologize for that. I think the real story of your ancestors and their perseverance in the face of incredible prejudice is the one that needs to be told.

  • recording of a live webcast symposium on "To Elsie" led by Al Filreis, Bob Perelman, Kristen Gallagher, and Shawn Walker with thirty far-flung virtual participants from the Kelly Writers House on July 8, 1999


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    Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:28:12 EDT