William Carlos Williams (1883–1963) was the son of a father born in England and raised in the Dominican Republic and a Puerto Rican mother of French heritage. He spent most of his life in Rutherford, New Jersey, a physician in his main occupation with a parallel career as a poet and writer. He grew up speaking Spanish and English and was educated in Rutherford, Geneva, Paris, and New York City. Admitted to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania by special examination when he was not yet twenty years old, he graduated in 1906, completed further studies in New York and Leipzig, and returned to Rutherford to spend his life practicing general medicine and pediatrics.

Meanwhile, Williams was beginning the career that would earn him a Pulitzer Prize for poetry (awarded posthumously in 1963). Adapting imagist techniques to capture American voices, Williams also wrote fiction and nonfiction. His work with families in communities in New Jersey brought him into daily contact with the challenges of working-class life and of the lives of the truly poor. While writing the stories collected in Life Along the Passaic River (1938), including “The Use of Force,” he became, as he later wrote, “obsessed with the plight of the poor,” made even more desperate by the Great Depression. Williams was concerned that the grind of poverty left little energy for the political activity that might improve the lives of poor workers.

Williams wrote “The Use of Force” specifically for the short-lived “proletarian” magazine Blast (1933–1934), which presented literary works that revealed the lives of the poor to wealthier readers in hopes of gaining sympathy and advocacy. The Passaic River communities were, at the time, largely industrial. Many people worked low-paying jobs in textile mills, and many of these jobs were lost during the Great Depression. Williams’ medical work among the families in these communities informs the stories in Life Along the Passaic River and other works. Some critics have noted that Williams often leaves the characters in these stories nameless to suggest that the characters have a more universal applicability. These are the people—determined and discouraged, hard-working yet out of work—that populate similar places across the nation during the Depression.

Williams’ insistence on chronicling the everyday lives of these people caused suspicion during the McCarthy years, when artists and professionals with supposed communist sympathies were often discriminated against and blacklisted. When Williams was honored by being chosen as “consultant in poetry” to the Library of Congress (now called the position of poet laureate), the appointment was revoked for these very reasons. However, as McCarthyism died out, Williams became, and continues to be, a poet and writer who, along with contemporary American poets such as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost, celebrate American voices.