The Poetic History of Paterson, New Jersey Inspired an Adam Driver Movie

YouTube: Krauss Audio Books, Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Paterson, New Jersey is just a half-hour from New York City in Passaic County. And while it might not seem so exciting compared to the Big Apple, the city of Paterson boasts a fascinating history, grounded in both the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

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Its core placement along the Great Falls of the Passaic River made Paterson an ideal location for the United States’ first manufacturing center . Alexander Hamilton founded this industrial city in 1791. The setting has also inspired one of our greatest contemporary epic poems: Paterson by William Carlos Williams. And that’s not the only poetic piece of Paterson’s literary legacy.

The Key Founding of Paterson, New Jersey

Founding Father Alexander Hamilton started the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures in 1791, which worked to harness energy from the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Utilizing this hydropower, the young nation of America could secure its economic independence from British manufacturers. The city of Paterson was founded around the Great Falls and named for William Paterson, the second governor of New Jersey.

Throughout the 19th century, Paterson was the epicenter of the silk industry and gained the nickname “Silk City.” Silk production in Paterson, New Jersey became integral to the Industrial Revolution. In 1913, workers in Paterson fought to join the labor movement as well. Occurring two years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, the Paterson silk strike was a historic five-month-long strike. Though ultimately unsuccessful, it galvanized the push for unions that was burgeoning across the United States. Paterson is a key site in our national story of workers’ rights.

William Carlos Williams’ ‘Paterson’

—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!

from Paterson: Book I

American poet William Carlos Williams grew up in New Jersey and remained in the state throughout his life. Between 1946 and 1958, he published the extensive five-volume poem, Paterson, which sought to capture the essence of a single city through a detailed lyric accounting its history, residents, and environment. Williams also worked full-time as a medical doctor and wrote only in his spare time. This busy process contributed to the contemporary collage that makes up Paterson. It is truly the embodiment of a modern epic, and in its time, Paterson challenged what was possible for the evolving genre.

“No ideas but in things”

The chosen setting of Paterson, New Jersey is integral to the message of William Carlos Williams’ work. Not only for its majestic and inspiring waterfalls but also for the town’s unique placement in the establishment of America. To understand Paterson is to understand the spirit of a country that presides over nature. It is, after all, the waterfalls that made way for the industrial city’s success. Just as the Great Falls delivered critical power to the factories of Paterson the place, the falls also power Paterson the poem.

William Carlos Williams suffered a heart attack in 1948 and, later, a series of debilitating strokes. He died on March 4, 1963, at the age of 79 at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

The Hometown of Allen Ginsberg

Beat legend Allen Ginsberg was also raised in Paterson, New Jersey. As the author of “Howl” and a cohort of Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg was front and center in the alternative literary movement which thrived during the mid-century. Ginsberg’s wild poetics continued to define the free verse style throughout his long lifetime.

Allen Ginsberg’s first poems, published during high school, appeared in The Paterson Morning Call. As Ginsberg grew older, he sought mentorship from the ultimate Paterson poet: William Carlos Williams. They communicated often and Williams included fragments of Ginsberg’s letters in Paterson, even stating that they’d helped inspire the fifth section of his poetic saga. Williams also contributed the introduction to Ginsberg’s first book, Howl and Other Poems in 1956.

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College still holds the annual Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards in Ginsberg’s honor. Its winners are published in The Paterson Literary Review.

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Paterson’

Shot beautifully around the Great Falls Historic District, Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson follows the story of a local bus driver, named Paterson, who is also a gifted poet. Portrayed so thoughtfully by Adam Driver, Paterson (the man) is seemingly imbued with the modern spirit of William Carlos Williams as he moves through daily routines, taking note of the low-key grace which colors mundane life. Juxtaposing the city’s blue-collar surroundings with Paterson’s rich internal life, Jarmusch’s film is an unpretentious ode to both place and poetry. You can stream Paterson now, for free, on Amazon Prime! And that’s not the only example of the Great Falls on film: the first season The Sopranos features two mobsters there, tossing “Rusty Irish” down to his watery death.

The Other Paterson Highlights

As the third-largest city in New Jersey (after Newark and Jersey City), Paterson has lots to offer for the day-tripping tourist. The Paterson Museum focuses on the industrial roots of Paterson. A more scenic choice is Lambert Castle, which is located on the Garret Mountain Reservation and maintained by the Passaic County Historical Society. And for a bite, check out Peterson’s lively Main Street which hosts a variety of worldly cuisine: Peruvian, Syrian, Colombian, Italian, and Dominican. All five immigrant cultures remain predominant in the city.

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