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John Wheelwright's Life and Career

Alan Wald

Note: This is an expanded version of an essay first published in Peter Quartermain, ed. American Poets, 1880-1945 (Detroit: Gale, 1986), pp. 434-440.

Among the most likely candidates for belated recognition as the best American socialist poet of the 1930s is John Brooks Wheelwright, a rebel Boston Brahmin and heretical Christian who combined his experimental poetry with Marxist political activities. At the time of his premature death--at the age of forty-three he was struck down by a drunken driver--he was both an influential figure among Boston poets and a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party.

Much of Wheelwright's literary sensibility and outlook were shaped by the cultural history of New England, a region to which he was bonded by birth and upbringing. Some of his poems even drew sustenance from the works of rebels from the colonial and pre-Civil War eras. In fact, he was named after one of the leaders of the Antinomian Rebellion (1636-1638), the Reverend John Wheelwright (circa 1592-1679), from whom the poet was tenth in direct descent. His father was Edmund March (Ned) Wheelwright, an architect who designed many of Boston's most imaginative buildings. His mother, Elizabeth Brooks (Bessie) Wheelwright, a remarkable deaf woman noted for her skill at lip reading and for her aristocratic bearing, was the great-granddaughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, the wealthiest of Boston's colonial "merchant princes." The mystique of the Brooks family was rendered so vivid to young Wheelwright by his mother that, as a teenager, he went to court to have his middle name changed from Tyler to Brooks.

From a young age, Jack Wheelwright had been precocious and highly unusual. In physical appearance he had many features of his mother, especially her prominent nose. (Jack referred to this as the "Boott nose" and said that it came from an ancestor named "Wright Boott.") But Jack was intellectually and emotionally closer to his father, with all the qualities that had earned the elder Wheelwright the sobriquet "wheelratic."

Jack was often in the company of his father during his pre-boarding school years. Together they shared an appreciation of the wit and fantasy of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Jack's fascination with these writers would continue throughout his life, becoming a component of his own artistic sensibility.

While he was a student at St. George's preparatory school in Newport, Rhode Island, the young poet was profoundly shaken by his father's mental breakdown in 1910 and by his suicide in 1912, after two years of confinement in a sanatorium. Soon afterward young Wheelwright experienced a religious conversion. He repudiated the Unitarianism of his ancestors and became an Anglican, pledging to become a priest.

As a Harvard student (1916-1920), however, Wheelwright found that his natural sympathies clashed with the dogma of that church. He became a central figure in the circle of Harvard Aesthetes. which included poets such as S. Foster Damon. Robert Hillyer, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos. and Malcolm Cowley. After his expulsion from Harvard for irregular attendance at classes and examinations, Wheelwright had made close connections with lost-generation writers in New York and Europe. But even though he engaged in the "decadent" life-style of these bohemians while living in Florence and visiting Greenwich Village, his need for a belief in the Christ myth remained ardent.

Politically, Wheelwright was first attracted to the English expatriate and Fabian socialist Harold Laski, with whom he studied government at Harvard. At the time of the Russian Revolution he was sympathetic to the overthrow of Tsarism. In the later 1920s he episodically studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, without receiving a degree, and set up a short-lived practice with Zareh Sourian. When the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti occurred he was outraged. However as much as he railed against the immorality into which he believed New-England society to have fallen, Wheelwright initially rejected the uneducated and uncultured proletariat as a force for change. Instead, he believed in the revival of a priestly caste of poets who could provide ethical guidance.

Many of Wheelwright's religio-mythic poems from the volumes Rock and Shell (1933) and "Dusk to Dusk" (in preparation at the time of the poet's death and published in 1972 as part of his Collected Poems), as well as the entire sonnet sequence Mirrors of Venus (1938), have Wheelwright's philosophical and emotional conflicts as their subject. These were especially intense during his late adolescence and student years and persisted through the 1920s when he was torn by the contending claims of his elitist training and his passionate hatred of injustice.

North Atlantic Passage, privately printed in 1925 in Florence where he and his mother vacationed and reprinted in Rock and Shell, is usually noted for its surrealist technique, but this long poem is in fact an attack on those poets who adulate surrealism, Dadaism, or other art forms elevated above philosophic substance. Wheelwright states that the basic "enigma" in life is the relationship of the individual to the rest of humankind. In the poem he refutes various solutions others have proposed to resolve this problem--solutions that rise and dissolve like waves. His conclusion is that a belief in "external Authority" (religion) is a necessity but that the achievement of an "internal Authority" (belief in himself) must come first.

Wheelwright tried to achieve this "internal Authority" through two major literary projects. One was a series of poems about Thomas, the "Doubting Apostle" who is supposed to have questioned the resurrection until he was permitted to touch Christ's wounds. The other was the sonnet sequence Mirrors of Venus. He referred to both of these efforts as "novels." This was in part a response to the new conceptions of the novel genre engendered by the literary experiments of' the 1920s. But calling the works novels was also a way of emphasizing that the two groups of poems concerned character development. And in each of these works the main character was actually Wheelwright himself, represented by various personae.

The published sections of the first "novel" include "Twilight" in Rock and Shell and "Morning" in "Dusk to Dusk." These works reflect Wheelwright's study of apocrypha, lost gospels, and other religious materials excluded from the Old and New Testaments. These texts are usually considered to be of questionable authorship and heretical content.

Wheelwright's method is to "correct" the legend of St. Thomas by retelling or paraphrasing it and introducing various changes. In two such changes, Wheelwright presents the argument for sexual chastity as a false and dangerous perversion of Christian thought and contends that upholders of' morality must name the true enemies of humanity, such as hypocrisy and social oppression, more specifically as a preparation for action.

The thirty-five poems that compose Mirrors of Venus: A Novel in Sonnets also invoke a spiritual journey, disclosing contradictory elements in a central figure. (Once more the main character is a Wheelwright persona, here called "Z.") The background of the sonnet sequence is more explicitly Wheelwright's own--the death of his architect father, World War I, the boarding school and Harvard days, bohemian life experienced during visits to New York City in the 1920s, and his religious ordeals.

The stated theme of the sequence is the transitory nature of human friendship. Wheelwright juxtaposes memories of and fantasies about a friend who dies (and whose friendship thereby becomes immortalized) with a narrative about an unidentified friend who lives (but who becomes estranged from the poet). The list of dedications in the "Argument" to the sequence indicates that the friend who died was Ned Couch, a Harvard student who was close to both Wheelwright and S. Foster Damon. Couch was killed in all accident in a training camp during World War I, and the poem suggests that he may have been a pacifist. Wheelwright links Couch with the memory of his own dead father, also called Ned.

The intense experience described in this poem culminates in a repudiation of Wheelwright's belief in an afterlife--startling for all avowed Christian. The sonnet sequence turns to four elegies aimed at discrediting a blind optimism that Wheelwright associates with the romantic poets. He criticizes Shelley in particular for his belief in the immortality of the individual self--a view that fosters a false perception of human existence.

In "Autumn," the third elegy, Wheelwright rejects the analogical proofs of immortality forwarded by the Greeks and others. In "Winter," the last elegy, he concludes that after death the human body is not immortalized at all but is merely a shell, not much different from an inorganic rock. Thus human existence is only a delicate, transitory phase of human nature. The ending is emotional in tone but stoical in perspective, as he rejects his former idealization of his dead friend and father:

Our bold-voluted immortality, fallen
                        Is only rock
--though proud in ruin, piteous in pride—
                        Ned. Ned.
Snow on a dome, blown by night wind.

Wheelwright’s changing outlook was also shown in the way he settled accounts with the suicide and atheistic ideas of Harry Crosby in a poetic obituary that first appeared in Hound and Horn in 1931. Crosby and Wheelwright shared important similarities in their moneyed Brahmin backgrounds, their Episcopalian schooling, and their overlapping periods at Harvard. But they represented two contrasting responses of alienated writers in a world where their cultured family traditions had become superfluous. In Wheelwright's view, Crosby carried out the Henry Adams perspective to its logical conclusion: He broke in disgust from the world of commercial corruption (identified with Boston's State Street in Wheelwright's poem) but saw no alternative social class with which to identify. Instead of forging a new social identity for himself' as an artist, he immersed himself in artistic activity that became increasingly divorced from the real world. ("Crosby tried to live art rather than ... to live for art …" Wheelwright later wrote in a note to the poem.) Wheelwright's poem was titled "To Wise Men on the Death of a Fool." He made it clear, however, that even though he deplored Crosby's philosophy, he sympathized with his rebellion:

State Street, maintain your silence.
His mad impiety is holier than your sane
Infidel doubt....

Still, Wheelwright's only alternative for the Wise men, to save them both from the corruption of State Street and the madness of Crosby, was the vision of classical culture with which he closes the poem:

Magnanimous in bronze, straddling a stallion
Over the Roman capital, diffusing
A green benediction, rides serene Aurelius.

Such writings as the Thomas poems, Mirrors of Venus, and the verse obituary for Crosby show how Wheelwright divested himself of the romantics' Christian belief in an afterlife, as well as of bohemian aestheticism and hedonism. Thus Wheelwright was psychologically and philosophically prepared to assimilate Marxism. He began to do so at the start of the Great Depression, when the working class emerged as it visible agent for effective change. At that time Wheelwright concluded that he had a distinct role as a poet: to assist in the cultural development of the revolutionary movement.

Although he first joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1932, he was not an opponent of Russian Bolshevism. To the contrary, from 1934 on he was openly sympathetic to the ideals of Leon Trotsky. He believed that Trotsky--whom he compares to Prometheus in his poem "Titanic Litany"--sought to continue the age-old struggle to develop humanity to its fullest potential, and that Stalin's triumph over Trotsky represented a retrogression from that goal.

In the Socialist party Wheelwright's main activities centered on education: he was in charge of literature distribution; he gave classes; he was poetry editor of Arise (the Socialist party's cultural journal) and a leading member of the Rebel Arts Society (which was affiliated with the party). But he also participated in demonstrations and was arrested on picket lines; he ran for local office in elections on the Socialist party ticket. he worked in defense of political prisoners and in antiwar organizations of the 1930s.

Wheelwright's several poems against the threat of a second world war indicate that his socialist views were not based on mere sentimental feelings; they stemmed from an understanding of the class basis of war. "You-U.S.-US" is a satire underscoring "the chief difficulty in proletarian revolution, the subservience of the masses to war hysteria. . . ." "Skulls as Drums" is an answer to the Civil War poetry of Walt Whitman, which Wheelwright felt was naive about the nature of the conflict. His philosophic "Train Ride," dedicated to Horace Gregory, uses as its refrain a slogan attributed to the German socialist Karl Liebknecht: "Always the enemy is the foe at home."

Much of Wheelwright's writing in this period defies conventional perceptions of the literary culture of the 1930s. His poems exhibit not only revolutionary fervor but also profound ties to New England culture, an impulsive temperament, self-parodying mannerisms, and an indissoluble technical affinity with the modernism of Pound and Eliot. "You-U.S.-US," for example, is a paradigm of radical modernism in an extreme form. Replete with the techniques of clashing fragmentation, word surprises, abrupt appearances and disappearances of emotions and imaginings, the poem is also bonded to canonical modernism in its attempt to function as a moral adviser to a misguided society.

In this poem Wheelwright also attempted to transform his poetry into a more public instrument. He departed from his style of the 1920s by writing in a virulent tone and colloquial language. Many of his lines are essentially sarcastic parodies of common expressions, children's songs, and advertising slogans, and he refers frequently to familiar Depression scenes (the urban and rural unemployed, industrial working conditions); or to famous political figures (Wilson and Roosevelt). His political ideas are as aggressive as they are lucid.

None of Wheelwright's books were money-making ventures; indeed, he had great difficulty in locating a publisher for his first collection, Rock and Shell, until he worked out an arrangement with Bruce Humphries, a small Boston printer, which obligated Wheelwright to sell a certain number of copies of the book in advance to subscribers. The printing was of only 500 copies. Nevertheless, Rock and Shell was reviewed favorably in numerous publications. Reviewing the book for the New Republic (16 January, 1935), Horace Gregory called Wheelwright "one of the few matured poets in our time," characterizing the book as "an epilogue to the tradition of New England Culture." He suggested that "one has only to remember Jonathan Edwards and to read passages from Emerson, Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, to find the emotional sources of the book."

Several reviewers did complain about the difficulty of the poems; and others failed to recognize the authentic political implications of Wheelwright's idiosyncratic religious stance. However, most reviewers perceived his left-wing sympathies. Morton Dauwen Zabel pronounced Wheelwright one of the three leading revolutionary poets in the Nation (8 December 1934), along with Horace Gregory and Norman MacLeod. Muriel Rukeyser wrote in the New Masses (12 March 1935) that the book "outlines the development of a poet passing from religious preoccupation to activity in the revolutionary movement"; she urged that his work not be "dismissed as confused or confusing." In his review for the August 1934 issue of Poetry R. P. Blackmur cited the balance in which the diverse elements in Rock and Shell are held. Noting that Wheelwright wrote "with a kind of constant fitfulness, requiring of the reader an ability to receive a rapid and tightly bound succession of disparate observation," he concluded that the "impact of mass" is given to "what is usually fragmentary, disjunct, and irreconcilable." This resulted in "tough, squirming, gnostic verse, modified and exhilarated by New England wit and New England eccentricity, and the unique heresy of New England Anglo-Catholicism--and the whole qualified by New England political radicalism."

Four years later when Mirrors of Venus appeared, it was also much admired but even less understood. In the Nation (15 October 1938) Paul Rosenfeld called it a "brainy, realistic, and reserved little book of a true poet who is also a loving friend." Kenneth Patchen wrote in Books and Writers, "It is above all the work of a poet whose gifts are major. . . . When recorders begin the work of sorting the chaff from the wheat, the name of John Wheelwright should find its way to a great many lips." In the New Republic (8 March 1938) Muriel Rukeyser wrote that "John Wheelwright's sonnet sequence is brilliant and sage, full of diagrammed exercises, inventions and variations on the sonnet, and his valid eccentric note." In the Boston Transcript (28 August 1938) Merrill Moore, well-known for his own experiments with sonnets, judged that "complete originality is the outstanding characteristic of Wheelwright's newest book."

However, for a number of reviewers two aspects of' Wheelwright's originality caused perplexity, sometimes provoking hostility. One was his subtitle, "A Novel in Sonnets"; the other was his inclusion of diagrams of the structure of each sonnet. Harry Roskolenko wrote in Voices (20 February 1939) that "Mr. Wheelwright really has written separate sonnets, though he insists that the book is a novel . . ."; and in Commonsense (June 1939) Louis MacNeice complained that Wheelwright "spoiled his book by attaching to every poem rather pedantic or exhibitionist pieces of commentary."

In 1934 Wheelwright initiated a new project called Vanguard Verse, which sponsored the pamphlet series Poems for a Dime and Poems for Two Bits, as well as a correspondence course on "The Form and Content of Rebel Poetry." Assisting Wheelwright in this venture were Kenneth Porter, a Christian socialist poet who later became a historian of' the American frontier, and Sherry Mangan, a friend from the Harvard Poetry Society.

The fourth number of Poems for a Dime, appearing in 1936, was entirely devoted to Wheelwright’s Masque with Clowns, a verse drama that was included in "Dusk to Dusk," a collection published for the first time in Collected Poems (1972). The masque, which describes a national election campaign as though it were a circus, in many ways resembles a play by Bertolt Brecht. For didactic purposes, Wheelwright defamiliarizes his characters and divests them of personal attributes. To underscore the oppression of farmers and workers during the Depression, he clutters the setting (the corner of Milk and Mill Streets) with signs reading "No Help Wanted." He then satirizes existing political parties. The Democrats and Republicans are to be shown as twins, and the Socialist party is mocked as dainty, middle-class, and politically effete.

As Wheelwright continued his study of Marxism, the positions of the Trotskyists became increasingly attractive to him. After the Trotskyists of the Workers party were admitted into the Socialist party in June 1936, Wheelwright joined their caucus. In late 1936 his friend Sherry Mangan also joined the Trotskyist caucus, and the two poets collaborated in cultural activities and in work on behalf of the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky during the Moscow trials. When the Trotskyists were expelled from the Socialist party in the fall of 1937, both poets became founding members of the Socialist Workers party.

As a member of the Boston chapter, Wheelwright continued his literary and educational activities. He also did public speaking on soapboxes. The rebel Brahmin made a rather startling sight with his bowler hat, full-length raccoon coat, and walking stick. Wheelwright was also active in the League for Cultural Freedom and Socialism, an organization of revolutionary writers in the United States inspired by a manifesto signed by Trotsky, surrealist author Andre Breton, and painter Diego Rivera.

In the last two years of his life, Jack Wheelwright's revolutionary imagination reached a high pitch of intellectual and emotional urgency. He blended socialist political activity with poetic creativity to a degree unequaled in American literature. In polemical, political, historical, and topical poems, he forged fresh emotive images worthy of comparison with other unique poetic voices in literary history. His cultural achievements also included participation in numerous political and literary activities radiating from the American Trotskyist movement and the completion of two new books of poetry, one of them published in his lifetime. Although his religious views never fully abated, they retreated to increasingly restricted ground. Hesitant to abandon such long-held commitments, his strategy was to render religion extraneous by burying his faith beneath an elaborate Marxist structure that would eventually stand on its own.

In the last year of his life Wheelwright produced Political Self-Portrail (1940), containing a number of poems that offer insight into his gradual abandonment of Christianity and his ultimate political stance. For example, "The Word is Deed," which was first published in Partisan Review in 1938, is clearly an attempt to reconcile his waning faith in Christ with scientific socialism. Wheelwright argues that Friedrich Engels was incorrect in Anti-Dühring (1878) when he changed St. John's statement to read that the deed preceded the Word. Nevertheless, Wheelwright says, he agreed with Engels that humanity transforms itself through its deeds, and therefore he can share Engels's strategy for liberation.

In addition, Political Self-Portrait shows that Wheelwright felt he had a special obligation to understand and interpret from a revolutionary point of view the culture of New England, his own region. It had now become clear to him that his studies of rebel divines and their theological disputes were to be undertaken for precise political purposes. His intentions were made clear in "Bread-Word Giver," his poem celebrating his radical Puritan ancestor, the Reverend John Wheelwright:

Keep us alive with your ghostly disputation
make our renunciation of dominion
mark not the escape. but the permanent of rebellion.

Wheelwright died under the wheels of a car in the early morning hours of 13 September 1940, at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street in Boston. Later, Kenneth Rexroth wrote that "Dead in his prime like so many other American poets, he was not like most of them, already burned out. No one has ever taken the place of this dynamic, inexhaustible and lovable mind and completely original talent." And it is true that Wheelwright's enchanting personal qualities--a quirky but piercing power of' perception, a wit that shuttled between the mirthful and sardonic, a zealous devotion to principle lightly covered by a veil of capriciousness--remained embedded in a literary achievement that continued to be much admired by a small band of poets and scholars of his generation who pledged themselves to keep his memory alive.

Wheelwright's most significant contributions to American radicalism were his literary strategies for joining poetry and political ideology and his exemplary role as a writer--a culturally independent-minded but politically disciplined catalyst within a working-class movement. His efforts to find a modus vivendi between religion and Marxism produced startling poems and effective organizational concepts for his poetry collections, but his eccentric thinking on this matter seems to confirm the ultimate incompatibility of theological idealism and historical materialism for a serious intellectual. A striking example of Wheelwright's limitations as a theorist is his consistent policy of calling putatively apolitical poetry "nihilist." In contrast to those who correlate this type of writing with the interest of the ruling class, Wheelwright's approach seems less mechanical and sectarian; yet it is indicative of a hesitancy to pursue the issue thoroughly. In my judgment, the achievement of Wheelwright in the 1930s is unfinished, and, because of underlying ideological contradictions, unfinishable. That is why his literary opus was characterized by so many new starts: New England history, masques, revolutionary myth, and Christian-Marxist dialogues. His revolutionary imagination was remarkably ingenious as it sought to triumph over contradictions that may have been ultimately unresolvable at that point in his life.

Austin Warren eulogized him in the concluding chapter of New England Saint (1956): "Wheelwright was a saint, he was also a poet whose books will one day take their rightful place in American poetry and scripture." Reviewing Political Self-Portrait for the New England Quarterly (September 1940), Dudley Fitts praised Wheelwright's "consummate craftsmanship" and wrote that "every line of John Wheelwright's verse confirms his position among the few perfectionists writing English poetry today." Comparing Wheelwright with other left-wing poets of the 1930s, Matthew Josephson judged that "it is Wheelwright's political poetry of that epoch that documents the Depression and New Deal for us better than any of his contemporaries' verses."

Proof of the enduring vitality of his poetry came in 1972 when his Collected Poems was published in one volume by New Directions. Wheelwright was compared favorably with John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, and A. R. Ammons in leading literary journals. Reviewing the volume for the New York Review of Books (22 February 1973), John Malcolm Brinnin observed that because of the relatively small quantity of Wheelwright's work, "He cannot be accorded major status; yet, had he lived to expand the achievement of this volume, he would very likely share rank and status with his close contemporaries Allen Tate, E. E. Cummings and Hart Crane." As recently as 3 June 1979 John Ashbery named Wheelwright's Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review as one of the hundred most important books of Western literature since the end of World War II.


S. Foster Damon and Alvin H. Rosenfeld. "John Wheelright: New England's Colloquy with the World." Southern Review 7 (April 1972): 311-348.

Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946, pp. 347-354.

Matthew Josephson. "Improper Bostonian: John Wheelwright and His Poetry." Southern Review 7 (Spring 1971): 509-541.

Winfield Townley Scott. "John Wheelwright and His Poetry." New Mexico Quarterly 24 (Summer 1954): 178-196.

Alan M. Wald. "From Antinomianism to Revolutionary Marxism: John Wheelwright and the New England Rebel Tradition." Marxist Perspectives no. 10 (Summer 1980): 44-67.

Wald. The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983)

Austin Warren. New England Saints (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1956): pp. 165-178.

Note: This is an expanded version of an essay first published in Peter Quartermain, ed. American Poets, 1880-1945 (Detroit: Gale, 1986), pp. 434-440.

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