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"Plantation Drouth" in Context


Alan Wald

Rock and Shell [which includes "Plantation Drouth] is structured as a spiritual autobiography. This type of literature evolved in New England from literary attempts to trace the progress of the conversion experience in order to assist in the discovery of one's prospects of salvation. Edmund S. Morgan wrote that the consequence of such explorations was to "establish a morphology of conversion, in which each stage could be distinguished from the next, so that a man could check his external condition by a set of temporal and recognizable signs." Wheelwright's spiritual autobiography bears an ironic relation to this tradition.

When he wrote that "all Rock and Shell is religious," he also clarified that the religion was heretical; consequently, when he next wrote that the religious concepts in the book are "traditional," it must be understood that they originate from traditions that have been strikingly transformed. Thus, as a spiritual autobiography, Rock and Shell is as heretical in the direction of its movement as his religious views are in their underlying assumptions. Instead of traveling inward to a scrutiny of the self, Rock and Shell journeys outward to an understanding of society. Furthermore, the Ramist logic he employs in his counterposition of opposites becomes transformed into a Hegelian dialectic as contradictions become the source of progression and then of leaps and transformations. Finally, his jeremiads on the deterioration of New England society also depart from the traditional perspective. Instead of calling for a reinstatement of the tranquillity of earlier days, Wheelwright's jeremiads point forward to a revolutionary overthrow of the present social order.

The only feature of his thought that he seems to have appropriated unchanged from his Puritan predecessors is his argument that faith requires doubt, a traditional belief of the Puritan divines. The surest mark of election was sometimes said to be uncertainty, as in the following Puritan text: "The faithful have not yet this assurance so perfect, but they are oft troubled with doubts and feares. . . . But they that have this false assurance are most confident, and never have any doubts." Morgan argues that the Puritan preachers were constantly transmitting the message that "in order to be sure one must be unsure . . . the surest earthly sign of a saint was his uncertainty." Since saving faith was "distinguished by doubt and subjected to continual combat with despair," it was necessary for the Puritan to be fully alert in order to recognize it; he "assisted himself by constant self-examination, frequently in writing."

Rock and Shell documents Wheelwright's prolonged "conversion experience" between 1923 and 1933 (the official dates of the poems used in the book). It is dedicated to three women: his mother, a link to the New England past; his Aunt Dolly, a link to culture and the arts; and his sister Louise, a link to S. Foster Damon, her husband and Jack's literary mentor. He depicts a morphology of conversion that passes through six distinct phases, each signified by a key poem placed at the turning points. For example, he begins with a review of his evolution in the 1920s. The first phase is the rejection of both quietistic self-absorption and institutionalized religion, indicated by "North Atlantic Passage." The second is the recognition of the interrelationship of doubt and faith, indicated by "Forty Days." But the third phase signifies his leap into the world of social class and economic realities, evidenced in the poems "Paul and Virginia" and "Plantation Drouth."

On the surface, "Paul and Virginia" is a lament for the disappearance of the Brooks's family garden in West Medford, which fell victim to industrial expansion in the twentieth century. Its first stanza reads:

Nephews and Nieces,--love your leaden statues.
Call them by name; call him "Paul." She is "Virginia."
He leans on his spade. Virginia fondles a leaden
fledgling in its nest. Paul fondles with his Eyes.
You need no cast in words. You know the Statues,
but not their Lawns; nor words to plant again
the shade trees, felled; ponds, filled, and built over.
Your Garden is destroyed, but there are other Gardens
yet to spare from the destroying Spoor
unseen, save in destructful Acts. Unseen
a hungered octopus crawls under ground
as Fungus; eats the air as Orchids on all trees;
and on all waters spreads translucent Slime.
Nephews and Nieces, who would breathe sweet Air
and till rich Ground, spy out against its suction;
wither these spreading tentacles, these roots
and radicals of cancerous Greed.

Once more Wheelwright assumes the voice of command, as if addressing a public audience; this poem is probably intended for future generations because the dedication is "For My Brother's Children." One literary allusion may not be immediately apparent: the statues saved from the garden to commemorate the beauty that once was are named "Paul" and "Virginia" after the hero and heroine in Amy Lowell's poem "The Statue in the Garden." But his depiction of a destroyed Eden is a familiar Biblical reference, and the choice of the octopus to represent industrial capitalism echoes the title of the popular novel by Frank Norris. Still, the metaphor of the octopus crawling under ground is difficult to visualize and perhaps not wholly convincing, although the idea that Wheelwright wishes to communicate by this is not a simple one. Capitalism mystifies its operations and obscures its multifaceted role as a destroyer, parasite, pollutant, and generator of human greed.

From the economic malaise of the North, Wheelwright moves south in "Plantation Drouth." This was written when he visited the family home of his prep school and college friend, Benjamin Kittridge, Jr., near Charleston, South Carolina.

[ . . . . ]

This grim pastoral is typical of depression literature in its imagery of economic decay and social stagnation. It contains less public rhetoric than that in "Gestures to the Dead" and "Paul and Virginia," but the voice is clear and speaks purposefully. There is economy in the exactness of its language, although no displacement or fragmentation. The atmosphere of the poem is ominously prophetic as the poet surveys the economic wasteland of the South. Diabolical allusions constitute one source of its menacing tone--the sulfurous environment of smoldering cedar and smoking fields, the goat depicted as a "horned beast."

Considering that Wheelwright was a man of religious temperament, one is struck by the overwhelming materiality of the poem. Dry powdery dust, stirred by the black worker plowing the fields, floats upward and mars the heavens; the result is the impotence of the "dry boom." Even the goat perceives the hoax; thunder will not bring rain. (The goat and dry thunder may allude to Eliot’s "Gerontion" and The Waste Land.) Human beings are shown to be more dependent on earthly bread than heavenly sustenance and become bleeding cedars with whom the swamp is "peopled." The poem itself assumes the shape of a damaged tree, although the uninterrupted series of lines also imparts a sense of the unending monotony of economic depression.

With these designations of the national plight, Wheelwright enters the fourth phase of Rock and Shell. He issues a call for revolutionary political action in "The Huntsman":

My cartridge belt is empty.
I have killed no beasts.
I have one bullet.
Can we; with untrembled pistol
when a serpent clasps a child;
send the bullet through the serpent
past the small head of the child?
Be not disconsolate if the bullet
pierce both child and serpent.
A trembled pistol spares the serpent
to kill the child.
Throw the empty belt away.
Take the pistol.
Shoot.

The rhetoric of command is partly subverted by the enigmatic symbolism of the inexperienced hunter's dilemma, thereby creating a problematic mood. Yet once the allegorical significance of certain words is revealed, the meaning of the poem is lucid. Six years later he glossed his key terms in the "Argument" to another poem: "serpent--Capitalism; child-Culture; bullet-Revolution." Thus "The Huntsman" addresses the relation of culture to revolutionary action and is appropriately dedicated to Hound and Horn editor Lincoln Kirstein. It depicts a hunter who has only one bullet (revolution). Before him stands a serpent (capitalism) with a child (culture) in its coils. The poet, who provides political guidance, warns the hunter against indecisiveness out of fear that the bullet may strike both serpent and child, because the consequences of inaction are guaranteed to be fatal. "The Huntsman" provides a useful variant on Wheelwright's strategy for making his poetry more accessible. If the poem itself is hermetic, the gloss he eventually provides is reductive; between extremes of complexity and simplicity, a tension is established that affords the possibility of the poem being understood while retaining its modernist features.

From The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan. Copyright 1983 by The University of North Carolina Press.


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