Like many of James Wright’s poems, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is an autobiographical account of an occurrence in Wright’s hometown in southeastern Ohio. It was published in the 1963 collection The Branch Will Not Break, a book which came to mark a turning point in the poet’s writing style, moving him from formal, rhyming patterns to a more lyrical free verse. This poem highlights a subject consistent in Wright’s work, namely the distressing and pitiable lives of many working class Americans who struggled through the Great Depression of the 1930s and whose descendants still struggle today.
The setting for “Autumn Begins” is a typical Friday night high school football game with most of the players’ fathers watching from the stands. The narrator of the poem, presumably Wright himself, concentrates more on the men than on the game, depicting them as miserable factory workers who drink too much and can only dream of the heroes they will never be. Their wives are described as “starved pullets / Dying for love,” essentially a comment on the husbands themselves who are incapable of or uninterested in intimacy. The brief mention of the boys playing football is also a reflection on the fathers. By watching the violent game, the men imagine that they too are virile and strong, but all the while, they must live their fantasy lives through the lives of their young sons.
This poem is both a portrayal of the way a depleted social environment can also diminish people’s spirits and an illustration of the crudeness and violence that Americans have come to think of as acceptable and normal. Throughout his life, James Wright experienced love-hate relationships with his hometown, his state, and his country. The poetry he wrote reflects heavily on those struggles, and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” captures a moment on the negative side.