Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Sitting at the fulcrum of Wright’s poetic career, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is in many ways a compendium of Wright’s major themes and concerns. Many of his poems are an attempt, by a mature and contemplative adult, to come to terms with the perceived horror of his American Gothic upbringing in a small Midwestern steel town. The “Polacks,” the “Negroes,” and the “ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel” who appear in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” are typical of the characters that populate Wright’s industrial wasteland. His poems are littered with drunks, hobos, and murderers; his concern with the suffering of the derelict, the dispossessed, and the victim is clear. Also clear are Wright’s feelings of guilt for not staying to suffer with them, his essential alienation from these characters and the environment in which they continue to live. While the men of “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” are “Dreaming of heroes” and the women are “Dying for love,” the poet sits in the football stadium and says, “I think.” It is his penchant for thinking, and then writing poetry about what he thinks, which both isolates Wright from his background and ties him to it. Wright is one of the most regional of American poets, and this has contributed to both the strength and the narrowness of his poetic vision.
Wright certainly is not the first writer to mine this particular thematic vein: investigation of the predicament of society’s outcasts, the outlaws and the orphans, the lepers and the debtors. Charles Dickens did it with more anger; Walt Whitman did it with more gusto; D. H. Lawrence did it with more sensuality; Thomas Hardy did it with more irony—but certainly no modern author has done it with more authenticity and sincerity than James Wright.