John Wheelwright Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Upon his death in 1940, an obituary in Time magazine described John Wheelwright as “one of the most famous unheard-of poets in the U.S.” As well as being a poet, however, Wheelwright was a militant in the realm of socialist theory and practice who wrote numerous essays for periodicals such as the Partisan Review and The New Republic. He was also the author of speeches on contemporary political events and issues, which he delivered from soapboxes in public settings in and around Boston.

The themes Wheelwright explored in his prose writing included his views on poetry, architecture, and developments in socialist politics in the United States. The highly literate and cultured writer also saw the possibilities of radio as a powerful vehicle for poetry and made extensive use of the medium in broadcasts in the Boston area.

John Wheelwright Achievements

(Poets and Poetry in America)

John Wheelwright is an uncommon case of a poet whose political activities, commitments, and ideals find coherent, organic, and fresh expression in verse. Wheelwright’s complex, rich background combined a rebellious, iconoclastic streak inherited from his ancestor John Wheelwright (1592-1679), an antinomian who founded settlements in New England, and a classicist education based on the Bible and Latin and Greek philosophy and literature. This background, together with vigorous reading and a committed practice of socialist principles, makes for a poet whose work is often didactic. “The main point,” wrote Wheelwright “is not what noise poetry makes, but how it makes you think and act—not what you make of it, but what it makes of you.”

Wheelwright wrote “revolutionary poetry” that was a sophisticated expression of the spirit of euphoric optimism of the 1920’s and the social upheaval that marked the 1930’s. As a public figure, Wheelwright had an important impact on intellectuals and workers of his time and extended the New England freethinking tradition of such figures as Thomas Paine, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.

John Wheelwright Bibliography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ashbery, John. Other Traditions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Wheelwright is considered alongside fellow writers John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, Laura Riding, and David Schubert in this publication of a Charles Eliot Norton Lecture delivered by Ashbery at Harvard in 1989. Ashbery shares many similarities with Wheelwright, and he celebrates the poet’s eccentricities and the richness of possible interpretations of his work.

Damon, S. Foster, and Alvin H. Rosenfeld. “John Wheelwright: New England’s Colloquy with the World.” Southern Review 7 (April, 1972): 311-348. “Wheelwright’s writing remains largely ignored. Both the man and his work clearly stand in need of being reintroduced,” write the authors, who go on to show how Wheelwright is a poet of “intense imagination and strong critical intelligence.” This essay provides an excellent critical overview of Wheelwright’s activities as a writer, editor, and social activist and provides some glimpses into the family history and personal psychology of the poet.

Gregory, Horace, and Marya Zaturensak. A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946. Written shortly after Wheelwright’s death, this book contains a chapter on the 1920’s, in the context of which Wheelwright’s poetry is considered. Close...

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