John Taylor Wheelwright was born in Milton, Massachusetts, on September 9, 1897, into a socially prominent family. His father, Edmund March (Ned) Wheelwright, a descendant of the eighteenth century minister and political figure John Wheelwright, was a creative architect and freethinker who designed some of Boston’s most remarkable public buildings. John’s mother, Elizabeth (Bessie) Boott Brooks, was a descendant of Peter Chardon Brooks (1767-1849), a prosperous merchant who at one time was called the richest man in New England. As Alan Wald remarked in his book The Revolutionary Imagination (1983), a “blended heritage of saints, traders, political and military leaders, pioneers, and Brahmins profoundly shaped the mind and the art of the poet John Wheelwright.”
From his father’s side, Wheelwright acquired intellectual curiosity and a penchant for rebellion. His father’s suicide, two years after a mental and emotional breakdown, created a spiritual crisis for the teenage John, who was provided guidance by his teachers at St. George’s preparatory school in Rhode Island. Seeking solace in religious thought, Wheelwright at one point considered entering the priesthood and believed the role of the poet to be similar to that of the priest.
Wheelwright remained profoundly religious throughout his short life, rejecting his parents’ Unitarianism for the Anglican Church. In the 1930’s, he adopted a socialism whose idealism...
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