William Inge: Small Town America On Stage

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The name William Inge probably isn’t recognizable to many, but serious classic movie buffs—the kind of folks who log long hours watching movies on TCM or AMC—are probably familiar with movies based on his plays. Inge was one of the most popular and successful American playwrights of the 1950s, and four of his plays were adapted for the screen, with each one featuring well-known stars in lead roles. These include Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth; Picnic (1955), with William Holden and Kim Novak; Bus Stop (1956), with Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray; and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs ( 1960) with Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire. Inge’s last great success was with the story and screenplay for Splendor In The Grass (1961), starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. Inge won the Academy Award for his screenplay for Splendor In The Grass. All of these films except for Bus Stop are set in the Midwest.

William Inge

William Inge

William Motter Inge was born in Independence, Kansas on May 3, 1913. His father, a salesman, was often gone from home, and Inge grew up largely in the presence of women, including not only his mother and sisters but also an aunt, who were all outgoing and talkative. His mother was doting and overprotective, and Inge was a shy and introspective boy who was drawn to the theater and who, according to R. Baird Shuman in his Twayne’s study of Inge, “became a good listener, a shrew judge of people and their speech patterns, and a perceptive observer of middle-class hypocrisy. These qualities, established early, served him well when he began to write plays.”

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in "Splendor In The Grass."

Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in “Splendor In The Grass.”

Inge became active in theater in high school and also liked to perform recitations for local groups. Inge entered the University of Kansas in 1930 with majors in speech and drama and plans of becoming an actor. He performed in college plays and acted during two of the summers between semesters and actually left college for a year to perform with a touring company. After graduation he went to Culver Military Academy in Indiana with a plan to teach there a while and earn some money to support himself for a future move to New York.

Shirley Booth in the film version of "Come Back, Little Sheba"--an incredible performance. (Photo: classicmoviesblogspot.com)

Shirley Booth in the film version of “Come Back, Little Sheba”–an incredible performance. (Photo: classicmoviesblogspot.com)

The onset of the Depression made Inge change his plans. He was offered a scholarship to the George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, Tennessee and went there to complete a master’s in English. Inge eventually completed his degree after some time working on a Kansas road gang and stints as a radio announcer and high school teacher. He then joined the staff of Stephens Women’s College in Columbia, Missouri as an English and drama instructor. There Inge worked alongside the legendary stage actress Maude Adams, head of the college’s drama department. Inge changed jobs once again in 1943. When Reed Hynds, drama critic for the St. Louis Star-Times was drafted, Inge was hired to take his place for the duration of Hynds’ service.

Postwar steaminess: William Holden and Kim Novak in a publicity still for "Picnic."

Postwar steaminess: William Holden and Kim Novak in a publicity still for “Picnic.”

Inge proved to be a natural at the job, and one day decided to do a feature story on a playwright with local connections who was on his way up in the theater world: Tennessee Williams. Inge and Williams met and got along right away (and had a short-lived love affair as well). Inge saw the opening of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in Chicago in 1944 before it went to New York to open on Broadway and was powerfully impressed, believing it not only the finest play he had ever seen, but also realizing that everyday people and situations like the ones he knew from his own life could form the basis for powerful dramatic art. Inge began to write plays. He returned to teaching after his service on the newspaper ended, this time at Washington University, but was determined to succeed as a dramatist.

Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe in the film version of "Bus Stop."

Don Murray and Marilyn Monroe in the film version of “Bus Stop.”

He was soon on his way. An unpublished short story Inge had written earlier became Come Back, Little Sheba, the story of the once happy but now troubled couple Doc and Lola Delaney. The play opened on Broadway with Sidney Blackmer and Shirley Booth as Doc and Lola, and Booth would reprise her role in the film version. Inge’s three other best known plays followed: Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, each one eventually adapted for the screen. Inge won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1953 for his play Picnic. This play also earned him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Donaldson Award. The Donaldson was an earlier prestigious theater prize that fell by the wayside after the rise of the Tony Awards.

But by the end of the 1950s, Inge’s star had begun to fade. His play A Loss of Roses, later made into the move The Stripper (1963) with Joanne Woodward, flopped on stage. Inge had one last success in film with the screenplay for Splendor In The Grass, but other plays of his in the 1960s met with disappointing critical and audience response. By the early Seventies, Inge focused on writing fiction, completing two novels: Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1970) and My Son Is a Splendid Driver (1971).

Timmy Everett, Eileen Heckard, and Frank Overton in a Broadway production of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs."

Timmy Everett, Eileen Heckard, and Frank Overton in a Broadway production of “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”

A man who had long suffered from alcoholism, depression, and self doubt, along with anxiety about his homosexuality, Inge finally reached a breaking point and committed suicide on June 10, 1973.

Inge deserves to better known. His work explored the themes of isolation, loneliness, and people in conflict who recognize their obligations to one another and learn to accept limits and compromises in their lives. His work marvelously evokes the Midwest, particularly the Midwest of the 1920s. Although the features of small town life and provincial society that can be oppressive or destructive are a part of Inge’s work, I would have to agree with the scholar Michael Wentworth that Inge “downplays the small-town setting as a primary and exclusive psychological determinant but focuses rather upon his characters’ capacity for for personal growth and maturation in such a setting.”

Inge’s papers are housed at the Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas, which hosts an annual William Inge Theater Festival. Buckeyemuse is a long-term proposition, so there will be more about Inge and his various works down the road.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

William Inge (Revised Edition) by R. Baird Shuman, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1989.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Entry on William Inge by Michael Wentworth. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Phillip Leininger. Entry on William Inge by Sam Smiley. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.

America’s Most Famous “Football Poem”: James Wright’s “Autumn Begins In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio”

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It begins in August, in the dog days of summer, when the scent of cut grass, blistered from lack of rain, hovers in the air. Weeks before the school doors open for a new year, the football players are at school, early in the morning, dressing silently in their gear for the first of the often dreaded “two a days” practice—one in the morning, one in the afternoon. Football in the Midwest is played in a time of crisp days and bright leaves, but it is in August, the last full month of summer, when the high school football season begins in Ohio and across much of the United States. Soon enough, though, there’s a winy snap in the air and the green leaves of summer don their autumn colors. Now is the time for football.

One of the gritty photos of a lineman's gloved hands that appeared in the Life Magazine story on Martin's Ferry football in the early 1960s. Photo: LIfe Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics

One of the gritty photos of a lineman’s gloved hands that appeared in a Life Magazine story on football in Martin’s Ferry and surrounding communities in November of 1962. The feature became infamous in the region. Note the gaping wound on his forearm. Playing with pain was expected–back then and in my own time later in the 1980s.  Photo: Life Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics

Ohio is a football hotbed in the United States. Neighboring states Indiana and Kentucky are known more for basketball, but in Ohio football is the game that rules. The professional game was born in Canton, Ohio, and the state is home to one of the most legendary college traditions of all: the Ohio State Buckeyes, currently coached by Ohio native and University of Cincinnati graduate Urban Meyer. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio is known as “The Cradle of Coaches” for all of the distinguished coaches who have worked there, a list which includes native Ohioans Woody Hayes, Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, and Paul Brown, along with other legends like Sid Gillman, Earl Blaik, and Weeb Ewbank. Ohio has numerous robust high school programs, some of them with traditions reaching back nearly a century.

Coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State University.

Coach Woody Hayes of Ohio State University.

If baseball is a fundamentally pastoral sport evoking nineteenth century rural America, then football reflects the industrial America of the twentieth century. Outside of the college tradition, football has strong associations with rugged industrial cities such as Green Bay, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. Some of the first professional teams were located in Canton, Ohio, Duluth, Minnesota and Rochester, New York. Many of the first professional football players were men who worked in mines, factories, and mills. The game’s warlike nature, the heavy padding and protective gear and intense physical contact are worlds away from the comparatively quiet and low-key world of baseball.

Coach Ara Parseghian at center with Northwestern coaching staff in 1956.

Coach Ara Parseghian at center with Northwestern coaching staff in 1956.

So it seems appropriate given the game’s connection to industry and the Buckeye State that what is likely the most famous serious poem concerning football was written by James Wright of Martins Ferry. The poem is “Autumn Begins In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio.” (The town has since eliminated the apostrophe in its name). On one hand it is “about” football, but there is much more to it than that. It is in large part about a community, about a community within the cycles of nature, and the the lives and even the bodies of some of its inhabitants. It is a poem about a place by one who was born in the town and grew up there. And because it is about an actual place, and portrays it in a way that can be considered unflattering, or at least takes a look at realities that are elements of the human condition anywhere, it is part of a larger tradition within American writing–that of the writer evoking his home place in ways his neighbors might find problematic at best and aggravating or  infuriating at worst. The native son or daughter who casts a jaundiced eye at the old home town, who describes the underside of life in that place or examines troubling aspects of human nature where some see only decent citizens leading virtuous lives isn’t going to please the local boosters.

James Wright

James Wright

On the other hand, such a work can also be one-sided or distorted, and when the work in question becomes associated with a particular place, and impresses itself upon the minds of others in a negative fashion, especially when the image attaches itself to the place and perpetuates itself through time, the claims of those who find injustice in it should be respected and heard. One story alone cannot convey all the dimensions that make up a community. I find it staggering to consider that thousands of readers have encountered this poem, and they likely finish it with a particular view of Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. That may not mean much to us, but for those in Martins Ferry it must be odd to think that so many have heard of their town through this poem and experience a particular take on its citizens. This issue will be addressed towards the end of this essay.

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells

Martin’s Ferry, which was the earliest pioneer settlement in Ohio, is in eastern Ohio’s rugged Belmont County near the West Virginia border. The land is wooded and hilly. The city sits along the Ohio River in the midst of a surrounding rural landscape. At one time the town hummed with multiple shifts working the steel mills, glass factories, and coal mines. A tough, blue-collar kind of town. And like a lot of other blue-collar towns, the community suffered when the mills and factories closed or moved elsewhere, and population dwindled. There are other communities nearby and across the river in West Virginia of a similar nature. Martins Ferry and the surrounding region are well known for producing excellent athletes. The area has been featured in a somewhat infamous piece (for local residents anyway) in Life Magazine in 1962 and later by Sports Illustrated in 1988 (both articles are linked at the conclusion of this post).

Photos from the Life Magazine article on Martin's Ferry football in 196x. Photo: Life Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics

Photos from the Life Magazine article on Martin’s Ferry football in 1962. Photo: Life Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics

But the city holds its own. And football is as important as it was in Wright’s time. The city produced two famous athletes who were brothers. Lou Groza became a famous member of the Cleveland Browns. His brother Alex was an outstanding basketball player at the University of Kentucky and with the Indianapolis Olympians, an early NBA team. Two other athletic brothers who grew up near Martins Ferry are Phil and Joe Niekro, knuckleball pitchers who played major league baseball from the 1960s through the 1980s. Many successful athletes have come from these industrial valleys of eastern Ohio. James Wright grew up in Martins Ferry, the son of a man who worked fifty years in one of the glass factories.

Lou Groza of the Cleveland Browns. Lou Groza - Cleveland Browns - File Photos (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

Lou Groza of the Cleveland Browns. Lou Groza – Cleveland Browns – File Photos (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

Wright was born in 1927, graduated from Charles R. Shreve High School, and served in the U.S. Army on Occupation duty in Japan after the war. When he returned to the states, he entered college and earned degrees in literature, eventually becoming one of the most noted American poets of the twentieth century and a Pulitzer Prize winner. “Autumn Begins In Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” has been repeatedly anthologized and is likely the best known serious poem concerning football in American literature. Wright isn’t the only famous author to emerge from Martins Ferry. William Dean Howells, noted novelist, critic, and editor, who was known as the “Dean of American Letters” in the late 1800s and well into the twentieth century (and who is long overdue to be featured more on this blog), was born in Martins Ferry in 1837.

For the purposes of this post, I have avoided looking at critical treatments of this poem, offering only my own thoughts, which I suspect are probably not especially original in regard to the poem itself, which has attracted critical attention through the years. Most of the material I have read for this piece has been background material on Martins Ferry and its athletes. I did find it interesting to learn from a Ohio football website called “Eleven Warriors” that the poem is used as the basis for a sophomore English project at the Martins Ferry High School. I would be interested to hear from any students, teachers or residents about their responses to the poem.

Alex Groza

Alex Groza

I’ve been asking myself why this poem is so memorable, and why it is so often anthologized. One answer would seem to be its accessibility. The poem is written in plain and direct language, offering a series of discrete and striking images. It evokes a landscape and the people. It is short, having only thirteen lines.

Here is the poem:

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at
Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman at Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Therefore,
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

As I read this I am struck anew by how an entire world can be summoned in a handful of lines. There is a speaker in the poem. Whether we take it to be Wright or a persona of his, I picture a man. He is inside the stadium. Perhaps he is there alone, reminiscing, or present at a game, and the men around him evoke the men he describes in the poem.

The casual references to Polacks, Tiltonsville, Benwood, and Wheeling Steel indicate he knows the area. It is autumn. The Polacks, the Negroes, and the damaged night watchman—perhaps an injured workingman now unable to perform heavy labor, or one of old age whose body is damaged by time and work—constitute a fraternity of the broken and battered. The portrait of broken men, physically and emotionally, stands in contrast to the vitality of the football field. On one hand, this is a world of physical intensity: men working physically demanding jobs; men hunting and fishing on the weekends; boys playing football. But opposed to this is the world of bodily damage.

Photos from the LIfe Magazine story on Martin's Ferry football.

Photos from the Life Magazine story on Martin’s Ferry football.

Despite differences of race and ethnicity, they are bound together by the world of hard work (the Polacks are almost certainly workingmen as well, perhaps at a tavern after a long shift), and they are all “dreaming of heroes.” There is a sense here that the dream of heroes has been with them a long time—maybe they dreamed of being such as young men, and were for a while in their own playing days. Now they have their places in the factories, foundries, and mills, but still carry a dream for their own sons on the playing field, and live their own youth again through them. The images of grayness, of joyless drinking, and rupture—the Polacks nurse their beers, perhaps because they have little money to spend, or are reluctant to head home—suggest their best days are past.

An example of American industry; Bethlehem Steel around 1896.

An example of American industry: Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania around 1896.

There are many dimensions to this poem. It touches on mortality, lost youth, undying dreams, youth’s promise, the relations between fathers and sons, the meaning of community—and relations among men and women. It conveys a sense of both a community and the interior lives of its people.

The fathers are “ashamed to go home.” Why are they ashamed? This line comes immediately after we learn they are dreaming of heroes. All of them—whether men in a bar, men on the job, or a man walking his solitary beat through Wheeling Steel—carry this dream. But the men feel the distance between their dreams and their reality when they return home. Perhaps they are haunted by their dreams of youth as well as a grim understanding of their own mortality. There the women wait, “clucking like pullets, starved for love.”

The Martins Ferry football field in recent years. (Photo: Eleven Warriors).

The Martins Ferry football field in recent years. (Photo: Eleven Warriors).

The image of the pullet and the men’s reluctance to go home may at first blush suggest the hen-pecked husband—the man badgered and hectored by his wife. But these women are desperate for love, and the word “pullet” to me is suggestive. A pullet is a very young female chicken, generally defined as under one year of age. The word is sometimes used to indicate not only a young female chicken, but one who has not had her first molt or begun to lay eggs—a chicken who is adolescent.

So the word implies the women are still young, or are compared to younger women. But they are also the women who gave birth to the sons who will “gallop terribly” against one another—boys of high school age. In this culture, particularly from the early to mid twentieth century, many of these women would have married around eighteen years of age, not long after high school–some earlier; some a little later. Many of them may be only in their early or mid thirties.

Mrs. Groza, mother of Lou and Alex, as featured in the Life Magazine story. At left, industrial workers in the town.

Mrs. Groza, mother of Lou and Alex, as featured in the Life Magazine story. At left, industrial workers in the town.

And the word “pullet” suggests not only youth, but a sense of callowness, under-development, or stasis. They have stopped growing. Despite the passages and trials of motherhood and marriage, they are stunted within this industrial culture, lacking opportunities for greater emotional fulfillment and personal growth. The men are distant and absent, turned away from the home, and the women ache for love and fulfillment. The women are physically older, but trapped at an earlier stage of life. Both men and women are warped, reduced only to their roles in this society.

A pullet. The simile connecting the workers' wives to clucking pullets is one of Wright's most striking images in the poem. (Photo: Linda N. on Wikipedia commons via Flickr).

A pullet. The simile connecting the workers’ wives to clucking pullets is one of Wright’s most striking images in the poem. (Photo: Linda N. on Wikipedia commons via Flickr).

Then comes a turning point crucial to the poem. The third stanza begins with the adverb “therefore,” indicating that what is written next occurs because of the world summoned in earlier lines. Because of the unloved women, the fathers’ dreams of heroes, as well as the cyclical coming of autumn to this world, the boys become “suicidally beautiful” and “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” The reference to the boys contains the second animal motif following the pullet simile—the boys are like horses that “gallop terribly.” The verb “gallop” is strikingly appropriate, summoning the sound of cleating feet pounding the hard earth and bodies slamming into one another, but also the long striding legs of agile running backs.

It’s worth noting what is not in this poem so we see more clearly what it does concern. It “involves” football, but there are no bonfires, homecoming games or parades, no dramatic plunges over the goal line or barely-caught passes. No hot chocolate, pretty cheerleaders, roaring crowds, or pep rallies. All of the romantic trappings are absent. The only mention of the game is in the last few lines. And if anything, there is an overall impression of grimness and loneliness in the poem. So what ultimately does this poem say about the game?

Cheerleaders from Greenhills Junior-Senior High School in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. Wright's poem is absent of cheerleaders, pep rallies and other elements that are part of football's pageantry. Incidentally, the cheerleader at lower left in the front row is Patty Rebholz, murdered in 1963 in one of Cincinnati's most notorious murder cases. Author's photo from the 1962 Greenhills yearbook.

Cheerleaders from Greenhills Junior-Senior High School in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. Wright’s poem is absent of cheerleaders, pep rallies and other elements that are part of football’s pageantry. Incidentally, the cheerleader at lower left in the front row is Patty Rebholz, murdered in 1963 in one of Cincinnati’s most notorious murder cases. Author’s photo from the 1962 Greenhills yearbook.

For the people of this town, football is a ritual that binds them together. They turn their eyes away from their own lives to lose themselves in the action on the field. Here is escape from harsh factory conditions, stale marriages, and dead-end taverns. Here is youth in all its glory, its physical vitality. Here is drama, color, and motion. The fans can lose themselves for a while in the competition, and feel part of something bigger than themselves. There may be here a sense of community inaccessible to them in their workaday lives. The sense of solidarity and community pride in small towns engendered by local teams is a long-standing part of the American social landscape. The Friday night game is also a ritual with its own attendant ceremonies and procedures. Comfort and familiarity are there.

Buckeye fervor: Ohio State decoration at Woody's Tavern in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Buckeye fervor: Ohio State decoration at Woody’s Tavern in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

And then there are the “suicidally beautiful” players. Martin’s Ferry, like any other American community, has tough kids who love the game of football and can’t get enough of it. Yet Wright sees desperation in their play—suicidal beauty implies self-annihilation, even if there is a wild grace in it—and behind this fierce play exist all the elements of alienation and frustration that have taken full root in the lives of their parents and other adults. Remember the adverb “therefore” in this poem. There is a connection between the violence on the gridiron and the lives of their elders—the fathers who are ashamed and the women yearning for love. Here is a time for boys to be heroes, for their fathers know what waits down the road. Perhaps the boys know as well, if only subconsciously, for if their play is suicidal in nature, it indicates a desire to escape what is around them, and what will settle more heavily onto their lives in the years to come.

Pep rally in Greenhills, Ohio. Autumn, 1964. (Author's photo of Greenhills High yearbook page(.

Pep rally in Greenhills, Ohio. Autumn, 1964. (Author’s photo of Greenhills High yearbook page).

Like the cyclical return of autumn, a seasonal pattern is established as they play the game their fathers played while the mills and mines lie in their future, unless they escape the town via the game itself or some other means—such as the military or a college education. While they possess the power and vigor of young men, competing on the gridiron in the brisk October evenings, they inhabit a physical and masculine world that holds the potential for serious damage to the body—it is possible they will one day be ruptured night watchmen, or men drinking either alone or in company with other ex-athletes in the taverns of Tiltonsville, ending their days not in the peace of their beds but in hospital wards, dying from years of cigarettes, alcohol, and the countless variety of toxic fumes and particles from years in foundry or mill.

My great grandfather Jack Kerin, in the center of this photo, immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1870s. He ended his days in Mount Vernon, Ohio as a "ruptured night watchman. (Family photo)

My great grandfather Jack Kerin, in the center of this photo, immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1870s. He ended his days in Mount Vernon, Ohio as a “ruptured night watchman.” At upper left is my great Uncle Tom Kerin holding my Aunt Mary, and the man at far right is my grandfather John Kerin. My father is at lower left next to my Uncle Chuck. All three men in this photo worked in the heavy industry of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Photo circa 1926.  (Family photo)

But there are pleasures as well. For this short time in their lives, they know an intensity of experience on the football field: the excitement of competition, the pursuit of unambiguous goals (the simple victory of a touchdown), the solidarity of teamwork, the sheer physical joy of the game—and as anyone who has played the game knows, there is a deep visceral satisfaction in making a good tackle or executing a successful block. They gallop fiercely against each other because you’re supposed to hit and hit hard, and all the frustration of school and adolescent turmoil can be purged, if only briefly, on the field when you knock someone else into the turf.

"Screw Michigan" display at Woody's Tavern in Wapakoneta, Ohio. One of the great college football rivalries in the United States.

“Screw Michigan” display at Woody’s Tavern in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Michigan and Ohio State– one of the great college football rivalries in the United States.

For the millions of children who grew up in America all these decades hearing about the “American Dream,” who were told they could be “anything they want to be,” and who believed, and found some level of success and satisfaction, there have been, and there are today, many others who early on in life saw that success was not so assured, or that their lives were laid out for them in patterns already well worn by those before them. The notion of “upward mobility” is something for others, not for them, unless you found some way out. But the way out also means a kind of loss, for you leave behind all you know and all you were, and there are those left behind, and often a gulf between you and them.

Photo from Life Magazine story on Martins Ferry (Photo: LIfe Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics).

Photo from Life Magazine story on Martins Ferry. This features a photo of the Bellaire, Ohio team—probably the players in the dark jerseys–at a game in their stadium built by the WPA in 1933.  (Photo: Life Magazine/Ohio Valley Athletics).

For thousands of young American men, and now for young women as well, sports have been a ticket out of the ghetto, the small town, the isolated farming community. The chance to earn a college scholarship and obtain a higher education, even if the professional scouts never came calling, has been a path to a different future. For others, the actual chance of being a pro athlete meant a shot at glory that was irresistible. Lou Groza is a prime example of the mill town boy who left a town like Martin’s Ferry behind. But at that high level of competition there is a complicated maze of chance, competition, and economic determinism—are you worth money to the team?—that bedevils an athlete. For those who make it to that level, there is the reality as well that one day the cheering will end. American literary and cinematic culture has no shortage of stories of washed-up sports heroes, or men who face the end of their playing days with their dreams long behind them.

Dennis Quaid and John Goodman in the 1988 film "Everybody's All American," based on the novel by Frank DeFord. Quaid is a college hero who makes it to the pros, but finds play at the professional level far different from college, and then has to deal with life later on----after the cheering has stopped. (Photo: Allmovie)

Dennis Quaid and John Goodman in the 1988 film “Everybody’s All American,” based on the novel by Frank DeFord. Quaid is a college hero who makes it to the pros, but finds play at the professional level far different from college, and then has to deal with life later on—-after the cheering has stopped. (Photo: Allmovie)

For every Groza who made it in the pros, there were and are countless others who played a short while then fell out, victims of injury, limited ability, the enormity of the system, and plain bad luck. But dreams still beckon, and for the boys of Martins Ferry, playing your heart out carried with it—and does still—the hope that coach might refer you to one of the college teams, or that a scout might be watching in the stands who would glimpse your future glory. Being in the pros is always a long shot, but other opportunities could come your way. The rewards were there if you could play in college—the chance for an education, a white collar job, a home in the suburbs—a kind of future that held more options and promise. The populations of places like Martin Ferry always include a demographic of the invisible—all the ones who moved away.

Ohio coal miners (Photo credit: Minerals Division, Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources).

Ohio coal miners (Photo credit: Minerals Division, Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources).

The 1962 Life Magazine story, which is featured here within this post, touched a nerve with Martins Ferry residents as it addressed the issue of football being a way out of not only Martins Ferry but surrounding communities such as Bellaire, Ohio.  The Martins Ferry paper, the Martins Ferry Times Leader, did a fiftieth anniversary retrospective piece on the article (it is featured as a link below this post). The Life article, titled “Rocky Cradle of Football–The Big Play to Escape the Mill Town,” written by veteran Life reporter John McDermott, outraged many local residents for both its gritty pictures of the area and treatment of the region’s football culture. For example, the article opens with a scene of Martins Ferry head coach Bob Wion telling the members of the local Lions club that winning isn’t as important as building good character in the boys. One club member swears loudly, the group laughs and Wion slinks to his seat, embarrassed. Another club member comes up to Wion and tells him “Don’t feel too bad about what happened, Coach. Remember one thing—we’re with you, win or tie.”

Scene in Martins Ferry in recent years.

Scene in Martins Ferry in recent years.

There are other negative depictions, such as how team members who break the rules are subject to team discipline by other players (which includes trials and seems to hint at hazing), and examples of how losing coaches have been harassed. On the other hand, after noting that half of the region’s tourist dollars comes from college football scouts, McDermott approvingly writes “What the scouts see is schoolboy football at its best. Prodded by the devotion and hope of their parents, brimming over with guts and dedication and ambition, these youngsters have forged, in a valley of steel, an American cradle of football.” There are parents yearning for their boys to know a different kind of life. McDermott writes about a father named Gene Minder, a millworker with two sons who are Martins Ferry tackles. Minder tells McDermott “I told my two boys that if they wanted to amount to something better than their dad that they would have to play football. I wasn’t lucky enough to play ball. In them days you went down to the stadium and asked for a uniform. They had one size–big. If you wasn’t big enough they would just laugh. I kept going down there and they kept laughing. I swore my boys would wear those uniforms. So I raised them on love and spaghetti.”

Martins Ferry players after defeating rival Bellaire in 2014. (Photo: greatamericanrivalry.com)

Martins Ferry players after defeating rival Bellaire in 2014. (Photo: greatamericanrivalry.com)

There’s an ambivalence running through this article, and I think we see something of the same in Wright’s poem: a sense of the importance of the game to local people but also an awareness of life’s challenges in the industrial valley. McDermott notes flatly that many are looking for a way out, and football is one way to do it. “Football,” one man tells McDermott, “is transportation out of here.” But the brief story also highlights the game’s deep emotional importance to the community, and the loyalty players feel to their coach. There is a feel for the townspeople as there is in Wright’s poem,  and humor is present also when McDermott describes influential high school Latin teacher Miss Louise Knapp, a five foot nine no-nonsense powerhouse who can, according to McDermott, “drag a linebacker out of class by his ear faster than he can red dog an enemy quarterback.” Coach Wion tells McDermott that “I’ve got players who can call signals better in Latin than they can in English.”

The 2012 article in the Times Leader by managing editor Bubba Kapral describes the reaction of townspeople. John Applegarth, a retired schoolteacher who was a young boy at the time of the article’s appearance, said that “The Ferry people took exception to Life’s selection of pictures to use in the issue as well as some of the quotes describing Ferry and surrounding areas as grimy mill towns. This resulted in many subscriptions ending up in the annual (fall) bonfire.” Gene Joseph, one of the young players pictured in the article and a retired local coach and teacher, said Life “told the truth, but the photos were used to make it look worse. A lot of people didn’t like it because they took the photos the year before.” But Joseph adds “In reality, that was the way it was. You either went to school to play football in college or you went to work in mines or the mill. I did not throw my magazine into the fire. Many people did. I think Mayor (John) Laslo was against burning them.”

Coach Wion in the lower right hand corner of this page of the Life feature on the Martins Ferry area.

Coach Wion in the lower right hand corner of this page of the Life feature on the Martins Ferry area.

The Life article and Wright’s poem were the subject of a short ESPN video piece that aired in the late 1990s. It too is included as a link at the end of this post. It’s amazing to see the anger some still felt about this magazine article–enough to actually make me question their reactions some and seek out the original piece. I think a lot of detached observers would see things differently. McDermott’s article still seems to have captured some essential elements of Martins Ferry football culture and not turned a blind eye to issues affecting the community. The same could likely be said of Wright’s poem.

Wright’s poem appeals to me for a variety of reasons—its evocation of a world, its use of football, the intensity and images packed in such a short number of lines—but also because it reminds me of my own family. My father grew up in the central Ohio town of Mt. Vernon. The town and its surrounding landscape evoke different aspects of the state’s history and culture. Rich farmland encircles the community. In one part of Mt. Vernon are elegant antebellum homes recalling the grace of wealthier parts of small Ohio communities in the nineteenth century. Kenyon College is located nearby. But the town was also a place of thriving industry for many generations. Continental Can, Cooper-Bessemer, Lamb Glass,and the Mount Vernon Bridge Company, which manufactured bridge sections erected across the world, were just a few of the companies in the city.

My grandfather, John Kerin, at far right about the time he became an iromolder apprentice at age fourteen in Mount Vernon, Ohio, 1907.

My grandfather, John Kerin, at far right about the time he became an iromolder apprentice at age fourteen in Mount Vernon, Ohio, 1907.

My paternal grandfather was an iron molder with an eighth grade education who worked for decades at Cooper-Bessemer, helping to manufacture powerful engines sold around the globe. For my father, who didn’t want to spend his life at one of the foundries in town, football and the GI Bill after serving in the Marine Corps in World War Two helped make his dreams possible. He would later play for Southwest Missouri State University and have a successful career as a high school football coach in Cincinnati, even having a coaching clinic at the University of Cincinnati named for him. He worked during the summers at some of the factories in town, and can recall seeing men straight out of Wright’s poem going into a Mt. Vernon tavern before their shift at Cooper-Bessemer and all of them ordering a big schooner of beer into which each poured two shots of whisky. My paternal-great grandfather was an illiterate Irish immigrant from County Clare who came to Mount Vernon as a worker on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. And believe it or not, he ended his days as a “ruptured night watchman.” In his eighties he worked as a watchman and wore some kind of truss to alleviate the pain of a back injury.

My father, James R. Kerin, as a Mount Vernon High football player in the years before World War II.

My father, James R. Kerin, as a Mount Vernon High football player in the years before World War II. (Author’s family photo).

Wright published his poem in 1963, a time when the old smokestack America was in full gear, but when the seeds of its decline were taking root. It was also the year John Kennedy was assassinated, and there’s a good argument to be made that the decade we know as “The Sixties” began with the echo of Oswald’s rifle shots in Dallas. Just ten years later the country was reeling from the Vietnam War, the Nixon scandals, a sexual and social revolution, and concerns about America’s deteriorating industry. The sexual and social revolutions were brewing long before 1963, but a decade later many of the old ways had changed or gone forever. Many Americans who had grown up in certain well-established social and cultural mores were disturbed by what they saw in post-Vietnam America.

Confrontation between "hard hats"--American construction workers--and protesters during the 1960s.

Confrontation between “hard hats”–American construction workers–and protesters during the 1960s.

The economic changes hit blue collar America hard. By the late 70s we had begun to talk about the “Rust Belt”—those stretches of eastern and middle America that were decimated as factories closed and jobs went away. The automotive industry has been one of the most prominent casualties, with Detroit being a kind of municipal poster child for the loss of America’s industrial heartland. This loss is a long-standing wound in the United States that continues to influence political and economic debate in our nation. We in America are trying to find our way back to something, or struggling to make something from our past new again in ways that make sense in our own time. The concern is real. The loss of jobs, the decline of once economically healthy communities that supported mighty industries, the worries for the future—all are legitimate.

Hamilton Foundry in Hamilton, Ohio. (Image credit: Butler County Historical Society).

Hamilton Foundry in Hamilton, Ohio. (Image credit: Butler County Historical Society).

There’s an irony for me now in both Wright’s poem and the Life Magazine piece. While recognizing the limitations of those times and places, I share the concern many Americans feel about the loss of industrial America. This was a source of stability, and it gave us standing in the world. A lot of great people made great products that were sold around the world. Who wants to see towns sinking into ruin and closed factories rusting behind fencing? While I can understand why many wanted to flee tough towns like Martins Ferry, it’s still hard to see towns like these suffer so badly. And America isn’t alone–other countries have seen communities lose industries and struggle to stay afloat.

Super Bowl Sunday has become in recent years a time for paeans to the old industrial America. Ads for pickup trucks and other products celebrate America’s blue collar and rural heritage. These ads have become more explicit in the past several years, revealing a sentimental yearning for the old smokestack America. Recent commercials on Super Bowl night have featured Bob Dylan or Clint Eastwood extolling the virtues of American made products and casting a nostalgic eye back at America’s industrial glory. Clint Eastwood’s commercial in particular was especially charged with political and cultural meaning. But we must see the past clearly, and Wright’s poem captures a world that lies beneath the sentimental bromides about the United States’s glory days.

Workers at the Hamilton Foundry in Hamilton, Ohio.

Workers at the Hamilton Foundry in Hamilton, Ohio.

The history of America’s industrialization is complex. Industrialization took different forms at different times in different parts of the country. It became increasingly complicated through time. We became a mighty manufacturing nation through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Industry provided jobs, especially for immigrants. It provided opportunity, and the chance to own a home and have a regular supply of food on the table. It created the arsenal that helped the U.S. and its allies win World War II. It transformed raw materials into the tools and goods needed to further build America. It built not only cars, trucks and trains but also rails and the machines that helped grade and pave our roads and highways, those cars, highways and railroads being such a vital element in American popular song and culture.

Life as we know it is impossible without this industrial base. There remains much to admire in this older America. American workers have always taken pride in their work, in what they have contributed to the world. For many workers, particularly those of immigrant stock, the reliability of steady employment, a home, a chance for their kids to go to school—what was there to complain about, even if you did work six days a week and often for ten or even twelve hours a day?

1930s Winold Reiss mural of foundry workers at the American Rolling Mills (ARMCO) plant in Middletown, Ohio. <> 1999.1228.05.1--made1--Murals at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport depicting the history of business in Cincinnati. photo by Steven M. Herppich/Cincinnati Enquirer fp\b0\i0\fs10ÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐÐ fp\i0\b\fs16Digital Collections/IPTC fp\b0\i0\fs10

1930s Winold Reiss mural of foundry workers at the American Rolling Mills (ARMCO) plant in Middletown, Ohio. (Image credit: The Cincinnati Enquirer)

But this industrial story of America for many decades, going well back into the nineteenth century, is also that of people maimed and killed on the job, of brutal child labor, of the repression of workers’ rights, of laborers used up quickly only to be replaced by others desperate for work. The old factory towns were places where occupational injuries and illness took their toll. Some experienced labor violence; others were filthy and badly polluted. There were always the sons and daughters of workers who looked to escape these places, who didn’t want to follow their fathers or mothers into the factories, who felt trapped in the deterministic web of class and circumstance mentioned by the plaintive narrator of Bruce Springsteen’s classic song “The River,” who says “I come from down in the valley/where, Mister, when you’re young/ they bring you up to do/ like your daddy done.”

Winold Reiss Art Deco mural of workers at the American Laundry Machine Company in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1930s. (Photo: Enquirer.com)

Winold Reiss Art Deco mural of workers at the American Laundry Machine Company in Cincinnati, Ohio during the 1930s. (Photo: Enquirer.com)

I have often wondered what the people of Martins Ferry have made of this poem since it was first published. It is unusual to have a famous poem connected to your hometown, especially a smaller city such as this one. I would suspect it has been an annoyance to some there, and a frustration. Surely there have been many who grew up there and loved their town, who enjoyed their work in the industries, who know there is more to life in their community than just the bleak world summoned in Wright’s poem. A poem about a specific place that reaches this level of familiarity to readers can obscure other aspects of life in that place. A sense of fairness and perspective at the least should be kept in mind when reading such a work.

Two young Martins Ferry football players from the Life Magazine story on Martins Ferry football.

Two young Martins Ferry football players from the Life Magazine story on Martins Ferry football.

On the other hand, this poem is effective, a reminder about life in tough industrial towns such as Martin’s Ferry, but also about broken or faded dreams anywhere. Beneath the prosperity and vigor of earlier times lay the old human stories of isolation and loneliness. Old men look back wistfully on the dreams and days of youth. Their wives are lonely. The future of their children is uncertain. Wright knew this side of Martin’s Ferry, knew it for a place where some turn their eyes away from their own lives to lose themselves in the action on the field.

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

http://www.timesleaderonline.com/page/content.detail/id/542487/LIFE-in-the-mill-towns.html?nav=5010

http://www.si.com/vault/1988/05/23/117701/the-valley-boys-martins-ferry-ohio-and-its-sister-villages-have-produced-a-generation-of-superb-athletes

1962 Life Magazine featuring Martins Ferry

 

“That’s my middle-west”: Nick Carraway’s Christmas Memories

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One of my all time favorite passages from The Great Gatsby concerns Christmas and the Midwest. The passage comes towards the end of the novel as Nick Carraway is describing the aftermath of Gatsby’s murder and preparing to leave New York. There’s something about this passage that captures that exhilaration of returning home for the holidays: the crisp winter air, the bustling pace of travel, the hurry through train stations or airports to family and friends at the journey’s end.

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Fitzgerald is, understandably, often thought of in connection with the eastern United States. His long association with New York City and surrounding areas, his years at Princeton, and the settings of many of his novels and stories reflect his time in New York and New Jersey. He is also, through his own life and the lives of his characters, associated with Europe, Hollywood, Baltimore, and various parts of the American south—his wife Zelda was an Alabama native. But Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was at his family home in St. Paul that Fitzgerald composed the novel that propelled him into the spotlight: This Side of Paradise (1920). The Midwest figures in an important symbolic sense in The Great Gatsby as a land of enduring promise, the “dark fields of the republic” that extend the promise of the new green world beheld by the Dutch sailors on the eastern Atlantic coast in the novel’s famous conclusion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

The Christmas passage appears after Carraway describes the pathetic visit of Gatsby’s father and Gatsby’s funeral. Shortly after his reminiscence of returning home for Christmas, Carraway describes his breakup with Jordan Baker. As many have noted before, the passage of time and the knowledge that comes with it are central to the novel. The book is rich in physical description, and the seasons are important. Much of the novel occurs during the course of a summer, but it is in the autumn that Gatsby is killed, and the world he created on his estate, which had already begun to collapse in late summer, is gone for good. Carraway and Gatsby’s father rummaging through the house’s empty rooms underscores the theme of death and decay.

This passage about travel at Christmas time took on renewed force for me recently as I  perused a cultural history of A Christmas Carol titled The Lives & Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by a scholar named Paul Davis. At one point Davis mentions an essay Dickens wrote entitled “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older.” According to Davis’ paraphrase of part of Dickens’ essay, “To the child Christmas is immediate and complete, and for the youthful lover it is entwined with visions and hopes for the future. But for the adult at midlife, it becomes a time to remember the dead.”

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Carraway’s Christmas memories are from his own time of “the youthful lover,” which echoes the broader story here of the two youthful lovers reunited years later: Daisy and Gatsby. But Nick is transitioning towards a midlife stage, if not within the chronological parameters which define midlife today, then at least in the sense of growing into wisdom and being tempered by life’s passages. He is remembering his college days–the days before his service in World War One, which themselves carry the symbolic weight of an earlier America that will vanish forever with war, Prohibition, and Jazz Age excess–and his witnessing of the sad series of events linking his own life with that of Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Gatsby, and George and Myrtle Wilson.

When Carraway parts with Jordan, he tells her, after she mentions the accident that killed Buchanan’s mistress, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” This isn’t the first time in the novel Carraway mentions turning thirty, which is significant to him. He knows that time is passing. The novel’s events have impressed upon him the ugly turns life can take, and how dreams can die hard. Dickens writes that on Christmas, for the adult at midlife, “Of all the days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City of the Dead on Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us.”

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

In the midst of autumn, as he prepares to return to the Midwest, Carraway calls to mind Christmas past—the time when the world seemed full of promise. Now he will return to the region of his youth, carrying with him the memories of those he knew who bore that promise as well. It seems certain that Christmas times of years to come will evoke the dead, among them Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson, as well as the dreams that have died.

The east itself has become a City of the Dead for Nick Carraway. He describes a dream shortly after his Christmas passage that symbolizes the loss and corruption of the world he has inhabited, associated for him with the eastern United States, but representing more broadly those forces in life that strangle dreams and defeat aspirations. He dreams of a group of men carrying a drunken woman’s body on a stretcher. The men are in evening dress, as they might have been at one of Gatsby’s parties. The woman’s hand dangles over the side of the stretcher. The hand “sparkles cold with jewels.” They walk up to a house and knock on a door, but it is not the woman’s house: “Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.” This is a world where any sense of human community is missing. There is no home for anyone. The implication seems to be that the men will carry the woman in vain for years, knocking at each door only to be turned away.

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the end of his Christmas reflection, Carraway says “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” This is essentially a roll call of the dead—Gatsby literally so, but the others, with the exception of Nick, spiritually dead, blighted by the world in which they live and the choices they have made. But I find myself wondering what lessons might be in store for Nick Carraway. He is a fictional character, but when a great book like Gatsby gets into our blood and bones we find these people about as alive as any standing next to us in the grocery store check-out line. Carraway is often held up as a classic example of the unreliable narrator, and I find myself wondering if his deepest lessons are yet to come–that this is only the beginning of his wisdom. Gatsby’s corruption began years ago, deep in Carraway’s beloved middle west along the shores of Lake Superior as Gatsby drifted from one woman and one job to another. When Gatsby rows out to Dan Cody’s yacht, he begins his journey on the route that will take him to his lonely death in a swimming pool far from midwestern waters.

Scott Fitzgerald

Scott Fitzgerald

Here is the passage from The Great Gatsby:

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Hersheys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.”

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Great Gatsby (The Authorized Text). With notes and preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Scribner Paperback Edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1925, 1995.

The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1990.

Wolfhound: James Jones In World War Two

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James Jones in World War Two.

James Jones in World War Two.

Hawaii. December 7, 1941. On a tropical Sunday morning the drone of Japanese fighters emerges over the U.S. Army’s Wheeler Field next to Schofield Barracks. Billowing plumes of smoke rise into the air as American fighter planes are destroyed. Men whirl about in confusion and fire desperately at the Japanese bombers overhead. In the midst of the attack, a young private from Illinois runs messages back and forth from one post to another. That private is James Jones, the son of a dentist in the town of Robinson, Illinois. Years later he will write a novel about World War II that will become classic: From Here To Eternity (1951).

There is no shortage of writers who fall within the geographical scope of this blog who served in the military. The two large scale conflicts of the twentieth century, coupled with the following wars in Korea and Vietnam and an ongoing postwar draft from 1945 through the 1970s, meant that plenty of American authors had some experience with the military. But James Jones stands out for a number of reasons.

One is that he was a member of the prewar American army. He enlisted in 1939 and came to know the U.S. Army and stateside garrison life, including service in Hawaii, before the full-scale mobilization of World War Two. This experience separates him from the draftees and men who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He knew the old Army, its lifer enlisted men and officers, and its rituals and folkways before the war transformed this institution.

Attack on Wheeler Field: December 7, 1941.

Attack on Wheeler Field: December 7, 1941.

Two, he had combat experience on Guadalcanal. Third, he experienced a period of convalescence in military hospitals related to both minor war wounds and a more serious ankle injury, which gave him experience of hospitals, hospital ships and fellow wounded veterans. This experience as a patient found its way into his novel Whistle (1978) which deals with soldiers recovering from wounds. Fourth, as noted earlier, he was there for the actual beginning of American involvement in World War Two with the attacks on Wheeler Field and Pearl Harbor. Finally, much of Jones’ fictional work involved the war. He also wrote a nonfiction account simply called WWII (1975) and served as a war correspondent during the Vietnam War, producing a book entitled Viet Journal (1974).

James Jones was born in Robinson, Illinois on November 4, 1921 to Ramon and Ada Jones. The economy was still sluggish from years of depression when Jones graduated high school, so his father encouraged him to consider joining the Army. He enlisted in November of 1939 and received basic training at Fort Slocum, New York before being posted to Hawaii in early 1940. He was assigned to a military police unit at Hickham Field near Honolulu, then transferred later to F Company, Second Battalion in the Twenty-Seventh Infantry (“Wolfhound”) Regiment within the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, located near Wheeler Field. Here he served as a company clerk and took some courses at the University of Hawaii.

The famous

The famous “Tropic Lightning” insignia for the 25th Infantry Division.

A different kind of education occurred also during this period of garrison life. Like many other servicemen, he saw firsthand the world of vice and dissipation in a red light section of Honolulu near Hotel Street, much of it geared towards the population of soldiers and sailors. The original text of From Here To Eternity addresses the issue of otherwise straight but underpaid U.S. soldiers prostituting themselves to homosexuals in this part of Honolulu. One character who does so in the novel is Maggio, portrayed by Frank Sinatra in the famous film version. This material was too raw for the time and was cut from the novel. (Not surprising considering the fact that in Norman Mailer’s classic World War II novel The Naked and the Dead (1948), Mailer had to change the word “fuck” to “fug”). An unexpurgated version of From Here To Eternity was released digitally in 2011 with the help of Jones’ daughter Kaylie.

James Jones

James Jones

Jones was having breakfast along with other personnel on the morning of December 7, 1941. He was assigned to run messages for the Regimental Headquarters after the attack occurred, but later in that day Jones and his company were assigned to an area called Makapu Head to build and man five pillboxes. They would remain here until the following September when they were recalled to Schofield Barracks. Here his unit joined others in combat training. By November the Wolfhounds were beginning the process of transport to Guadalcanal. Jones sailed out on December 6, 1942. By New Year’s Day of 1943 he and the other members of F Company stood on the shores of Guadalcanal.

Wolfhound insignia for the 25th Infantry Regiment.

Wolfhound insignia for the 27th Infantry Regiment.

Jones was on Guadalcanal for a month-long battle known as The Battle of Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse or the Battle of Gifu. This engagement lasted from December 15, 1942 to January 23, 1943. During this time the American forces battled the Japanese along a series of hills called Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse and the Sea Horse near the Mantanikau River. Jones was originally attached to headquarters but still suffered minor injuries during a mortar attack. He spent some time in the hospital, then returned to his unit and was assigned to an infantry squad, participating in attacks that concluded this battle.

James Jones received the Purple Heart during World War Two for wounds from mortar fire on Guadalcanal.

James Jones received the Purple Heart during World War Two for wounds from mortar fire on Guadalcanal.

An incident occurred during this time that has been the subject of scholarly debate about the connection between his own war experience and the events in his novel The Thin Red Line. In The Thin Red Line, there is a character named Private Bead who leaves his foxhole and goes a short distance into the jungle to defecate. He is literally caught with his pants down by a starving Japanese solider who attacks him. They fight hand to hand until Bead is able to kill the soldier with a bayonet. The incident has long been believed to have been autobiographical and is often cited in scholarship and general literary discussion related to Jones and this particular novel. Recent scholarship (see the link below this post) seems to indicate that Jones did kill two Japanese soldiers with his bayonet during an assault on a fortified position, but there was apparently no incident like Private Bead’s.

American soldiers on

American soldiers on “The Canal”–Guadalcanal.

Jones’ regiment was sent to New Georgia after the fighting on Guadalcanal, but Jones severely injured his ankle and spent time in hospitals in the New Hebrides and New Zealand. He returned home on a hospital ship and was transported to Letterman General Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee for surgery on his ankle. James Jones was discharged from the U.S. Army on July 6, 1944.

Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the famous beach scene from the film version of From Here To Eternity.

Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in the famous beach scene from the film version of “From Here To Eternity”.

Jones wrote several novels dealing directly with World War II. From Here To Eternity is a story of the pre-war American army and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Thin Red Line deals with fighting on an island similar to Guadalcanal, and Whistle concerns American soldiers dealing with the aftermath of war. Whistle was a posthumous work completed by his friend Willie Morris thanks to Jones’ extensive notes and other draft material. Jones also wrote a novella called The Pistol (1959) about a young enlisted man on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack. He wrote a number of other works as well, some of which have the WWII conflict as background material. One such work is his novel Some Came Running (1957). James Jones died on May 9, 1977.

U.S. Marines landing on Guadalcanal.

U.S. Marines landing on Guadalcanal.

James Jones is also known to the public through the film and television adaptations of his books. The movie version of From Here To Eternity is a 1950s film classic, and played a part in reviving Frank Sinatra’s career. The book was later made into a television series. There are two film versions of The Thin Red Line: one from 1964 and one from 1998.

Nick Nolte in Terence Malick's 1998 version of The Thin Red Line. Nolte was just one of many well-known stars to appear in the film.

Sean Penn and Nick Nolte in Terence Malick’s 1998 version of The Thin Red Line. Nolte and Penn were just two of many well-known stars to appear in the film. (Photo credit: Criterion).

Interest in Jones has increased in recent years. There have been two biographies and assorted critical studies. During his career Jones was both praised and derided. Some critics took aim at Jones for being a kind of romantic primitive too much under the influence of authors such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. That’s certainly a view I reject. Based on recent scholarship I have examined, there seems to be a greater appreciation for what he accomplished. He has often been admired by other writers. As for myself, I would say Jones created a powerful and memorable body of work, and his novels of World War Two in particular are sure to stand the test of time.

I also appreciate Jones for another reason. I think there’s some truth to the notion that in the United States our collective historical memory tends to focus more on our involvement in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) to the detriment of what happened elsewhere. As the son of Marine veteran who saw firsthand the combat on Bougainville and Iwo Jima, I appreciate Jones’ works as well for their treatment of the American soldier fighting his way through the hellish jungles and treacherous beaches of the south Pacific—where death is close at hand and eternity just a bullet away.

Semper Fi,

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

American Literary Almanac–From 1608 To The Present: An Original Compendium Of Facts And Anecdotes About Literary Life In The United States of America. Edited by Karen L. Rood. Bruccoli, Clark, Layman (Facts on File), New York and Oxford, 1988.

Wikipedia articles on James Jones, Wheeler Field, Schofield Barracks, Battle of Mount Austen, the Galloping Horse, and the Sea Horse. 27th Infantry Division, 25th Infantry Regiment.

A good treatment of the issue of Jones and the attack of the Japanese soldier:http://wlajournal.com/20_1-2/275-292%20Blaskiewicz.pdf

Another good article on Jones by a scholar who has done a lot of work on Norman Mailer: https://medium.com/world-literature/overview-of-james-jones-s-trilogy-on-world-war-ii-and-soldiering-f50ede48713f

A recent appreciation: James Ellroy on From Here To Eternity: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112212197

“Upon The Gallows Tree”: E. Merrill Root’s poem “Witchcraft”

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A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

A rendering of Bridget Bishop, the first to be executed of the alleged Salem witches.

About a year ago I was browsing through the Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors, and I read the entry on a writer named E. Merrill Root. I had never heard of him before. E. Merrill Root was a poet and professor who spent much of his career at Earlham College in Richmond,Indiana. Edward Merrill Root was born on January 1, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. He graduated from Amherst College and did civilian war-related work as a conscientious objector with Quakers in France before returning to the U.S. and attending Andover Theological Seminary for a year. In 1920 he became an English professor at Earlham, a Quaker institution, and remained there until retiring in 1960. Root was a traditional poet who usually worked in rhyme and standard metrical patterns. He demonstrated particular skill with the sonnet form. Root was a student of Robert Frost’s, and Frost was an admirer of his work.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop.

The seal of William Stoughton, the judge who oversaw the Salem Witch Trials. This seal was affixed to the execution warrant for accused witch Bridget Bishop. (Photo by Margo Burns).

In addition to poetry, Root wrote a biography of the English writer Frank Harris as well as essays and polemical works on American education. Root was a strongly anti-Communist conservative. I can’t speak to the quality or nature of his political writings. There’s a stereotype in the culture that poets and artists are generally liberal, and while this is often true, it is also a stereotype. Twentieth century poets and writers who are generally identified as political conservatives include Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Peter Viereck, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Louis Bromfield, Walker Percy, and Wallace Stevens. Some prominent authors, such as American novelist John Dos Passos, moved rightwards after the Second World War after holding leftist positions during the Twenties and Thirties.

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I have been impressed by Root’s poems. In keeping with this spooky time of year, I wanted to share a poem of Root’s about the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692-93. It’s a kind of ballad, and I find it wonderfully evokes the weirdness and hysteria of that time, ending with a particularly haunting image. This is from his collection entitled The Seeds of Time, published in 1950. In the original version the first and third lines are indented, but this is problematic in wordpress, so all lines are flush against the margin here. Now let’s travel back to Salem…..

“Witchcraft”

‘Tis Salem, 1696—
Beware the evil glance!
The woods are deserts dim and full
Of dismal circumstance.

New England is the Devil’s realm,
Good Cotton Mather knows—
There copper demons throng the dark
Amid a waste of snows.

Cotton Mather

Cotton Mather

Children, infected with the night,
Gibber and shriek and twitch:
God save them—and God save us all!—
From demon and from witch.

Like beasts upon all fours they crawl;
Their flesh turns blue and black;
The foam is froth upon their lips;
Their limbs grow numb and slack.

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(That hag, old Tituba, is there—
The creature of the night:
She hears the rustle and crepen bustle
Of witches in their flight.)

"Tituba and the Children"

“Tituba and the Children”

“ ‘Tis Goody Nurse!” the children cry,
“ ‘Tis Reverend Burroughs, too!”
(Upon their foreheads and their hands
The sweat is ghastly dew.)

Ann Putnam cries,–she is but twelve,–
“His two dead brides!—they say
He slew them both, he stabbed them both;
And see, their cheeks are gray.”

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And Goodwife Putnam, like a bow
Too tightly strung, is there;
She sees the specters of the dark
Flutter across the air.

“How oft,” cries she, “how oft hath he
Plagued the poor godly child!—
See, yellow birds flit round his head.”
Her rolling eyes are wild.

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“The red calf’s head,” one child doth shriek,
“Its ears are stiff and pert—
See, See!” She points at vacant air;
Then swoons and falls inert.

“ ‘Hoccanum come!’ ” (Ann Putnam saith)
“Old Goody Nurse did cry;
And just that night—that very night—
My father’s cow went dry.”

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The others pant, “The black dog runs—
Yet see, it hath her head!”
“She rides the water like a cork,
Who should be drowned and dead.”

“The white sow roots the earth in dreams…
I may not sleep by night.”
Haggard and hollow are their cheeks;
Their eyes are thronged with fright.

1280px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Why wonder then that juries pale
And swoon in sympathy?
Why marvel witches hang like fruit
Upon the gallows tree?

———-E. Merrill Root

 

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

The Seeds of Time by E. Merrill Root. Falmouth Publishing House, Portland, Maine. 1950.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One–The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

In The October Country…..

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For me, October always has two contrasting dimensions. The first is the traditional season of harvest, golden afternoons and “mists and mellow fruitfulness.” There’s an excitement in the air with the return of the school year. It’s a time of homecoming parades, crisp mornings, apples, pumpkins, hayrides, football games, and trees in their vibrant colors of orange, scarlet, and gold. But there is another side of October. In my neck of the woods, there are those rainy days or overcast afternoons that evoke a moodiness, an eerieness, a mystery. This is the time associated with Halloween, but this is not the domain of kid revelry and lighthearted chills.

This aspect of October evokes a world of specters, decay, and haunting secrets. Maybe it’s also because I first read The Scarlet Letter and some of Hawthorne’s unearthly tales in an autumn long ago that I find myself thinking of old New England, of the Salem Witch Trials, of apparitions and weird forces walking abroad. It’s a time and mood that calls to mind the authentic creepiness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am reminded of all these things when I read the delightfully uncanny tales in Ray Bradbury’s The October Country, first published sixty years ago in 1955. Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois in 1920.

Many of the stories in The October Country first appeared in Bradbury’s first short story collection entitled Dark Carnival. That book appeared in 1946. The October Country included those stories and added others. Dark Carnival was published by Arkham House, the legendary publishing firm of horror, mystery, and supernatural fiction out of Wisconsin operated by the famous Wisconsin writer August Derleth. The October Country is dedicated to Derleth.

Ray Bradbury in the 1950s.

Ray Bradbury in the 1950s.

I first read The October Country during Christmas vacation in seventh grade. It is a classic collection of Bradbury’s tales of horror, weirdness, mystery and the fantastic. Bradbury takes is into strange worlds in which a baby can become a murderous monster, a man recalls a child’s death by drowning, and a bedridden boy’s dog brings him messages and visitors from the beyond. Once you enter you’ll find it hard to leave.

This is the October Country:

“…that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain….”

—-Ray Bradbury

Patrick Kerin

An Autumn Classic: “Hang On Sloopy” and the OSU Marching Band

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It was fifty years ago–on October 9, 1965– that The Ohio State University Marching Band first played the McCoys’ monster hit “Hang On Sloopy” during an OSU football game. The song has become a football season staple ever since, traditionally played during the transition from the third to the fourth quarter. Whenever I recall my own football-playing days at Greenhills High School in Cincinnnati, Ohio, one of the recurring memories is hearing the band strike up this song at the end of the third quarter, firing up the crowd and the team and sending a new burst of energy through the stadium.

The song was originally recorded by an R&B group called The Vibrations, but was later recorded by The McCoys, a group from the Midwest. Some of its members were from Union City, Indiana, and two of its members, the Zehringer brothers (Rick Zehringer would change his name to Rick Derringer), were from Fort Recovery, Ohio. The song entered the charts on August 14, 1965 and hit number one on October 2, 1965. The song was a favorite on the campus, often played on the jukebox at one of the local bars, and one of the staff arrangers for the OSU band, John Tatgenhorst, persuaded the director that the band should do the song. The rest is truly history. “Hang On Sloopy” later became the official state rock song of Ohio and the official song of OSU. Here’s to those autumn Friday nights and fall afternoons across Ohio when the gridiron comes alive.

Patrick Kerin (center, #50 and then #53, Greenhills High School, 1980-1983).

 

Source:

Wikipedia article on “Hang On Sloopy;” OSU youtube channel

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