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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.