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

 

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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

The Small Town in the Machine Age: Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”

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Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson

For those generally familiar with American literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, the name Sherwood Anderson likely brings to mind his famous collection of interconnected short stories called Winesburg, Ohio (1919). This book is one of a number appearing around the time that helped, as is often said in some literary histories, to “blow the lid” off of that venerated American institution–the small town. This “revolt from the village,” as it has often been called, was a central element of American letters from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1930s. Even after World War II novels continued to appear which probed the darker realities of American life behind the surface of small American communities. One such notable book is Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which created excitement and debate in its time and is still well worth reading today. Some of this writing was in reaction to the notion that American small towns and cities were bastions of goodness and wholesomeness in contrast to corrupt and filthy cities.

Spoon River in Illinois.

Spoon River in Illinois.

It was 100 years ago, in 1915, that Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry collection Spoon River Anthology appeared (which will be the subject of a special post here on buckeyemuse before the year’s end), a book in which the dead in the local cemetery speak of their thwarted dreams and desires, their sins and crimes, their adulteries and scandals. Sinclair Lewis published his notorious novel Main Street in 1920, and followed it a few years later with his satirical treatment of the small-time businessman Babbitt (1922) and his portrait of the corrupt minister Elmer Gantry (1927).

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Zona Gale, Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather and others created fictional works capturing the loneliness, alienation, narrowness and corruption in smaller communities. Thomas Wolfe wrote his four autobiographical novels about small town North Carolina that infuriated his former neighbors. Journalist H.L. Mencken famously excoriated the culture of rural America, particularly in the South. This notion, by the way, that small town life in these times was full of corruption, bigotry, complacency, mean-spirited religiosity and sterility is also sometimes referred to as “the village virus.” Mencken wanted to see American life inoculated against the virulent strains he believed residing in its provincial culture, and railed against them accordingly.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

But this literary history is more complicated than this short description may suggest. The more unflinching kind of literary treatment of small town life and everyday folk was part of a much larger movement towards realism in literature not only in the United States but Europe as well. Writers wanted to capture the realties of a changing modern world, a world that would be upended by the First World War and once again with a second conflict. The desire to throw off the inhibitions of the Victorian period was relentless, and novelists, poets, and short story writers began to more openly address issues surrounding sexuality. The influence of Sigmund Freud, to name but one important figure, was profound.

The critical examination of rural and small town life had roots extending back to the previous century. One of the first books to examine a sterile rural community is Edgar Watson’s The Story of a Country Town, published all the way back in 1883. Hamlin Garland wrote of bleak lives on the prairie in his realist classic Main-Travelled Roads. And Mark Twain was no stranger to the darkness of the human heart, particularly in the rural hamlets alongside the Mississippi River, and there are strange things that go on in the nighttime even in the sunny world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Last but certainly not least, I would be remiss not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne, who gave us one of the great treatments of hypocrisy and cold-hearted morality in the much smaller Boston of the 1600s in The Scarlet Letter.

Camden, Ohio--birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

Camden, Ohio–birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

There is yet another layer to this that demands our attention. This “revolt from the village” is further complicated when we look more closely at these books, such as Winesburg, Ohio. While there was at times a negative impulse animating this kind of writing that peered so deeply into the depths of small town and rural America, much of it was also driven by a desire not only to examine and expose, in the name of realism and honesty, but also to awaken others to what was missing in the lives of people and to raise questions about what had been lost in pursuit of opportunity in this fledgling nation.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Some of these writers were outraged idealists who felt deeply the rift between the positive forces and ideals that were supposedly present in American life and the realities they saw around them. In many of these novels and short stories there are moments of transcendence and vision, love and honesty, insight and inspiration. Positive people and influences in these small communities appear alongside of barrenness, rigidity, and pharisaical religion. Often we sense a love for these characters suffocated and oppressed by the forces and people governing their lives. Even the satirist Sinclair Lewis often reveals affection for the places and people he writes about, and Carol Kennicott, the outsider protagonist of Main Street who seeks to uplift the provincial types around her, can be seen as foolish and judgmental in contrast to the simple and straightforward people of the town of Gopher Prairie. The fact remains that, like much else in our world, these towns were a mixture of darkness and light. Human nature played its role in  shaping individual lives for good or ill. Any fair reading of history has to note that many people loved the places where they lived and chose to remain in the small communities they called home.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson's parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson’s parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

There is another predominant theme that emerged in American literature at this time, and that was the impact on American communities and people by industrialism and the rise of major commercial interests. These interests shaped not only the physical landscape of the nation, but the spiritual, moral, and economic dimensions of American society. The theme appears in works by writers such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and others, and operates as a low but audible hum in the background of many other narratives even when other themes are predominant.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

Even in a book like Winesburg, Ohio, which focuses so much on the interior lives of its characters, there is the knowledge that the world around them is being transformed, a point that is highlighted at the conclusion when the central character, George Willard, departs from Winesburg to make his way in the big city. There is little opportunity for a young man like him in the town of his birth. Larger forces have sent their tremors into the countryside, bringing inevitable change with them.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Poor White is a novel by Sherwood Anderson that examines this transformation of agrarian America, but also explores the forces that shape life in a small community, the lives of some of its people, and asks what is it missing in the lives of Americans. Poor White is often considered Anderson’s best novel. Although best known for Winesburg, Ohio and a number of other short stories, Anderson wrote novels, memoir, autobiography and journalism as well.

A fictional memoir of Anderson's:

A fictional memoir of Anderson’s: “Tar: A Midwest Childhood.” Sherwood is the boy seated at far left.

Poor White appeared in 1920. It tells the story of Hugh McVey, a young boy who grows up in conditions not unlike Huck Finn’s in a squalid Missouri riverfront town called Mudcat Landing. His father, like Huck’s Pap, is a drunken loafer. Hugh grows up in a state of torpor, spending his days idling by the river. It is only when he takes a job at the Mudcat Landing railway station that his life changes. The telegraph operator’s wife, a New England woman who senses Hugh’s potential, encourages Hugh to put his mind to work. Hugh soon leaves Mudcat Landing and heads east to Ohio, drifting from job to job and eventually landing in a town called Bidwell. He carries in his mind the images of thriving factories after hearing the telegraph operator’s wife speak of vibrant industrial New England towns.

Sherwood Anderson's

Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White.”

In Bidwell, Hugh explores and develops his capacity for creating labor-saving machinery. His first machine is a cabbage-planting device. This invention ultimately proves unsuccessful, but Hugh’s talent for invention becomes clear, and in turn attracts the attention of a budding capitalist named Steve Hunter. McVey’s friend and associate Hunter is a man interested only in profits. McVey develops a successful farm machinery business—but at a cost he doesn’t expect. Farm hands find themselves out of work because of McVey’s machines. Some find themselves factory hands, removed from the lands on which they labored in close connection with the farmers who employed them. The factories also attract outsiders, many of them job-seeking immigrants who do not understand the local culture of Bidwell. Slums begin to appear in the town. Men also leave Bidwell to work in other places. Older businesses, mainly small operations run by artisans and craftsmen, such as a harness making shop, are casualties of the machine age.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that's seen better days.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that’s seen better days.

McVey, a kind of natural man and innocent, is disturbed by the changes he unknowingly helps bring to Bidwell. Much of the second half of the book concerns his relationship with a woman named Clara Butterworth and McVey’s efforts to untangle himself from what he has wrought and live a life in alignment with his true values. Critics are correct in finding the structure of the book unwieldy. But it has many rewards for the reader willing to follow this ambling tale.

I first read Poor White in 2001, and I had never before encountered a book that captured for me so completely much of what I felt to be the Midwest of the late 1800s and early twentieth century. McVey is a witness to history and change, and agent of the same, and we follow him along the country roads and over the bridges of the great rivers as he makes his way across the land, a figure working on the railroads and in the fields, searching for some purpose in life as he makes his way to Bidwell. He is like the Midwest itself awakening to its destiny in the life of the nation.

Dirt road outside my mother's hometown of Richland, Missouri.

Dirt road outside my mother’s hometown of Richland, Missouri.

The book is powerfully evocative. The drowsiness of Bidwell after all the hands have left for the fields, the joking and raillery around the dinner table among farmers and hands, the great Ohio oil field boom, the passage from bucolic town to thriving industrial city—all of this is wonderfully captured in Poor White. I have thought often of this book through the years when driving the back roads and highways of the Midwest, seeing the farmland rolling away on either side and wondering about all the untold and forever unknown histories of the people who lived upon that earth.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Horace Gregory, a distinguished poet and translator, wonderfully captures the qualities of Poor White in an introduction he wrote to The Portable Sherwood Anderson:

“Poor White belongs among the few books that have restored with remarkable vitality the life of an era, its hopes and desires, its conflicts between material prosperity and ethics, and its disillusionments, in a manner that stimulates the historical imagination.” Later Gregory writes that “No novel of the American small town in the Middle West evokes in the mind of its readers so much of the cultural heritage of its milieu as does Poor White; nor does Anderson in his later novels ever recapture the same richness of association, the ability to make memorable each scene in the transition from an agrarian way of living to a twentieth-century spectacle of industrial conflict with its outward display of physical comfort and wealth.”

There is one other dimension of Poor White worth noting, and it harkens back to the material at the beginning of this post about the community life of small town America. McVey, by the end of the book, has not only taken stock of what has happened to Bidwell. His marriage to Clara Butterworth and the future of their unborn child directs him back to deeper needs within himself—his need to love another person, to be more truly connected to others, to find meaning in life beyond worldly success. The things that separate one person from another, especially men from women, were an important concern for Anderson. His work is filled with people who yearn for connection, who are bursting with unlived life, who ache for relations with others that are anchored in real values.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

The Midwest is home to culture aplenty now, but our American economy still leaves too many victims in its wake, and our small communities especially have been profoundly damaged by the terms upon which we live. We face a new threat to community life by the isolation and anomie bred by technology. We are in some ways as mute and disconnected as any character in these books of long ago, while we face threats unimaginable in the heyday of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson. This deeper search for reconciliation and connections remains with us. Our country’s recent confrontations with the long and bitter heritage of racism underscore the need for all of us to live in right relation as one people. As another Midwestern writer of a different kind—John Mellencamp—once put it, “the air could be cleaner/and the water could too/ but what we do to each other/ are the worst things that we do.”

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1993. First published in 1920.

Sherwood Anderson by Rex Burbank. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

The Portable Sherwood Anderson, edited and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. The Viking Press, New York, 1949.

“Another Sunny Day, 12/25” by John Mellencamp and George Green from the album “Dance Naked.” Mercury, 1994.

America’s Teacher: William Holmes McGuffey

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William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey

American educator William Holmes McGuffey, famous for creating his McGuffey Readers, an influential series of school texts in 19th century America, was born on September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania. He received a sparse education in his childhood and youth, but learned enough to eventually teach in the one-room country schools of rural Ohio after his family moved to the buckeye state. McGuffey eventually earned an A.B. from Washington College in Pennsylvania and took an appointment as professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served for ten years.

McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader

McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader

It was at Miami that he began collecting and organizing the material that became the first of the McGuffey Readers with the assistance of his brother Alexander, a teacher and a lawyer. Visitors can tour the McGuffey House near the Miami campus and see the room and desk where McGuffey worked on the Readers. In the coming months I will write a post about this site as part of a road trip segment.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

McGuffey left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College (a forerunner of the University of Cincinnati) in 1836, and later took on the presidency of Ohio University in 1839. He returned to Cincinnati and taught at Woodward College (later Woodward High School) before becoming professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Virginia. He held this position until his death in 1873. In addition to his teaching and editorial work, McGuffey was also a Presbyterian minister and one of the founders of the public school system in Ohio.

A later edition of McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

A later edition of McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

McGuffey was the driving force behind the first four readers, which were published by Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati company, in 1836 and 1837. Later readers were compiled by others. There were a total of eleven McGuffey school texts. Scholars estimate that 122 million of the McGuffey books appeared between 1836 and 1920, becoming a part of the school experience for millions of American children.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

The historian Henry Steele Commager gives a good summary of McGuffey and the importance of the Readers in the life of the nation. Here is Commager:

“Justice Holmes said of John Marshall that part of his greatness was in being there; so, too, we can say that part of the greatness of the McGuffey Readers was that they were there at the right time—they were there to be read by millions of children from all parts of the country, from all classes, of all faiths. They gave to the American child of the nineteenth century what he so conspicuously lacks today—a common body of allusions, a sense of common experience, and of common possession…The McGuffey Readers, then, are far more than a historical curiosity. They played an important role in American education and in American culture, and helped shape that elusive thing we call the American character.”

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader, 1879 Edition. With a Foreword by Henry Steele Commager. Signet Classic—The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. New York, 1963.

Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

Der Dunbar: Paul Dunbar’s German-American Dialect Poem “Lager Beer”

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Paul Dunbar

Paul Dunbar

It’s Oktoberfest season around the world, so I’ve decided to highlight an interesting poem of Paul Dunbar’s in honor of the occasion. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day long beer and folk festival held in Munich each year in September that has inspired other similar celebrations around the world. The poem is “Lager Beer,” an early dialect work Paul Dunbar published in 1890. He was only eighteen years old when this appeared.

Paul Dunbar—poet, short story writer, novelist, librettist—was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of former slaves. Despite the racial injustice of the era in which he lived he had a remarkable career. In his short lifetime he was prolific, creating a rich body of work, particularly in poetry that alternated between standard English and dialect forms. Although much of his dialect verse was in African-American dialect, he also tried his hand at some other dialects—in this case, a German-American one.

Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. "The Rhine" was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. “The Rhine” was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Two aspects of nineteenth century culture are reflected in this poem. One is that literary works in dialect were common at this time, particularly in stories or poems with a rural “local color” setting. Comic works often employed dialect. One poet who was especially popular during Dunbar’s lifetime, and who influenced Dunbar, was Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. Many of Riley’s poems were set in rural Indiana and featured rustic characters. The other cultural aspect is the widespread dissemination of German culture, particularly in the Midwest. German immigrants have powerfully shaped my own city, Cincinnati, as well as cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. There is also a large German-American presence in Texas. Dunbar would have encountered Germans and German-Americans during his time in southwestern Ohio.

Here's a good lager beer made in Ohio: The Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

Here’s a good lager beer made in Ohio: the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

In “Lager Beer,” Dunbar experiments with German-American dialect for humorous purposes. “Lager Beer” appeared on December 13, 1890 under the pseudonym “Pffenberger Deutzelheim” in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper Paul Dunbar created and edited to serve Dayton’s black community. His good friends the Wright brothers printed the paper. The poem has also been set to music recently.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

The poem has a kind of lurching quality and a ponderous humor, which richly evokes the image of a drunken German man stumbling around the city (“shumps aroundt”) and getting himself in trouble. I can picture a German workingman, clad in the rough clothes and boots of the time, woefully reciting this to himself in his kitchen while watching his fellows troop down to the corner saloon.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

The second and fourth lines of each stanza are indented, but the wordpress format is fighting me on this one. Anyway, here is the poem, which you might want to enjoy with a good lager beer.

“Lager Beer”

I lafs and sings, und shumps aroundt,
Und somedimes acd so gueer,
You ask me vot der matter ish?
I’m filled mit lager peer.

I hugs mine child, and giss mine vife.
Oh, my dey was so dear;
Bot dot ish ven, you know, mire friend,
I’m filled mit lager peer.

Eleetion gomes, I makes mire speech,
Mine het it vas so glear:
De beoples laf, und say ha, ha,
He’s filled mit lager peer.

De oder night I got me mad,
De beoples run mit fear.
De bleeceman gome und took me down
All filled mit lager peer.

Next day I gomes pefore de judge,
Says he, “Eh heh, you’re here!”
I gifs you yust five-fifty-five
For trinking lager peer.

I took mine bocket book qvick oud,
So poor I don’t abbear;
Mine money all vas gone, mine friend
Vas gone in lager peer.

Und den dey dakes me off to shail,
To work mine sendence glear;
Und dere I shwears no more to be
Filled oup mit lager peer.

Und from dot day I drinks no more,
Yah, dat ish very gueer,
But den I found de tevil lifed
In dot same lager peer.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Go easy on that lager beer!

Patrick Kerin

 

Resources:

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London. 1993.

Jesse Stuart’s “Hie to the Hunters”

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Recent reprint cover of

Recent reprint cover of “Hie to the Hunters.” Photo credit: Amazon

Recently on this blog I profiled the noted Appalachian author Jesse Stuart. Stuart, born in Greenup County, Kentucky in 1906, was a prolific writer who published novels, short stories, essays, books for children and youth, and autobiography. His memoir of teaching in rural Kentucky, The Thread That Runs So True, published in 1949, has long been a classic work about American education and is one of the first popular teaching memoirs. Stuart, a man of enormous energy, authored more than sixty books, many of them set in the rural Kentucky he knew so well.

1950 edition of

1950 edition of “Hie to the Hunters.” This was a discarded book in a pile of giveaways from the library at North College Hill Junior-Senior High School, where I taught for a number of years.

One of those books, Hie to the Hunters, appeared sixty-five years ago. Hie to the Hunters, released in May of 1950, tells the story of two boys: Didway Hargis, known as “Did,” and Jud Sparks, known to his friends as “Sparkie.” Did and Sparkie are a kind of Tom and Huck duo. Did is a boy from town who is rescued from a beating one day by local bullies thanks to Sparkie. Sparkie, a boy from the hills, takes Did home to his parents—and Did eventually decides he wants to stay with Sparkie’s family, much to the dismay of his own family back in town. Did takes to the life of the hills, sleeping alongside Sparkie in the barn and learning to trap, hunt, plow, and perform other tasks that are part of a rewarding but hardscrabble life in the mountains. The boys become inseparable.

“High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.” In the spring of 2013, the Half Price Books store in Mason, Ohio purchased some books from a Stuart collector. Most were quite expensive, but this poor scholar was able to snag this autographed copy for the grand total of ten U.S. dollars.

Ruel Foster, in his Twayne’s study of Stuart published in 1968, describes Hie to the Hunters as “a beautiful agrarian hymn,” while also placing it among Stuart’s minor works. The novel is full of lyrical descriptions of life on the land that are contrasted with down to earth descriptions of some of the tasks and routines of mountain life—such as how to fell a tree properly or how to strip tobacco.

Stuart's autograph inside my copy of the

Stuart’s inscription and autograph inside my copy of the “High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.”

There is also a subplot concerning a feud raging between tobacco growers and fox hunters, which echoes a larger conflict of town versus country. In the end, Did is reconciled to returning to his family in town although he remains friends with Sparkie. Country life has matured and toughened Did, and he has developed a deep love for the hill life.

Frontispiece from

Frontispiece from “High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.”

Hie to the Hunters is a simple and entertaining story that still charms readers with its lyrical descriptions of the mountain earth and the self-reliant ways of its people. I can easily see this novel being made into one of those brightly colored rural-themed Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s. The story lends itself to that kind of treatment. Incidentally, only one of Stuart’s works was made into a film. A ninety-minute movie version of his much-anthologized short story “Split Cherry Tree” was released in 1982. Colleen Dewhurst starred in the picture.

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

Hie to the Hunters by Jesse Stuart. Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill Book Company), New York, London, Toronto. 1950.

Jesse Stuart by Ruel Foster. Twayne’s Publishers Inc., New York, 1968.

Paul Dunbar’s “Majors and Minors:” Published 120 Years Ago.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

One hundred and twenty years ago the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published the volume that propelled him into wider prominence: Majors and Minors. This was Dunbar’s second volume of poetry. His first, Oak and Ivy, appeared in 1892. Both books were the products of a 19th century self-publishing deal. Dunbar contracted on credit with the United Brethren Publishing Company in Dayton to publish Oak and Ivy. Dunbar sold every one of his copies of Oak and Ivy for a dollar apiece with the help of friends, some of them bought by workers in the office building where he was employed as an elevator operator. The young man’s talent and technique impressed his readers, and Dunbar began to attract crowds when he gave public readings. Dunbar was helped by the support of two white patrons and friends from Toledo, Ohio: a lawyer named Charles A. Thatcher and a doctor named Henry A. Tobey. Buoyed by his success, Dunbar brought out another book of poetry with Tobey and Thatcher advancing money for its publication.

"Majors and Minors," 1895.

Majors and Minors, 1895.

When a copy of Majors and Minors found its way to fellow Ohioan William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic and America’s premier man of letters, Dunbar’s days as an elevator operator were numbered. Howells praised the book in The Atlantic. Before long publications were clamoring for Dunbar’s work and the public outside of Dayton wanted to hear him recite. And there was one important difference between Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors. The second volume had a frontispiece portrait of the author, making it clear to anyone who came upon the book that these poems were the work of a black writer.

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells

Howells’ review is an important incident in Dunbar’s career. There is a strong element of paternalism in the review (“Mr. Dunbar’s race is nothing if not lyrical, and he comes by his rhythm honestly.”). However, Dunbar was understandably thrilled by such a response and wrote a note of thanks to Howells (both can be read by clicking one of the links at the end of this post). But in years to come, Dunbar had mixed feelings about the review, and his feelings were connected to the poems Howells praised most highly. The section of the book marked as “Majors” consists of poems in standard English that show the influence of poets such as John Keats. The “Minors” section is made up of Dunbar’s poems in black dialect. The dialect poems drew the greatest enthusiasm from Howells. This “Majors and Minors” dichotomy would be a central feature of Dunbar’s work in poetry. Dunbar wanted to be recognized for his mastery of traditional English verse, and grew tired of attention for his dialect work. However, Dunbar had a real gift for dialect verse and was drawn to it. He also admired and was influenced by Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley, much of whose work is in Hoosier dialect.

James Whitcomb Riley

James Whitcomb Riley

At the same time, there is more subtlety and complexity in Dunbar’s dialect work than might appear at first glance. Commentary on race relations and black identity can be found in his dialect verse. As Joanne M. Braxton notes in her introduction to The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the poet produced “sophisticated dialect verse that located the black speaker, uniquely for Dunbar’s time, at the center of experience.” She also writes that “While it is true that Dunbar’s dialect poetry, much of it written in a comic and sometimes sentimental vein, was popular with whites, it was also popular with blacks of the post-World War I generation, who entertained each other with recitations of Dunbar’s verse at slabtown and at other all-black gatherings that excluded whites.” Dunbar’s interest in dialect went beyond African-American dialects.

Oak and Ivy, 1892.

Oak and Ivy, 1892.

Braxton notes in her excellent introduction to Dunbar’s Collected Poetry that “Fascinated by the representation of regional language generally, Dunbar experimented with German-American, Irish-American, and Midwestern dialects. One such example of Dunbar’s experimentation with German-American dialect is “Lager Beer,” a humorous piece that appeared in the Dayton Tatler (sic) of December 13, 1890, signed with the Dunbar pseudonym Pffenberger Deutzelheim…” The Dayton Tattler was a newspaper Dunbar created geared towards the city’s black population. Dunbar’s good friends the Wright brothers printed the newspaper in their Dayton print shop.

Tattler

Some of Dunbar’s best-known poems are found in Majors and Minors. Notable poems include “When de Co’n Pone’s Hot,” “Frederick Douglass,” “We Wear The Mask,” “When Malindy Sings,” and “The Colored Soldiers.” There are a variety of anthologies of Dunbar’s verse that are available, and most of them are likely to include selections from Majors and Minors. You can also read the book here:

http://www.libraries.wright.edu/special/dunbar/explore.php?book=8

Patrick Kerin

 

References:

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Charlottesville Press, Charlottesville and London, 1993.

Paul Laurence Dunbar by Peter Revell. Twayne Publishers, Boston.

The Howells review of Majors and Minors:

http://www.sinclair.edu/academics/lcs/departments/his/OhioHistory/PaulLaurenceDunbar/TextsandCriticalReviews/HowellsReview/

 

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