Jody Norton: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"

The appointed hero of the quest for personality, the educated modern European male, stands ready to enter and confront the unconscious—dedicated, however, not to its integration, but to its mastery. . . .

Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" provides a cri-tique of this obsessive heroism:



Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October ,

And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.


The intractability of time is imaged by the "gray faces of Negroes," and the "Polacks nursing long beers." Life history, in "Autumn Be-gins," is a play of social and generational repetitions; but the fact that life begins in autumn indicates the elegaic character of regeneration in this poem: lives and beers and football careers have ends.

The pathos of historicity, and our sympathetic engagement with night watchmen who rewrite their ruptures, are problematized in strophe two, however. For the separation anxiety that motivates the heroic dreams of these "proud fathers"—dreams that simultaneously commemorate their sons' oedipal differentiation as the origin of the hero and efface this doubled separation through identifica-tion with sons-as-heroes—could be dispersed through love given to, and received from, the "starved" women. But the very hyper-(un)-consciousness of difference that so often provokes distancing in male narratives, whether popular or theoretical, blocks these men from such a substitutive satisfaction, so that they prefer "nursing long [phallic] beers" to nursing breasts.

At the same time, since a denial of the reality of separation, in its various effects, would simply substitute the pathos/pathology of repression for that of identification, the poem chooses to recognize the beauty of a violent ritual that, like the (female) tarantella or the rites of Dionysis, is both appalling in its delusionality and excess, and magnificent in the aesthetic energy of its response to fundamental psychic needs. The "sons" who "gallop terribly against each other's bodies" "At the beginning of October" evoke a hectic, human-animal-vegetable continuum whose violence reflects the fundamentally entropic character of being.

This beauty, however, is expensive—too expensive for both women and men in this already impoverished Ohio River community. The efficacy of the heroic image as a kind of prosthetic identity for the emotionally handicapped males involves a massive expenditure of libidinal energy on a narcissistic objectification of the self as Other. The consequence of giving everything to oneself is that one has nothing left to give: the men of Martins Ferry and "Their" women spend their lives "Dying for love."


Title Jody Norton: On "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jody Norton Criticism Target James Wright
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Narcissus Sous Rature: Male Subjectivity in Contemporary American Poetry
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