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John Brooks Wheelwright (sometimes Wheelright) (9 September 1897 – 13 September 1940) was an American poet from a Boston Brahmin background. He belonged to the poetic avant garde of the 1930s and was a Marxist, a founder-member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the United States. He was bisexual.
Wheelwright was descended from the 17th-century clergyman John Wheelwright on his father's side and the 18th-century Massachusetts governor John Brooks on his mother's side. He studied at Harvard University and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology before practising as an architect in Boston. He was editor of the magazine Poetry for a Dime.
Expelled from Harvard for one prank too many, Wheelwright was nonetheless a splendid example of what critic Austin Warren called the “two strains” of the Boston character: the “Yankee trader and the Yankee Saint (often a combination of scholar, priest and poet).” Money and ideas, usually quite revolutionary ideas, and usually of a “moralizing” nature, have always kept close company in Boston, above all in Harvard Yard, never closer than in Wheelwright, in whose case the representative ancestors were—on his mother’s side—Peter Chardon Brooks, richest of colonial Boston’s merchant princes, and—on his father’s—the seventeenth-century John Wheelwright, nonconformist Anne Hutchinson’s chief ally in leading the Antinomian Rebellion in Boston in 1636–1638. Nor could anyone have been more conscious of this lineage than the twentieth-century John Wheelwright, who saw Boston’s history as a whole parade of righteous rebels—not only the colonial and Revolutionary heroes, but then the intellectual heroes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, and the abolitionists Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison. To which he would have added figures in the arts in his own era, such as Amy Lowell or even, later, Robert Lowell: in fact, critics like Austin Warren compared Lowell’s poetry with that of Wheelwright, calling Wheelwright the “apostolic successor to Mrs. Jack Gardner and Amy Lowell.”
The young poet was, however, carrying on the rebel tradition from his own father, Edmund, a distinguished architect who was rambunctiously and aggressively antiphilistine; the Lampoon, of which he was a founder and for which he drew the first cover, was a result. So, too, his Rollo parodies. The son’s biographer observed that “there is evidence [Edmund, who was very high-strung,] had some difficulty in finding a suitable wife … . He remained a bachelor … [until] at the age of thirty-three … .[Then he married] Elizabeth Bott Brooks,” a union that, though it yielded two sons, seems related to the “long term stress” and “melancholia” and extreme depression cited in connection with Edmund’s “nervous breakdown” in 1910, and his subsequent suicide in 1912. The Lampoon building, among his last works, was called by his friend Barrett Wendell an example of “freakish gayety and beauty.”
The effect on young John, who was at St. George’s School, in Newport, Rhode Island, when his father committed suicide, was traumatic. Already known for his high-strung aesthetic sense and deep personal, religious emotions, John was an ardent Anglo-Catholic whose faith was also fueled by his strong attachments to several other men, including sculptor Joseph Coletti and Father Spence Burton. There is much more evidence of the son’s homosexuality than of the father’s: Elroy Webber remembers that the precise sexual orientation of [John Wheelwright] “was a constant mystery” to his friends. “He didn’t speak much of girls nor did he seem to know many.” Yet Webber also recalls a party at which Jack was accused of making improper advances toward a female guest. Matthew Josephson and Malcolm Cowley thought there were homosexual liaisons … . Howard Nemerov recalls that Jack “once tried timidly to kiss me” and conjectures that he was probably “a touch homoerotic rather than homosexual, and equally timid with women.” Jack’s only explicit statement about his sexual views in later life [was his bitter attack on] “those who split the monism of love into the dismal triad of heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality.”
One too many one night in a Back Bay bar and a speeding driver, however, and Wheelwright’s life was ended in 1940, at only age forty-three. He died after being struck by an automobile at the intersection of Beacon St. and Massachusetts Avenue in the early morning hours of September 13, 1940.
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