Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (2005) 34-54
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Extra-poetical Contexts and the Racial Other in "The Red Wheelbarrow"
Although once at the center of debates about modern poetry, the canonical status of William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," along with the imagist and objectivist practice it represents, now seems beyond dispute. If anything, the poem runs the risk of becoming, as Denise Levertov described it, one of those "tiresomely familiar and basically unrevealing anthology 'specimens'" (263). By the same token, the tendency to treat the poem as an "anthology specimen" owes something to Williams' efforts to remove it from its original context in Spring and All. For despite the intense critical scrutiny the poem has received over the years, very little attention has been paid to what Williams said about it and the different frameworks he provided for it. As if transfixed by its telescopic power, critics see through these frames and, in the process, keep a dark figure in the poem's biographical history—Marshall, the red wheelbarrow's African-American owner—at the poem's margins.
To my knowledge, Williams only mentions the owner of the wheelbarrow on two occasions. One is in an article, "Seventy Years Deep," written for Holiday magazine (1954) and the other appears in an introduction to the poem in an anthology entitled Fifty Poets, An American Auto-Anthology (1933) edited by William Rose Benét.
The article "Seventy Years Deep" is a human-interest story in which Williams presents himself as a poet of the people. The article's subtitle describes him as "A physician who is considered by many to be America's greatest living poet . . . [who] attributes his success to what he has learned from the people of his home town—Rutherford, New Jersey" (54). Stressing his connection to the community, Williams presents himself through what is, for the most [End Page 34] part, a sentimental condensation of incidents found in his autobiography. He works to reassure the reader that his two roles as doctor and poet were not in conflict with one another, and in his effort to attribute his success to what he has learned from the people of his hometown, he gives his fullest account of the emotional and personal significance of "The Red Wheelbarrow" for him. What he remembers about the poem is that it
sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the hold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn't feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.
Marshall's story helps Williams illustrate that as a doctor he "served all kinds of people" (78)—a fact for which he has every reason to be proud. Beyond that, though, the biographical connection between Marshall and "The Red Wheelbarrow" illustrates how Williams' dual roles as doctor and poet "formed a whole" in which his "patients have been food for [his] muse" (55). However, Williams' desire, late in his life, to say that his "affection for the old man somehow got into the writing" suggests his muse had trouble digesting Marshall and the black working-class experience he represents. Undoubtedly, Williams has a genuine affection for this man and sympathy for his plight that "somehow" get into the poem.1 But the question to ask is how they got there, because the poem, and Williams' lifelong relationship with it, would suggest that every effort was made to erase from the poem not only Marshall but, perhaps more importantly, Williams' feelings for him.
Exposing the emotional roots of "The Red Wheelbarrow" is in keeping with the...