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The East Hampton Star. (East Hampton, N.Y.) 1885-current, December 29, 1977, Image 18

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Persistent link: http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83030960/1977-12-29/ed-1/seq-18/


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II—EIGHT THE EAST HAMPTON STAR. EAST HAMPTON. N.Y.. DECEMBER 29, 1977 East Hampton’s Poet at 91—II John Hall Wheelock, the poet, has recorded some reminiscences of the East Hampton he knew as a boy almost 90 years ago, and of his singular parents, particularly his father, the “Gardener” of one of the son’s best- known poems. In response to a 1941 request for a short factual sketch of his father’s life, Mr. Wheelock wrote: “My father, William E. Wheelock, had a varied career. He graduated from Yale, and later from the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He practiced medicine for a short time in New York, but later became interested in law. He passed his bar examination and prac­ ticed law in New York City, but, in turn, gave this up for botany, which had always been his major interest. After taking a Ph.D. in botany, he was, for a short time, an assistant to the late Dr. Britton, at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Owing to ill health, he gave up this work and devoted the rest of his life to making his country place at East Hampton as beautiful as human skill and love could devise. The pinetum on that place, with its eighteen different varieties of conifers, was visited by people from all over the United States. I feel that my work as a poet was greatly influenced by the beauty of the place in which I grew up and in which I spent all my summers for nearly fifty years. Incidentally, my father dis­ covered a new variety of flower, in the genus polygyla, on which he published a monograph and which was named after him.” The elder Wheelock was knowledg- able on a wide variety of other subjects besides medicine, botany and the law, and had both the time and the personal fortune to indulge his interests, among which was a love of antiques. Around the turn of the century he began to acquire what was then thought of simply as handsome old furniture, and eventually amassed a remarkable col­ lection of antiques, with which he furnished his house here. Much of the collection, which John Hall Wheelock recently donated to the East Hampton Historical Society, is of local origin. A: There’s nothing I could say about my father’s collecting. It would be very odd if I could, because that collecting was done, most of it, when I was perhaps six, seven, eight, nine years old and later. I never was very much interested in antiques. I’m not a person who is at all ‘learned’ by temperament. I know nothing about them. I enjoy them . . . but I wouldn’t know a Hitchcock chair from a Dominy clock. My father was a very peculiar man in many ways. He was very reserved, he was very shy. And genuinely humble, not the humility that most people feel they have to put on, and was liked very much for that reason by many people, and especially by the local people that he got to know in his trips around the Island picking up old antiques and so on. Q: He was a lover of antiques, I expect? A: Yes, he had many, many books on the subject and he was quite learned on the subject of American antiques. Q: Did he teach himself, or had he learned from someone? A: No, he just taught himself. He loved everything in the past. He was just the opposite of those people who are interested only in the future. Q: Was your mother the same? A: Oh, she had . . . yes, she . . . my mother was Irish, you know, she was born in Dublin and came to this country when she was 12 years old. Her father brought her over with his family of eight. My mother’s father was a Presbyterian clergyman — Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. My mother shared in many of [my father’s] tastes as life went on. When she was a young woman, she told me, she cared nothing about God, and she also knew nothing about Him, but [my father] was so much interested in trees and flowers and growing things, that she became interested in them too, and became a very skillful gardener. My father was a withdrawn man, not at all sociable I would say, but for that very reason there was a curious honesty about him that appealed to many people. We had two gardeners in the summertime. My father had the ad­ vantage of being the son of a well-off man — his father. My grandfather Wheelock was a very successful busi­ nessman. Both my grandfathers, my maternal and paternal grandfathers, both started from nothing, they came from very poor families. Grandpa Wheelock supported his mother late in life and worked his way through college by waiting on the tables and shining shoes and doing other jobs, through City College here in New York. And my grandfather Hall — John Hall, after whom I am named — was born in Armagh, and his mother was poor, his family was very poor. He helped to support his mother when he was a mere boy and worked his way through Trinity College in Dublin. And then had a church in Armagh, and was called from there to a church in Belfast — Presbyterian Church — and then called to a church in Dublin and then eventually called to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he was pastor for, I think it was 38 years, until he died. So my mother came from a quite different background than my father, but she became interested in many of the things that. . . she was interested in handicrafts, she bound books, for instance. She was very skilled at embroidery, and also in working with . . . I forget what it is. You have a needle that’s red hot and that you do wood carving with — pyrotechnics, I think. A: My mother was a passionate reader of poetry, a lover of poetry. We boys were obliged to learn a poem a week by heart. My brother disliked this very much and I did too, but I got to like it and it’s what started me writing. I began very early to write poems in imitation of the poets I admired. I began by writing, trying to write, like Walter Scott in “The Lady of the Lake,” and that was when I was about six, I think. I can still remember some of those poems by heart. Well, anyway. . . Q: Can you quote one? A: Well, I can quote some rhymes. Q: I’d like to hear it. A: It is so absurd that. . . Q: Oh, please do. A: They illustrate all the flaws of a person who is not master of his craft. “The stag is on his weary way He will neither stop nor stay When he heard the hunter’s horn He jumped as if pricked by a thorn Kicked out his heels and dashed away Far down the forest and out to the bay.” Q: That was at the age of six? I should say that is pretty good for six! A: Well, I don’t think so. When you think that Alexander Pope translated “The Iliad” at three. (The conversation returned to the subject of William Wheelock and his relationship with his son.) A: Every piece of furniture in the house had distinction. And the shape of the rooms, and the architecture and the landscaping of the place, all done by my father, was what really made it possible for me to be a poet. And I didn’t realize this. We were very often in disagreement about many things. Q: You and your father? A: Yes, and it wasn’t until I was . . . until after his death, in walking through those paths, I could feel him communicating with me for the first time, and I celebrated that in the poem called “The Gardener:” “Father, whom I knew well for forty years Yet never knew, I have come to know you now” I then realized how close we’d been and that he knew we were, but... I... we disagreed about so many things. I was difficult, and he didn’t know what to do with me, so I was sent over to Germany to get a Ph.D. The president of Cornell, who lived in East Hampton, was a friend of my father’s, and my father poured out his heart to him about ‘what am I going to do with my son, he doesn’t want to do anything but write verse all the time.’ And [Cornell’s starwords by Val Schaffner Last Week’s Solution Across 1. Challenge 5. Touch clumsily 8. Abbreviated hamlet 12. Bucket’s 13. Dollar bill 14. Fluids 15. Gin flavor 16. All right 17. Specter 18. Howl 21. Little 22. Guild Hall needs them 24. Launch way 26. Subway 27. Twinkler 29. Eras 33. Guides 35. Monstrous female 37. De combat or d’oeuvres 38. Against 40. Kind of grass Solution Next Week 41. Burning pile 43. Spiritual masters 45. Before now 48. Distributing 50. Heap of stone 52. Steamship 53. Cans 56. Scrabble piece 57. Baked object 58. Chilled 59. Famous underground river 60. Pertaining to 19 down' 61. Ingests Down 1. Tooth man’s diploma 2. Snaky fish 3. Flat fish 4. Give way 5. Epistler C. C. 6. Turkish capital 7. King’s I 8. Residue 9. Feline remark 10. Bum 11. Entrance 17. Ruby or topaz 19. Soviet Union 20. Prescient card 22. Valenti’s crop 23. Biblical preposition 25. Equality 28. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great 30. Ex-Beach 31. Jacob’s brother 32. Concordes 34. Clairvoyance 36. Musical after Colette 39. Scottish creature’s nickname 42. Yang’s companion 44. Disentangle 45. Deeds 46. Pace 47. Unctuous 49. Employed 51. Tyrannosaur’s title 54. Profit 55. Leftist fraternity 57. Propaganda president] said, ‘well, why don’t you send him to Germany to get a Ph.D.?’ In those days, the best Ph.D. was a German one. It could give you entree to any university. And so I was sent over there. I fell in with everything. I always liked to see a new country, although I didn’t want to be away from East Hampton. But I didn’t get my Ph.D. I spent all my time going on writing. And I didn’t tell my father that I wasn't getting it. I didn’t tell him that I was, or make a deliberate untruth. But after three years, or two and a half years, he wrote me . . . he didn’t write very often . . . and said, ‘I suppose by now you will be getting your Ph.D. and coming home.’ And so then I had to tell him that I was no nearer than I had been before. I have celebrated that in a poem called “The Home-Coming.” [“In shame and sore disgrace, /And with much bitter wisdom he was come/Sick for his boyhood home.”] And I came home in disgrace __ and I really felt disgraced too, although the only thing I had done wrong was to follow my own bent after a very sensible plan had been made for me. So I came home and was just as much of a puzzle and problem to him as I had been all along. So he made a very generous offer. He said, ‘U you want to write poems . . .’ They were living in Morristown at that time. They lived The House in Bonac Cal Norris there for a few years. He said, “There you want, but if you want to be on your And I said, ‘I don’t want to live at will always be a room for you in this own in New York City, you will have to home. I want to be on my own.’ So I house—board and lodging—as long as earn your own way.’ Continued on n —7

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