The Owner of the Red Wheelbarrow

July 7, 2015
by Paul Nelson

Being a William Carlos Williams fan, this story was a natural for me. A scholar by the name of William Logan, a professor at the University of Florida, (with help from a local historian) did the research to find the identity of the man who owned the red wheelbarrow in WCW’s often-anthologized (and brilliantly parodied by Kenneth Koch) poem:

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The story was in the New York Times and I posted the link on my Facebook wall. An excerpt:

In a note quoted in a 1933 anthology, Williams said he had seen the wheelbarrow “outside the window of an old negro’s house on a backstreet” in Rutherford, where Williams also lived and regularly paid house calls to patients in the African-American neighborhood.

Marshall’s former home in Rutherford, N.J. Credit William Logan

“The sight impressed me somehow as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon,” he said.

In an essay in Holiday magazine in 1954, Williams (who died in 1963) gave the man’s last name as Marshall, noting that he had once made a living fishing for porgies off Gloucester, Mass.“I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much,” he wrote. “I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”

One crank on Facebook commented that he was sick of the poem. Could be another case of commenting on a headline and not actually reading the story, but I thought of it again while in the p-patch. Part of the deal of having a plot in the community garden is that you agree to do eight hours of community service each year so that the garden’s maintenance can be spread out evenly. Usually you can attend a meeting or two and have some of that time knocked off easily, but I’ve been away a lot, mostly with Cascadia efforts since late April and I am at zero community service hours.

Thaddeus Marshall, the owner of the most famous red wheelbarrow in literary history. Credit Teresa Marshall Hale. Courtesy Mark Giordano.

Thaddeus Marshall, the owner of the most famous red wheelbarrow in literary history. Credit Teresa Marshall Hale. Courtesy Mark Giordano.

My last post was about the Joy of Postcards and I thought tonight as I left the garden after watering my plot that the community service of being in the neighborhood, being a good neighbor, a witness of history and, in the words of Allen Ginsberg “noticing what you notice” is quite a service as well, at least when practiced by poets like Williams. This is evidenced by another paragraph in the Times story referencing the owner of said wheelbarrow:

On July 18, in a moment of belated poetic justice, a stone will be laid on the otherwise unmarked grave of Thaddeus Marshall, an African-American street vendor from Rutherford, N.J., noting his unsung contribution to American literature.

He was not a pro athlete, nor a famous businessman or activist, as far as we know. By the article’s account, Mr. Marshall lived a humble life, but had a dignity which impressed the wily doctor and scholars who, 90 years later,  helped create the effort to give Mr. Marshall a proper remembrance. How often does something like this happen? So much depends on respect in the moment (for the moment) and trusting one’s impulses, or the gut feeling that may not be guts at all?


  1. Carolyne Wright

    A great piece to honor this quietly upright man who is connected via his wheelbarrow to literary history. Bravo!

  2. kristin

    Would fit beautifully on a postcard too. Having to restrain myself from going to do a genealogy search for Thaddeus Marshall. May do it yet.

    • kristin

      Ah ha. reading the article I see they did that search already.

  3. Lynne Shapiro

    The story thrilled me too, especially living as I do in the great poetry state of New Jersey.

  4. Brendan

    In one sense the purpose of poetry is to show just how interconnected we all are, which this article does beautifully. So much depends on the awareness of this moment and every this moment.

  5. auntmama

    Excellent post, Nice to remember the poem again in these days of much watering and needed wheelbarrows to bring in the mulch, the thick mulch holding some wet in the parched earth—so little a headstone or monumental.


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