This Day In Writing History
On March 3rd, 1926, the famous poet James Merrill was born in New York City. His father, Charles E. Merrill, was a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. His mother was Hellen Ingram. As a young boy, James Merrill enjoyed a very privileged upbringing. He had a nanny who taught him French and German.
When Merrill was eleven years old, his parents separated. They would divorce two years later. As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he met and became friends with future novelist Frederick Beuchner. When he was sixteen, his father surprised him by privately publishing a collection of his short stories and poems under the title Jim's Book. James Merrill would later regard this collection as an embarrassment.
In 1944, Merrill found himself drafted into the Army. He served an eight month tour of duty. When he returned, he resumed his interrupted studies at Amherst College. One of his professors, Kimon Friar, who was also his boyfriend, privately published a collection of his poems in Athens, Greece. Only fifty copies of The Black Swan (1946) were printed, making the book one of the most sought after literary rarities.
James Merrill's first commercially published book was a poetry collection titled First Poems (1951). In 1953, after a performance of Merrill's play The Bait in New York City, the author met David Jackson, who would become his partner of four decades. By 1955, they settled in Connecticut. For the first two decades of their relationship, they would visit Greece every year, vacationing in Athens. Merrill's writings often featured Greek themes, locales, and characters.
As a poet, James Merrill's style was elegant and witty. He was a master of wordplay, puns, and traditional poetic forms and meter, but he also wrote many works of free verse and blank verse. By the 1970s, he had established himself as one of the finest poets of his generation. In 1973, he won the Bollingen Prize. His seventh poetry collection, Divine Comedies (1976), which included his famous narrative poem Lost In Translation, won him the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Divine Comedies also included The Book of Ephraim.
The Book of Ephraim was the first part of a three-book epic poem that would be published first in installments, then in one complete volume as The Changing Light at Sandover (1983). The 560-page epic poem, sometimes referred to as a postmodern apocalyptic epic, was supposedly the result of twenty years of Merrill's transcriptions of spirit voices channeled through a Ouija board at seances held by Merrill and his partner, David Jackson.
Merrill's friends, admirers, and the literary world itself were quite shocked by his interest in the occult. Whether the epic poem really was dictated by spirit voices is debatable, but there can be no doubt that the books contained in The Changing Light at Sandover represent one of the most dazzling - and longest - epic poems ever written. It won Merrill the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983. One volume, Mirabell's Books of Number (1979), won him the National Book Award for Poetry. The Library of Congress awarded him the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry for his 1988 poetry collection, The Inner Room.
Although trust funds established during his early childhood provided James Merrill with great personal wealth, he preferred to live modestly and use his wealth to fund his philanthropic endeavors. He created the Ingram Merrill Foundation, (named after his mother and father) which subsidized literature, the arts, and public television. He also provided financial assistance to his close friends, poet Elizabeth Bishop and celebrated experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, as well as anonymous donations to other writers and artists.
Though he was best known as a poet, Merrill also wrote three plays, two novels, and works of non-fiction including a memoir, A Different Person (1993), wherein he painted a candid portrait of gay life during the 1950s and described his crippling bout with writer's block, for which he sought psychiatric help.
James Merrill died of AIDS-related complications in 1995 at the age of 68.
Quote Of The Day
"Strange about parents. We have such easy access to them and such daunting problems of communication." - James Merrill
Surprisingly, I was unable to find any video material on today's writer, James Merrill, so instead, here's a video of U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall reading his works at the University of Virginia. Enjoy!