Hammer, Langdon. “James Merrill: Life and Art”, Knopf, 2015.
The First Biography
James Merrill had a fascinating life and we are finally able to read about in the first biography of the poet to be published. Merrill was the son of Charles Merrill, cofounder of Merrill Lynch, the famous brokerage firm. His mother, Hellen Ingram was both a muse and an ally but she was also an antagonist throughout her son’s life. When his parents divorced, young Merrill looked for a way to repair the damage he felt had been done and he turned to poetry and love that he did not find at home. His life is the story of a young man finding escape from his parents while at the same time dealing with the same energies and obsessions as they had. He built a gay identity going in the opposite direction that the rest of America when the gay community was dealing with the closet, the quest for liberation and the agony of the AIDS epidemic. Merrill was a gifted poet who was dedicated to his craft and turning it into art.
This is the story of a young man escaping, yet also reenacting, the energies and obsessions of those powerful parents. It is the story of a gay man inventing his identity against the grain of American society during the eras of the closet, gay liberation, and AIDS. Above all, it is the story of a brilliantly gifted, fiercely dedicated poet working every day to turn his life into art.
Merrill studied at Amherst and then went to Europe seeking adventure, returning to the States in the 50s and became friendly with a host of literary people— W. H. Auden, Maya Deren, Truman Capote, Larry Rivers, Elizabeth Bishop, and he began publishing poems, plays, and novels. In 1953, he met the love of his life, an aspiring writer, David Jackson. They it the bars and the boys together and set up house first in Connecticut and later in Greece and Key West. Both had an addiction for the Ouija board that led them into conversations with the spirits of the other world. For Merrill, the Ouija board became poetic inspiration for Merrill and it brought him his amazing “The Changing Light at Sandover.” In his poetry, we see his combined perspectives and his diaries and letters provided many of the sources for this wonderfully readable biography. His comic self-knowledge gave hope to a world that was threatened by nuclear war and environmental disaster.
In this biography, Yale professor and author Langdon Hammer gives us what he calls Merrill’s “chronicles of love & loss” as well as the personal journey that he undertook. Having had access to so much of the Merrill estate gives Hammer the ability to write with candor, great depth and insight. His portrayal of Merrill is intimate yet it is an emphatic look at the man’s life (in 978 pages). We get a sense of how Merrill felt about the world as well as “lust for life” and this is what brought him to be such a fine lyric poet.
Because of his father, he was very, very wealthy as well as wonderfully gifted. However Merrill saw himself as cold and he enjoyed the occult. He was, like so many gay men of his time, HIV positive (which he hid) yet he emerged as one of the great poets of the AIDS generation. Merrill was meticulously formal and Hammer captures all of this in the book.
Regarding his sexuality, he was the picture of gay domesticity that generally ignored his homosexuality and he challenged the idea of “queerness” in literature and in the world at large. It would have been enough had Hammer just given us a picture of Merrill’s life but he goes beyond that and shows us what a biographer and a good biography are all about. Hammer gives us brilliant narrative, wonderful observation and a true analysis of one of the great poets of the modern age.