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James Merrill

From Academic Kids

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poet James Merrill, age 30, in a 1957 publicity photograph for The Seraglio.

James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926February 6, 1995) was a Pulitzer Prize winning American writer, increasingly regarded as one of the most important 20th century poets in the English language.

Contents

Life

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James Merrill's father founded the world's largest brokerage firm.

James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City to Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had two older half siblings (a brother and a sister) from his father's first marriage. As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in economic and educational terms. Merrill's childhood governess taught him French and German, an experience Merrill wrote about in his 1974 poem "Lost in Translation."

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James Merrill's The Black Swan, published privately in 1946, is the poet's rarest publication.

His parents separated when he was eleven, then divorced when he was thirteen years old. As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School, where he befriended future novelist Frederick Buechner. When Merrill was 16 years old, his father collected his short stories and poems and published them as a surprise under the name Jim's Book. Initially pleased, Merrill would later regard the precocious book as an embarrassment.

Merrill was drafted in 1944 into the United States Army and served for eight months. His studies interrupted by war and military service, Merrill returned to Amherst College in 1945 and graduated in 1947. The Black Swan, a collection of poems Merrill's Amherst professor (and lover) Kimon Friar published privately in Athens, Greece in 1946, was printed in just one hundred copies when Merrill was 20 years old. Merrill's first mature work, The Black Swan is Merrill's scarcest title and considered one of the 20th century's most collectible literary rarities. Merrill's first commercially-published volume was First Poems, issued in 990 numbered copies by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951.

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The dust jacket for Peter, privately published in 1982, evokes the Merrill Lynch logo.

Merrill's partner of more than four decades was David Jackson, also a writer. Merrill and Jackson met in New York City after a performance of Merrill's "The Bait" in 1953. Together, they moved to Stonington, Connecticut in 1955. For two decades, the couple spent part of each year in Athens, Greece. Greek themes, locales, and characters play a prominent role in Merrill's writing. In 1979 Merrill and Jackson began spending part of each year at Jackson's home in Key West, Florida.

Merrill painted a candid portrait of his life with Jackson and with his later partner, actor Peter Hooten, in his 1993 memoir A Different Person. Merrill revealed that he suffered writer's block early in his career and sought psychiatric help to overcome its effects.

Despite his great personal wealth, Merrill lived modestly. After his father's death in 1956, Merrill used much of his inheritance to create the Ingram Merrill Foundation, supporting literature, the arts, and public television.

Merrill served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death. He died on February 6 1995 while vacationing in Arizona from a heart attack related to AIDS.

Awards

Merrill's , which included the poems "" and , was published in 1976 and awarded the  in 1977.
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Merrill's Divine Comedies, which included the poems "Lost in Translation" and The Book of Ephraim, was published in 1976 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Merrill was awarded every major poetry award in the United States, including the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Divine Comedies. Merrill won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983 for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (composed partly of supposedly supernatural messages received via the use of a Ouija board). In 1990, he received the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room. He received the National Book Award for Nights and Days in 1967 and again in 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number. He won the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1973.

Style

James Merrill's significance as a writer lies in his deliberate use of his personal relationships to fuel his poetry. He was considered a pre-eminent master of poetic meter and form, although he also produced free and blank verse.

Works by Merrill

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The cover of The Changing Light at Sandover, a 560-page epic poem published in 1982, shows the ballroom of James Merrill's childhood home in The Hamptons in the 1930s.

Since his death, Merrill's work has been anthologized in three divisions: Collected Poems, Collected Prose, and Collected Novels and Plays. Accordingly, his work below is divided upon those same lines.

Poetry

Prose

Novels and Plays

Novels

Drama

  • The Birthday (1947)
  • The Immortal Husband (1955)
  • The Bait (1960)

Collection

Works about Merrill

  • Stephen Yenser, The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill (1987)
  • Alison Lurie, Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson (2000)
  • James Merrill: Essays in Criticism (1983)
  • Reflected Houses (1986) audio recording
  • The Voice of the Poet: James Merrill (1999) Audio Book
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