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James Merrill: Life and Art. Langdon Hammer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Pp. xxiv + 913. $40.00 (cloth).

Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art, the first complete biography of the poet to appear since his death in 1995, is not only a welcome and necessary addition to twentieth-century poetry criticism: it is a superb example of the literary biographer’s art in its own right. Merrill aficionados—and it is to be hoped that this volume will add to their number—will be gratified that the task has been carried out with such grace and verve. More so in that writing a biography of Merrill poses a couple of specific challenges. First, in his poetry and in particular his memoir, A Different Person (1993), Merrill wrote brilliantly (if selectively) about his own life, making the subject something of a competitor with his own biographer. Second, Merrill rejected depth as a metaphor for the self from the very first: his writing delights in surfaces, and he was convinced that, in the words of Ephraim (the first spirit he and David Jackson met through the Ouija board), “Any surface concentrated upon will produce messages” (231). And so what if surfaces can be [End Page 261] deceptive, artificial, or ephemeral? So can our selves. Poetry is emphatically a means of giving order to all this, hence Merrill’s famous commitment to form, but the orders thus established can only be provisional. A self perpetually under construction, and moreover profoundly aware of itself as such, makes for richer subject matter for biography even as it denies the biographer easy narrative satisfactions.

On the first score, Hammer frequently allows Merrill to tell the story of his early life in his own words, especially concerning the time he spent in Rome from 1950–52. These years form the subject of A Different Person, a part of his life which, Hammer notes, Merrill used to stand for the whole. Hammer judiciously steps in here and there to correct too-brazen departures from fact but generally follows Merrill’s synecdochic approach by using the transformation of those Roman years into A Different Person to lay bare the enduring creative process through which Merrill made his life into art. On the second score, in order to capture that lifelong process of drafting and redrafting a self, James Merrill: Life and Art is structured around a series of detailed readings of Merrill’s most significant poems, including “An Urban Convalescence,” “A Tenancy,” “The Thousand and Second Night,” “The Broken Home,” “From the Cupola,” “To My Greek,” “Lost in Translation,” “Prose of Departure,” “Self-Portrait in Tyvek(TM) Windbreaker,” and, of course, The Changing Light at Sandover. These discussions are, without fail, subtle and insightful; the poetry criticism contained within the book is worth the price of admission alone.

Merrill’s detractors have depicted him as a mere versifier whose virtuosic command of traditional form amounts to an arid academicism (a charge that tends to neglect The Changing Light at Sandover almost entirely). Hammer’s readings rebut these criticisms through their close attention to Merrill’s nuances. They show how the lyric poems subtly revise traditional forms, as in the loosely-rhymed pentameter verse paragraphs that become one of Merrill’s trademarks and combine forms in new and unexpected ways, as in the thrilling pirouette from those verse paragraphs to Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat quatrains in “Lost in Translation,” probably Merrill’s finest shorter poem. Punning on stanza, Merrill described traditional forms as rooms inhabited by others for centuries but still apt to reveal hidden nooks and crannies to their newest occupants.

But the fact remains that formalism became an increasingly unfashionable commitment over the course of Merrill’s career, and, even today, the reader who is ignorant of, or indifferent towards, form is unlikely to warm to him. Where his contemporaries were concerned, I suspect that Merrill’s fabled wealth (based on the evidence here, habitually overestimated) caused his formalist proclivities to seem decadent to an extent that they may not have, had he been a different person. Indeed, even as The Country of a Thousand Years of Peace (1959) announced Merrill’s arrival, the ground of American poetry was shifting beneath his artfully arranged feet: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies was published in the same year, and with it began the so-called Confessional Movement. It is unsurprising to learn that Merrill “resented Lowell’s dominance of the poetic landscape in the 1960s” (274), but Hammer astutely notes the extent to which Life Studies left its mark on Merrill’s own poetics: whereas Lowell tends to abandon form in favor of free verse as his poems approach personal disclosure, it is precisely at these moments that Merrill cleaves most strongly to form. “Poetry made me who I am”: form is not an impediment to self-expression but rather a means to give shape to the self. From this perspective, Lowell’s rhetoric of self-disclosure looks less courageous than naïve.

That said, Merrill’s aversion to self-disclosure did not stem entirely from philosophical considerations: as a gay man living in the mid-twentieth century, some of his sense of doubleness was imposed from the outside. Athens and Stonington, for instance, represented the nights of sexual license and the days of relative conformity respectively that would inspire a series of poetic breakthroughs in his 1966 volume, Nights and Days. Merrill’s poems never aspired to the level of frankness manifested by some of his queer contemporaries, but Hammer’s biography underscores the fact that Merrill led an emphatically queer life and wrote profoundly, if covertly, about AIDS. This may encourage critics working in queer theory and gay and lesbian studies to revisit Merrill, in whom their interest has sometimes been attenuated. [End Page 262]

In David Halperin’s How to be Gay (2012), whose very premise that gay identity is a form of theatricality ought to be congenial, one turns to the index in search of “Merrill, James” only to find “Merman, Ethel” instead. Merman and Merrill were both Broadway habitués in the 1930s and ‘40s, but while the former was making her name as a musical theater comedienne, the latter was imbibing an utterly different aesthetic sensibility as a season-ticket holder at the Metropolitan Opera. Indeed, Merrill will probably never make congenial company for those who see the elevation of popular culture (often via its appropriation as camp) as part of an emancipatory political project. Perfectly capable of a camp turn of his own, and rigorously disclaiming the status of an intellectual, Merrill nonetheless maintained a thoroughgoing high-mindedness about the poetic vocation.

For the modernist reader, one of the thrills of Hammer’s biography is the level of continuity it demonstrates between modernism and Merrill’s postwar generation. For instance, in his 1933 judgement declaring Ulysses fit for importation to the United States, Judge John M. Woolsey sought the opinion of two “men of the world” on whether or not the novel was obscene; one of those men was Charles E. Merrill, James’s father and the co-founder of Merrill Lynch, misidentified as a “publisher” in Kevin Birmingham’s recent The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (2014). (One can imagine that Charlie, a man of the appetites, might well have felt a degree of affinity with the earthy, epicurean Bloom.) On his first extended visit to Europe in 1950, Merrill and his boyfriend Claude Fredericks visited Alice B. Toklas in Paris, who christened Merrill “Jamie.” This visit is recounted in A Different Person, but it is still something of a surprise to learn that Merrill would call on her during each successive visit to Paris until her death, as though she were a kind of queer godmother. Merrill contributed a recipe for shrimp à l’orange to Toklas’s infamous cookbook. Later, in 1954, Merrill met one of his poetic heroes, Wallace Stevens, at a luncheon to celebrate the publication of Stevens’s Collected Poems given by Alfred Knopf and attended by other modernist luminaries, including Marianne Moore and W. H. Auden. Stevens later singled out Merrill, in a letter to Witter Bynner, as a poet to watch; Merrill could not have known this when, in 1955, at one of his first séances with David Jackson, he conversed with Stevens in the afterlife. By following these and many other threads through exhaustive research, Hammer emphasizes the uncanny interconnectedness of Merrill’s social world. This must be what, in part, The Changing Light at Sandover figures for: what was a stellar rolodex in life becomes a truly celestial one as Stevens, Auden, et al. cross over to join Ephraim’s, and later Mirabell’s, cosmic salon. Hammer’s handling of The Changing Light is perhaps the biography’s greatest achievement: while offering a comprehensive and intricate composition history, Hammer treats the project’s supernatural elements with sublime tact, freely acknowledging the necessary suspension of disbelief that gives the work—indeed, all art—its aura.

Benjamin Madden
Beijing Foreign Studies University