- James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammer
Discussions of James Merrill for general audiences typically start with a consideration of his family background. As one of the sons of the successful co-founder of the Merrill Lynch firm, James (or Jim, or Jimmy, or JM, as he was known variously to friends and family members over the course of his life) enjoyed the advantage of pursuing a life in letters while also not having to worry about supporting himself. The usual means of such support—teaching—Merrill tried a few times and liked very little. But saying he “enjoyed” this financial independence isn’t wholly accurate. With such wealth came the problem of friends and acquaintances expecting financial assistance from Merrill. His way of handling this issue was to set up the Ingram Merrill Foundation through which grants could be awarded without Merrill himself having to turn down requests personally. Then there’s also the fact that he never lived extravagantly. Certainly, he traveled widely and frequently, and he owned homes in Stonington, Connecticut, and Athens, Greece, but neither was opulent, and Merrill could have afforded among the finest homes and cars. He chose not to. Instead he lived rather humbly and gave freely of his wealth to others.
Hammer’s new biography has been some time coming. The author admits to fourteen years as its gestation period, during which time he culled the Merrill archives (housed mainly at Washington University in St. Louis, which had asked for Merrill’s papers early on) for insights, as well as conducted interviews with surviving figures. The results, at over 900 tightly set pages, are impressive. The book demonstrates an impeccable attention to detail. Indeed, some of the details are less than savory. Merrill emerges as an insecure, recklessly promiscuous, hopelessly self-centered figure. Hammer also shows the vulnerable, kind, supportive, and brilliant side of Merrill who, among other things, was a [End Page 159] peerless craftsman of formalist verse. Merrill himself had already given us a glimpse of many of these sides to himself in his 1993 memoir A Different Person, which examines his formative time in Europe in the 50s, interspersed with reflections on his life in the intervening years. There Merrill tells of his casual affairs with strangers, as well as his problems with his family and his development as an artist. Hair-raising passages, such as his admission to seeing Jesus as only a kind of sibling rival for God’s attention, are honest, if not always palatable.
Aside from a handful of lyrics, Merrill’s reputation rests on his long work The Changing Light at Sandover. Drawn from sessions conducted with Merrill’s long term partner, David Jackson (known as DJ in the poem), while working a Ouija board, the poem reveals the origins and inner-workings of the universe, and there, too, the revelations are not always palatable. We learn, for example, that the mass of humanity is composed of “animal souls”; that wars are necessary to cut down on population growth; that homosexuals are a chosen group above all others, favored by the divine sources with whom JM and DJ correspond. In our inclusive, politically correct era, these pronouncements seem deplorable. Hammer writes about the apparent elitism in Merrill’s work, “he seems more embarrassed than offended by this aspect of the [Ouija’s] lessons, as if it were an unpleasantness that came with the territory” (595). As a gay man who acutely felt the effects of a society that marginalized him, it is all the more a wonder why Merrill would be so quick to publish elitist ideas in his poem. Or perhaps because of the persecution of gays, he learned to be tolerant of intolerance. Either way, it’s a curious feature of the work on which Merrill hangs his reputation.
Readers will come to a book like Hammer’s with different expectations. Those interested in the development of society’s recognition of gay rights will be disappointed by Merrill’s reluctance to become visible advocate of these rights, even if his poem did make a...