James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammer Purchase Here
“Langdon Hammer’s richly textured biography of James Merrill’s life and art, which are so inextricably intertwined, is a work of great candor, insight, and sympathetic imagination. It is a magisterial achievement.” – Edward Hirsch
Langdon Hammer has given us the first biography of the poet James Merrill (1926–95), whose life is surely one of the most fascinating in American literature. Merrill was born to high privilege and high expectations as the son of Charles Merrill, the charismatic cofounder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and Hellen Ingram, a muse, ally, and antagonist throughout her son’s life. Wounded by his parents’ bitter divorce, he was the child of a broken home, looking for repair in poetry and love. 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 everyday to turn his life into art.
In his virtuosic poetry and in the candid letters and diaries that enrich every page of this deliciously readable life, Merrill created a prismatic art of multiple perspectives and comic self-knowledge, expressing hope for a world threatened by nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. Holding this life and art together in a complex, evolving whole, Hammer illuminates Merrill’s “chronicles of love & loss” and the poignant personal journey they record.
Integral to both his life and art was the creative refuge Merrill found at Water Street and Hammer honors that connection with descriptions of the town, the house on Water Street, and Merrill’s apartment that feel familiar and true. The biography adds much to our understanding of the impact Stonington had on Merrill’s life and how it is linked to some of his best poetry.
Langdon Hammer is Professor of English and American Studies and Chair of the English Department at Yale. His lectures on modern poetry are available free online through Yale Open Courses. He is the poetry editor of The American Scholar, the editor of Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters and May Swenson: Complete Poems for the Library of America, and a frequent reviewer of new poetry for the New York Times Book Review, Yale Review, and other magazines. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center at CUNY.