James Merrill in a kimono ca. 1980, Los Angeles.
In High Dudgeon: Alfred Corn reviews A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill, edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser, Knopf (2021)
Business first: This selection of letters from the late James Merrill is edited by Stephen Yenser, briefly his student, his friend and the author of a critical book about the poet; and Langdon Hammer, author of the estate-approved biography of Merrill. The volume comes with an affectionate and informative introduction by Yenser, an appendix giving brief biographies of some of the letters’ recipients, a Merrill chronology, and an index.
And now, full disclosure: I was for about fifteen years privately and publicly associated with Merrill, first in a sort of artist-disciple relationship, then as a friend and fellow poet. Even closer to him was the late J.D. McClatchy, my partner for thirteen years. The selection here includes a few letters Merrill wrote to us jointly, but none of the many he wrote to me alone. The editors say they steered away from letters that dealt with poetic technique and structure, and his to me were often concerned with those matters. I first met Langdon Hammer in a 1977 College Seminar at Yale, during which I introduced him to Merrill’s poetry. While he was working on the biography, I gave him information about his subject, commenting on drafts of the chapters as he wrote them (though not the ones I appear in). I’ve also met Stephen Yenser several times and have exchanged a few letters with him. The main purpose of the present article is not to assign a rating to this book, but instead to offer some thoughts about Merrill and the letters he wrote, thoughts derived from my own direct experience with him and with people we both knew. I’m certain that anyone who admires his poetry will want to buy this book, partly because the letters shed light on his life and work, but also because of the intrinsic literary merit and entertainment value they offer. The content is anything but ordinary. His privileged position as the son of the founder of both the Merrill Lynch brokerage firm and Safeway groceries had favorable results beyond comfortable surroundings and freedom from money worries: an excellent education, extensive travels, friendships or at least memorable meetings with eminent writers, and the leisure to devote many hours of every day to his vocation. These factors partly account for the interest of his writings, yet not all aspiring writers who lead privileged lives succeed. Merrill had talent, determination and discipline. The fact that he was gay—and gay in a highly sophisticated, witty vein—is an extra attraction for readers of this magazine.
Merrill liked reading collections of literary letters, just as he enjoyed writing his own. Many of those here urge correspondents to write back soon, partly, I sense, to give him a chance to send a beautifully worded reply. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that letters were an addiction for him, a genre he must also have regarded as part of his literary legacy. He sometimes kept copies and urged his friends to sell or donate letters they’d received from him to the Library at Washington University, where his archive is deposited. In his lifetime, he wrote a vast number; the present selection is the tip of the tip of the iceberg, most likely designed to serve as a helpful companion to the biography Professor Hammer published five years ago. In fact, many of these letters are excerpted in that biography. Those dating to Merrill’s childhood and the teen years are interesting not so much for experience and style as for signposts in the unfolding of his life story. Yet even in his teens, he had a firm grasp of “correct” prose and joined to it an unusual gift for description. Passing years brought more experience and wider reading as the adult arrived at a blithe and agile expressivity, characterized by complex syntax, surprising metaphors, elegant idioms, irony, paradox, word play and camp humor— a style so rich and a perspective so “knowing,” the letters are best consumed at wide-spaced intervals, no more than a couple a day.
Dramatic interest heightens, though, when his first love affair begins. This involved a Greek-American named Kimon Friar, who was the aspiring poet’s teacher at Amherst in 1945, and who rather quickly became his lover. Several of the love letters to Friar are included here, none of them silly or gushy as you might expect from someone so young. But a dark shadow enters—through the agency of letters, in fact—when Merrill’s mother snoops and discovers a few that Friar sent in return. We gather she went into high dudgeon about her son’s sexual initiation, even conveying the news to his instantly enraged father, from whom she was now divorced. The fact isn’t mentioned anywhere in print, and may not be true, but I was told that Charles Merrill thought of hiring someone from Murder, Inc. to bump off the predatory professor. Fortunately, his former wife persuaded him not to.
Instead, Merrill agreed to begin psychoanalysis, which didn’t change his orientation but was useful to him in other ways. Writing to his mother he says: “I’m glad that I don’t expect to be happy myself, as a result of analysis; only to be able to meet what comes my way, and turn outward those energies now consumed in defensiveness and fear of myself.” [Rome, 1951.] The following year, he comments again on his psychoanalysis: “The difference is simply in seeing; the world and other people in it have become so much realer for me, there isn’t room for narrowness in my view of them; I don’t feel like blaming them any more than I want their flattery—all this has become superfluous, and it’s all right, it’s all right.” Yet he doesn’t fully trust this newfound idealism, as we see when he goes on to say: “Perhaps I overstep my capacities a little; so much of this has come this evening, in the course of writing this letter; and it pleases me so to see what is coming out of me that it’s maybe put a bit too positively and too well to be, in itself, my actual state of mind in the long run; but that’s no matter, it’s true enough.” [Rome, 1952.] Even more mordantly, in a letter to Friar sent not long after, he says, “When I think it over, nothing comes to my mind but a stream of sad half truths gleaned from my hours on the couch.” Half truths: one of the keys to understanding Merrill is his regular oscillation between a tender idealism and something more critical or even jaundiced. For one thing, he could never be sure those he loved loved him in return—him, and not his money, his literary accomplishments, his famous friends, his privileged position in the world of letters. It’s a well-known dilemma among the rich and famous. A variety of solutions to it have been tried, and some of Merrill’s are recorded in his correspondence.
Love letters to Friar, as we might guess when the author is a twenty-something, soon fade, but they are replaced by large numbers sent to a series of loves that follow: to Claude Fredericks, to Robert Isaacson, then to David Jackson, who was his life-partner until Merrill’s death. But the list continues: notably, a young Greek named Strato Mouflouzelis with whom he fell in love after he and David Jackson, though still living together as a couple, began seeking other partners. The next in line was a young man named David McIntosh, arguably the most compelling of all, followed, finally, by Peter Hooten. I was disappointed that there are no letters here to another Peter, still living, who is the subject of the poetic sequence titled, simply, “Peter.” He was off and on Merrill’s sex buddy over a period of decades. I remember him well. An uneducated New Hampshire farmer, what used to be called a “horny-handed son of the soil,” he was apparently bisexual; there were many women in his life, unions resulting in children born out of wedlock in high numbers. In the “Peter” sequence, Merrill inserts a quip I think David Jackson first made, calling him “a genetic litterbug.” Intermittently, over a long period, Merrill found pleasure with this man from a demographic far removed from his own; though I suppose someone with limited education wasn’t an ideal recipient of Merrill’s well composed and allusive letters— all the more in that he couldn’t reply to them in the same vein.
In one of his letters Merrill says, “There is no love without fiction”; the binary of fiction/illusion v. reality is, as I’ve suggested, one of Merrill’s signature themes. Though Stephen Yenser was (and is) straight, early letters to him also qualify as love letters, that aspect gradually fading as the reality principle asserted itself. What do we make of the fact that Merrill continued to write to his lovers long after amorous feelings had subsided? You almost get the sense that romance was only a way station along the road to the ultimate relationship he desired: that of letter-writer to correspondent. And it may not be an exaggeration to conclude that, for him, romantic love’s greatest value was simply its thematic potential, leaden “material” to be transmuted into the golden discourse of art. His poem “Matinees” speaks of his initiation into the imaginative realm of opera and arrives at this rather stark conclusion, applicable to both opera and poetry:
The point thereafter was to arrange for one’s
Own chills and fever, passions and betrayals,
Chiefly in order to make song of them.
But I can also imagine him revising Lovelace’s poem to Lucasta and saying to his lovers (or implying it), “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not writing more.” Maybe. It’s been observed, though, that one of the drawbacks to loving and living with artists in any genre is the presence of a previous and lasting romance—that is, devotion to the making of art, a passion that persists through every subsequent relationship. The spouse has a powerful rival; and soon discovers that the artist will never stop “getting it on the side” from that first love.
Merrill’s love affairs sometimes overlapped with each other and with occasional shack-ups, which he didn’t regard as erosive to more serious bonds. The letters written to new young male disciples (Brian Walker and Torren Blair, for example) always contain a hint of flirtation, though Merrill was wise enough not to persist in the face of indifference. The Merrill-Jackson arrangement for staying together as affectionate but non-sexual partners, tolerant of extramural dalliances and even long-term affairs, will shock no reader of this magazine. It was, for example, the pattern adopted by Merrill’s close friend Chester Kallman and W.H. Auden, plus many others we could all name. Let those without sin cast the first stone.
I shouldn’t give the impression that love letters outnumber other kinds of letters in this selection. Merrill had a very wide circle of friends, some famous, some obscure. In general, letters written to people in the second category were the most charming, filled with comic descriptions, choice phrases and jaunty cynicism. He is particularly good at recounting literary gatherings, for example, the luncheon that Knopf publishers gave for Wallace Stevens on his 75th birthday, when his Collected Poems was published. The resulting thumbnail sketches of Stevens, Marianne Moore and the Knopfs are well worth pondering. Though he doesn’t appear in the famous 1948 photograph of the Gotham Book Mart’s upstairs room, when Edith and Osbert Sitwell were being feted, he did attend. It seems he was on the B list, not illustrious enough for the photo op and herded into an adjoining room along with other nobodies like William Carlos Williams and John Berryman. But his description of Edith Sitwell is bitchery at its most elegant. I also chuckled at an account of a reading he gave in San Francisco in 1956, the audience including irreverent listeners he called “a wild little group of Zen-Hipster poets.” He says, (in a letter to Claude Fredericks), “One of them was a tiny little monkey with hair in his eyes, name of Gregory Corso.” It would be unfair to blame him for not knowing that little monkey and fellow Beats would soon after achieve worldwide fame—even if Corso’s fan base would in the long run decline. As for other attendees, Ginsberg among them, he reports this: “They say, ‘Why don’t you scream? That’s what people out here want! Embarrass yourself!’” But no, that was never going to happen.
J.D. McClatchy (or, as he wanted his friends to call him, “Sandy”) sent Merrill a couple of fan letters in 1972, which were followed up by an invitation to dinner at Merrill’s house in Stonington, Connecticut. No other guests were present, a red flag Sandy at that age didn’t have the experience to recognize as such. He told me that, after many glasses of wine, they ended up in bed, whereupon he got cold feet and the rest of the night turned his back to the miffed seducer. His interest in “Jimmy,” as we eventually came to call him, was literary and personal, not physical. He said Jimmy the next day reproached him (though without much rancor) for “treating him like a bolster.” That night’s fruitless moves were never attempted again, and in subsequent years the two became, in a different sense, “bolsters” for each other, Jimmy helping Sandy make his way as critic, opera librettist and poet, Sandy fetching and carrying for Jimmy and publishing rave reviews of his books.
I met Jimmy the following year, after David Kalstone (my first mentor and a close friend of Jimmy’s) showed him some poems of mine. A correspondence began, mostly literary at first, though, again, a hint of flirtation always hovered in the background. In December of 1975 Jimmy gave a party at his place in New York, a sophisticated gathering where I met Sandy, the only other young man present. The following month, my first book came out and almost in the same moment the love affair with Sandy began. In letters to me (none of them included in this book), Jimmy was dubious, wondering if Sandy and I weren’t too much in the same category to make a good couple. In his view, a workable tandem required strong differences between the two partners. Just possibly, for someone who was skilled in the techniques of reverse psychology, his expressed qualms were a paradoxical form of encouragement, a concealed prompt to get us to tie the knot.
He was wrong; and he was right. Very few people are as loyal, generous and helpful to his friends as Sandy was. Unfortunately, he was something less than that to his partner, as became clearer to me once I had gone to 12-Step meetings and sobered up. Sandy was bitterly opposed to that decision because it meant losing his closest drinking buddy—much like Jimmy, whose first reaction to the news was to extend a glass of wine and say, “Nonsense, you’re not an alcoholic. Here.” In elevated circles, teetotalers, along with vegans and self-improvers in general, are regarded as bores who “want to live forever.” Jimmy had no clue at the time that, a few years later, he and someone very close to him would also begin attending the meetings. It took me a while to get my sober bearings, years during which several pivotal events occurred. First, David Kalstone died of HIV-related causes. Death was real, death was serious; and so was life. The serious person shouldn’t waste time on futility and unhappiness. Then, another bizarre event (which I’ve never before now spoken of publicly). One afternoon during my first months of sobriety I was alone with Jimmy at his New York apartment. He had just emerged from the shower, wearing a kimono-style bathrobe with (I believe) nothing underneath. As we talked, longer and longer silences intervened between enigmatic sentences and knowing glances. He spoke of “thin ice.” Seduction, old style! Stunned and afraid he might power through that thin ice, I got up to leave, not failing to notice his ironic half smile as he waved goodbye. I couldn’t begin to understand the scene. After being “mere” friends for so long? And did he think Sandy, if he were told, would approve and not feel betrayed? Concerned that the facts might cause an explosion, I never back then mentioned the event, either to him or to anyone else. After all, wouldn’t Jimmy be sure to deny it and recommend psychotherapy to treat what must, surely, be paranoia? Looking back, I realize I also dreaded the possibility that Sandy would call me a liar and take Jimmy’s word over mine. Still worse, he might have said, “Oh did he? So what? Big deal. You’re younger and stronger. He couldn’t have raped you.”
Granted, there are degrees of “betrayal.” During the middle period of our relationship, both Sandy and I had, without concealment, stumbled into brief erotic encounters, singly or jointly, and thought nothing of it. No repeats with anyone ever occurred, so there was no threat to the couple. However, after Sandy began teaching at Princeton, I gradually came to realize that he had fallen for one of his students, whose praises he sang week after week. Given that the boy was his student and straight, I turned a blind eye to it all, assuming it was nothing more than an idle fancy. It was only during the discussions leading up to our separation that he admitted they had actually spent a night together. (Zsa Zsa Gabor once said, “You never know a man until you divorce him.” Very true.) That last year we spent together the physical side of our “marriage” had dwindled to a half-hearted going through the motions. Having taken the social and professional rap for our orientation, I didn’t want to forego the best part of being gay. There was no way to fight off the feeling that it was time to “open up the relationship,” as the cliché puts it. Further, I’d met someone I felt attracted to in ways beside simple lust; but didn’t want to begin anything until I’d spoken to Sandy about it.
I told him I thought we, like Auden and Kallman, like Jimmy and David Jackson, should contemplate entering a new phase, remaining a committed and warmly affectionate couple, but seeking partners elsewhere. Nothing had prepared me for Sandy’s more than ballistic reaction. He called me every nasty name in the slang lexicon, shrieking with rage. I said, “But what about Jimmy and David? You don’t disapprove of them, do you?” “I don’t want a relationship like theirs,” he yelled. I was speechless. Remembering Auden’s account of his fury at discovering Kallman’s first outside affair, weeks when he lost all reason and wanted to kill his partner, I became afraid. Our small Manhattan apartment had only one bedroom. It seemed safer to get away from all the yelling, so I packed a small bag and left, staying in a friend’s apartment during the following months. I’d had no intention of breaking off permanently with Sandy, but the discussions that followed were all recrimination and no compromise. The inescapable conclusion was that our battered union couldn’t be patched up, it no longer felt safe. I decided to pursue the other relationship, and almost immediately Jimmy got word of what was happening. I went to see him at his place, the apartment where Sandy and I had met thirteen years earlier and where he had sat murmuring to me in his bathrobe some seven years after that. I explained that I’d wanted to adopt the same arrangement that he and David had set up. He neither accused (how could he, considering his own life) nor encouraged. He mentioned resources at his disposal that Sandy and I didn’t have, in particular, several residences making possible the pursuit of separate interests during a partner’s absence. That’s not quite saying “adultery” is only for the rich, but it comes close. I also talked about alcohol and its negative effect on a relationship. I was no longer comfortable being around heavy drinking. That argument had no effect, considering that for his entire life Jimmy had been surrounded by precisely that, often enough slipping into excess himself. We parted coolly, but no major disapproval was expressed. I assumed that, regardless of what happened with Sandy and me, Jimmy and I would continue as friends. What I now realize is that Jimmy, the scion of a broken marriage, loathed divorce. He said as much in a letter to Stephen Yenser, who, roughly at the same time, was separating from his wife. Jimmy discouraged him. He thought that, despite having over the decades drifted very far apart, it was right that he and David Jackson should stay together as a couple, at least nominally. And the same applied to his friends. But I, under the circumstances outlined here, wasn’t able to manage that.
The reason why I’ve told this story is that it helps explain a statement he makes in a letter to Edmund White, who’d been my friend since the mid-Sixties. Sent not long after the breakup (April 1989), it says: “No one talks of anything but Alfred and Sandy. For a while I thought I wouldn’t need to take sides, but A’s behavior has been so callous and sanctimonious that I don’t care if I ever lay eyes on him again. I know he’s your old friend, but entre nous I’ve always liked Sandy better.” I assume that “callous” refers to the decision to begin a new relationship after I moved out, an event that provoked roars of anguish from Sandy to all his friends. I, on the other hand, felt that our difficulties were private and shouldn’t be broadcast by megaphone from the rooftops of the city. A mistake, because my reserve made everyone accept as truthful Sandy’s unqualified version of the story. In his version, I threw away a perfectly good “marriage” merely to run off with a fresh face. It’s a narrative that is still without reservation accepted as true in some circles. Is there any possibility that the account I give here will change that? I don’t know. As for “sanctimonious,” I suppose that refers to the AA program and its standard “spirituality,” which some people regard as being “goody-goody” or whatever. Anyway, with both Sandy and Jimmy carrying the tale, plus anyone’s natural wish to soothe hurt feelings, nearly all our former friends turned against me. Within a few weeks, almost everyone we knew, including Merrill, stopped returning my calls. I hadn’t realized just how much his support counted until it was withdrawn. The following years were touch and go, but somehow I muddled through.
I already knew that Merrill liked Sandy more than me. They’d met a year earlier and had very similar temperaments and interests. Sandy did everything he possibly could to please Jimmy, and when Jimmy’s wishes went counter to what I wanted us to do, Sandy always followed his requests. In those days I believed that intelligent people are contemptuous of flattery, but Sandy was under no such illusion. Jimmy’s least word or gesture was exclaimed over and praised. Sandy also flattered by imitation; I do think he longed to be James Merrill. Though I sometimes mentioned Jimmy’s poetry in critical articles I wrote, and taught his poems in my courses, I never published hyperbolic reviews of his books, thinking that would amount to conflict of interest. Meanwhile, I had to bite my tongue when Jimmy (privately or publicly) disparaged progressive politics (exception made for gay politics, which he favored). We don’t like to carp at our friends, so I concealed my distaste for casual remarks he made that could be described as racist or misogynist. But strong feelings are hard to conceal, and people less sensitive than Merrill would have detected that I had reservations about him—whereas Sandy had none.
All told, I think he was glad, finally, to have a convenient excuse to end our friendship. The cracks had appeared long before. Once I’d begun to have a public life, I sense there was (strange, considering his huge renown and my lack thereof) even a trace of rivalry. The books after my first he saw as toplofty, hinting that he found them pretentious, not to say absurd. I sensed he wasn’t 100% pleased when critics like Harold Bloom and Joel Conarroe praised them. That hurt, but I would even so have continued in the friendship if he’d been willing. I admired much of his oeuvre and learned useful perspectives and techniques from him—not to mention the fact that he liked at least some of what I’d written. Quite apart from the help he gave and favors he bestowed, I found him (at least in the beginning) very entertaining company, reeling off anecdote after anecdote, sharp observations and amusing phrases, always stimulating, right up to the end. Regrettably, he did take sides and went off hand in hand, so to speak, with Sandy. I made several attempts to achieve some sort of reconciliation with both; and was always rebuffed. They have since died, unfortunately and prematurely. Perhaps it’s now permissible to give a full account of what happened. Much of the complicated narrative is already laid out, with much more wit (“awful but cheerful”) in Merrill’s letters. I hope these observations contribute to a fuller understanding of them.