James Merrill is one of America’s most critically acclaimed living poets, having received, among many other honors, two National Book Awards, for Nights and Days (1966) and Mirabell (1978), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, for Braving the Elements (1972), and the Pulitzer Prize, for Divine Comedies (1976). His prodigious literary output has also included fiction, drama, and essays. With A Different Person: A Memoir, Merrill turns to yet another genre, and with remarkable success. His first strictly autobiographical work, A Different Person is a lyrical, insightful portrait of a young writer’s struggles with his own desires and the expectations of his parents. Much like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), it takes the reader inside the consciousness of a confused, sensitive individual, capturing in its free-flowing style a process of discovery, both of the writer’s “self’ and of his ties to others. Unlike Joyce’s work, however, this memoir focuses on a young adulthood rendered even more difficult by homosexual yearnings and the fractures these cause in a homophobic family and culture.
Merrill’s memoir focuses primarily on two crucial years in his development as a writer and a person. From 1950 to 1952, Merrill traveled widely in Europe, underwent psychoanalysis, and gained remarkable insight not only into his own life but also into those of his lover, friends, and parents. Merrill’s narrative proceeds chronologically in twenty-one sections devoted to journeys through numerous European cities, but he ends each chapter with italicized musings, some recounting real events, others transcribing imaginary conversations, dreams, and hidden fears. Merrill captures brilliantly the complexity of an individual consciousness, tracing the many ties linking the swirling, amorphous present to a fixed, unchangeable past, as well as a future over which one has some control. In scrutinizing so intensely a brief period of time, Merrill avoids the appearance of name-dropping or chattiness; in opening up his narrative with brief excursions through time and consciousness, he deepens his analysis of how dramatically and fortuitously one’s life can evolve over a two-year period.
In early 1950, the twenty-three-year-old Merrill was a young poet whose first book was about to be published and who had just met the man whom he thought would be his partner for life. As the narrative opens, however, an older, wiser Merrill, who is narrating and reflecting on his past, reveals just how deluded and pompous he was at the time. Isolated and insecure, the young writer was creating poetry that was verbally brilliant but lifeless. His social existence was equally shallow, rich in conversation and aesthetic texture but virtually emotionless. The prodigious wealth of his family allowed him a cushion of comfort that was productive, in that it allowed him the leisure to pursue his calling, but that also had unfortunate consequences, for it encouraged his diffidence and dilettantish behavior. In preparing to set sail for Europe, the young Merrill was making a conscious effort to disentangle himself from his past, to search out his own essence, to find his own voice.
Numerous interpersonal problems and childhood legacies had contributed to a static life in the United States. In particular, his troubled relationship with his father, Charles Merrill, intruded on his equanimity and sense of selfhood. The elder Merrill, one of the founding partners of the highly successful brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, was a no-nonsense businessman and reserved father whose early attempts to mold his offspring in his own image led to feelings of estrangement and mistrust on both sides. Profound guilt was added to this combustive mixture, for Merrill at the beginning of his narrative is unsure whether his father even knows of his homosexuality. The elderly Merrill is in uncertain health, and the son has been warned explicitly by his mother that knowledge of his sexual orientation would “kill” his father. In escaping to Europe, the young writer hopes to reevaluate this relationship and perhaps redefine it, for his father will meet him for a brief time on the Continent.
Merrill’s relationship with his mother is equally unhappy. She knows of her son’s sexuality and disapproves highly. More persistently than his father, Merrill’s mother attempts to remake her son, opening letters and consulting doctors as she searches for a way to “cure” his homosexuality. While Merrill does not feel at ease with his father, he actually has running battles with his mother, both real and imagined, as he attempts simultaneously to shock her and to gain her acceptance. A narrow notion of propriety leads Merrill’s parents to dread any hint of social scandal that sexual abnormality in their son might instigate. Merrill’s portrait of his parents is one of an entire generation, one that had survived the Depression and clung to conformity and rigid standards of behavior as forms of security against social and economic chaos.
As he begins his journey, Merrill senses that something is lacking in himself, or, more...
(The entire section is 2113 words.)