James Merrill was born in New York City, the son of Helen (Ingram) Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, one of the founders of the brokerage firm Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and (at one time) Beane. His parents divorced before his eleventh birthday, at which time he discovered a love for opera and music.
Merrill attended Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began to write, privately printing Jim’s Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories. After graduation, he entered Amherst College, but after a year there, he entered the U.S. Army, in which he served another year (1944-1945). He then returned to Amherst, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, had various poems published, and starred in a school production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (pr. 1926, pb. 1927). He wrote a senior thesis on Marcel Proust, the famous modernist French novelist, a writer who was always to have much influence on him. Merrill received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1948 and stayed on to teach a year at Amherst, then left to become a writer. He decided that Manhattan was not the proper atmosphere in which to write, so he first traveled throughout Europe, finally settling down in a house he purchased in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1954. In the mid-1960’s he bought another house in Athens, Greece. Throughout these years he shared both houses with his companion, David Jackson.
Merrill published his first book of poems, First Poems, in 1951. The book was well received and launched him on a lifelong career of writing. Before publishing another book of poems, he wrote two plays, The Immortal Husband (pr. 1955, pb. 1956) and The Bait (pr. 1953, pb. 1960), and a novel, The Seraglio (1957). The Bait was acted Off-Broadway in 1953. The Immortal Husband was presented at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in February, 1955; reviewers found it well written but confusing.
Merrill’s novel The Seraglio received mixed reviews: It was considered to have style, humor, and shape but to be...
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