Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., on October 25, 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the elder son of John Allyn Smith, Sr., and Martha Shaver Little Smith. The Smiths would have one other child, Robert Jefferson Smith, born September 1, 1919. Between 1914 and 1926, the Smith family moved about every two years to various Oklahoma farming communities, the elder Smith holding a series of banking positions. In 1924, a scandal involving the senior Smith’s brother’s theft of funds forced Berryman’s father to resign from the First State Bank in Anadarko, Oklahoma. By 1925, Berryman’s parents and grandmother had moved to Tampa, Florida. The boys remained in Oklahoma at a Roman Catholic boarding school, St. Joseph’s Academy. Tempted by cheap land and quick profit, Berryman’s father began to speculate in Florida real estate. By mid-1926, however, the land boom collapsed, Smith went bankrupt, and the entire family, including the boys (by this time recalled from Oklahoma), moved to Clearwater, Florida. It was there that they rented an apartment in a building owned by John Angus McAlpin Berryman.
The Smiths’ marriage was by then all but ended. Smith, increasingly despondent over his business failures and his wife’s obvious romantic involvement with their landlord, threatened suicide. On June 26, 1926, Smith was found shot dead outside their apartment, apparently a suicide. By September 8, 1926, his wife had married Berryman and had changed her own first and middle names to Jill Angel. She also changed her elder son’s name to John Allyn McAlpin Berryman, though this was not done legally until 1936, when Berryman filed for a passport to study in England. Thus it was that at the age of twelve, the future poet had to abandon the name of his father and assume that of his mother’s lover. His stepfather, whom he called “Uncle Angus,” was a distant but never cruel man; even so, his father’s apparent suicide continued to affect Berryman throughout his life. It certainly contributed to his preoccupation with death by suicide and foreshadowed his own manner of death.
After a generally unhappy stay at South Kent School in South Kent, Connecticut, Berryman had the good fortune to attend Columbia University, starting in 1932. It was there that he studied under Mark Van Doren. Van Doren, himself a poet as well as a scholar, encouraged Berryman to write verse, took him as a protégé, and was instrumental in helping him obtain the Euretta J. Kellett Scholarship for two years of study in England at Clare College, University of Cambridge. Berryman spent 1936 through 1938 at Clare College, pursuing his studies in the alternately brilliant, erratic, and lackadaisical way that typified his entire school career.
The two most important...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the eldest son of a banker and a schoolteacher. His early childhood, spent in various small Oklahoma towns, was normal enough until his father’s work took the family to live in Tampa, Florida. Marital problems developed and the boy’s father became increasingly troubled and unstable, until in June, 1926, he shot himself in the chest at the family’s vacation home across Tampa Bay. Young John heard the shot just outside his window—one sharp report that would echo through his consciousness for the rest of his life. When the boy’s mother moved to New York and remarried, his name was changed to John Allyn McAlpin Berryman. Berryman wrote many letters to his mother as an adult, which were published as We Dream of Honour: John Berryman’s Letters to His Mother in 1988.
Berryman attended a Connecticut prep school, South Kent; though he showed great intellectual promise, he was only intermittently moved to apply it. He graduated in 1933 and went on to Columbia University in New York. There he felt much more at home academically and socially, and there he began a lifelong friendship with Mark Van Doren, who, by Berryman’s account, was the first person to inspire and encourage him to be a poet. Not long after this association began, Berryman published his first poem, an elegy on Edwin Arlington Robinson, in the Nation. In 1936, he received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, Phi Beta Kappa, and won the University’s Kellett Fellowship, which he used to pursue further studies at Clare College, Cambridge University. Academically, his Cambridge experience was extremely rewarding. In 1937, he served as Oldham Shakespeare Scholar, and he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1938. His social contacts were rewarding, to say the least, including as they did William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas.
Back in New York, Berryman was a friend of another young poet, Delmore Schwartz, and became poetry editor of the Nation. His teaching career began in 1939 at Wayne State University in Detroit. After a year there, Berryman took a position at Harvard, where he remained until 1943. During this time, his first published collection of poems appeared in Five Young American Poets (1940). His work was well received, as were the poems of another promising young talent, Randall Jarrell. In 1942, Berryman published a self-contained selection, Poems. On October 24 of the same year, he married Eileen Patricia Mulligan. From 1943 to 1951, Berryman lectured in creative writing at Princeton, taking time out frequently, with the help of grants and fellowships, to write poetry and criticism, as well as a few short stories. In 1948, he published a new book of poems, The Dispossessed, which was received more politely than enthusiastically. His most significant work while at Princeton was his...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
John Berryman took degrees from Columbia University and the University of Cambridge, where he was an Oldham Shakespeare scholar. His early maturing as a scholar and a poet is indicated by his being awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1944-1946, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University in 1950-1951, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952.
Publication of his work began in 1939 in the Kenyon Review and the well-received 1941 New Directions anthology Five Young American Poets, which also included work by Robert Lowell, who later became a close and influential friend. Berryman’s first volume of verse, Poems, was especially praised for the acuteness of his sensibility and the facility of a technique accompanied by deep intellectual commitment. With the publication of The Dispossessed, Berryman established himself as a writer of seriously witty, wry, and thoughtful poems, richly associative and cerebral but with keen references to modern life.
Homage to Mistress Bradstreet marked Berryman as perhaps the most fiercely experimental poet of his generation, with the possible exception of Karl Shapiro. The dissonant, crabbed, deliberately wrenched narrative, based on an eight-line stanza weaving back and forth on the page and filled with off-rhymes, puns, and distorted locution patterns, elicited ambivalent...
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