During his lifetime, Conrad Aiken was a very private person, for excellent reasons. He feared that the mental illness which had afflicted his father could too easily become a visitation upon the son. As a small boy Aiken had been in an adjoining room when his father murdered his wife and then turned the gun upon himself. For all the ensuing years of his life, Aiken feared that public appearances might trigger a similar mental problem, a fear that led him to forsake public appearances of all kinds. He fled from Harvard in 1911 so that he would not have to perform as the class poet for his graduating class, and throughout his life, he continued to shun becoming a public figure. Even being introduced to groups of staff members at the Library of Congress in later years, when he became Poetry Consultant, was excruciating for him. In an age when writers, especially poets, fleshed out their otherwise meager incomes by teaching, lecturing, and giving public readings, Aiken was unable to meet the public. His only academic service was to be a tutor at Harvard for a year.
Aiken also stayed away from literary movements, for he believed the poet always needs to be independent of literary fads. He believed strongly that the poet has to tend to the business of poetry, to write truthfully about himself and, through himself, about humanity. Because of this belief in where the task of the poet lies, Aiken as poet was nearly always considered to be too subjective. And yet, as readers have begun to discover, he gave little of himself to the public eye and ear through his poetry. There is good reason for the difficulty in finding the poet in the poetry: Aiken believed in articulating his awareness of himself, but he did not believe in enumerating the events, the details of the poet’s personal life. When defending his own Blue Voyage, which was in some ways autobiographical, his aim was, he said, not to give a transcription of life, but rather to disclose “the psychic mechanism” of the poet.
However, though he shunned the public eye, large groups of people, and public appearances, Aiken was far from being a solitary person. He had his circle of friends and his family, whom he valued and responded to with affection. When he could not be with them in person, he wrote hundreds of warm, lively letters which were his substitute for conversation. In his early twenties Aiken began his regular voluminous correspondence. The editor of those letters, Joseph Killorin, estimates that the poet wrote about twelve thousand letters during his long life, of which probably four thousand are extant. Killorin was able to locate and use almost 3,500 of these letters, including, as he judges, all of the important correspondences to friends. From that number he has selected 245 to be published in the present volume.
In an editorial note, Killorin states clearly the criterion on which he based his selection of letters for present publication: his aim was to include a series of letters which show the variety of the poet’s interests and styles. He wished to present Aiken as a defender of his literary stances and works, Aiken as a psychologist eager to debate motive, and Aiken in his private capacities as well. Regarding the latter, he included letters in which Aiken wrote about his personal problems and his disasters, about his knowledge of gossip in literary and society circles, and about his roles as husband, lover, and father. While letters about the poetry are to be found, of course,...
(The entire section is 1428 words.)