Conrad Potter Aiken was the oldest of three sons and one daughter. His father was a surgeon, and the Aikens were well off, but the family was fractured by strife. In “Obiturary in Bitcherel,” the last of his Collected Poems (1970), and in Ushant: An Essay (1952), Aiken records the crescendo of violence that tore his family apart. In “Obituary in Bitcherel,” Aiken gives himself a very good beginning, with a distinguished father who was not only a physician and surgeon but also a writer and painter and with a mother, a New England beauty, whose father, William James Potter, a Congregational minister, was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Two Mayflower passengers and six generations of the Delanos ran in Aiken’s veins. His parents reared him to appreciate literature and writing, and he had happy hours of play besides. Then the parents seemed to turn against each other. The atmosphere of the house became strained. Aiken was beaten, barebacked, for reasons unknown. In Ushant, he tells of the argument flaring up between his parents early one morning, of his mother’s half-smothered cry, of his father’s voice counting to three, of the handgun exploding twice, and of the two still bodies lying separately in the dim daylight of the room. Aiken was only eleven years old, and ever after the murder-suicide, he was in search of a literary consciousness that would do his parents credit.
Sent to live with a great-great aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Aiken entered Harvard University in 1907, but in protest at...
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