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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When Conrad Aiken was eleven, his father killed his mother and then committed suicide. This incident could very well have influenced the subject matter of a great number of his stories, where one step more may take a character to an immense abyss of madness or death. Graduating from Harvard University in 1911, Aiken became a member of the famous Harvard group which included T. S. Eliot, Robert Benchley, and Van Wyck Brooks. He published his first volume of poems in 1914. A contributing editor of The Dial from 1917 to 1919, Aiken later worked as London correspondent for The New Yorker. Through the course of his career he was the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for Selected Poems (1929), the National Book Award in 1954 for Collected Poems (1953), and the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1956. He died in 1973 at the age of eighty-four.
Conrad Potter Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 5, 1889. Both of his parents were New Englanders. His mother, Anna Potter Aiken, was the daughter of William James Potter, minister of the Unitarian First Congregational Society of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and a friend of the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. His father, William Ford Aiken, was a physician educated at Harvard. The central event of his childhood—and in fact of his whole life—took place in 1900, when, at the age of eleven, he discovered the dead bodies of his parents. Aiken’s father had killed his mother with a revolver and then shot himself. This event remained forever embedded in his psyche. As Aiken writes in Ushant, “He had tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever.”
Following this crucial event, Aiken’s two brothers were separated from him, and he spent the remainder of his childhood living with a great-great-aunt in New Bedford. He attended the Middlesex School in Concord and, in 1907, entered Harvard University during the same period as T. S. Eliot, John Reed, Walter Lippmann, E. E. Cummings, and Robert Benchley. At college, Aiken was president of the Harvard Advocate literary magazine, a frequent contributor to the Harvard Monthly, and a leader among his classmates in literary discussions, but he also established a pattern that...
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