Although best known as a poet, Conrad Aiken (AY-kuhn) also published novels, short-story collections, plays, a poetic autobiographical essay, collections of criticism, books for children (including one of limericks), and anthologies of poetry.
From his mature years onward, Conrad Aiken was much honored. In 1930, he received the Shelley Memorial Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Selected Poems. He was chosen to edit A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry for The Modern Library (1929) and published a revision in 1944. In 1941, he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was named editor of Twentieth Century American Poetry for The Modern Library (1944) and served as consultant in poetry (poet laureate) to the Library of Congress (1950-1952). He continued to receive honors: a Guggenheim Fellowship (1934); the National Book Award in Poetry (1954) for Collected Poems, the Bollingen Prize (1956), an Academy of American Poets Fellowship (1957), and the Gold Medal in poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1958). A special issue of Wake magazine (1952), in which there appeared new and reprinted writing by Aiken and others, signaled a step forward in the critical reappraisal of Aiken’s contributions.
Best-known as a poet, Conrad Aiken published dozens of volumes of poetry from 1914 until his death in 1973. He also published novels, essays, criticism, and a play. In addition, he edited a considerable number of anthologies of poetry.
Conrad Aiken’s reputation as a writer of short fiction rests on two frequently anthologized short stories: “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which has twice been adapted to film, and “Mr. Arcularis,” which was adapted to a play. Although he published several collections of short stories—they were collected in one volume in 1950—he did not contribute significantly to the development of the short story. Instead, the fictional “voice” so closely approximates Aiken’s poetic “voice” that the stories are often seen as extensions of his more famous poems. Both are “poetic” expressions of characters’ psychological states. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” in fact, is often read as the story of a creative artist, a “poet” in a hostile environment. His Freudian themes, his depiction of a protagonist’s inner struggle and journey, and his portrait of the consciousness—these are perhaps better expressed in lengthy poetic works than in prose or in individual poems, which are rarely anthologized because they are best read in the context of his other poems.
Conrad Aiken (AY-kuhn) was one of the most prolific of modern American writers, publishing more than forty separate volumes of poetry, novels, plays, short stories, and criticism. Aiken published five collections of stories, culminating in the Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken (1966). He is the author of Mr. Arcularis (pb. 1957; pr. as Fear No More in 1946), a play based on an adaptation by Diana Hamilton of his short story of the same title. His nonfictional writing includes introductions to Two Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy (1919) and Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson (1924) as well as a lifetime of reviews, originally published in such leading journals as The New Republic, Poetry, The Dial, The Nation, and The New Yorker and collected in A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1958). An earlier critical work was Skepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry (1919). His most famous nonfiction work, and one of his most lasting contributions to American literature, is his third-person autobiography Ushant: An Essay (1952). He published twenty-nine collections of poetry; the best of his early poems were collected in Selected Poems (1929), and the best of his total poetic output can be found in Collected Poems (1953, 1970). In addition, Aiken served as editor for numerous anthologies of poetry, including A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry (1929, 1944), and was a contributing editor of The Dial during the period 1917-1918. Finally, under the pseudonym Samuel Jeake, Jr., Aiken was a London correspondent for The New Yorker from 1934 to 1936.
Conrad Aiken’s literary reputation is based on his poetry, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1930, the National Book Award in 1954, and the Bollingen Prize in 1956. Despite these major awards, his reputation seems fixed among the most major of minor poets, a position that virtually all of his critics agree is too low. Of his fiction, the short stories “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Mr. Arcularis” are often anthologized and discussed, although few of his others are ever mentioned. His reputation as a novelist is even more tenuous; none of his novels is in print in the early twenty-first century, and few critical articles have been published about any of them. When his first novel, Blue Voyage, appeared, its initial reputation as an experimental novel and its personal revelations about Aiken’s interior life brought the book some notoriety. Subsequent critical opinion, however, has treated Blue Voyage as an inferior version of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) or Ulysses (1922). Great Circle, Aiken’s second novel, was praised by literary critics as a psychological case study and was admired by neurologist Sigmund Freud himself for its Freudian overtones. Aiken’s last three novels received little praise or attention. A Heart for the Gods of Mexico was not even published in the United States until the collected edition of his novels appeared. Aiken himself considered King Coffin a failure; he admits in Ushant that his last novels were unsuccessful and says that he does not mind his relative obscurity, but in a letter to his friend Malcolm Cowley he wrote, “Might I also suggest for your list of Neglected Books a novel by c. aiken called Great Circle, of which the royalty report, to hand this morning, chronicles a sale of 26 copies in its second half year?” Later critics, like Aiken’s contemporaries, saw the major value of his novels in their experimental nature, their Freudian images, and their amplification of the themes of Aiken’s poetry.
Aiken, Conrad. Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken. Edited by Joseph Killorin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. Includes a representative sample of 245 letters (from some three thousand) written by Aiken. A cast of correspondents, among them T. S. Eliot and Malcolm Lowry, indexes to Aiken’s works and important personages, and a wealth of illustrations, mostly photographs, add considerably to the value of the volume.
Butscher, Edward. Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. This critical biography emphasizes Aiken’s literary work, particularly the poetry. Includes many...
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