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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2113

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James Merrill is one of America’s most critically acclaimed living poets, having received, among many other honors, two National Book Awards, for Nights and Days (1966) and Mirabell (1978), the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, for Braving the Elements (1972), and the Pulitzer Prize, for Divine Comedies (1976). His prodigious literary output has also included fiction, drama, and essays. With A Different Person: A Memoir, Merrill turns to yet another genre, and with remarkable success. His first strictly autobiographical work, A Different Person is a lyrical, insightful portrait of a young writer’s struggles with his own desires and the expectations of his parents. Much like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), it takes the reader inside the consciousness of a confused, sensitive individual, capturing in its free-flowing style a process of discovery, both of the writer’s “self’ and of his ties to others. Unlike Joyce’s work, however, this memoir focuses on a young adulthood rendered even more difficult by homosexual yearnings and the fractures these cause in a homophobic family and culture.

Merrill’s memoir focuses primarily on two crucial years in his development as a writer and a person. From 1950 to 1952, Merrill traveled widely in Europe, underwent psychoanalysis, and gained remarkable insight not only into his own life but also into those of his lover, friends, and parents. Merrill’s narrative proceeds chronologically in twenty-one sections devoted to journeys through numerous European cities, but he ends each chapter with italicized musings, some recounting real events, others transcribing imaginary conversations, dreams, and hidden fears. Merrill captures brilliantly the complexity of an individual consciousness, tracing the many ties linking the swirling, amorphous present to a fixed, unchangeable past, as well as a future over which one has some control. In scrutinizing so intensely a brief period of time, Merrill avoids the appearance of name-dropping or chattiness; in opening up his narrative with brief excursions through time and consciousness, he deepens his analysis of how dramatically and fortuitously one’s life can evolve over a two-year period.

In early 1950, the twenty-three-year-old Merrill was a young poet whose first book was about to be published and who had just met the man whom he thought would be his partner for life. As the narrative opens, however, an older, wiser Merrill, who is narrating and reflecting on his past, reveals just how deluded and pompous he was at the time. Isolated and insecure, the young writer was creating poetry that was verbally brilliant but lifeless. His social existence was equally shallow, rich in conversation and aesthetic texture but virtually emotionless. The prodigious wealth of his family allowed him a cushion of comfort that was productive, in that it allowed him the leisure to pursue his calling, but that also had unfortunate consequences, for it encouraged his diffidence and dilettantish behavior. In preparing to set sail for Europe, the young Merrill was making a conscious effort to disentangle himself from his past, to search out his own essence, to find his own voice.

Numerous interpersonal problems and childhood legacies had contributed to a static life in the United States. In particular, his troubled relationship with his father, Charles Merrill, intruded on his equanimity and sense of selfhood. The elder Merrill, one of the founding partners of the highly successful brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, was a no-nonsense businessman and reserved father whose early attempts to mold his offspring in his own image led to feelings of estrangement and mistrust on both sides. Profound guilt was added to this combustive mixture, for Merrill at the beginning of his narrative is unsure whether his father even knows of his homosexuality. The elderly Merrill is in uncertain health, and the son has been warned explicitly by his mother that knowledge of his sexual orientation would “kill” his father. In escaping to Europe, the young writer hopes to reevaluate this relationship and perhaps redefine it, for his father will meet him for a brief time on the Continent.

Merrill’s relationship with his mother is equally unhappy. She knows of her son’s sexuality and disapproves highly. More persistently than his father, Merrill’s mother attempts to remake her son, opening letters and consulting doctors as she searches for a way to “cure” his homosexuality. While Merrill does not feel at ease with his father, he actually has running battles with his mother, both real and imagined, as he attempts simultaneously to shock her and to gain her acceptance. A narrow notion of propriety leads Merrill’s parents to dread any hint of social scandal that sexual abnormality in their son might instigate. Merrill’s portrait of his parents is one of an entire generation, one that had survived the Depression and clung to conformity and rigid standards of behavior as forms of security against social and economic chaos.

As he begins his journey, Merrill senses that something is lacking in himself, or, more precisely, in his knowledge of himself. He feels emotionally dead, unable to love. While moderately happy in the company of friends, he is terrified of being alone. Even his new relationship, with Claude Fredericks, a successful printer of fine limited-edition books, seems stifled by the distracting social life he has created in New York. Yet Merrill’s relationship with Claude is also one of mistaken knowledge. Desperately wishing to find “love,” he has hastily chosen to commit himself to someone whom he hardly knows. In arranging to meet Claude in Europe, Merrill hopes to deepen what has been so far a shallow sexual liaison, one that has had only the trappings of a deeper emotional commitment.

Travel does provide the impetus for change, but not travel alone. Taking up temporary residence in Rome, Merrill commits to a yearlong course of psychoanalysis. Dr. Detre, whose distance and reserve mirror that of the elder Merrill, helps the young poet confront his feelings of anger and inadequacy. In doing so Merrill will recover—or, more precisely, discover—an identity and a poetic voice. Part of this process is coming to terms with his feelings of abandonment as a child; ignored by his wealthy parents, passed along to servants for primary care, he became suspicious, withdrawn, unable to love. Venting his emotions on his analyst, he begins to heal. The older, narrating Merrill reflects often on the efficacy of the psychoanalytic process, but rarely does he do so in the simplistic terms of a convert. In his italicized musings, Merrill fully allows that if he had sought assistance from a different analyst or during a different time period, the mechanism for self-exploration would have been far different. His point is that psychoanalysis can aid analysands in searches for which they must take primary responsibility. Responsibility is key, for the process Merrill undergoes is that of taking responsibility for his own life; as he does so, his relationships change dramatically and irrevocably.

As all maturing individuals must, Merrill comes to see his parents as human and flawed people, ones who have made terrible mistakes in the past, but who were acting with their own psychic and cognitive limitations. In discussions with his father, whose health continues to fail, Merrill recognizes a humane spirit at the core of the bluff businessman. During a visit by his mother, he uncovers the fear that accounts for her oppressive notions of propriety and that is manifested in her offensive racism and homophobia. Never coming to agree with their opinions or treatment of him, Merrill does come to forgive his parents, and through that forgiveness to heal. Taking responsibility for his own life, he strives to incorporate into his personality his own humanistic ideals—generosity, honesty, forthrightness—instead of simply replicating the traits of his parents and living out his life in anger and emotional isolation.

This, of course, means reevaluating his relationship with Claude, who joins him in Rome and who also undergoes psychoanalysis with Dr. Detre. Slowly they drift apart and then break permanently. Merrill finds Claude’s “bookish airs” too confining and lifeless. Searching for a new expressiveness and engagement with life, Merrill drifts in and out of relationships with men who possess vitality and openness. While the reader does not notice many immediate, positive results of Merrill’s determination to “love” more fully, Merrill’s italicized mental wanderings move forward in time to recount the long-term consequences of his efforts to become a “different person, consequences that include a successful, stable, and fulfilling partnership with another man.

As the commentary above indicates, A Different Person relates a psychic journey, but that is only one of its many features. Merrill renders vivid this extraordinary two-year period by relating his personal narrative of growth and reconciliation against a changing backdrop of European scenery and encounters with fascinating figures. In his wanderings around the continent, Merrill befriends and converses with Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s “widow,” whose attachment to her former partner becomes a model for the love that Merrill wishes to express and receive. W. H. Auden and Alison Lurie also enter the narrative and play key roles in the changing perceptions of both the young Merrill and the narrating, older Merrill. The reader finds a rich emotional and descriptive texture in this work, for Merrill describes the Italian, Greek, and Turkish landscapes with remarkable sensitivity and power. In its variety, energy, and intelligence, this narrative never fails to engage even as it instructs.

The didactic aspect of Merrill’s narrative is never heavy-handed, but certainly represents a primary impetus for its writing. Merrill challenges readers to move beyond anger, to avoid the pitfall of unproductive struggles with the unchangeable past. In allowing readers to eavesdrop on his most private thoughts and view some of his most painful personal experiences, Merrill invites them to muse similarly on their own lives, to formulate their own ideals about the people they would like to become. In his last paragraphs Merrill speaks of “retrieval,” literally that of a passport or wallet that he has left behind in Rome, but symbolically of his repossession of self and recovery of poetic voice. Yet his voice has changed and matured. In his creative efforts after his return from Europe, Merrill no longer imitated others; he came to terms with and moved beyond the past. His memoir asks readers to do the same, not simply in terms of poetic creation, for not all are gifted writers, but rather in the sense of creating oneself anew. The Merrill of the end of the narrative is not only a poet; in a sense, he is a poem as well, a conscious and successful creation of himself, a living testament to honesty in perception and self-critique.

The relative smoothness of Merrill’s transition and the overall optimism of his narrative represent the only aspects of this work that may strike some readers as overly simplistic. While he does a superb job of linking his main narrative of growth to aspects of both his past and his future, Merrill does suggest that lives are fully reconstitutable, that psychoanalysis and hard work can lead to selves so different that one in fact becomes a “different” person. This may be too easy, for unproductive behavior patterns, suspicion of others, and a general aloofness would certainly resurface at odd times, and the struggle to maintain the “new” self would continue throughout life. Perhaps his efforts in this regard will be explored in future volumes of his memoirs, for as it stands, this works seems a bit too tidy in its resolution of profound life conflicts in the space of 271 pages.

Even so, A Different Person is a graceful, memorable work of autobiography. Its candor and lyricism place it in the same category as 1992’s National Book Award winner Becoming a Man, by Paul Monette. Linking these narratives is the acuity with which their writers trace the hardships of growing up gay in a homophobic climate, of coming to voice in a world that seeks to deny atypical voices. The brilliance of these memoirs also lies in their accessibility and universality, for Merrill’s struggle to become a different person and Monette’s process of becoming a man are journeys all individuals must take if they are to claim proprietorship over their lives and discover the unique visions that are their own.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, October 1, 1993, p.244.

Boston Globe. September 5, 1993, p.14.

Chicago Tribune. September 26, 1993, XIV, p.3.

Library Journal. CXVIII, October 15, 1993, p.66.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 5, 1993, p.3.

The New Republic. CCIX, September 20, 1993, p.49.

The New York Review of Books. XL, November 4, 1993, p.31.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, August 16, 1993, p.96.

The Wall Street Journal. October 14, 1993, p. AIS.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, September 12, 1993, p.4.