Howard Nemerov 1920-1991
(Full name Howard Stanley Nemerov) American poet, novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist, and literary critic.
For further information on Nemerov's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, 9, and 36.
Primarily known as a poet, Nemerov also produced novels and nonfiction during his long and distinguished career. He has been praised for his wide-ranging literary scope and his mastery of formal style. Nemerov was recognized as an astute observer of modern life who could communicate well to both an academic and a lay audience.
Nemerov was born into a Jewish family March 1, 1920, in New York City, where his father was the head of a large clothing concern. Nemerov's sister was the well-known photographer Diane Arbus. After graduating from Harvard in 1941, Nemerov served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1944 he married Margaret Russell, with whom he had three sons. Nemerov taught in the English departments at Hamilton College, Bennington College, the University of Minnesota, and Brandeis University. Concurrently, Nemerov wrote several books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was also writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia and in 1969 joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, becoming the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished Professor of English in 1976. He remained there until 1990, pursuing a full career of teaching, lecturing, and writing. Among the many honors Nemerov received were a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, both in 1978. Nemerov was Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress from 1963 to 1964 and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States from 1988 to 1990. He died of cancer July 5, 1991, in University City near St. Louis.
Nemerov published his first collection of poems, The Image and the Law, in 1947. From that time until his death he wrote prodigiously in several genres. Among his many volumes of poetry were The Salt Garden (1955), Mirrors and Windows (1958), The Blue Swallows (1967), Gnomes and Occasions (1973), and The Western Approaches (1975). In 1978 he won the National Book Award for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977) and later published more books of poetry, among them Sentences (1980), Inside the Onion (1984), and War Stories (1987). His fictional works, written during the 1950s and 1960s, were mostly satirical and included Federigo, or the Power of Love (1954), a critique of the advertising industry; The Homecoming Game (1957), a story of campus life; and A Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories (1959), a collection of stories about middle-class Americans. In addition, Nemerov produced a fictional autobiography, Journal of the Fictive Life (1965), and wrote or edited a number of works of literary criticism. The publication of A Howard Nemerov Reader (1991) and Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 (1991) in the year of his death helped to solidify his considerable literary reputation.
In general, Nemerov criticism is as diverse in its approaches as Nemerov was in his literary production. Nemerov wrote so prolifically and in so many different genres and styles that critics often had a difficult time classifying him. Although he produced much serious critical and fictional work, he remains best known as a poet who refused to be identified with a particular school of poetry and distrusted fashionable trends in scholarship. Some critics felt he was overly academic, somewhat lifeless, and even dull in his poetic offerings. In general, however, he was well-respected by most critics for his consistently high level of craftsmanship, his erudition, his sense of irony, his ability to be both serious and witty, and his effective use of poetic idiom. Most often compared with poets such as W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Frost, Nemerov used traditional poetic forms and was interested in the ways a poet uses imagination to get to certain truths. Early critics of Nemerov praised his stylistic skills while often using words like “detached” to describe his work. After the first monograph-length study of Nemerov was published in 1968, and a book dealing extensively with his use of language, imagery, and imagination appeared in 1972, Nemerov criticism became more evident. The publication of several volumes of poetry in the 1970s and especially his Collected Poems in 1977 precipitated a flurry of Nemerov criticism, most of it favorable. A book about Nemerov's philosophical beliefs in 1975 and a comprehensive critical study by Twayne Publishers in 1980 further solidified Nemerov's reputation. The next wave of criticism, including reevaluations of Nemerov's work, occurred after his death in 1991 and the publication of A Howard Nemerov Reader and the posthumous Trying Conclusions. Interest in Nemerov was piqued again in 1994 with the publication of a book about the sophisticated philosophical underpinnings of his work.