James Merrill was born in New York City, the son of Helen (Ingram) Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, one of the founders of the brokerage firm Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and (at one time) Beane. His parents divorced before his eleventh birthday, at which time he discovered a love for opera and music.
Merrill attended Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, where he began to write, privately printing Jim’s Book: A Collection of Poems and Short Stories. After graduation, he entered Amherst College, but after a year there, he entered the U.S. Army, in which he served another year (1944-1945). He then returned to Amherst, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, had various poems published, and starred in a school production of Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (pr. 1926, pb. 1927). He wrote a senior thesis on Marcel Proust, the famous modernist French novelist, a writer who was always to have much influence on him. Merrill received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1948 and stayed on to teach a year at Amherst, then left to become a writer. He decided that Manhattan was not the proper atmosphere in which to write, so he first traveled throughout Europe, finally settling down in a house he purchased in Stonington, Connecticut, in 1954. In the mid-1960’s he bought another house in Athens, Greece. Throughout these years he shared both houses with his companion, David Jackson.
Merrill published his first book of poems, First Poems, in 1951. The book was well received and launched him on a lifelong career of writing. Before publishing another book of poems, he wrote two plays, The Immortal Husband (pr. 1955, pb. 1956) and The Bait (pr. 1953, pb. 1960), and a novel, The Seraglio (1957). The Bait was acted Off-Broadway in 1953. The Immortal Husband was presented at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village in February, 1955; reviewers found it well written but confusing.
Merrill’s novel The Seraglio received mixed reviews: It was considered to have style, humor, and shape but to be...
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Merrill had ensured his place in the line of great American poets. He began as a disciple of the Symbolist poets and, after publishing a series of books of very good small poems, launched into deep waters with a major work, The Changing Light at Sandover. Although the content of the book irritates many, the deeper subject matter and the poetic skills with which it treated make most who read it respect it as a grand attempt. Merrill was a successful postmodernist poet in that he pushed poetry past its Symbolist stage to a place where it can deal with the questions of his time.
James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City to Charles Merrill, an extremely powerful and successful stockbroker and founder of the firm that became Merrill Lynch. His mother, Hellen Ingram Merrill, was Charles Merrill’s second wife. When James was twelve years old, his parents were divorced. His father married a third time, and that marriage also ended in divorce.
Merrill graduated in 1947 from Amherst College, where he wrote a senior thesis on Marcel Proust. He served in the U.S. Army at the end of World War II, from 1944 to 1945. For fifteen years, beginning in 1959, he spent part of each year at his home in Greece. He traveled widely in other countries but made his primary home in Stonington, Connecticut.
James Ingram Merrill was one of the most accessible poets of the twentieth century. A worldly man with something of a “playboy” image—due, in part, to having been born to Charles Edward Merrill, the cofounder of the prestigious brokerage house Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith—he was educated at Lawrenceville School, a private New Jersey institution, where his gift for writing led his father to have a collection of his poems, essays, and stories published under the title Jim’s Book. He served in the Army in 1944-1945 and graduated from Amherst College in 1947. His father wanted him to enter business, but Merrill wanted to be a writer, and after his father consulted several literary authorities, he accepted his son’s ambitions and provided the financial support that few poets have the luck to receive.
From early in his career he wrote with technical ease, wit, and comic verve, as well as intense feeling. Many of his poems are about his childhood and his relation to his powerful, handsome, womanizing father. His parents were divorced in 1938, and the separation became a poetic topic. Few writers would discuss their parents’ marriage as Merrill does in “The Broken Home” (from Nights and Days), achieving a sophisticated, witty tone while establishing an elegiac tenderness without lachrymose excess.
He extended his literary skills, with respectable, if lesser results, to work as a playwright, novelist, and literary critic. In 1955 his play The Immortal Husband was produced Off-Broadway, and in 1957 his novel The Seraglio appeared. His best work, however, was as a poet, and in 1966 he received the National Book Award for his poems Nights and Days. He went on to receive the Bollingen Prize in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, and another National Book Award in 1978 for Mirabell: Books of Number. The Changing Light at Sandover won the National Book Critics Circle Award. There is a strong autobiographical bent in his...
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