John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., on October 25, 1914, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the elder son of John Allyn Smith, Sr., and Martha Shaver Little Smith. The Smiths would have one other child, Robert Jefferson Smith, born September 1, 1919. Between 1914 and 1926, the Smith family moved about every two years to various Oklahoma farming communities, the elder Smith holding a series of banking positions. In 1924, a scandal involving the senior Smith’s brother’s theft of funds forced Berryman’s father to resign from the First State Bank in Anadarko, Oklahoma. By 1925, Berryman’s parents and grandmother had moved to Tampa, Florida. The boys remained in Oklahoma at a Roman Catholic boarding school, St. Joseph’s Academy. Tempted by cheap land and quick profit, Berryman’s father began to speculate in Florida real estate. By mid-1926, however, the land boom collapsed, Smith went bankrupt, and the entire family, including the boys (by this time recalled from Oklahoma), moved to Clearwater, Florida. It was there that they rented an apartment in a building owned by John Angus McAlpin Berryman.
The Smiths’ marriage was by then all but ended. Smith, increasingly despondent over his business failures and his wife’s obvious romantic involvement with their landlord, threatened suicide. On June 26, 1926, Smith was found shot dead outside their apartment, apparently a suicide. By September 8, 1926, his wife had married Berryman and had changed her own first and middle names to Jill Angel. She also changed her elder son’s name to John Allyn McAlpin Berryman, though this was not done legally until 1936, when Berryman filed for a passport to study in England. Thus it was that at the age of twelve, the future poet had to abandon the name of his father and assume that of his mother’s lover. His stepfather, whom he called “Uncle Angus,” was a distant but never cruel man; even so, his father’s apparent suicide continued to affect Berryman throughout his life. It certainly contributed to his preoccupation with death by suicide and foreshadowed his own manner of death.
After a generally unhappy stay at South Kent School in South Kent, Connecticut, Berryman had the good fortune to attend Columbia University, starting in 1932. It was there that he studied under Mark Van Doren. Van Doren, himself a poet as well as a scholar, encouraged Berryman to write verse, took him as a protégé, and was instrumental in helping him obtain the Euretta J. Kellett Scholarship for two years of study in England at Clare College, University of Cambridge. Berryman spent 1936 through 1938 at Clare College, pursuing his studies in the alternately brilliant, erratic, and lackadaisical way that typified his entire school career.
The two most important events of this period of his life were his engagement (despite a previous commitment to...
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