John Berryman was born John Allyn Smith, in McAlester, Oklahoma, the eldest son of a banker and a schoolteacher. His early childhood, spent in various small Oklahoma towns, was normal enough until his father’s work took the family to live in Tampa, Florida. Marital problems developed and the boy’s father became increasingly troubled and unstable, until in June, 1926, he shot himself in the chest at the family’s vacation home across Tampa Bay. Young John heard the shot just outside his window—one sharp report that would echo through his consciousness for the rest of his life. When the boy’s mother moved to New York and remarried, his name was changed to John Allyn McAlpin Berryman. Berryman wrote many letters to his mother as an adult, which were published as We Dream of Honour: John Berryman’s Letters to His Mother in 1988.
Berryman attended a Connecticut prep school, South Kent; though he showed great intellectual promise, he was only intermittently moved to apply it. He graduated in 1933 and went on to Columbia University in New York. There he felt much more at home academically and socially, and there he began a lifelong friendship with Mark Van Doren, who, by Berryman’s account, was the first person to inspire and encourage him to be a poet. Not long after this association began, Berryman published his first poem, an elegy on Edwin Arlington Robinson, in the Nation. In 1936, he received his bachelor’s degree from Columbia, Phi Beta Kappa, and won the University’s Kellett Fellowship, which he used to pursue further studies at Clare College, Cambridge University. Academically, his Cambridge experience was extremely rewarding. In 1937, he served as Oldham Shakespeare Scholar, and he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1938. His social contacts were rewarding, to say the least, including as they did William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas.
Back in New York, Berryman was a friend of another young poet, Delmore Schwartz, and became poetry editor of the Nation. His teaching career began in 1939 at Wayne State University in Detroit. After a year there, Berryman took a position at Harvard, where he remained until 1943. During this time, his first published collection of poems appeared in Five Young American Poets (1940). His work was well received, as were the poems of another promising young talent, Randall Jarrell. In 1942, Berryman published a self-contained selection, Poems. On October 24 of the same year, he married Eileen Patricia Mulligan. From 1943 to 1951, Berryman lectured in creative writing at Princeton, taking time out frequently, with the help of grants and fellowships, to write poetry and criticism, as well as a few short stories. In 1948, he published a new book of poems, The Dispossessed, which was received more politely than enthusiastically. His most significant work while at Princeton was his...
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