Unframed Originals by W. S. Merwin

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Unframed Originals Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In the opening paragraph of “Mary,” Merwin writes, “Once I imagined, with no way of saying it, that my parents, and everyone of their age, kept somewhere among them the whole of the past.” In many respects, Unframed Originals represents Merwin’s quest to recover the “whole of the past.” Yet from the outset it is a quest haunted by a sense of ultimate failure. Too much of his elders’ living memory was left unrevealed and then lost forever after their deaths. James Finn Cotter calls Merwin “a master of color and line” and suggests that Unframed Originals “belongs in the gallery of great word-portraits.” What is most important for Merwin, however, is not the portrait itself but what lies beyond the frame. In an interview with Ed Folsom and Cary Nelson, he states, “One of the main themes of Unframed Originals is what I was not able to know, what I couldn’t ever find out, the people I couldn’t meet.” Indeed, Unframed Originals describes absence and loss.

Socially, the conditions of loss center on the changing nature of the American family. As Merwin puts it, “I was convinced that I knew less about my family, and my parents’ families, than it was usual to know.” Yet the reasons for his ignorance are hardly unusual; the modern American family is marked by wide geographic dispersal: “My father referred to his family as ’the family,’ and he called us ’our family.’ His family was related to our family, but lived far away. Or we lived far away.” The family had been stretched thin by distance—a distance both caused and only partially alleviated by modern transportation. Images of trains and automobiles, for example, recur throughout Unframed Originals and take on a symbolic importance: “It seemed to [my father] then, probably, that many things, even most things that he considered his, were slipping from him. And that must have had something to do with his idea of going, in the new car, to visit the rest of Grandma’s children. . . .” Yet visits were brief and transient. The continuing day-to-day contact which reveals the lives of others in depth had been irretrievably lost.

Geographic distance is mirrored by a personal distance. Throughout Unframed Originals, one detects an aversion to self-revelation. “Reticence,” as Merwin puts it, “was one of the main things I was writing about. Indeed it was a very reticent family.” Merwin can only speculate tangentially on the conflicting motives for silence. He reveals the resentments and shame his excessively pious grandmother felt for his grandfather, but the explanation for their divorce goes no deeper than the simple pronouncement, “He drank.” While his own parents were never divorced, his mother, in a rare moment of candor, revealed that there was a time when she might have left his father for another man but decided against it. The motives for her temptation and her decision to remain were both lost within silence: “She would say nothing more on the subject.” Of his relationship with his mother, Merwin writes that “she has been so secret, and I have grown up in the habit of being so reticent with her, that it cannot be easy now to find what we want to say to each other.”

Perhaps even more insidious than personal reticence is personal indifference. Of his relationship with his father, Merwin writes,The past itself, the past of others, of places, of his family, most of his own past, seemed to hold no more than a wan, flickering interest for him, apart from a thin collection of dependable references treasured as proofs and names of feelings that he wanted to believe still existed and were his.

Whether caused by the changing conditions of social life, the personal reticence born of shame, or a simple indifference, the result is the same: The past slips away. As Mark Irwin points out, Unframed Originals is “haunting in the final realization that the past cannot be reconstructed, only glimpsed...

(The entire section is 1,023 words.)