A must for students of the late poet (1914-1972), this ample selection of Berry. man's letters to his mother--221 out of...


WE DREAM OF HONOUR: John Berryman's Letters to His Mother

A must for students of the late poet (1914-1972), this ample selection of Berry. man's letters to his mother--221 out of more than 700--will do little to enhance his literary reputation, but much to establish him as the biggest momma's boy in American letters. Together with 19 missives from his domineering and somewhat vain mother, and with biographical summaries by the editor, this correspondence forms a coherent life record. But it's a life more rapidly understood by reading Haffenden's lengthy biography, or the gossipy Poets In Their Youth, the delightful memoir of Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson. Since the often strained and perfunctory letters collected here span four decades, they manage to touch on the major, and many of the minor, events in a life ended by despair and suicide. Beginning with young John's undistinguished years at boarding school in Conn., the letters cease during his intellectual awakening at Columbia--his mother lived nearby--and pick up with his years at Cambridge as a Kellett Fellow. Despite previously unpublished scraps of poetry, these are mostly uninteresting catalogues of the money problems that continued to hound Berryman through his uncertain years as a fledgling academic at Wayne State, Harvard, and Princeton. Throughout his life, Berryman frankly informed his mother of matters amorous, both blissful and discordant. He's surprisingly tight-lipped about his illustrious contemporaries, and, at times, painfully conscious of writing for posterity. He's even rather stingy with literary opinions, or worse, just plain pedestrian. For every quotable phrase (he describes his search for ""the ineluctable authority of precise poetic statement""), there are pages of bland career details, from his final appointment at Minnesota to his schedule of public readings. Despite occasional testaments of undying love between mother and son, the fierce oedipal bond is underscored more by the volume of these letters than anything in them. General readers and Berryman fans would be better served by including 30 or so of these impeccably edited (i.e., annotated with a light touch) letters among his larger correspondence.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1987


Page Count: -

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1987