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A WHOLE WORLD by James Merrill Kirkus Star


Letters From James Merrill

by James Merrill ; edited by Langdon Hammer & Stephen Yenser

Pub Date: April 6th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-101-87550-6
Publisher: Knopf

A self-portrait in letters by an iconic poet and indefatigable correspondent.

Hammer, a Merrill biographer and English professor at Yale, and Yenser, a poet, literary critic, and Merrill’s co–literary executor, have gathered a copious selection of letters by the acclaimed poet (National Book Award, Pulitzer, etc.), beginning with young Jimmy’s request to “Santa Clause” for a flashlight and continuing through countless letters to family, friends, lovers, and literary luminaries. The son of Charles Merrill, founder of Merrill Lynch, the poet had a privileged childhood: By the age of 12, he had seen 18 operas. But he grew up beset, he admitted, by “my sense of what others expected of me, and my shame over not being the person they wanted me to be.” At the age of 20, writing to his first lover, he confessed, “through you I have made the first assertion away from my family.” Still, he reported that their relationship precipitated “another long, quiet, strained talk” with his mother, who insisted that he see a psychiatrist. Many letters are ebulliently alive with gossip, such as Merrill’s delightfully catty recounting of a lunch hosted by publisher Alfred Knopf (“sniffing about in his chalkblue suit”) to celebrate the 75th birthday of a grumpy Wallace Stevens; guests included Marianne Moore, wearing a black tricorne (whom Merrill met there for the first time), W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun (“someone to whom I was never introduced,” Merrill noted), and Lionel Trilling. Many letters chronicle his affairs and long-term relationships. Diagnosed with HIV in 1986, Merrill reported on his health only to a few confidants. Amplified by the editors’ authoritative annotations, a chronology, and capsule biographies of major figures in Merrill’s life, the book creates a palpable sense of the poet’s wide, eventful world, “properly stuffed with culture and people,” travels, and accomplishments—as well as struggles and, inevitably, loss.

An engaging, meticulously edited collection for all fans of literary biography.