‘Something you want, and something you need’

Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser (eds.), A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill

Knopf, 736pp, £45.00, ISBN 9781101875506

reviewed by Ben Leubner

‘Poetry,’ said Frost, ‘provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.’ No wonder, then, that a young James Merrill took to it so avidly, seeking whatever permissible ways he could find to say things that could not otherwise be said in the mid-20th century, especially if it was guaranteed to upset one’s mother.

When Merrill’s mother found out that her son, then a student at Amherst College, was having a romantic affair with one of his instructors, Kimon Friar, she was scandalised and incensed not by the teacher-student nature of the affair, but by the fact that it was a relationship between two men. That her son was gay was something Hellen Ingram, a Floridian socialite and philanthropist, was never able to accept, from Merrill’s affair with Friar in the mid- to late 1940s to his publication of A Different Person, a memoir detailing his full acceptance of his sexuality in the wake of the affair with Friar, nearly half a century later. In the 1940s Hellen burned many of the letters her son had received not just from Friar, but from other close friends, as well. She was protecting him from possible blackmail, she said. In the 1990s she cringed at the thought of her friends reading her son’s new memoir; she could not comprehend why her son would subject her to such embarrassment and humiliation. Having been read excerpts from the memoir by her son himself, she said to him, ‘I’ve prayed twice a day for nearly 50 years that none of this would ever come to light.’ When Merrill then asked her if in all that time she had ever prayed to ‘have [her] embarrassment and shame taken away,’ she responded, ‘Never.’ It seems grimly appropriate that Hellen Ingram was born in 1898, during the reign of Queen Victoria, and died in the year 2000, her life touching upon three centuries and stretching from one millennium into another. She, along with her prejudice, outlived her only child, who died of AIDS in 1995, aged 68.

Having been divorced by Charles Merrill (the Merrill of Merrill Lynch) in 1939, Hellen Ingram remarried in 1950, when her son was 24. In a fascinating letter sent to her from France, the young poet, his affair with Friar still a very recent experience, congratulates his ‘Dearest Mama’ on her newfound love and gives it his own blessing, about which the mother has apparently been anxious. Was Merrill able to say one thing and mean another because he was a poet, or did he become a poet out of the necessity to say one thing and mean another? ‘I feel with genuine pleasure that I have no responsibility in this matter,’ says son to mother, ‘except the responsibility . . . to encourage in you whatever impulse you may feel toward happiness or love or life.’ Clearly, he is writing and saying here exactly what he had always hoped his mother would say to him. She never had; she never would. ‘What your marriage would consist of,’ continues Merrill, having already written a full page in this manner, ‘I do not know. I am glad not to know, for the time being, since that is entirely your affair.’ ‘The important thing,’ he says, ‘is that you should be able to consider and, depending on your own considerations, take this step, make this gesture, for yourself, because it is something you want, and something you need.’ Is it possible that his mother was unable to understand the subtext of this letter, being as it is subtext that barely deserves the name, so clear is his non-literal meaning? The even more unsettling possibility is that she was aware of it and chose to dismiss its import for the rest of her son’s life.

‘My social security number,’ wrote Merrill to his nephew Robin (the child of a half-sister) in 1967, ‘is 007 (seriously)-28-9935.’ That Merrill should have thus shared the numerical designation of James Bond is appropriate, as secrecy was as important to the one as it was to the other. Merrill, like his literary idol Proust before him, never boldly and openly stepped out of the closet and declared himself gay in a public manner. Merrill was to Ginsberg what Proust was to Gide. As the years and decades went by, his poetry became increasingly but never declaratively transparent on the subject. It wasn’t, he said, so much that he ever stepped out of the closet as that the closet simply dissolved around him over time. When Helen Vendler mentioned in a glowing review of 1972’s Braving the Elements that Merrill lived in Greece with his lover, it was the most open public revelation that had yet been made concerning Merrill’s sexuality. Vendler herself was anxious and fearful that she would incur the poet’s displeasure as a result of this revelation and was accordingly relieved when instead of a rebuke she received a kind note instead.

Still, the review had run in The New York Times Book Review. There was no way Merrill’s mother would not read it, which would mean once again going over the old ground. ‘Your note about the review is here today,’ he wrote to her from Athens in September 1972. ‘I quite understand what gives you pause in the review, and how you must feel at the thought of “other people” reading it. I’m very touched by the gentleness with which you mention it. It has taught us both a hard lesson over so many years now.’ Alas, the lesson hadn’t been entirely absorbed, and would never be. ‘I’ve thought more and more of late,’ continues Merrill: ‘How can it be that something so crucial, for better or worse, to my life, can’t be aired between us except in the most oblique fashion?’ At this moment, though, flush, perhaps, with the confidence that Vendler’s review had instilled in him, Merrill was determined to be more forward, less oblique, with his mother than he had been up until this point. The love might still not dare to speak its name too openly, but it would say just about everything else:

Anyone who reads me with the slightest intelligence knows pretty much what my life has been and is. One doesn’t outgrow a sense of shame by silently nursing it. And as long as one isn’t going to change one’s ways, it’s precisely the shame that must be lived down, as I think I have managed to do, for my own peace of mind if not yours, over the last 25 years.

That temporal span takes us, of course, right back to the affair with Friar. Then as now her fear had to do with what ‘other people’ would think, just as it would another twenty years hence on the eve of A Different Person’s publication. She needn’t have worried so much in 1972, though (and even less in 1993), as she might have in 1947. Merrill tries to reassure her in a manner both direct and oblique, ‘The subject is so important to my work, and in it, that I didn’t feel HV was encroaching, but simply mentioning a fact for which there was plenty of textual evidence.’ The times were changing. Vendler’s own ‘easy acceptance’ of the fact of Merrill’s being gay was mirrored in the ‘marked change in social attitudes + conventions’ that was taking place throughout the world. It was time to let go of old prejudices. But Hellen Ingram Plummer would not change in accordance with the times, a fact that no doubt explains, at least partially, the fact that when Merrill was diagnosed with HIV in April of 1986, he kept it secret from all but his most intimate relations, a group from which his mother was excluded. She must not know. For the last decade of his life he was once again living with a secret. In his poetry he wrote regularly and movingly about the virus and his own diagnosis with it, but in the way he’d become accustomed to by this point in time: by saying one thing while meaning another.

A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill is but the latest beautifully put-together volume concerning Merrill’s life and work. In the early 2000s Merrill’s literary co-executors, Stephen Yenser and J. D. McClatchy, edited and published Merrill’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose, along with a new printing of Merrill’s Ouija board-based epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. A Selected Poems, also put together by Yenser and McClatchy, followed in 2008. These volumes make up an indispensable set of primary works, and since then the work has continued, first and foremost with Langdon Hammer’s 2015 biography, James Merrill: Life and Art. And while McClatchy passed away in 2018, Hammer and Yenser’s elegant curation of Merrill’s work goes on: first with an Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series edited by Hammer in 2017, then with a stand-alone edition of the first of the Sandover volumes, The Book of Ephraim, annotated by Yenser in 2018. The letters are the latest effort, and if much of the poetry-reading world still insists on not reading Merrill as a result of his class or his formality, assuming without grounds that he must have been spoiled and ungenerous or inauthentic and aloof, Hammer and Yenser, along with McClatchy, Vendler, and others, have assured that for anyone who wants to look for it there will be plenty of textual evidence to the contrary.

Ben Leubner lives and teaches literature in Bozeman, Montana.