A Whole World

by James Merrill, edited by Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser

reviewed by Andrew DuBois

One’s mood on finishing A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill (eds. Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser) is elegiac, and not only for the loss of James Merrill, who after all comes alive in these pages. It is also for the death of correspondence itself. Given our digital tendencies and attention deficits, surely nobody, not even Merrill, were he still around, could ever write such exquisite letters again.

An epistolary extinction, then, and more’s the pity—yet all the more reason to value the riches in this volume. We read Merrill’s descriptive, heartfelt, intelligent, serious, witty missives and find our fondness for their author expanding, as if spurred on by his own expansiveness. Although a Merrill lyric is never less than fully human, it is nonetheless always highly controlled. The letters in this overwhelming collection may contain several asides on behalf of the happy accident in composing poems, but Merrill’s poems themselves are well-wrought urns. Unlike the poems, the letters tend to let loose as organic entities—their trajectories can be unpredictable, their strains veering from the rational to the passionate and back in a flash—yet at every moment one wants to exclaim: The sentences! My God, the sentences!

They are lapidary but supple, not just instances of good taste, but of something that can almost be tasted. In one of his very last letters, from a series of generous offerings to an aesthetically hungry ephebe, Merrill writes of a panel of musicians he’s just heard on the radio: “The talk show had no sentence worth chewing on. No variety of tone, tune, modulation; it was to my ears the insult it would have been, to theirs, had I sat down at the piano and begun to slap the keys, cheerful as a child—afterwards looking round with a goofy grin: ‘Hey, I just made that up!’” That’s not a problem here, to say the least.

In that same late letter (to a teenager, no less!), Merrill critiques his own way of speaking, writing that “my ‘mature’ choice would have been a voice more at home in the world, one that suggested neither privilege nor disadvantage.” One respectfully disagrees, for this is precisely the voice he achieves. Yes, Merrill was deeply privileged in terms of wealth, gender, and race (and good looks to boot). He was also genuinely disadvantaged as the child of an unamicable divorce—or as he refers to it here, and in a poem’s title, a “Broken Home”—and a gay man in another era, before and during the plague of AIDS. (“Promiscuity has been my tried and true friend for long spells, but now there is this new Disease, and until they’ve found a cure for it everyone who’s not suicidal will have to be very very careful, not to say monogamous.”) And yet to read, in 2021, thousands and thousands of words and to find him neither ironizing nor flagellating himself for his privilege, nor milking sympathy and cultural capital for his disadvantages, is to experience a miracle of maturity, a person at home in the world.

And indeed around the world he goes. You lose count of the many places from which these letters were sent, and yet you can see just as well that there are two stabilizing sites in Merrill’s life—his houses in Athens, Greece, and (especially) Stonington, Connecticut. He is a restless traveler. “But I don’t keep a journal,” he writes to one friend while abroad, “not after the first week or so; letters have got to bear all the burden.” A burden lightly borne, but the patterns of friendship, communication, and self-revelation suggest a deep soul. At the age of twenty-three, he writes to his father that the theme of his nascent poems is “the interaction of material and spiritual elements,” an observation we recall when, six years later, he tells his mother about his initial work with the Ouija board and the first appearance of his spirit guide Ephraim: “Well, if you think I am mad, do so. For myself, I believe it utterly, and that is an experience I have never had before in my life.”

One has come to the wrong place if hoping for Keatsian self-explanations of the poetry, but one does see the gestation and birth of many poems, the development of what became The Seraglio, the numerous stages of The Changing Light at Sandover, enough biographical and historical context to fill scores of anecdotal essays, and glistening insights, as when Merrill notes in himself “a kind of ‘academic’ palette, showing that I am not yet able to handle warmer colors,” or recalls “a shyness in the face of the Monumental” that he partially overcomes, or observes of his dear friend Elizabeth Bishop’s work what could also be observed of his own, that therein “the world is asking, touchingly or otherwise, to be seen.” As a young man he writes in wonder of discovering in Keats’s letters the concept of “Negative Capability;” as a middle-aged man, he writes to a friend whose son has been going under a new name and manufactured identity, “I’ve had some experience of Double Lives myself.”

On love he is an aesthete and genius: “Virtually nobody on earth wants a wise ruler—either for his country or for his heart. Beckett is right. Plato is wrong.” “If you doubt that one can love more than one person at a time, reread The Tale of Genji.” To another friend: “Our affective selves don’t age, do they?” Woe to the one who disappoints or annoys him. To his first lover and mentor, Kimon Friar, he pens a blistering critique after having had enough of the older man’s self-promotional and insecure ways; the next letter to Friar appears sixteen years later. To David Jackson, his partner in writing, homemaking, and much else, and the longest of his companions, he sends a sharply worded evisceration outlining Jackson’s boorishness and selfishness. Yet he also offers him many a valentine along the way.

And what are letters without all the random tidbits? A letter from 1941 spectrally anticipates one of Frank O’Hara’s best-loved poems [“Lana Turner has collapsed!”]: “You really must see the Ziegfeld Girl—I haven’t enjoyed anything so much. It is really a gratifying experience to see Lana Turner collapse once but when she does it twice, it acts as cocaine on the soul.” Speaking of movies, he inquires after The Crying Game and Batman, delights in The Sting (it merits two mentions), is too depressed one night to go see Yellow Submarine, and thinks Close Encounters of the Third Kind full of “[w]onderful touches,” until they show the aliens “and that won’t do, will it?” Merrill even makes a cameo appearance in Lorenzo’s Oil.

Merrill’s literary judgments are either oblique, astute or both: The Voyage Out is Virginia Woolf’s best novel; Walden might well have been written by Proust; he is impressed on first reading Norman Mailer and compares him to Henry James; he says it’s wrong to have children read Dickens. (He hates A Christmas Carol as a child but grows to love its author. Bleak House is read three times in the course of these pages; on the third reading: “My!”) He pokes fun at Allen Ginsberg, and on meeting William Burroughs finds a “sallow, nondescript party who talked of nothing but drugs and sex-crimes, just like my mother’s Atlanta friends.” Yet he is fair to his peers and allergic to dogma: “I remain glad that modernism ‘happened’ and ‘animal movements’ like the Beats brought fresh air, offered new approaches. Best of all made a disturbance behind which we could get on with our own work without having to enroll in a School[.]” There is never any jealousy—a rarity for writers. The frequent assessments of opera are virtually musicological in their precision and there is an extended description of Vermeer’s The Artist in His Studio that is a tour de force of ekphrasis.

“Just as thought without language is quicksand, so is truth without style,” Merrill writes. So too is undertaking a project of this magnitude without the most careful attention. As for the work of editors Langdon Hammer and Stephen Yenser, one should say it plain, that this treasure-trove volume is a masterpiece of editing in every conceivable way: the stylish and telling introduction, the selection of the letters themselves, the cleanness of the copy, the accuracy of annotation, the fullness and concision of the bios, the balance between information and restraint. Other eyes may be keener than mine, but in a 700-page book of dense type and an almost infinite number of notes covering an astonishing range of reference, I encountered one minor error of fact (Wallace Fowlie’s death date was off) and one copyediting error. Miraculously, on the last page, in the last line of the colophon, an unnecessary hyphen appears in the word “sophistication.” Doubtless it is Merrill himself winking from the spirit world, marking from a socially abundant afterlife the single word that most marks him.

Published on October 4, 2021