American Literature James Merrill
David Ben-Merre, Heidi Wallace
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0207


James Merrill (b. 1926–d. 1995) was one of the foremost American poets following the Second World War. Unlike many postwar poets celebrated for radical experimentation or outright rejection of traditional forms, Merrill was exceptionally witty, polished, and stylistically graceful—never with a word out of place. For many readers, such elegance, formal intricateness, and technical skill (unfairly) meant that Merrill was hiding behind an ornamental mask. His later verse, though, what he would call “chronicles of love and loss,” began to win over new readers, who recognized the brilliant nuance, meditative complexity, and all-too-human depth. Following the publication of Sandover in 1982, Merrill’s reputation multiplied and the attention paid to him in various general studies demonstrated how indispensable he was to 20th-century poetics. Although not as politically engaged as his contemporaries, Merrill—a homosexual poet, acutely aware of the dangers of the nuclear age—was not deaf to the social concerns of his day, however complicated he saw them and however much he avoided easy sentimentality. In the last three decades of his life, he won numerous awards, including the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and two National Book Awards. Born into a New York family of extraordinary privilege—his father was the cofounder of Merrill-Lynch—Merrill grew up on a grand estate and enjoyed many of the luxuries of that station. His early life was haunted by his parents’ (quite public) divorce. He would return to this often in his writing, each time rediscovering the significance of what he would call “the broken home.” He attended Amherst College, completing a thesis on Marcel Proust, whose treatment of time and memory would lastingly inform Merrill’s lyric sensibility. After traveling to Europe, he took up residence with his partner David Jackson on Water Street in Stonington, Connecticut. For much of the next decade, Merrill and Jackson would sit at their Ouija board, conjuring figures of old, seeking a glimpse into that Other World. As the 1950s drew to a close, Athens, Greece, became a second home. Later, when Athens ran its course, Merrill and Jackson returned to the States, with Merrill rewriting the chronicles from his Ouija notebooks into three critically acclaimed works, which would eventually become the epic trilogy Sandover. Following Sandover’s success, Merrill and Jackson spent time in Key West, Florida, where Merrill met his final partner, the actor Peter Hooten. The AIDS scare soon hit home, and Merrill lost many close friends; he would soon receive his own positive diagnosis. In his final decade, he published a memoir and extraordinary collections of poetry and plays. He passed away in February 1995, following a heart attack, but his generous legacy as a patron of poets continues even to this day. As the posthumous remarks of fellow writers make clear, the world lost more than a great poet. Helen Vendler’s words ring true: “The time eventually comes, in a good poet’s career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life.”

Reference Works

Reference material on Merrill includes Internet resources and various interviews over decades. Langdon Hammer, J. D. McClatchy, and Stephen Yenser are currently completing a collection of Merrill’s letters. Most of the Merrill manuscripts are housed in a special collection at Washington University, which has made selections (including captivating audio and video material) available online.

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