James Merrill

James Merrill sitting in a button-up beneath a vest in a wallpapered room.

James Ingram Merrill (March 3, 1926 – February 6, 1995) was an American poet and author of novels, plays, essays, and a memoir. Merrill was born in New York City to Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm.

As a boy, Merrill enjoyed a highly privileged upbringing in economic and educational terms. As a teenager, Merrill attended the Lawrenceville School. When Merrill was 16 years old, his father collected Merrill’s short stories and poems and published them as a surprise under the name Jim’s Book.

Despite great personal wealth derived from unbreakable trusts made early in his childhood, Merrill lived modestly. In 1956, he used a portion of his inheritance to found the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which has since awarded grants to hundreds of artists and writers.

Merrill’s studies at Amherst College were interrupted by service in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945. Another book, The Black Swan, was privately printed in 1946 while he was still in college. Following his graduation in 1947, Merrill taught for a year at Bard College. Merrill’s first commercially published volume, First Poems, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951 to critical acclaim.

Merrill himself is no stranger to awards. Beginning with the prestigious Glascock Prize for The Black Swan when he was an undergraduate, Merrill would go on to receive every major poetry award in the United States, including the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Divine Comedies. Merrill was honored in mid-career with the 1973 Bollingen Prize and would receive the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover. In 1990, he received the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room. He garnered the National Book Award for Poetry twice, in 1967 for Nights and Days and 1979 for Mirabell: Books of Number.

Merrill was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1978. James Merrill also served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1979 until his death.

A writer of elegance and wit, highly adept at wordplay and puns, Merrill was a master of traditional poetic meter and form who also wrote a good deal of free and blank verse. As Merrill matured, the polished and taut brilliance of his early work yielded to a more informal, relaxed voice.

Already established in the 1970s among the finest poets of his generation, Merrill made a surprising detour when he began incorporating occult messages into his work. The result, a 560-page apocalyptic epic published as The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), documents two decades of messages dictated from otherworldly spirits during Ouija séances hosted by Merrill and his partner David Jackson. The Changing Light at Sandover is one of the longest epics in any language and features the voices of recently deceased poet W. H. Auden, Merrill’s late friends Maya Deren and Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki, as well as heavenly beings including the Archangel Michael.

Following the publication of The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill returned to writing shorter poetry that could be both whimsical and nostalgic. His last book, A Scattering of Salts, was published a month after his death.

The James Merrill Papers

The James Merrill Papers consists of original manuscripts, drafts, typescripts, diaries, reading notes, college materials, ephemera, photographs, and extensive correspondence with his family, friends, and business associates. Audiovisual and personal material document other aspects of Merrill’s life. Also included are the journals and letters of David Kalstone, a close companion of Merrill’s from the 1960s until Klastone’s early death in 1986, as well as correspondence, scrapbooks, and ephemera belonging to Merrill’s mother, Hellen Ingram Plummer. Items related to his lifelong companion, David Jackson, are represented as well.

Related Collections in the Modern Literature Collection

  • Mary Boatwright Collection of James Merrill Papers | James Merrill correspondence, manuscripts, ephemera, and realia belonging to Mary Boatwright, a neighbor and friend of Merrill’s in Stonington, Connecticut.
  • David Jackson Papers | Extensive correspondence, photographs of family and friends, and manuscript material towards David Jackson’s poems, stories, and plays. Jackson was James Merrill’s longtime partner.
  • Claude Fredericks Collection of James Merrill Papers | Collection of James Merrill manuscripts, inscribed books, photographs, ephemera, publications, and realia. All materials belonged to Merrill’s close friend, Claude Fredericks, an American poet, playwright, printer, writer, and professor of literature at Bennington College.
  • Marilyn Aronberg Lavin Collection of James Merrill Papers | Collection includes correspondence, inscribed publications, photographs, and other materials from or related to James Merrill. Lavin was a close, longtime friend of Merrill’s.
  • Photographs from the James Merrill Papers | Photographs from the James Merrill Papers are viewable to Washington University students and faculty on Artstor. If you are an outside researcher, email spec@wumail.wustl.edu for access.

Related Exhibitions