One Life, One Writing’

A Different Person: A Memoir

by James Merrill
Knopf, 271 pp., $25.00

Selected Poems: 1946–1985

by James Merrill
Knopf, 339 pp., $25.00

A literary category much more common in Europe than in America depends on its unliterary charm. The author seems to take being a writer as a purely social phenomenon, without either the trouble of a sought-for vocation or the wish to make money by writing books. He writes as he might eat good food, wear good clothes, visit the right people and the right places. Sometimes a writer like Byron or Pushkin, who half despises the medium his genius compels him to work in, makes a nostalgic gesture toward the other sort of gentlemanly life he would half prefer to be living. “I hate a fellow who’s all author,” said Byron, with feeling, longing in patrician disdain to stand apart from the inky tribe.

The opposite attitude toward the literary vocation—or was it really quite the opposite?—was taken by Robert Lowell when he spoke of himself in a poem as “one life, one writing.” One suspects that what Lowell really meant was that his life was so absorbing to him—its ancestry, its relationships, its social detail—that he knew as if by instinct that it must be more important to others than anything else. The sheer confidence of Life Studies is more than regal. And it comes, in the last resort, from assumptions that royalty or aristocracy make about themselves. Or used to make. Today there is bound to be a faint air of the ancien régime about any writing of the sort one finds in Life Studies.

The same air of confidence hangs rather bewitchingly about the memoir by James Merrill, who was himself of course, with his well-to-do family, not far from the world of Robert Lowell. Lowell might himself have recognized, I suspect, the sheer ease with which Merrill’s memoir begins, the endearing lightness and self-confidence which has absolutely no need for defense or aggression, no need to explain or to apologize for itself.

Meaning to stay as long as possible, I sailed for Europe. It was March 1950. New York and most of the people I knew had begun to close in. Or to put it differently, I felt that I alone in this or that circle of friends could see no way into the next phase. Indeed, few of my friends would have noticed if the next phase had never begun: they would have gone on meeting for gossipy lunches or drinking together at the San Remo on MacDougal Street, protected from encounters they perhaps desired with other customers by the glittering moat, inches deep, of their allusive chatter. I loved this unliterary company; it allowed me to feel more serious than I was. Other friends, by getting jobs or entering graduate schools, left me feeling distinctly less so. On the bright side, I had taught for a year at Bard College, two hours by car from MacDougal Street. My first book of poems had been accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. And I had recently met …

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