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Image of James Merril in black-and-white.
Orphanos, Stathis. James Merrill. sl: sn, nd. Photograph no. 17. Stathis Orphanos Photographic Archive.

With Love, Jimmy : The James Merrill Collection

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In 2015, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division acquired an extensive collection of materials by and about American poet James Ingram Merrill (1926-1995) that had been amassed by a private collector. The collection contains first editions, broadsides, photographs, and a small number of manuscripts, as well as a number of important association and dedication copies of the author’s works. Many of these are inscribed to his lovers and friends. Over the course of his life, Merrill had several lovers, but among the longest lasting, and perhaps most Influential, were Kimon Friar, David Jackson, David McIntosh, and Peter Hooten. The importance of these relationships to Merrill’s learning and writing, as well as the inspiration they provided, are oftentimes evident through the inscriptions.

Born in New York in 1926, James Merrill grew up amid wealth and privilege: his father was a founding member of the investment firm Merrill Lynch, and his mother was a publisher-turned socialite. Merrill’s interest in language developed when he was a young man from his governess who, in addition to English, also spoke French and German. Merrill soon began writing poetry and short stories, which his father secretly collected and had privately printed as Jim’s Book in 1942, while James was still in high school.

Merrill, James. Jim's Book. New York: Privately printed, 1942.
Jim’s Book by James Merrill.
https://lccn.loc.gov/43000677

 

Merrill, James. Jim's Book. New York: Privately printed, 1942.
Inscription to Kimon Friar by James Merrill:
“For Kimon / [Of all my friends I have found you most a friend] / Jimmy / 4 October 1945”
https://lccn.loc.gov/43000677
Merrill went on to attend Amherst College, where he met his first lover, his professor and tutor Kimon Friar. Friar quickly recognized Merrill’s literary talent and gathered a collection of Merrill’s poems–the majority written about his relationship with Friar–and in 1946 arranged to have them privately published.  The title of this collection is The Black Swan, for which Merrill was awarded the Glascock Poetry Prize.

Merrill, James. Black Swan. Athens: Ikaros, 1946. Woodblock by Ghika.
The Black Swan and Other Poems / by James Merrill.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2016660400

 

Merrill, James. Black Swan. Inscription to Kimon Friar.
Inscription to Kimon Friar by James Merrill:
“For Kimon / Once out of nature — / with something more than love, / Jimmy / 15 December 1946”
https://lccn.loc.gov/2016660400

The two lovers were discovered by Merrill’s mother, who forced them to separate, and Friar soon after decamped to his native Greece.  Merrill, twenty years old and without the financial means to defy his mother, remained behind.  Merrill’s first collection of poetry to be commercially published appeared under the title First Poems in 1951.

Merrill, James. First Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.
First Poems / by James Merrill.
https://lccn.loc.gov/51009092

 

Merrill, James. First Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951.
Inscription to Kimon Friar by James Merrill:
“Kimon, / his book in / at least three ways, / with love / Jimmy / January 1951.”
https://lccn.loc.gov/51009092

In 1953, Merrill met David Jackson, who would become his partner for three decades. The couple bought a house on Water Street in Stonington, Connecticut and another house in Athens, Greece, where they spent their winters.

Merill, James and David Jackson. [Photoalbum] For H.I.P. : Merry Christmas from the house in Athens and Jimmy and David. Athens: James Merrill and David Jackson, 1974.
A photo album prepared by James Merrill and David Jackson for Merrill’s mother, Helen Ingram Merrill (HIP) with photos of their house in Athens.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2016660177
Merill, James and David Jackson. [Photoalbum] For H.I.P. : Merry Christmas from the house in Athens and Jimmy and David. Athens: James Merrill and David Jackson, 1974.
Title page for the photo album James Merrill and David Jackson made for Merrill’s mother.
https://lccn.loc.gov/2016660177
 

Merill, James and David Jackson. [Photoalbum] For H.I.P. : Merry Christmas from the house in Athens and Jimmy and David. Athens: James Merrill and David Jackson, 1974.
An exterior view of the house in Athens from the photo album prepared by James Merrill and David Jackson for Merrill’s mother: “House front, car, and DNJ.”
https://lccn.loc.gov/2016660177
Over the next several years, Merrill would proceed to win many of the most prestigious awards for his writing, including the National Book Award for Nights and Days (1966), the Bollingen Prize in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (1976), the National Book Award again for Mirabell: Books of Number (1978), the National Book Critics Circle Award for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1983), and the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress for The Inner Room (1988).

Merrill, James. Braving the Elements. New York: Atheneum, 1972
Braving the Elements title page. Inscription reads; “To David who if he likes / may find himself throughout / with love from James / viii 72”
https://lccn.loc.gov/72078488

 

Merrill, James. Braving the Elements. New York: Atheneum, 1972
Detail from title page of Braving the Elements. The inscription reads: “For David [McIntosh] who if he likes / may find himself throughout / with love from James / viii. 72”
https://lccn.loc.gov/72078488
Merrill, James. Souvenirs. New York: Nadja, 1984
Souvenirs cover.
https://lccn.loc.gov/85117197
Merrill, James. Souvenirs. New York: Nadja, 1984
Souvenirs. Inscription reads: “For David – with a / million memories – / Love – / Jimmy / vii. 84”
https://lccn.loc.gov/85117197

The Inner Room was dedicated to American actor Peter Hooten, whom Merrill had taken as his lover in 1983, and who would remain with him until Merrill’s death.

Merrill, James. The Inner Room. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
The Inner Room, Poems by James Merrill.
https://lccn.loc.gov/88045265

 

Merrill, James. The Inner Room. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Inscription to Peter Hooten by James Merrill:
“PH — These signatures / are (like their author) yours /
– JM / 1988
https://lccn.loc.gov/88045265

Merrill’s poetry changed over the years from a very formal lyric poetry to a freer form and relaxed verse.  It changed even more with his adoption of occult communication through a Ouija board.  Merrill and Jackson would regularly hold seances and transcribe messages from deceased friends, spirits, and angels.  These transcriptions were then incorporated into Merrill’s poetry, notably “The Book of Ephraim,” the last poem in Divine Comedies (1976); Mirabell: Books of Number (1978); and Scripts for the Pageant (1980), which were later issued as one epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover (1982).

James Merrill Book Wall containing Scripts for the Pageant, Mirabell: Books of Number, and Divine Comedies.
James Merrill Book Wall containing Divine Comedies, Mirabell: Books of Number, and Scripts for the Pageant.
The rosewood cabinet that protects the books was made by Emmett Day of Seattle. The cabinet contains some 144 different pieces of wood. The book covers were bound by Lage Carlson in oasis goatskin in gray, purple, and tan.
ACQ22-029.

 

Merrill, James. Divine Comedies. New York: Atheneum, 1976
Divine Comedies (1976) from the James Merrill Bookwall, showing goatskin cover by Lage Carlson and title page.

 

Merrill, James. Mirabell: Books of Number. New York: Atheneum, 1979.
Mirabell: Books of Number (1979) from the James Merrill Bookwall, showing goatskin cover by Lage Carlson and title page.

 

Merrill, James. Scripts for the Pageant. New York: Atheneum, 1980
Scripts for the Pageant (1980) from the James Merrill Bookwall, showing goatskin cover by Lage Carlson and title page.

Merrill succumbed to HIV at the age of 68 on February 6, 1995 while vacationing in Tuscon, Arizona, and just after completing his final book A Scattering of Salts (1995).  A number of posthumous publications of Merrill’s work have since been released, including Last Poems (1998), as well as a number of anthologies.

This collection and others are available for research in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. For more information, send a query to the reference staff via Ask-A-Librarian.

 

SOURCES

“James Ingram Merrill,” https://www.loc.gov/item/n80026113/james-ingram-merrill/

“James Merrill,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Merrill

“The Black Swan,” Kimon Friar, and Merrill Interview. For translation of inscription in Jim’s Book: http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/merrill-poetry-mss/black-swan/merrill-interview

 

RELATED RESOURCES

https://library.wustl.edu/spec/james-merrill/

https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/james-merrill-papers

https://guides.loc.gov/sylvester-and-orphanos-collection-and-archive/introduction

 

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Comments (3)

  1. Hello Mark Manivong,
    This is very nice and a touching tribute to James. He was a very kind man. While Jill McGowan (Orione), his niece commission the set of 3 books I spoke with James circa 12/1980 about the project and I saw him at Yale. Photos can be found in Lage Carlson Catalog of 83 Handbound Books 1976-2012 in the Library Collection or I can send you photos by email.
    Best to you,
    Lage Carlson

  2. Thanks for sharing these artifacts. If you find yourself in Stonington, CT, we’d love to give you a tour of James Merrill’s home at 107 Water Street, which Merrill passed along to the borough along with his books, artwork, and other furnishings. It is now a National Historic Landmark that offers residencies to writers throughout the year.
    Regards,
    Laura Mathews
    Communications Chair
    James Merrill House

    • Thank you so much, Laura! I would love to tour James Merrill’s home and will contact you in the near future.
      All my best, Mark

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