A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill

Knopf. Mar. 2021. 736p. ed. by ed. by Langdon Hammer & Stephen Yenser. ISBN 9781101875506. $45. LIT
The first letter that poet James Merrill wrote was to Santa, asking for a flashlight for Christmas. The last, written four days before his death in 1995, was addressed to a newly published author, congratulating him on his first published book. In his adult years, Merrill wrote almost daily: to family, friends, lovers and ex-lovers, and acquaintances. Much of this collection, edited by Hammer (English, Yale Univ.; James Merrill: Life and Art) and poet Yenser (The Fire in All Things), is ephemeral—chatter and gossip, though with an extensive cast of characters—but the regularity with which Merrill wrote demonstrates his passion for the art of writing. The picture that emerges is of a man who fell in love easily but, in the end, always held back on committing. What stands out is Merrill’s detailing at length the craft of poetry writing and how he revised his own poems. Notable is his infatuation with the Ouija board, which inspired his massive three-volume epic, The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–80). Toward the end, his letters tell of his health difficulties after contracting AIDS and reflect on his overall life.
VERDICT This sumptuously produced collection of letters will appeal mostly to literary enthusiasts.
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