Describing Alison Lurie's fiction as a decades-long debate with James Merrill explains a lot about her and, by extension, American culture in general. This memoir, her second work of nonfiction, tells how they met in the mid-1950s, Lurie the bored, intelligent faculty wife of a dullish junior English professor at Amherst, Merrill a visiting teacher of poetry writing. Lurie says that he paid to have her first book privately printed, a memoir of their friend V.R. Lang, which led to the publication of Lurie's first novel Love and Friendship. She acknowledges that her novel includes a character combining traits drawn from Merrill and from his companion David Jackson, though this character appears only in epistolary form, the gay author of witty letters about his visiting gig in a college town resembling Amherst–at least, as a satirist would see it.
Familiar Spirits doesn't recount the remainder of Lurie's career as a fiction writer, but I'll support my opening comment above by pointing out that her third novel, an exposé of the world of mediums and spiritualist mysticism, is dedicated to Merrill and Jackson. (Her second novel was a witty satire of life in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.) In Real People, her fourth, the writer heroine, during a residency at an artists' colony based on Yaddo, forgoes the company of a refined writer boyfriend for an affair with a crude but sexy sculptor, who advances his suit by suggesting that her previous attachment is a closeted homosexual. The Lurie-Merrill dialectic continues, under several guises, in later books, including a story collection titled Women and Ghosts. The book under review, as it pursues Lurie's serialized romance with Merrill, vacillates between praise and condemnation, the literary equivalent of a lover's quarrel, with the emphasis on "quarrel." You can't help asking why, if she came to dislike Merrill and what he stood for, she didn't simply stop seeing him. Instead, she seems to have resolutely kept after him–for example, buying a house in Key West the year after he began wintering there, a vantage point from which she could continue in her preferred role as disapproving spectator of aberrant behavior.
The son of the Charles Merrill who made one fortune by founding a brokerage house and another hefty one backing chain stores like Safeway, James Merrill violated one of the ironclad commandments for American artists: Thou shalt not be rich. Though Lurie doesn't seem to know about Safeway, she talks a lot about wealth and its impact on Merrill's life and work. It's clear that "Jimmy," as she calls him, liked this new woman friend; and, meanwhile, several benefits connected to his privileged situation trickled down to her–his literate conversation, inclusion in his cosmopolitan social life and funds disbursed for her debut book publication. Still, she resents his freedom from the typical cares of a middle-income household where, for example, the children's education has to be paid for. Here, even the childless can sympathize. In the authorial big leagues, are the touchdowns truly deserved when they aren't scored on a level playing field?
This is the moment for me to state that, without ever quite developing a warm friendship, I was closely associated with James Merrill for a decade and a half, so that my own observations overlap with some of Alison Lurie's. She was his friend nearly twenty years before I met him and for the last part of his life as well, a time when he and I were no longer speaking to each other. Even so, she doesn't seem to be aware that, during their long friendship, he held her somewhat at arm's length. Many of her assumptions about Merrill and Jackson are mistaken, from what I know–beginning with the notion that Jackson himself had a sizable private income. That is apparently what he told her; but (as the late David Kalstone explained to me many years ago) the funds came from Merrill, who settled a fortune on Jackson when they first became a couple. Doing so was probably a kind of test. Merrill was a romantic, but, like most rich people, he tended to mistrust the unmoneyed, and there were solid reasons for his caution. Lurie's unflattering book, which he would have loathed, is a case in point. Once provided for, Jackson (again, according to Kalstone) didn't bolt; but he was the first to step outside the relationship for extracurricular sex. Merrill didn't object to the new format; in fact, he quickly followed suit. We can take a Victorian attitude about their relational contract, but we should also admit that, on that hand, the couple was no different from many others, gay or straight, in artistic circles; think of Elizabeth Bowen and Alan Cameron or W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
Lurie can't be unaware of instances like these, and so you wonder why the term "promiscuity" is laid on so indiscriminately throughout the memoir. Boys in the band who read it will understand right away why Merrill might have considered it inadvisable to allow a roman à clef novelist (and now memoirist) like Lurie access to the whole, awful truth. Faced with her museum-quality obtuseness, they'll want to dig in the bottom drawer and pull out an old T-shirt with the motto, "It's a gay thing: You wouldn't understand."
While Lurie envies the carefree life her two friends led, she never pauses to reflect on the damage coming of age as a gay man in that period inflicted. Gay sex was a felony and, except among the enlightened, a sin or an illness. Most public venues were closed to artists who portrayed homosexuality as merely a routine variation of the human possible. Merrill fell back on classic, Wildean defenses: He satirized, and he adopted fictive masks. Although many readers were tickled by his comic irony, its pervasiveness in his work meant that he was relegated to the second rank, all the more since the poems were riddled with unpopular characteristics such as an interest in Europe and works of literature, art and music produced before last year. A frequent critical response to his poetry was that it was "elegant," "brittle," "mannered," all of these semi-polite synonyms for "queer." If you accept Philip Rahv's division of American writers into two groups, redskins (e.g., Whitman and Hemingway) and palefaces (e.g., Poe and Henry James), then you won't hesitate to put Merrill into the second. But maybe those categories are an oversimplification?
It's still too soon to make a balanced estimate of his lyric poetry, but I might as well cast my vote along with Lurie's negative one and say that his own monumental "epic" The Changing Light at Sandover is a failure. A failure with good lines and bits, but still… The central thesis of the Lurie memoir is that undertaking this project was an artistic error for Merrill and a personal calamity for David Jackson. After the opening chapters' praising portrait of Merrill, Lurie becomes hostile, as any reader of hers might have predicted, when she reacts to the publication of a work based on Merrill's literary love affair with the Ouija board. You're always supposed to allow authors their donnée, but it's hard not to lose interest immediately when you consider the premise of the work: That the best and brightest of the great dead, plus several archangels and a deity called "God B," settled on a middle-aged gay couple in Connecticut as the chosen conduit for an apocalyptic message they wanted channeled to humankind. The poem's weirder characters and episodes include a series of "mathematical formulae" that "look" like bats, one of them eventually turning into the spiritualist equivalent of a peacock. Named "Mirabell" by his new friends, this being is joined by "Uni," a unicorn lacking his kind's signature horn. At the trilogy's conclusion these two are joined at the hip to form a Pegasus-like creature that can fly and incidentally embody the upward surge of authentic inspiration.
These are typical events along the yellow brick road, and I sympathize with Lurie's distaste for a project removed that far from the consensus universe. Meanwhile, she strongly identifies with Jackson and believes that his own literary gifts (he had published a few works of short fiction) were siphoned off into Merrill's otherworldly epic. She guesses that it was really his hand that moved the pointer to compose the messages they received, and I think the guess is on target. Because the poem is really the product of joint authorship, she's upset that Jackson hasn't received due recognition for his part in it. But, now, wait: If she doesn't like the work, why does she want Jackson to get credit as one of its authors? Besides that, the fact is that Merrill revised almost all the Ouija messages they received to make from them a more coherent work. If the results are still bad, do we assign most of the responsibility to him or to Jackson?
At least most of the raw material they recorded has to be credited to his account, i.e., the misconstrued "science" and faux-mystic verbiage, along with the apology in favor of enlightened despots like Akhenaton and even dictator-murderers like Stalin and Hitler. That, plus the anti-Semitism, race condescension and sexist attitudes that crop up in it. When you add the bald PR campaign for gay male artistic superiority (from Plato to Virgil to Whitman to Proust) harped on by some of the spirit voices, it gets pretty ludicrous. Western Civ was a gay plot? Back to the drawing board, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Vermeer, Bach, Goethe, George Eliot, Kafka, Frank Lloyd Wright, Balanchine. Some of the latter are automatically relegated to second rank because poetry and music are accounted as intrinsically superior to visual art, architecture or dance, which depend more on the material world. Do you laugh or weep when critics widely respected hail this Emerald City cum Fascist re-education center as a masterpiece?
Lurie believes that Jackson's sense of failure when he compared a negligible personal achievement to Merrill's critical acclaim explains his sharp decline, a decline accelerated by all those hours expended in sawing away at the Board. The first assertion is plausible, the second, less so. But you can't discuss either Jackson's or Merrill's travails without factoring in alcohol, drugs, a relentless social and professional schedule, and the general problem of aging (particularly acute for gay men). Jackson was also a chain smoker and eventually developed emphysema, which, because of neural oxygen-deprivation, dulled his mental capacities. He is still alive today, though not lucid. With characteristic tact, Lurie describes him as a "ghost," a label supporting her thesis, but at the expense of an invalid she describes as one of her closest friends.
Daily immersion in the spirit world probably did take its toll; but I'd suggest that an even greater strain was a social habit current among Merrill's set: communicating by indirect means, hinting, double-entendre. I recall him quoting his mother, who warned him "never to let down the mask." His words and actions, most of the time, had double meanings, and that was true in spades for the poems. The Ouija epic should be understood not merely as an alphabet soup sent down to mortals from dreamlands somewhere over the rainbow but also as a commentary on his own milieu and on the situation of contemporary letters. Lurie seems to have grasped this, decoding the bio of the Ouija-world "patron" that Merrill and Jackson channeled for her as an allegorical (and none too flattering) thumbnail sketch of herself. Veiled critiques are hard to take; if you challenge them you risk being called paranoid. Lurie could always get up from the table and go back home, of course; but Jackson was already home, and it can't have been comfortable to communicate via masks year after year.
Still, even if Jackson lost vitality through exposure to the kryptonite of Merrill's personality and social manner, he could have decided to split at any moment. Since he didn't, he retains responsibility. Maybe he just needed a push? If we accept Lurie's implied assertion–that she herself has managed to escape the toils of artificiality to become a free and passionate human being–why didn't she urge Jackson to do the same? From a safe height she watched someone she says she cared about begin to drown, and she said nothing, or nothing directly. Her memoir tells us she dislikes Merrill's rarefied Olympian realm of divine beings and spirits, yet her snow-capped vantage point also turns out to be quite a cold mountain itself. In her long lover's quarrel with James Merrill, she is more a "paleface" than she allows, more caught up in his techniques of communication than she acknowledges. I'm guessing that she wants her memoir to comment by inference on the current literary situation just as much as on the life that Merrill and Jackson shared in their day. As such, the book can be read as a protest, no doubt well intentioned, against Merrill's posthumous influence; and who would deny that his habit of communicating through subtexts and literary "masks" is widespread? If Lurie's book is in fact meant as a protest, though, her quarrel with him, as with so many failed romances, is best described as another instance of irreconcilable similarities.