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.