Skip to main content


"Dear Jamie," Alice Toklas wrote Merrill in the mid-1950s, discussing his play The Bait which he had recently sent her, "what fascinates me is the underlying question"—here she corrects herself, "or rather fact," only to correct herself again, "or understanding"—"of pure abstraction as only a highly gifted American knows and can tell it." "As Poe and Hawthorne," Toklas continues, "and your E. Dickinson (I'm a little fed up with hers) so simply told it." Abstraction is probably not the tone most readers hear in Merrill's words; more likely than not, this is due to the fact (or question or understanding) that typically we think of abstraction, especially "pure abstraction," as itself abstract, rather than as a function of what Wallace Stevens, in "The Idea of Order at Key West," called the "ghostlier demarcations." Merrill's ghosts are, of course, more on the order of Poe's and Hawthorne's and even, perhaps especially, of Dickinson's ("This World is not Conclusion. / A Species stands beyond— / Invisible, as Music— / But positive, as Sound—") than of Stevens'. All the same, Stevens, another Connecticut poet, is on the guest list for the climactic reading of The Changing Light at Sandover; and who will forget that, near the end of Scripts for the Pageant, the final book of Merrill's divine comedy, "GERTRUDE & WALLACE WINDOWSHOP"? Such a lovely idea.

The present exhibition celebrates Merrill's social imagination—this or that other in Merrill, and other others as well—as he imagines the recipients of his occasional verse and his letters, glimpses somewhat mysterious forces at work in the combinative and anagrammatic constructions he so delighted in, provides a medium for the interplay of voices in his dramatic works, analyzes the single person caught up in a web of relations in his fiction, recreates in his memoir his own transformation from one person (already "a different person") into that still different person who would spend days and months and years and decades with David Jackson at the Ouija board, in order to realize his ideal of antiphonal composition, the "play of voices," in Changing Light. All facets of "living's tone," as he remarked of Toklas' "name for David," Livingston—all addressing that "underlying question of pure abstraction."

"James Merrill: Other Writings," together with the accompanying day-long festivities on the 22nd of March, provides an opportunity for the public to witness how in Merrill's extraordinary literary archives housed in Washington University's Modern Literature Collection, there are no ephemera. Even so, as Charles, in Merrill's poem "Ideas," says of his American notions (by contrast with the European ones of his interlocutor, Xenia), this abstract wonder will "collapse, / Without me, into vacancy." After the exhibit is dismantled, readers and viewers will still be needed, not merely desired; and the model for perusing and using the archives has been provided by the Washington University students who, with the able assistance of the staff of Special Collections, so superbly organized the various assemblages of items in the exhibit. Please use your imaginations! No more; no less.

Steven Meyer, English Department