Books March 2001

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Familiar Spirits

Sometimes an impressionistic memoir after the death of a literary figure can be definitive. The precision of a friend's intimate memory furnishes a connection to the senses, a stimulus to intuitive understanding, that a sedulous biographical assembly of documentary facts cannot match. In Familiar Spirits, Alison Lurie has written a revealing, happily far from objective tribute to and critique of the relationship between James Merrill and his life-and-literary partner, David Jackson. It conveys the bitter flavor of lives tried and failed. It rivals the pungency and impact of Lurie's lovely early work, V. R. Lang: A Memoir, which was published forty years ago under a subsidy by, yes, James Merrill and David Jackson.

Merrill and Jackson became lovers and partners in 1954 and shared financially well-endowed lives in Stonington, Connecticut, Athens, and Key West for all the years till Merrill's death (from AIDS), in 1995. Lurie contends (and I find her evidence highly persuasive) that Merrill's verse epic of encounters on the Ouija board, The Changing Light at Sandover, not only rose out of the intimate experiences of both men but also referred, unconsciously, to the uneasy and deteriorating relations between them. Merrill, "a ringmaster of language," had emerged early into a dazzling literary career; Jackson, a frustrated novelist, never achieved either publication or fame. Lurie's thesis holds that their years of Ouija-board probing dredged up the darkest in each man and left their relationship as drained of life as the hapless beached sea creature at the end of La Dolce Vita. The story she unfolds may illuminate the paired personalities of the two men more boldly than it does the scrambled pages of The Changing Light at Sandover, but it is written with the poignancy of long affection, and it left this reader jolted and distressed.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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