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Wrestling with the Canon

Authority in The Changing Light at Sandover
  • Piotr K. Gwiazda
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Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)

Abstract

The poems Merrill wrote before The Changing Light at Sandover combine cultivated aestheticism and discreet autobiography, a discernible sense of craft and a tacit confessional impulse that make the intricacies of personal life their primary subject matter. This is certainly the thematic scope of “The Book of Ephraim,” the trilogy’s first installment, based on Ouija board séances conducted between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s with a “GREEK JEW / BORN AD 8 at XANTHOS” (CLS, 8).1 In the course of the ninety-two-page poem, Ephraim instructs Merrill and Jackson about the reincarnation cycle, the afterlife’s nine stages, and its elaborate system of “patrons” and “representatives.” The two mediums also communicate with their dead friends and family members like Dutch poet Hans Lodeizen, experimental film director Maya Deren, and the poet’s father, financial tycoon Charles E. Merrill. Much of “The Book of Ephraim” concerns the ups and downs of Merrill’s relationship with Jackson, his companion also acting as his artistic collaborator.2 Following an alphabetical arrangement into twenty-six sections, the first volume conveys Merrill’s mixed reactions about his occult enterprise, features the characters of the novel in which he originally intended to describe his experiences at the board, and chronicles some of his travels over the two-decade period.

Keywords

Homosexual Identity Utopian Vision Liberal Imagination Fall Angel Ouija Board 
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Notes

  1. 6.
    For more about the relationship between twentieth-century poetry and the occult, see Timothy Materer, Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995);Google Scholar
  2. Helen Sword, Ghostwriting Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002);Google Scholar
  3. and Devin Johnston, Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics — Queer Reading (London: Routledge, 1994), 64.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey (New York: Avon, 1962), 87.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Dean says: “In the form of polymorphous infantile sexuality, perversion precedes the norm, and therefore normal sexuality—that is, reproductive genital heterosexuality—represents a deviation or falling away from perversion.” Beyond Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 234–35 (Dean’s emphasis).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 1–20. Abelove quotes Freud’s well-known “Letter to an American Mother,” written in response to a woman concerned about her son’s homosexual tendencies: “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuals as a crime—and a cruelty, too” (Ibid., 1–2).Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 37.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    D.L. Macdonald, “Merrill and Freud: The Psychopathology of Eternal Life,” Mosaic 14 (1986): 161. In his essay Macdonald discusses aspects of Sandover alongside Freud’s “Psychoanalytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides),” which links his homosexual patient Daniel Paul Schreber’s redeemer fantasies with his struggle for parental acceptance.Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    In response to C.A. Buckley’s question about the childlessness motif in “The Book of Ephraim,” Merrill says: “I think there’s a kind of genetic imperative we all feel. Even happily married couples who decide not to have children have a terribly hard time to go through. With me it didn’t clear away. I never had a mother in mind for a child, but by my mid-thirties I was still thinking if I am going to be a father now is the time to do something about it.” “Exploring The Changing Light at Sandover,” interview by C.A. Buckley, Twentieth-Century Literature 38, no. 4 (1992): 418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  18. 30.
    Plato, Symposium, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 52.Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    It is debatable whether Plato actually agreed with the definitions of same-sex desire he put in the mouths of the characters in his dialogues; in the Laws, he refers to same-sex desire as unnatural. But the general agreement is that sexual conventions during Plato’s lifetime were still by and large more flexible than they have been in the Western world in the past two thousand years. As Plato’s dialogues suggest, and as many scholars have demonstrated, sexual relations between adult males were tolerated and in some situations encouraged in ancient Greece. See especially David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York: Routledge, 1990).Google Scholar
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  22. 44.
    Many advances were made in the field of American and British poetry. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry looks at the pervasiveness of the gay impulse in American poetry from Walt Whitman to Hart Crane, as well as some post-World War II poets including Merrill (through Braving the Elements). Gregory Woods’s Articulate Flesh (1978) concentrates on three major themes—the male body, men of war, and childless fathers—and looks specifically at the poetry of Lawrence, Crane, Auden, Ginsberg, and Gunn. Soon after Merrill completed his trilogy, Stephen Coote put out The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, which includes writings by Homer, Sappho, Pindar, Theocritus, Catullus, Horace, Martial, Michelangelo, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Waller, Gray, Goethe, Byron, Tennyson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Housman, Cavafy, Stein, Owen, Auden (“Uncle Henry”), Duncan, Spicer, Rich, but not Merrill.Google Scholar
  23. A later anthology, Gay & Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1988), edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, contains three poems by Auden and two by Merrill.Google Scholar
  24. J.D. McClatchy’s selection Love Speaks Its Name (2001), for the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series, features several poems by Auden and Merrill.Google Scholar
  25. 45.
    Gregory Woods, A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.Google Scholar
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    Gore Vidal, “Interview with Gore Vidal,” interview by Dennis Altman, in The View from Christopher Street, ed. Michael Denneny, Charles Ortleb, and Thomas Steele (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984), 296.Google Scholar
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  28. 50.
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    For more about the Mattachine Society and the disputes that accompanied its eventual demise, see John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual in the United States 1940–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).Google Scholar
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    Edward Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1908), 128. The word “Uraniah” derives from Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s 1862 term for male homosexuality “Uraning.” As Donald Webster Cory reports, “Ulrichs found inspiration for his etymology in the planet Uranus, which, of all the planets visible to the naked eye, is furthest from the sun and therefore nearest to heaven; love for one’s own sex was likewise the most heavenly of physical passions, he contended” (Cory, The Homosexual in America, 106).Google Scholar
  31. 56.
    Timothy Materer, James Merrill’s Apocalypse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 115.Google Scholar
  32. 57.
    E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), 68.Google Scholar
  33. 58.
    Quoted in Sherill Tippins, February House: The Story of W.H Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 56. It is worth noting that during one of his Ouija board sessions in the mid-1980s, long after The Changing Light at Sandover had been completed, Merrill and Jackson say to the ghosts of Auden and Isherwood: “You two really showed us how to live” (James Merrill, black notebook, page 311, James Ingram Merrill Papers, Washington University Libraries).Google Scholar
  34. 59.
    Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy, 73–74. In his coming-out article, published in the New York Times Magazine in 1971, Merle Miller quotes passages from “What I Believe” to demonstrate Forster’s centrality to gay men both prior to and following the publication of Maurice. Merle Miller, On Being Different: What It Means To Be a Homosexual (New York: Random House, 1971), 3.Google Scholar
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    Lionel Trilling, E.M. Forster (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 12.Google Scholar
  36. 64.
    Christopher Yu, Nothing to Admire: The Politics of Poetic Satire From Dryden to Merrill (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 10–11.Google Scholar

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© Piotr K. Gwiazda 2007

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