A cosmopolitan, bejeweled and philosophical chronicle of friendship, love, sex and work ... A Whole World gives us glimpses and assessments of Merrill’s poetic elders, as well as his contemporaries, and then eventually his disciples. Merrill found that letters, in which one can get away with an aperçu instead of a whole argument, suited him better than essays. Quick comparative literary judgments became an epistolary specialty ... He was generous with his advice and his money, and the letters he sent, whether or not they enclosed a check, were carefully crafted presents. Their entertainment never feels like a performance for posterity, but rather something directed at the living, individual recipient, who seems to be sitting directly across from the sender ... Artifice is his way of being natural. With Jamesian syntax and Wildean wit, he lavishes his correspondents with parody, puns and aphorism ... These letters went into the mail fully formed and polished, but this new collection of them, arriving a quarter-century into letter-writing’s death spiral, assures their monumentality.
This book, which takes us from age 6 (a letter to Santa Claus) all the way to his final days in Tucson, Ariz., where he died from AIDS-related complications in 1995, immerses us in that world and enriches our understanding of the poetry that came out of it ... Merrill’s poems explore the complex bonds between himself and an ever-widening circle of friends, lovers and relations around the world. That circle—bewilderingly and for some people disturbingly—also expanded to take in the next world, via the poet’s longtime practice of conducting seances via the Ouija board ... Merrill’s poems constitute a vast, hospitable home into which we are invited. With the possible exception of Yeats, no poet since Wordsworth has made such great poetry from the material of his own life; however, while Wordsworth mainly reflects on his own relations with the natural world, Merrill focuses on his connections with other people ... For those not so privileged, these letters, together with Mr. Hammer’s biography, constitute the next best way to acquire a similar feeling of intimacy ... This book shows us that the term 'man of letters' has never been more appropriately applied to a writer.
It’s a fundamentally surprising kind of volume, something that already feels like an anachronism encountered in some museum’s dusty basement ... Merrill was a master of that antiquated kind of correspondence ... These letters could often strive for the feeling of being dashed off, but Merrill cared about them quite a bit ... Hammer and Yenser are as conscientious as you could reasonably hope. They carefully footnote every letter, identifying all the names of people, places, and books that fill Merrill’s chatter, and they include a glossary of important recurring names. But that only goes so far. The problem—and, far from being a problem, it was a glorious gift to the recipients of these letters—is that although Merrill was a literary perfectionist of the first water, he never insulted his correspondents by turning his letters into set pieces. Each letter in this volume is written to somebody, about things, with no attempt made at contextualizing. The prompting letters are not included, and neither are the responses, and no amount of either would be sufficient in any case. The result makes for fragmentary reading at best ... The result is a persistent feeling of listening through a keyhole to one half of the middle of a conversation. There are wonderful moments, everywhere ... But such moments are confirmations rather than discoveries—they’ll always tend to reward the faithful while confounding newcomers.