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.
What emerges most strongly from the letters collected in A Whole World is their lightness of touch, lightness of spirit, and the quality of affection on display ... Merrill often made sure his letters were amusing ... He could also adopt a lovely world-weary tone ... Sometimes the poor little rich boy emerges, wanting service ... He veered from being funny and light to being almost serious.
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.