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.
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.
One of the immediate rewards of reading his letters is to find, embedded in otherwise newsy or purely conversational letters, passages of great painterly beauty ... No other letter offers such an extended theatrical entertainment as [the one about Wallace Stevens's birthday party], but a great many of them include a similar, more compressed form of it: the anecdote. Anecdotes are always told to illustrate a point concisely, but they require a certain amount of characterization, a particular setting or occasion, and a crucial moment of drama—or even epiphany, if you like—that depends on something spoken ... the letters should be read for their immediate emotions: their generosity, affection, empathy, and love, their readiness to entertain, and their unfailing eagerness to please. You don’t have to re-read the poetry in order to understand them—rudimentary footnotes follow each letter, identifying anything you need to know (and much that you don’t). In any case, Merrill himself is far easier of access in these letters than he is in his (nuanced, paradoxical, self-revising, elusive) poems. He writes letters not to perform, never to impress, always to communicate with and respond to a person he cares about greatly.
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.
The letters gathered in A Whole World display...openness. No subject—certainly no erotic subject—is scanted. The notes are vivid and chatty, and sometimes include recipes or cameos by the likes of William Burroughs ... Overall, very little in A Whole World challenges the view of Merrill already on record ... Merrill never stopped falling in love, never stopped believing 'loving is the indispensable condition,' and the letters in A Whole World show us why ... However eager Merrill might have been to borrow material from his letters and incorporate it into his poetry, this is a register found only in the correspondence. Alongside so much else, A Whole World documents those times the poet was able to honor love, and love in itself, not just for the songs one could make of it.
Much of this collection, edited by Hammer, is ephemeral—chatter and gossip, though with an extensive cast of characters—but the regularity with which Merrill wrote demonstrates his passion for the art of writing ... This sumptuously produced collection of letters will appeal mostly to literary enthusiasts.