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Writing his way out of his father's shadow

Collected Novels and Plays, James Merrill, Edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf: 678 pp., $40

November 10, 2002|Caroline Fraser | Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, among other publications.

Before he was a poet, before he had written any of the works that made his reputation, James Merrill was the son of Charles Edward Merrill, one of the most influential and inventive stockbrokers of all time, a man who predicted the stock market crash of 1929. Merrill's relationship with his famous father -- and everything represented by him -- animates much of the material in "Collected Novels and Plays," the second volume in a series edited by J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. (Merrill's "Collected Poems" was published last year; a "Collected Prose and Letters" will follow). Aside from their inherent interest -- Merrill rarely wrote a dull word -- these fictions, particularly the autobiographical novel "The Seraglio," mark a dramatic phase in his development as a writer, providing -- oddly enough -- perhaps the most accessible introduction to Merrill's poetry, known for its obscurity. It was here, rather than in his earliest poetry, that Merrill acted out his first transforming struggle with the conditions that defined his life: wealth, class and homosexuality.

Although he died in 1956, Charlie "Good Time" Merrill, the self-made founder of Merrill Lynch, has had and continues to have an enormous effect on the lives of average Americans. Foreseeing the importance of chain stores -- underwriting and ultimately controlling the S.S. Kresge Co. (now Kmart) and the Safeway grocery chain -- Charlie Merrill also revolutionized the brokerage and investment industry, moving it away from the clubby elitist bankers' enclave that it once was and toward the free-wheeling free enterprise system -- open to the humblest investor -- that it now is. Whether they know it or not, millions of middle-class Americans anxiously watching the stock market are following the path laid out for them by Charlie Merrill. And whether Merrill Lynch knows it or not, it owed the good name and consumer trust it recently squandered in conflict-of-interest scandals to its founder, whose horror at what has become of the company he built can only be imagined.

The elder Merrill's origins were modest. Born in 1885 to a country physician in Florida, he worked his way through Amherst College and headed the bond department of a New York firm before founding his own company in 1914, making his first fortune not long after. He had two children by his first wife; his second, Hellen Ingram, bore his third and last child, James Ingram Merrill, in 1926. By that time, the Merrills were living the life of New York's captains of finance, dividing their time between a townhouse in Greenwich Village (immortalized in Merrill's poem, "18 West 11th Street") and two homes in Southampton.

After his parents' acrimonious breakup when he was 12, James struggled to come to terms with his father and the veritable force field created by his narcissistic bluster and his scandal-ridden private life (the "Good Time" nickname originated in salacious fact), as well as his vast wealth and the hangers-on that it attracted. The two novels in this volume track Merrill's journey from being the son of a powerful man to being his own man: "The Seraglio," published in 1957, vividly captures Charlie Merrill's harem-style household while announcing its author's emancipation from his family. "The (Diblos) Notebook" of 1965 -- an experimental novel incorporating a novelist's fits, starts and revisions -- carries us well into the life that Merrill would lead in Greece and into its "pure aesthetic pleasure," the exploration of the possibilities of language, that would characterize his later work.

"The Seraglio," a fluent and assured debut from someone who had, as yet, published only stiff early poems and an even stiffer play ("The Immortal Husband," also included in this volume), operates on several levels, as a roman a clef about one of America's foremost financial families, a witty Jamesian novel of innocents abroad and, strangest of all, perhaps the only comic novel ever written featuring the castration of its protagonist. That particular detail, of course, was invented, but much of the novel was so close to life that it created something of a sensation in its day, of which James Merrill was inevitably reminded, he wrote in a later preface, "whenever I encounter -- it still happens now and then -- some old party connected with the Firm, who tells me with a knowing twinkle that he read 'The Seraglio' hot off the press. I twinkle back, biting my tongue not to say, 'Indeed? And what business was it of yours?' "

In the novel, Merrill Lynch becomes Tanning, Burr, or, simply, the Firm; Merrill's father, Benjamin Tanning; his delicate, socially correct half-sister (Doris Merrill Magowan), Enid Buchanan; and her gruff, irascible husband (Robert Magowan, who would become president and chairman of Safeway), Larry Buchanan. Merrill himself is rendered as Francis: young, sexually confused and benumbed to his own feelings.

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