In her recent memoir of her friendship with Merrill and his longtime partner, David Jackson, novelist Alison Lurie remarked on how total that separation was: "Over the many years [Merrill and Jackson] were together, they lived in attractive but in no way grand houses .... They traveled a lot; but they dressed simply, drove small, inexpensive cars, and did their own shopping and cooking. The only servant they ever had was a cleaning lady. Throughout his life Jimmy spent only a fraction of his income. Much of it went to a nonprofit organization he had set up called the Ingram Merrill Foundation ... [that] gave grants to writers, artists, and musicians.... My guess is that no one will ever know the extent of their generosity, which tended to be secret -- but which often changed lives...."
Yet, despite the pointed satire of his station and class that Merrill achieved in "The Seraglio," despite his lifelong dedication to art, more unwarranted ad hominem nonsense has been written about him than about virtually any other American poet. In 1991, memoirist Mary Karr in the literary magazine Parnassus accused him of "emotional vacuity" and derided his "chief talent ... his mastery of elegant language." More recently, an essay by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic allows for his "achievement" while dismissing his work as "decadent" and "superficial ... profoundly concerned with surfaces." "It is easy," Kirsch writes, "to see why Merrill has often been dismissed as a merely decorative poet, an aesthete playing with form." Such charges seem to Kirsch "all the more credible because of [Merrill's] great wealth: In the old American contest between paleface and redskin, Merrill's money and status place him firmly in the first camp." Those sensitive to language should recognize words such as "elegant," "decadent" and "aesthete" for what they are: barely disguised code defaming Merrill's homosexuality and wealth.
To anyone familiar with Merrill's true achievement, beginning with the separation acted out in "The Seraglio," the injustice of such slurs is clear. Producing a body of work that stands in contrast to the life of ease and leisure that he could have had, Merrill was every bit as industrious as his extraordinary father, but the treasure he laid up, as represented in these collected editions, may well outlast all the lucre that Merrill Lynch could ever amass. His greatest work, his poems, plumbs the depths of elemental feeling: love, sexual ecstasy and humiliation, jealousy, self-doubt, disappointment, loneliness, and the pain of losing friends and lovers to death. These are the subjects of all great lyric poetry, and they are indisputably Merrill's subjects. The only superficial aspect regarding his work has been, too often, the criticism of it.