Reading biographies of famous writers is one of my favorite pasttimes. You look at their art, which is so fabulous. Then you look at their messy lives. How do you square them?
I took a recent workshop with Queens poet Morri Creech, who was extolling the 2015 biography, “James Merrill: Life and Art,” by Yale’s Langdon Hammer. The next day, I saw in the Times a review of Arthur and Barbara Gelb’s “By Women Possessed,” a new biography of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, which sounds delicious. And on my desk (more recently on my lap) is a February, 2017, biography of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, “A Miracle for Breakfast,” crammed with fascinating detail by Megan Marshall, a former student of Bishop’s.
Here’s the thing. Not all, but many, great writers suffer. And, frankly, reading about suffering is more compelling than, say, reading about a writer whooping it up at a boating party. Merrill, though he came from great wealth (his father Charles Merrill was co-founder of Merrill Lynch), had parents who drank too much and fought until their bitter separation when Merrill was 11.
Bishop, too, suffered a disastrous childhood. Her father died when she was eight months old. At three, her beautiful, distraught mother was hospitalized for mental illness, and, later, at home, tried to hang herself with a sheet. As an adult, Bishop would recall “one unending maternal scream and its echo floating over the village... .” Thereafter, asthmatic and sickly, she was tended by grandparents in Nova Scotia and by a series of aunts in Massachusetts. As an adult, Bishop battled alcohol and prescription drugs.
And both Bishop (born in 1911) and Merrill (born in 1926) were gay, which, in their time, led to complications. Merrill’s father, though he encouraged him as a poet, wanted to hire a mobster to have his first lover “rubbed out.” By simply hiring a prostitute, he thought he could convert his son to heterosexuality. Both poets had long-term, successsful gay relationships, though many were the ups and downs. One of Bishop’s early lovers committed suicide, and another left her temporarily for a man.
While Bishop and Merrill suffered traumas imposed and to a lesser extent, self-imposed, Eugene O’Neill mostly did the imposing. True, his mother was addicted to morphine and his father to alcohol. But thereafter, O’Neill, an often-violent alcoholic himself, visited his demons upon his wives and children.
The coming year will bring us two biographies of South Carolina novelist Pat Conroy. Does any writer’s childhood begin to compare?