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Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson Hardcover – February 19, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Written with her characteristic grace, novelist Alison Lurie's memoir of her friendship with the poet James Merrill and his companion David Jackson offers more than reminiscences, though these are tender, frank, and perceptive. Lurie also considers the broader subjects of fame's arbitrary nature and its impact on a relationship, as well as the perils and pleasures of dabbling in the occult. When she first became close to the couple in 1954, all three were struggling young writers. But while Merrill soon became a critically respected poet, and novels like The War Between the Tates made Lurie some money as well as a reputation, Jackson remained unpublished and obscure. He was understandably frustrated, and Lurie suggests that the pair's increasing involvement in sessions on their Ouija board were partly an effort to find an outlet for Jackson's creative energies. These sessions formed the basis for Merrill's long poem "The Changing Light at Sandover" (in Lurie's estimation not the best use of his gifts), and she believes they encouraged the men to become dangerously isolated from the real world. Jackson began to drink more heavily, and his casual affairs grew more irritating to Merrill, who launched a serious relationship with a young actor whose uncritical devotion exacerbated tensions between the longtime lovers. Merrill died of AIDS in 1995; the physically and mentally debilitated Jackson, writes Lurie, "is now a ghost in Key West." Her sensitive recollections bring back the time when they were young, beautiful, and in love, with the world before them. Examining the personal and artistic cost of their decades-long engagement with the spirit world, Lurie asks the always relevant, never resolvable questions, "How much should one risk for art? What chances should one take?" --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist Lurie's brief, disturbing memoir covers her four decades of acquaintance with the important American poet Merrill (1926-1995) and his longtime partner, Jackson. Lurie grew friendly with the talented couple when Merrill taught at Amherst alongside Lurie's husband in 1954-1957. Lurie and Jackson were aspiring novelists, Merrill a little-known poet. Though the group dispersed geographically, they stayed friends; Lurie visited Merrill and Jackson's remarkable house in Connecticut, where she compared their successful domestic life to her own increasingly unhappy marriage. Lurie's career as a novelist, and Merrill's fame as a poet, grew throughout the '60s, while Jackson's promising novels remained unpublished. Merrill and Jackson devoted themselves, first to Greece, where they took other lovers, and then to communication with the afterlife via a Ouija board. The Ouija experience of "JM" and "DJ" became the basis for Merrill's well-known long poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover," which integrates autobiography and lyric with didactic messages from beyond. Lurie believes that Merrill and Jackson used Ouija as an escape from Jackson's creative frustrations and from their troubles as a couple, and that it told them what they wanted to hear: Lurie's saddening analyses draw on her researches for her novel about spiritualism and seances, Imaginary Friends. The last third of the memoir follows Merrill and Jackson's life in Key West in the '80s and early '90s: Merrill fell in love with a dangerously clingy younger admirer, while Jackson abandoned himself to one-night stands and then to drink. There is not yet a full biography of Merrill; that means his many fans who want to know more about his personal life have almost nowhere else to turn but here. (Feb.) Forecast: Lurie's name will guarantee review attention and, if sold alongside Knopf's edition of Merrill's work, Collected Poems, due in March, this book should enjoy respectable sales.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 181 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (February 19, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670894591
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670894598
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alison Lurie (b. 1926) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York, she joined the English department at Cornell University in 1970, where she taught courses on children's literature, among others. Her first novel, Love and Friendship (1962), is a story of romance and deception among the faculty of a snowbound New England college. It won favorable reviews and established her as a keen observer of love in academia. It was followed by the well-received The Nowhere City (1966) and The War Between the Tates (1974). In 1984, she published Foreign Affairs, her best-known novel, which traces the erotic entanglements of two American professors in England. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. Her most recent novel is The Last Resort (1998). In addition to her novels, Lurie's interest in children's literature led to three collections of folk tales and two critical studies of the genre. Lurie officially retired from Cornell in 1998, but continues to teach and write. In 2012, she was awarded a two-year term as the official author of the state of New York. Lurie lives in Ithaca, New York, and is married to the writer Edward Hower. She has three grown sons and three grandchildren.

Customer Reviews

3.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Daryl Anderson VINE VOICE on July 8, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Admittedly I err in posting this review. After all, I didn't even become "literary" until I read James Merrill for the first time in 1992, late in his career and well after the world of letters had recognized and honored his life's work. His writing led me to Dante and Milton and eventually to a broad sweep of modern poets. It might lead you there as well.
Alison Lurie, on the other hand quickly establishes her credentials in "Familiar Spirits" as both early, close friend of Merrill, and established member of his literary circle going back over forty years. Who am I to question her re-casting of the poet I know only through luminous verse and conversations with the gods, as a mere mortal? She knew the man. It was she, Lurie reminds us, whom he called, even in his sixties, to weep about a quarrel with his lover. She called him Jimmy.
James Merrill's poetry seemed so often to be glancingly autobiographical... the people and places (and absences) in his life were a substrate upon which he grew some startling and wonderful poetry. But it was always only refracted autobiography. One wondered at the life itself. Yet, during his lifetime, Merrill rarely obliged with more than the slightest bits of extra-poetic reflection.
When Merrill died in 1995 many readers mourned the fact that we would be offered no more glimpses of that life, which had come to illuminate our own in surprising ways. Perhaps, had he lived, his admirers would have eventually, greedily, consumed him. Instead, into the vacuum of that terminated story, came this insider view - a delightful prospect. Reading it, delight turns to dismay as Merrill is, instead, consumed here by a friend.
This book is a rambling hodge-podge of disconnected anecdote and amateurish psychology.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By J. McFarland on March 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Lurie didn't like James Merrill when she first met him. Five years later, when she was an unhappy faculty wife at Amherst, Merrill appeared on the scene as a writer-in-residence. Either he had changed enough, or she had changed enough, that Lurie ovecame her initial dislike of him so that they could become buddies. In the sexist academic setting of the 1950s (Lurie is savage in describing that jail), Merrill and his lover David Jackson threw her a lifeline, treating her like a person with a brain and someone to have fun with, not to mention publishing her first book. Lurie repays their friendship and favors with this odd little book that is so thin it almost evaporates in front of your reading glasses. As we know from her novels and essays, Lurie is an intelligent and witty writer, and from time to time here she gets off a few zingers. The problem is that there aren't very many, nor are there more than a handful of interesting stories of any depth. Were these celebrated personalities and writer/geniuses, really this pedestrian (Merrill chops vegetables beautifully in a kimono and teaches Lurie how to make a chicken stock!) and at sea? Half of the book covers Merrill and Jackson's experiments with the Ouija board (and their use of it in generating the epic poem that became "The Changing Light at Sandover"). A large portion of this section consists of quotes from the poem along with Lurie's diatribe against Ouija boards in particular and the spirit world in general. What's that about? I closed the book wondering if the few dry personal scraps Lurie spreads out on the table constitute the entirety of what she took away from their 40 years of friendship. If they are, her relationship with the two men seems to have been more superficial than substantive.Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Cborges on August 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In spite of the fact that the author reveals a bit too much of herself in this book (a fact which makes you like and then dislike her sometimes) she does weave an interesting theory about the inner workings of Merrill and Jackson's minds. I didn't feel she presented these men dishonestly, though some fans of Merrill's obviously resented the fact that their god was made to appear as a mere mortal---and a somewhat foolish one at that.

Juicy, gossipy, lewd, audacious at times, you had to imagine she was indeed capitalizing somewhat on her friendship with Merrill because she did not wait for her friend David Jackson to die before she began revealing what a mess he had become. Why? If she were afraid SHE would die without having a chance to add her two cents she could have written the book, but not published it until after Jackson's real death.

I guess it's hard to quarrel with her motives as I read it in one sitting, lapping up all the strange, weird revelations about these men. My respect for them was not diminished by her lurid details of their intimate life. Nothing in Key West is ever ordinary...

What was most fascinating about the book though was the fact that Lurie herself became an equal part of the mystery. Was she obsessed with these men? Secretly in love with Jackson? Jealous of them? Twice she had to say that "they were rich and could buy anything they wanted". Twice!

Sadly, Lurie never did manage to do what she wanted---to comprehend these men. This goal never got quite satisfied, so in the end the reader of this book is not quite satisfied.

It is an important memoir though because it is the ONLY one right now offering any insight into Merrill, the man and the poet.
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