The James Merrill Digital Archive Lets You Explore the Creative Life of a Great American Poet


The Oui­ja-inspired poet­ry of Pulitzer Prize-win­ning poet James Mer­rill (1926–1995) comes alive in a new­ly launched dig­i­tal archive from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis. Vis­i­tors to the site can explore note­book after note­book bear­ing Merrill’s hand­writ­ten notes in all caps—col­or­ful tran­scripts from his “Thou­sand and One Evenings Spent/ With [part­ner] David Jack­son at the Oui­ja Board/ In Touch with Ephraim Our Famil­iar Spir­it.” Mer­rill, the son of Charles E. Mer­rill, cofounder of the Mer­rill Lynch invest­ment firm, was con­sid­ered one of the most sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can poets of his gen­er­a­tion.

The occult was cen­tral to all of Merrill’s lat­er work, includ­ing “The Book of Ephraim,” which is the cur­rent focus of the James Mer­rill Dig­i­tal Archive. Merrill’s com­plex and high­ly unusu­al cre­ative process is evi­dent in the mate­ri­als pre­sent­ed, all of them drawn from the exten­sive James Mer­rill Papers housed in the university’s Spe­cial Col­lec­tions.

In a descrip­tion on the site, project col­lab­o­ra­tor and grad­u­ate stu­dent Annelise Duer­den (pic­tured at cen­ter below) points out that “the open­ing to ‘The Book of Ephraim’ clam­ors for a medi­um ‘that would reach / The widest pub­lic in the short­est time,’ and we hope that dig­i­tal archiv­ing can pro­vide such an entrance to Merrill’s work, and to the rich­ness of the process behind his fin­ished poem.”


Duer­den, her­self an active poet, says she was impressed by Merrill’s “imag­i­na­tive force” and “relent­less ener­gy for revi­sion” while help­ing build the archive this past sum­mer along with staff from Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries and the Human­i­ties Dig­i­tal Work­shop.

“Mer­rill orig­i­nal­ly imag­ined con­struct­ing his sto­ry of Ephraim in the form of a nov­el,” she says. “He planned to write it for some time, began work on it, then lost the pages in a taxi, and gave up on the idea of the nov­el of Ephraim, instead writ­ing it in poet­ic form. In a Oui­ja ses­sion, Ephraim lat­er claimed cred­it for los­ing the nov­el.”

“The Book of Ephraim” was first pub­lished in Merrill’s book Divine Come­dies in 1976 and lat­er as the first install­ment of his apoc­a­lyp­tic epic The Chang­ing Light at San­dover, one of the longest poems in any lan­guage and fea­tur­ing voic­es rang­ing from the then-recent­ly deceased poet W. H. Auden to the Archangel Michael.

Evie Hemphill (@evhemphill) is a writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er for Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Libraries in St. Louis.

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