Newly launched James Merrill Digital Archive brings poet’s creative process into view

Pulitzer Prize winner used a Ouija board to create some of his most important work

This notebook of transcripts from one of James Merrill’s many Ouija sessions is just one example of the unusual, illuminating resources made available through the site. (Credit: Washington University Libraries)

When the late American poet James Merrill first accepted Mona Van Duyn’s personal invitation to make Washington University in St. Louis the home for his literary papers in 1964, neither Merrill nor Van Duyn, who was helping build the Modern Literature Collection, could have guessed just how extensive and significant his manuscripts would become. Nearly a half-century later, as interest in Merrill’s legacy continues to grow, a new digital archive is now providing convenient access to a cross section of the artist’s work.

The James Merrill Digital Archive illumines the intriguing work that led to Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim,” a series of poems first published in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Divine Comedies in 1976 and the first installment of his apocalyptic epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. The result of collaboration among staff from Washington University Libraries’ Manuscript and Digital Library Services units, the Department of English in Arts & Sciences, and students and staff in the Humanities Digital Workshop on campus, the archive can be viewed here.

The occult was central to all of Merrill’s later work, including “The Book of Ephraim,” the current focus of the James Merrill Digital Archive. As the poet himself puts it, the poem distills “a Thousand and One Evenings Spent / With David Jackson at the Ouija Board / In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.” The new website brings within easy digital reach hundreds of transcripts resulting from the many Ouija sessions Merrill and his partner conducted using a teacup and simple board, along with drafts of “The Book of Ephraim,” bearing witness to a complex creative process.

“Merrill originally imagined constructing his story of Ephraim in the form of a novel,” said Annelise Duerden, a PhD candidate in English literature in Arts & Sciences, who helped build the digital archive this past summer. “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 intricate structure of Merrill’s revisions, and the relationships between his various materials, are a significant feature of his work that I attempted to illustrate in the archive.”

In a description on the site, Duerden 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.”

One of the challenges involved in developing the archive was determining the best way to organize the materials and present them in a meaningful way, said Digital Projects Librarian Shannon Davis, who provided technical support and design assistance. Duerden and another student — junior Samantha Rogers — spent many hours among the library’s physical James Merrill Papers collection, sorting through reams of paper material preserved from the Ouija sessions and then creating high-quality scans of hundreds of individual pages.

The aim was to determine an order that would “usefully and meaningfully make Merrill’s work legible to others,” Duerden said, and then it was a matter of uploading each image individually, attaching appropriate metadata, and developing pages, headings, captions and descriptions.

“We struggled with the Ouija Transcripts section, where we needed to fit many, many documents into a user-friendly navigation system that was also aesthetically pleasing,” Davis said. “We ended up making modifications to the digital exhibition software template to create an accordion menu allowing users to browse the digital materials through a page-turning mechanism.”

For anyone interested in taking a closer look at the poet’s life and work, the carefully crafted result of these rigorous efforts provides exceptional opportunities for research. The new archive is something that Joseph Loewenstein, PhD, professor of English in Arts & Sciences, has advocated for several years, knowing how important Merrill’s contribution to the American and European epic tradition has been.

“‘Ephraim’ is droll and uncanny, tremendously learned, and yet completely approachable, a poem as delightful to students as it is fascinating to scholars,” said Loewenstein, who directs Washington University’s Humanities Digital Workshop. He points out that the new digital archive already has elicited scholarly enthusiasm and calls it “a pleasure to be able to tell colleagues that we couldn’t have presented these materials so handsomely without the ingenious collaboration of librarians, faculty, staff, and enterprising students.”

Duerden, herself an active poet, sees this type of work in the digital humanities as “an essential step for preserving and distributing the written word.”

“In my engagement with Merrill’s writing, I’ve been impressed by his imaginative force as a poet and his relentless energy for revision,” she said. “I wanted to help make Merrill’s legacy of work readily, and usefully, available to others.”

The James Merrill Papers have remained one of the most popular resources in Special Collections. Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection and Manuscripts, said he sees multiple researchers each month visiting in person or working with library staff long-distance to access the collection.

“It is in many ways the keystone of the Libraries’ Modern Literature Collection, which was begun in 1964 in order to collect the literary and personal archives of 20th-century writers on the threshold of greatness, who weren’t yet being collected at other institutions,” Minor said. “Over the course of his lifetime, Merrill remained very generous to us, continuing to donate drafts, letters and other literary papers as well as attend events here through the years. After he passed away, in 1995, his mother donated many personal items, such as childhood clothes, scrapbooks and even his death mask. The result has been one of the most complete literary archives on anybody anywhere.”

Merrill had three residencies at WUSTL during his long career. He served as the Visiting Hurst Professor in the Department of English in 1971 and again in 1985; Merrill also participated in the Visiting Writers Program in 1968.

Merrill was one of the first 15 poets selected for inclusion in the Modern Literature Collection, which now encompasses more than 175 authors. He was recommended by three poets closely associated with the university, who served as advisers as the library began to build a collection of emerging writers of the day that stood a good chance of being read and studied in 50 years.

“And here we are,” Minor said. “Sure enough, only a few years after the Washington University Libraries started collecting Merrill, he won the National Book Award, and in the ensuing years other big prizes followed: Pulitzer, Bollingen, the National Book Critics Circle and more.”

Born in New York in 1926, Merrill was the son of Hellen Ingram Merrill and Charles E. Merrill, co-founder of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. The elder Merrill privately published his son’s first book of poems as a surprise when the poet was 16, calling it Jim’s Book. The Black Swan followed in 1946, after Merrill served a military stint during World War II and while he was still a student at Amherst College. Merrill’s first commercially published volume, First Poems, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951 to critical acclaim.

Following the publication of The Changing Light at Sandover one of the longest epics in any language and featuring voices ranging from the then-recently deceased poet W.H. Auden to the archangel Michael, Merrill returned to writing shorter poetry which could be both whimsical and nostalgic. His last book, A Scattering of Salts, was published a month after his death. Since then, interest in his work has only increased. Knopf published his Collected Poems in 2001 and a new edition of “The Changing Light at Sandover” in 2006. A major biography is forthcoming in 2015.

Library staff members Shannon Davis and Joel Minor worked closely with graduate student Annelise Duerden (center) to create the James Merrill Digital Archive this year. Here, the three are scanning a page from Merrill’s Ouija transcripts, part of the extensive James Merrill Papers collection at Olin Library. (Credit: WashinGton University Libraries)