Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

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9780142000458: Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

Alison Lurie, one of America's greatest novelists, has written a loving memoir of world-famous poet James Merrill and his longtime partner David Jackson. Drawing on her forty-year friendship with Merrill and Jackson, Lurie reveals the couple's deep involvement with ghosts, gods, and spirits, with whom they communicated through a Ouija board. Among the results of their intense twenty-year preoccupation with the occult is the brilliant book-length poem "The Changing Light at Sandover", which Merrill called his "chronicles of love and loss." Recalling Merrill and Jackson's life together in New York, Athens, and Key West, Familiar Spirits is a poignant memoir infused with great affection and generous amounts of Lurie's signature wit.

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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poet, and novels like The War Between the Tates made Lurie some money as well as a reputation, Jackson remained unpublished and obscure.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

About the Author:

Alison Lurie is the author of many highly praised novels, including The War Between the Tates, The Truth About Lorin Jones (Prix Femina Etranger), and Foreign Affairs (Pulitzer Prize for fiction). Her most recent book was Familiar Spirits. She teaches writing, folklore, and literature at Cornell University.

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