Friday, January 20, 2012

Merrill's Ouija Board

[John sent this for me to post.]

The Yale Alumni Magazine Jan/Feb 2012 issue includes a short article about Merrill’s Ouija board, which has been given to Yale’s rare book library. The article is by Langdon Hammer, professor of English at Yale and author of James Merrill: Life and Art, a forthcoming biography. Here is most of the article (I’m omitting description of the poems etc.):

… Merrill received a store-bought Ouija board as a birthday gift from a friend in 1953. As a lark, he tried the board with David Jackson, a fiction writer he had just met, and it was an immediate success. So was his relationship with Jackson, who would be his companion in daily life and on the Ouija board for the next 40 years.
For the first 20 years of their collaboration, JM and DJ—as they were known to the spirits—treated the board as a peculiar evening diversion, to be shared with friends after dinner over wine or a joint. They made their own board, to which they added numbers and punctuation, and they used a tea cup as a pointer. With this apparatus, they chatted at ease with dead friends and famous literary figures … Merrill and Jackson’s homemade Ouija board and the dime store tea cup they used as a pointer—glued together after more than one occasion when the spirits pushed it off the table in a pique—are kept in Yale’s Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. [They] were a gift to the library from J.D. McClatchy ’74PhD, adjunct professor of English at Yale, editor of The Yale Review, and one of Merrill’s two literary executors [and editors of Sandover]. With his left hand on the cup, Merrill used his right to record letters, sorting the lexical lava into words and sentences. [A few transcribed pages of this record are pictured with the article. They] are inscribed to “dearest Sandy”—McClatchy’s nickname--by DJ and JM, who call it “a page saved from the pyre.” The “pyre” refers … to Merrill’s choice to burn the Ouija transcripts he used to write Sandover. The pages shown here made it to the Beinecke, however, safe with the board and cup.

McClatchy, I find by googling, now lives in Stonington. In Merrill’s and Jackson’s house? If so, do you suppose … spooky, possums!

The issue also includes an excerpt from an account by Thornton Wilder of his time at Yale, c. 1916-20. It is to be published in February of this year in Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings, ed. McClatchy. The editors’ note with this article says Wilder “was homosexual—though never openly so, probably not even to himself.” The excerpt talks about his being an “outsider” at Yale, but there’s no reference I can see, even subliminally, to being gay.


Tim said...

J.D. McClatchy's poem “Ouija” commemorates James Merrill and his ouija board by recounting an attempt which McClatchy and friends once made at Stonington when the Master was away (“Summoned by redundancy—a family crisis—”). We discussed “Ouija” almost six years ago and now having read “The Book of Ephraim” readers may enjoy another look at this poem (in Liu's Word of Mouth, pp 241-246). McClatchy narrates the event a few years after Merrill’s death and wherever McClatchy may be, pace possums, “the board is under wraps in a closet upstairs.”

Thronton Wilder may have been unconscious of his homosexual desires at Yale but he was certainly no stranger to acting upon them in his later life, at least according to Justin Spring’s biography of Samuel Steward, Secret Historian. Steward and Wilder had many romps until Steward (who would do just about anyone, multiple times) got tired of Wilder’s deeply closeted mentality. Speaking of which, however, we’ve never read any Wilder and something would be appropriate. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

The Cabala, maybe?