James Merrill



Pulitzer prize winning poet James Ingram Merrill was not the first member of his family to attend Amherst College. His father, Charles Merrill, attended Amherst for two years before dropping out to work in finance. Several years later, the elder Merrill founded Merrill Lynch & Company. Despite not graduating from Amherst, Charles Merrill retained close ties to Amherst and the class of 1908, attending reunions, donating large sums to the college, and even hosting the Merrill Center for Economics--a summer institute for Amherst students--at his estate on Long Island.

James, then, arrived in the summer of 1943 at a school where his famous last name was perhaps even more famous than elsewhere in the country. He quickly distinguished himself from his father, choosing not to live at his father's fraternity, and participating in theatrical and literary societies rather than sports.

Throughout his time as an Amherst student, James Merrill was enmeshed in its theatrical and literary life. He was a member of the Masquers drama society; acted in several plays, including playing the title role in Orphée in 1945; edited The Medusa literary magazine with classmate Bill Burford; received the Glascock Poetry Prize in 1946; had a book of his poetry, The Black Swan, published by his professor and lover Kimon Friar in 1946; and saw his play, The Birthday, performed at Kirby Theater in 1947. 

After graduating in 1947, Merrill remained close to his alma mater. He taught as a visiting professor from 1955-1956. He returned to campus numerous times over the years to give poetry readings and invited talks. In 1968, he received an honorary Litt.D. degree at the Amherst commencement. In 1983 he was a Robert Frost Library Fellow. 

Merrill in Orphee 1945

These various activities and interactions have left their mark in the Archives and Special Collections. We hold the Merrill-Magowan Family Papers, which document several generations of Merrill's family and include correspondence, family photographs, scrapbooks, and the manuscript of Merrill's first novel, The Seraglio, replete with autograph edits and doodles. The Dramatic Activities Collection includes photographs, scripts, programs, and advertising material for various student productions that Merrill acted in. Articles about him can be found in numerous Amherst student publications. Several collections from friends and colleagues of Merrill contain correspondence from him. 

Merrill acting in Orphee, 1945.

James Merrill Material in the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

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James Merrill

Related Reading: James Merrill at Amherst

He became one of the greatest poets of his generation, but first he was a member of the class of ’47 at Amherst, where he developed an obsession with memory and a transformative interest in Proust.