Cover image for Familiar spirits : a memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson
Familiar spirits : a memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson
Lurie, Alison.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, [2001]

Physical Description:
181 pages ; 20 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3525.E6645 Z774 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



"James Merrill and his longtime partner David Jackson were brilliant, rich, charming, generous, and sophisticated, and Merrill was a world-famous poet, known for the autobiographical element in his work. They were also, for over a quarter-century, deeply involved with ghosts, gods, and spirits, with whom they communicated through a Ouija board. Among the results of this intense preoccupation with the occult were a book-length poem, which some critics have called a masterpiece, and the possible destruction of several lives." "The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie knew James Merrill and David Jackson for more than forty years. Now, in Familiar Spirits, she reveals both the worldly and otherworldly sources of Merrill's brilliant poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which he called his "chronicles of love and loss." In her signature mix of comedy and analysis, she recalls Merrill and Jackson's life together in New York, Athens, and Key West, and speculates on the meaning of their adventures in both the real and unreal worlds. Her account of Merrill and Jackson's peculiar relationship with the supernatural and its tragic end will not only surprise many readers, it will also stand as a poignant memorial to her lost friends."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Author Notes

Novelist Alison Lurie was born September 3, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois to Harry and Bernice Stewart Lurie. She is an American novelist and academic. Lurie won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1984 novel Foreign Affairs. She received an A.B. from Radcliffe College in 1947. After finishing college, Lurie worked as an editorial assistant for Oxford University Press in New York, but she wanted to make a living as a writer. After years of receiving rejection slips, she devoted herself to raising her children. Lurie had taught at Cornell University since 1968, becoming a full professor in 1976 specializing in folklore and children's literature.

Lurie's first novel was "Love and Friendship" (1962) and its characters were modeled on friends and colleagues. Afterwards, she published "The Nowhere City" (1965), "Imaginary Friends" (1967), "The War Between the Tates" (1974), which tells of the collapse of a perfect marriage between a professor and his wife, "Only Children" (1979), and "The Truth About Lorin Jones" (1988). "Foreign Affairs" (1984) won the Pulitzer Prize; it tells the story of two academics in England who learn more about love than academia.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

When she first met James Merrill, Lurie wasn't impressed, but the next time, five years later, Merrill had begun his relationship with David Jackson, and the three writers became lifelong friends. Merrill is one of the most acclaimed poets and Lurie one of the foremost novelists of their generation, but Jackson's novels were never published. Lurie's affectionate but critical memoir is very sympathetic to him. She thinks him undervalued, especially because Merrill's most sustained work, The Changing Light at Sandover, couldn't have been done without Jackson. The immense poem was based on colloquies with spirits that Merrill and Jackson contacted with a Ouija board. Jackson wrote down what Merrill gave poetic substance. Lurie doesn't believe the spirits were independently real, and she quotes Merrill to the effect that they were mirrors of him and Jackson. She does believe that Merrill's protracted dependence on the spirits weakened his work and exacerbated Jackson's alcoholic decline. The two men's long relationship degenerated for years before Merrill's death from AIDS, the painful conclusion to Lurie's intelligent, loving recollection. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Novelist Lurie's brief, disturbing memoir covers her four decades of acquaintance with the important American poet Merrill (1926-1995) and his longtime partner, Jackson. Lurie grew friendly with the talented couple when Merrill taught at Amherst alongside Lurie's husband in 1954-1957. Lurie and Jackson were aspiring novelists, Merrill a little-known poet. Though the group dispersed geographically, they stayed friends; Lurie visited Merrill and Jackson's remarkable house in Connecticut, where she compared their successful domestic life to her own increasingly unhappy marriage. Lurie's career as a novelist, and Merrill's fame as a poet, grew throughout the '60s, while Jackson's promising novels remained unpublished. Merrill and Jackson devoted themselves, first to Greece, where they took other lovers, and then to communication with the afterlife via a Ouija board. The Ouija experience of "JM" and "DJ" became the basis for Merrill's well-known long poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover," which integrates autobiography and lyric with didactic messages from beyond. Lurie believes that Merrill and Jackson used Ouija as an escape from Jackson's creative frustrations and from their troubles as a couple, and that it told them what they wanted to hear: Lurie's saddening analyses draw on her researches for her novel about spiritualism and seances, Imaginary Friends. The last third of the memoir follows Merrill and Jackson's life in Key West in the '80s and early '90s: Merrill fell in love with a dangerously clingy younger admirer, while Jackson abandoned himself to one-night stands and then to drink. There is not yet a full biography of Merrill; that means his many fans who want to know more about his personal life have almost nowhere else to turn but here. (Feb.) Forecast: Lurie's name will guarantee review attention and, if sold alongside Knopf's edition of Merrill's work, Collected Poems, due in March, this book should enjoy respectable sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Novelist Lurie probes poet Merrill and his longtime partner. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. 1
1. Beginningsp. 5
2. Journeysp. 26
3. Fame and Failurep. 40
4. The Ouija Boardp. 52
5. Sandoverp. 59
6. Good News from the Other Worldp. 66
7. How and Whyp. 90
8. Doubtsp. 111
9. Key Westp. 123
10. Troublep. 134
11. Peterp. 144
12. Video Daysp. 154
13. Endingsp. 165
14. Afterwardsp. 176