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And Now: The James Merrill Digital Archive

By Harriet Staff

James Merrill

Yes that says digital, but this is for real! From Washington University’s 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 “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 The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. The result of collaboration among staff from Washington University Libraries’ Manuscript and Digital Library Services units, the English department, and students and staff in the Humanities Digital Workshop on campus, the archive can be viewed at digital.wustl.edu/jamesmerrillarchive/.

The occult was central to all of Merrill’s later work, including “The Book of Ephraim” that is 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,” says Annelise Duerden, a PhD candidate in English literature 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, says Digital Projects Librarian Shannon Davis, who provided technical support and design assistance. Duerden and another student—undergraduate 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.

Learn more about Washington University Libraries’s incredibly cool archival project- here!

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.