William H. Pritchard at Commonweal:
The opening sentence of Langdon Hammer’s fine,wholly definitive biography of the writer James Merrill, quotes his riposte to the complaint of a professor friend who reminded him, “Some of us have to work for a living.” Merrill’s comeback was simple and conclusive: “I live to work.” Since his death in 1995, that work has been amply displayed in three large volumes of poems, a volume of collected prose, and a volume of novels and plays. By far the most important of these are the poems, all nine hundred pages of them, edited by his close friends and fellow writers, J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser. As these volumes appeared, Hammer was at work for at least fifteen years in putting together an exhaustive account, alive on every page, of the life and work of his subject. The account succeeds in giving devoted, intelligent attention to Merrill’s writings—mainly his poems—as it does to the life that went into this work. Hammer’s nine-hundred-plus-page book is a load, hard to hold on one’s lap, but it is executed with such loving, assiduous care that one can’t imagine it ever needing to be done again,
Hammer met Merrill when, as a professor at Yale, Hammer was invited to drive the poet from his house in Stonington, Connecticut, to a memorial reading for Wallace Stevens at the University of Connecticut. On the road he found Merrill’s voice compelling, “suave, modulated, surprisingly low and deep, vaguely Southern or ‘mid-Atlantic’ like a movie actor’s from the 1940s.” In its gravity and modulation, Hammer’s own voice on the page is ideal to convey the “shrewd, ironic wit” he finds everywhere in Merrill’s work.