John Berryman

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Joel Athey

BERRYMAN was born John Allyn Smith, Jr., in McAlester, Oklahoma,

the son of John Allyn Smith, a banker, and Martha Little, formerly a schoolteacher. The

family moved frequently, finally settling in Tampa, Florida, where his father speculated

in land, failed, and in 1926 committed suicide. Three months later his mother married John

McAlpin Berryman, whose name was given to the son.

The new family moved to New York City, but hard times followed the 1929 stock market

crash; young John attempted suicide in 1931. The next year he enrolled at Columbia College

(later Columbia University), where he flourished under mentor Mark Van Doren, published

poems in Columbia Review and The Nation (1935), and graduated Phi

Beta Kappa in English. He studied two years at Cambridge University in England, meeting W

B. Yeats, T S. Eliot, W H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas. He tried playwriting, won the Oldham

Shakespeare prize, and published poems in Southern Review (1937).

In 1939 Berryman taught at Wayne University (later Wayne State University) in Detroit

and served as poetry editor of The Nation. By December he was hospitalized for

epilepsy, although he was actually suffering from nervous exhaustion, a condition that

would recur in future years, exacerbated by alcoholism. His first collected poems appeared

in Five Young American Poets (1940), while Berryman taught at Harvard. Classified

4-F for the wartime draft, Berryman married Eileen Mulligan in 1942. The next year he

published Poems. Unemployed and desperate enough to briefly teach English and Latin

at a prep school, Berryman landed an instructorship at Princeton, having been invited by

poet R. P. Blackmur; this became home for a decade.

For the next twenty years Berryman established his academic credentials, beginning with

reviews of W. W. Greg’s The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, a critical

edition of King Lear (never published), and articles on Henry James, F. Scott

Fitzgerald, and Robert Lowell. He was promoted to associate in creative writing (1946) and

resident fellow (1948) at Princeton, and his work The Dispossessed (1948) won the

Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial award. He associated professionally and

socially with Lowell, Saul Bellow, and others. He was also meeting women, and in 1946 he

began his lifelong series of infidelities, recorded in Sonnets to Chris (written

1947, published 1967; also titled Berryman’s Sonnets). His intense diary entries

provide insight into his mania for sexual attention and adulation.

Berryman’s poetic and academic lives continued apace. He published "The Poetry of

Ezra Pound," defended Pound’s Bollingen Prize in a letter (signed by seventy-three

writers) to The Nation (1949). and published his psychological biography, Stephen

Crane (1950), which reveals Berryman as well as Crane himself (see John Clendenning in

Recovering Berryman, ed. Richard Kelley [1993]). He also wrote on Marlowe,

Shakespeare, Monk Lewis, Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, and Bellow. In 1950 he won the

American Academy award for poetry.

In 1953 Berryman published Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in the Parisan

Review (it appeared in book form in 1956). This difficult poem, a tribute to the

Puritan poet of colonial America, took Berryman five years to complete and demanded much

from the reader when it first appeared with no notes. The Times Literary Supplement hailed

it as a path-breaking masterpiece; poet Robert Fitzgerald called it "the poem of his

generation." In fifty-seven stanzas of eight rhymed lines each, the five sections of Homage

were positioned symmetrically: Berryman’s invocation of the dead poet, a Bradstreet

monologue, a seductive dialogue between the two poets, a second Bradstreet monologue, and

finally Berryman’s peroration. Berryman addressed Bradstreet as both lover and listener,

extending himself through her tribulations as an exile in the Rhode Island colony. He

included personal tragedies such as her heart problems ("wandering pacemaker,")

as well as identified with her situation, where he awaits "in a redskin calm."

Their tension is evidenced even in the pauses:

You must not love me, but I do not bid

you cease

With this work, Berryman emerged as a major literary figure.

During these years, when he won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award

(1950), the Levinson Prize (1950), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952), Berryman lectured

at the Universities of Washington and Cincinnati and at the Writer’s Workshop at Iowa, his

teaching described by poet Philip Levine as "brilliant, intense, articulate" (The

Bread of Time [1994]). Berryman’s astounding memory allowed him to quote poetry at

great length, and his short story, "Wash Far Away" (not published until 1975, American

Review), showed how seriously he considered teaching. His private life, however, was

crumbling on account of his alcoholism. He separated from Eileen in 1953 and was dismissed

from Iowa after his arrest for public intoxication and disturbing the peace. His treatment

by dream analysis he considered publishable. By 1955, assisted by poet Allen Tate,

Berryman moved to Minneapolis and was appointed lecturer in humanities (separate from the

English department) at the University of Minnesota, which became his home for life. The

cycle was nearly complete, as he now lived thirty miles from his suicidal father’s

birthplace. At this time he began The Dream Songs, his most significant


Divorced in 1956, Berryman married 24-year-old Ann Levine a week later; the couple had

a son. Homage to Mistress Bradstreet was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1956;

the next year Berryman was promoted to associate professor, and the State Department

sponsored him on a lecture tour of India.

In 1958 Berryman was hospitalized for exhaustion; he also legally separated from Ann.

In 1959 they divorced, and Berryman was again in the hospital for alcoholism and nerves;

for the rest of his life he was hospitalized at least once a year. Over the next three

years, Berryman taught at the University of California at Berkeley, at Bread Loaf in

Vermont, and at Brown University, and he won awards, published a scholarly edition of

Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, and married Kate Donahue, age twenty-two,

in 1961. They had two daughters.

The Dream Songs (1964) won the Pulitzer Prize. In all, The Dream Songs, published

under that title in 1969, stretched to 385 songs and resembled a sonnet sequence, with

each song composed in a three-stanza format, eighteen lines with rhyme. Their protagonist,

Henry, is a white middle-aged American who talks about himself in first, second, and third

voices and listens to his unnamed Friend, a white American in blackface speaking Negro

dialect. Henry is greedy, lusty, petulant; he is essentially Freud’s Id. His Friend is

conscience, and their dialogue works itself out, as Helen Vendler argues in The Given

and the Made (1995), as analysis in the therapist’s office, each song approximating a

session on the couch. Henry, speaking with all of Berryman’s baggage–paternal suicide,

shameless libido, drunkenness–is allowed to aggress and regress, throwing his anger,

fears, and blasphemy up against Friend, a blank wall of therapeutic response. Their comic

poise is omnipresent, for example, when Friend condemns Henry for springing on another

man’s wife: "There ought to be a law against Henry" (Dream Song 4). At times,

Henry’s self-destruction is governed only by personified Ruin staring at him (Dream Song

45), and Henry remains "weeping, sleepless" (Dream Song 29).

To Henry, like Lord Byron’s impetuous Don Juan, life is boring (Dream Song 14);

however, Berryman’s twentieth-century man resists rather than indulges. Unlike his

Romantic predecessor, Berryman was disgusted with his isomorphic identification with the

persona’s desperate uncertainties, and in his volume of Kierkegaard, he underscored the

passage: "This form of despair . . . lowest of all, in despair at willing to be

another than himself."

Berryman was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967 to complete The Dream

Songs. He lived for a time in Ireland and continued to drink heavily,

eventually checking into a Minneapolis hospital for alcohol treatment. Meanwhile, he won

the Academy of American Poets and National Endowment for the Arts awards (1967). His

Toy, His Dream, His Rest (1968) completed The Dream Songs and won the National

Book Award (1969) and the Bollingen Prize. These awards celebrated his distinctive poetic

voice, which the New York Times later described as "jaunty, jazzy, colloquial

… full of awkward turns and bent syntax" (8 Jan. 1972). In his acceptance speech,

Berryman explained his iconoclastic style: "I set up The Dream Songs as

hostile to every visible tendency in both American and English poetry."

After checking into alcohol rehabilitation once in 1969 and three times in 1970,

Berryman experienced "a sort of religious conversion" in 1970. He considered

Judaism, professed Catholicism, and wrote Recovery (1971), a vague autobiography

about alcoholic rehabilitation. His research on Shakespeare continued, but the fatal cycle

refused to be broken: haunted by his father’s suicide and with his youngest daughter just

six months old, Berryman jumped to his death off the Washington Avenue Bridge in


In a bathetic line, Berryman wrote, "For I am the penal colony’s prime

scribe" (Sonnet 73). Berryman’s reputation varied over his lifetime, from rising

star, to a poet of unrealized promise who was largely excluded from anthologies, and

finally in the last eight years of his life to the first rank of American poets, whose Dream

Songs became a rare book-club poetry selection. The poet’s acute insecurities and

neuroses manifested themselves in his public persona as a braggart, a womanizer, a drunk,

and an intellectual. But he unleashed the range of colloquial American language in his

verse with a lyrical intensity that Lowell called "more tearful and funny than we can

easily bear."

John Berryman’s papers are found at the University of Minnesota, cataloged in Richard

Kelly, John Berryman: A Checklist (1972). Berryman’s letters to his mother are

published in We Dream of Honour (1988). His essays and short stories are collected

in The Freedom of the Poet (1976). An authorized biography is John Haffenden, The

Life of John Berryman (1982). First wife Eileen Simpon’s roman ? clef, The

Maze (1975), gives an insider’s view of a manic poet; her Poets in Their Youth

91982) provides biographical detail. William Heyen, "John Berryman: A Memoir and an

Interview," Ohio Review (Winter 1974): 46-65, presents a vivid picture of the

vulnerable and frenzied poet. "Whiskey and Ink, Whiskey and Ink," Life 21

July, 1967, popularized Berryman in the Dylan Thomas image. Peter Stitt, "The Art of

Poetry," Paris Revew 53 (Winter 1972): 177-207, provides a famous interview

Berryman gave shortly before his death. Joel Conarroe’s John Berryman (1977)

is an excellent overview. An obituary is in the New York Times, 8 Jan. 1972.

From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Copyright ? 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.



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