It’s rude to read other people’s mail. But James Merrill preserved copies of his letters and made sure readers could find them, years later, in archives. Now a generous selection lies at our fingertips in A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill, edited by Merrill’s biographer Langdon Hammer and Merrill’s close friend the poet and scholar Stephen Yenser.1 And what a treasure it is. Merrill’s correspondence would be of interest, in any case, as documents in twentieth-century American poetry, but these missives have the flash and delight of independent literary creations and read almost like a novel, tracking the inner life and plentifully populated...


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