This article reveals the formative interplay between the queer art of gossip and poetic practice in James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, a sprawling verse trilogy composed with the unlikely assistance of a Ouija board. The poem’s extensive gossip with the dead is often dismissed as mere surface. Yet Merrill, the article contends, indulges in what he calls the Ouija’s “backstage gossip” both to establish a queer relationship to poetic tradition and to confront the pervasive menace of the Cold War discourse of the Lavender Scare, which haunts the trilogy’s 1950s origins. Arguing that midcentury American attitudes about sexuality inflect—productively as much as disastrously—the relationship of lyric privacy to gossipy publicity in Merrill’s poem, the article shows how gossip, in its rich afterlife in Sandover, emerges not so much as a normative threat to be overcome but as a mode of fostering and preserving nonnormative voices, converting the privacy imposed on the homosexual into the conditions for creating queer worlds. Gossip concomitantly provides Merrill with a model of poetic self-performance that at once pushes against and embraces New Critical ideals of lyric subjectivity—a way of telling one’s own scandalous story through someone else’s words, even words intended as hostile, discovering poetic and sexual pleasures where others see only anxiety and dread.
Research Article|December 01 2018
The Queer Afterlife of Gossip: James Merrill’s “Celestial Salon”
Twentieth-Century Literature (2018) 64 (4): 387-412.
Chad Bennett; The Queer Afterlife of Gossip: James Merrill’s “Celestial Salon”. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2018; 64 (4): 387–412. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-7298985
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