There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation in their Yorkshire vicarage had a powerful effect on their mutual output. But the Aikens take the cake for the sheer number of family members who have written and published their own books, or at least worked in the industry in various different ways. At the latest count I can number at least ten, ranging from novelists, biographers, translators, editors, philosophers and even (most anonymous of all!) a ghost writer… who have all supported each other in the family trade despite living all over the world.
The Father, or Grandfather of all these literary offsprings was the Pulitzer prize winning American poet, Conrad Aiken, who right up until his death in 1973, produced an enormous quantity of work – over two dozen collections of poetry and five novels, together with volumes of short stories and literary criticism – but who due to his surprisingly retiring nature is perhaps less well known than he deserves to be.
An attempt has been made to remedy this recently with the reissue of some of his major work at Open Road, and an online magazine just issued by The Scofield with excerpts from, and tributes to his work from many admirers – and even a couple of family members!
Conrad Aiken certainly had various claims to fame – apparently Freud was such an admirer of one of his novels, The Great Circle, that he kept a copy in his waiting room, and it is reported that James Joyce, another fan and contemporary, was reading Conrad’s poetry on his deathbed.
Aiken’s semi-autobiographical ‘Essay’ Ushant is also a fascinating read for students of literature of the twentieth century, as it refers to his friendships (and quarrels!) with many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time, both in England and America, as Aiken lived, worked and travelled between the two countries.
But perhaps a good way to introduce you to this prolific, and in this particular case, cheerily self-demeaning poet, is to quote some passages from his own:
“Obituary in Bitcherel”
In eighteen hundred and eighty nine
Conrad Aiken crossed the line
in nineteen hundred and question-mark
Aiken’s windowpane was dark.
But in between o in between
the things he did the things he’d seen!
Born in beautiful Savannah
to which he lifelong sang hosanna
yet not of southern blood was he
he was in fact a damned Yan-kee:
two Mayflower buds
were in his bloods
and one of them was not so blue —
Allerton, the crook of the crew.
The family has ancestors going back to two of the Pilgrim ships which arrived from Europe to New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of whom were not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was a well known Unitarian minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, initiator of the New England Transcendental movement.
Aiken skips blithely over the early family tragedy in 1901 – his father’s suicide following the murder of his mother, when Conrad was twelve, and the subsequent separation of his siblings and himself, when he was sent off to family in New England:
His pa a doctor, painter, writer,
his ma a beauty, but which the brighter?
And the morning quarrel, and shots, and then
four orphaned children taken north again.
To uncles, and cousins, great-aunts and aunts:
this, I suppose, was his second chance.
Onwards he goes through school, and college at Harvard, then through three marriages and the birth of three children, meanwhile constantly taking ship to and fro like his ancestors across the Atlantic, he continues:
Meanwhile he’d been sinking and rising and drinking
and THINKING, and writing, well, ad infinitum:
there were critics to bite and he had to bite ’em
novels to write and he had to write ’em
short stories too and he had to indite ’em.
…and is finally honoured by the place of his birth, and returns to the town of Savannah…
And now waits for death by heart or by head,
or dying piecemeal and daily instead,
of whom at his grave it can truly be said
he cyant do no harm now for now he is dead.
Separate we come, separate go.
And this be it known is all that we know.
Not so separate perhaps, because he has definitely left his mark on many, and will be remembered for some of his more profound and deeply influential writing, and for that of his children ( including Joan Aiken!) and possibly grandchildren too…?
Conrad Aiken with daughter Joan at the time of the publication in the USA of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and his own Selected Poems, and when the cartoon above also appeared in the New York Times.
Born 5th August 1889
More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website
See also Joan Aiken’s American Roots, and the Mayflower 400th Anniversary