Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

Aiken cartoon

There have been quite a few famous literary families, where parents and their children or siblings have encouraged each other to carry on the family profession – the Brontes, for example whose relative isolation and proximity to each other 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.

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 many of the leading figures of the artistic and literary world of the time,  both in England and America, where Aiken lived and worked.

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 in New England, the Mayflower in 1620, and The Fortune in 1621, some of them not as upstanding as they could have been, but Conrad’s maternal grandfather was a well known protestant minister in the Quaker whaling town of New Bedford, and a friend of Emerson, 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 separation of his siblings and himself, 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 shipping 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-joan-jpg

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.

More about Joan Aiken (and her Pa) on her website

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2 thoughts on “Conrad Aiken and his legacy…including a family of writers!

  1. His chewed-up verse made me smile, so deliberately contrived to be cringeworthy! And I’m guessing that at least one granddaughter has fond memories of him?!

    • It is very reminiscent of him, the word and soundplay of doggerel/bitcherel/obituary is something he enjoyed like a sport, and sending up his own deadly serious lifelong profession as a poet…

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