Born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Russian mother, Dr. Simpson became a U.S. citizen while serving in the Army during World War II. In the postwar boom of the 1950s, through the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s, and in every decade since, Dr. Simpson lived, observed and wrote with the clarifying detachment of an outsider.
“I couldn’t invent myself as a boy who has grown up in Iowa and lived in America all his life,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “I wanted things reflected through me with as little interference from me as possible, as if my language were coming from someone who didn’t have a language.”
He received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection “At the End of the Open Road.” The volume was one of more than 18 books of poetry he produced over six decades, including “Searching for the Ox” (1976), “In the Room We Share” (1990) and “The Owner of the House” (2003).
“At the End of the Open Road” contained many of the salient characteristics of his writing: everyday imagery, wry turns of phrase and a contrarian, at times darkly disillusioned view of the American dream.
In “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” which became one of Dr. Simpson’s frequently anthologized poems, the speaker stands before a statue of the 19th-century American bard and laments:
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
“The moral genius of this book,” poet and critic Edward Hirsch wrote in the New York Times in 1988, “is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are.”
A professor for many years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Dr. Simpson illuminated suburban living in prose that could be barbed. He described “taking part in a great experiment,” namely “whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs / and not be bored to death.”
Yet at the same time, his poems contained a deep humanism. In one, he described an everyday scene in which he found transcendent meaning:
At the edge of the parking lot
two men are managing to lift
an enormously fat man out of a van . . .
wedging him into a wheelchair.
He is sweating and waving his arms.
To go to so much trouble...
Something or someone
must love him very much.
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born March 27, 1923, in Kingston, Jamaica, then part of the British West Indies.
His father was a prominent lawyer. His mother had left Russia and settled in New York City, then left for Jamaica when she was offered a job in the movies working with Annette Kellerman, the swimmer and silent-era film star.
Dr. Simpson was attending boarding school in Jamaica when his parents divorced. After his father died, his stepmother booted him from the family’s home.