JOHN BERRYMAN left no farewell note when he jumped from a bridge in Minneapolis 10 years ago. He did, though, leave behind some highly autobiographical books, thousands of pages of manuscript materials, including diaries filled with self-scrutiny; and copies of letters -- the sort of trove biographers dream about. John Haffenden quite understandably draws heavily on the confessional poems and intimate papers for The Life of John Berryman, with the result that his book sometimes seems more an autobiography than a biographya.
But Haffenden is a conscientious researcher, and he gives us not just Berryman's Berryman but also the man as perceived by those who knew him -- classmates, teachers, wives, mistresses, colleagues, students, fellow poets, and many others. The figure who emerges from this multiple perspective was witty, charming, brilliant, intense -- a spellbinding talker, an exciting, mesmerizing teacher, a generous friend. That's the good news.
He was also, if Haffenden and his informants can be believed, a monster. The terms by which he is most typically described constitute a depressing litany: hostile, arrogant, alienated, narcissistic, irritable, insensitive, paranoid, erratic, self-loathing, abusive. He skillfully honed the gratuitous insult, frightened -- or simply annoyed -- students with his passionate advances, and made drunken telephone calls at all hours of the night. Fiercely competitive, he greeted the news of Robert Frost's death with the question "Who's number one? Who's number one?" He was, in short, a wreck; I think of I.B. Singer's no-nonsense description of Kafka: "The man was a bundle of nerves." Although Berryman remains his own harshest critic, there are those (including, it seems, his biographer) with nearly as low an opinion of him as he had of himself.
Even his mother, who tended to worship the water he walked on, found him impossible. When Berryman was 50 she said she finally recognized him "as a sadistic nonmember of the human race, with occasional lapses into humanity." The portrait of Martha Berryman is a brilliant achievement -- in fact Haffenden nearly turns this painful drama into I Remember Mama. Bright, talky, pretentious, and possessive beyond belief, even up to her son's death (she lived across the street), she was obviously the dominant figure in his life. What Haffenden does not recognize is that the 12-year-old boy clearly hoped to have his mother to himself after his father committed suicide. Instead she immediately remarried and exiled him to Connecticut, to South Kent School, a place he hated; this rejection almost certainly established his life-long pattern of seeing to it that nearly every woman with whom he became intimate ultimately cast him off.
There are other occasions when Haffenden provides valuable information but stops short of interpretation. He does not seem to notice, for example, the similarity between his factual picture of Berryman at South Kent and Joyce's fictional portrait of an artist as a young man. The book is uncritical, moreover, providing no persuasive sense either of how the poet transmuted the details of his awful life into high art or of how well he succeeded. And it makes no attempt to place Berryman in a cultural context, to address the irresistible question of why the poets of his generation, including Lowell, Jarrell, Roethke, and Schwartz, suffered violent emotional and physical breakdowns. We get a lot of details but few flashes of insight. We also get no photographs, though the text fairly cries out for them. The visual metamorphosis of Berryman from fastidious young poet to shaggy-bearded bard affords a vivid commentary on the development of his personnality.
What does come through by way of interpretation, though it is largely implicit, is the biographer's decision, wherever possible, to stress the negative. Even the chapter titles emphasize "loss," "shame," "trials," "disease." One dispiriting chapter is called "Princeton and the Pains of Scholarship." According to Eileen Simpson (Berryman's first wife), in her recent Poets in Their Youth, the Princeton years were much more ebullient than Haffenden would have us believe. And why not the pleasures of scholarship? After all, literary research is a satisfying vocation, and Berryman was extraordinarily good at it. Had he not devoted himself to poetry, in fact, he could have become a major Shakespearean scholar. There are worse ways to lead one's life.
Haffenden's own impressive scholarship is undercut by his unorthodox mode of documentation. Since "the majority of what would amount to thousands of footnotes would point to [the] unpublished collection" of papers, Haffenden decided to eschew all notes and simply list his numerous sources at the end of the book. Thus we must take wholly on faith his ability to get things right -- even though he sometimes gets things slightly wrong. "Winter Landscape," for example, becomes "Auden Landscape"; Tampa is placed in Oklahoma, Princeton in New York; and martinis are said to be made with sherry. These and more. There is, of course, a poignant irony in Berryman's biographer not knowing what goes into a martini. Had Berryman been equally innocent he would probably be alive today, aged 68, and I would be describing not a book about him but his latest collection of poems.
Since Haffenden is British he may be forgiven his revisionist geography if not the approach to documentation; I will send him, forthwith, the MLA Handbook. He should also be permitted his locutions, some of which will sound strange to American ears: "soars of socializing," "Jewess," "bitching intellectual climate." His prose, if odd, is functional, though now and then it ascends to the high falutin'. ("His proliferating plans signalled a diffusion of energy rather than a galvanisation of manifold capabilities") or the unintentionally funny ("The living situation but everybody on top of everybody else").
In fairness, having emphasized reservations, I should stress how readable I found this book. Even trivial details about Berryman interested me, though at times, when bedroom prowess was the subject, for example, I pushed ahead guilty, experiencing what Thomas Mann calls the fascination of the abomination -- rather the way one feels at the checkout counter taking in People magazine. Anyone who has not yet been introduced to Berryman would do well, I think, to read his disturbing, eccentric, and satisfying poetry before turning to this disturbing, eccentric, and ultimately unsatisfying biography. John Berryman may indeed have been a monster (Beethoven may have been, too), but he left us Homage to Mistress Bradstreet and Dream Songs. He wrote like an angel.