Aiken, Conrad (Potter)

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AIKEN, Conrad (Potter)

Nationality: American. Born: Savannah, Georgia, 5 August 1889. Education: Middlesex School, Concord, Massachusetts; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (president, Harvard Advocate), 1907-10, 1911-12, A.B. 1912. Family: Married 1) Jessie McDonald in 1912 (divorced 1929), one son and two daughters, the writers Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken; 2) Clarissa M. Lorenz in 1930 (divorced 1937); 3) Mary Hoover in 1937. Career: Contributing editor, The Dial, New York, 1916-19; American correspondent, Athenaeum, London, 1919-25, and London Mercury, 1921-22; lived in London, 1921-26 and 1930-39; instructor, Harvard University, 1927-28; London correspondent, The New Yorker, 1934-36; lived in Brewster, Massachusetts, from 1940, and Savannah after 1962. Fellow, 1947, and consultant in poetry, 1950-52, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1930; Shelley Memorial award, 1930; Guggenheim fellowship, 1934; National Book award, 1954; Bollingen prize, 1956; Academy of American Poets fellowship, 1957; American Academy gold medal, 1958; Huntington Hartford Foundation award, 1960; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1967; National medal for literature, 1969. Member: American Academy, 1957. Died: 17 August 1973.


Short Stories

Bring! Bring! and Other Stories. 1925.

Costumes by Eros. 1928.

Among the Lost People. 1934.

The Short Stories. 1950.

The Collected Short Stories. 1960.


Blue Voyage. 1927.

Gehenna. 1930.

Great Circle. 1933.

King Coffin. 1935.

A Heart for the Gods of Mexico. 1939.

Conversation; or, Pilgrims' Progress. 1940; as The Conversation, 1948.

The Collected Novels. 1964.


Earth Triumphant and Other Tales in Verse. 1914.

The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony. 1916.

Turns and Movies and Other Tales in Verse. 1916.

Nocturne of Remembered Spring and Other Poems. 1917.

The Charnel Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems. 1918.

The House of Dust: A Symphony. 1920.

Punch: The Immortal Liar. 1921.

The Pilgrimage of Festus. 1923.

Priapus and the Pool and Other Poems. 1925.

(Poems), edited by Louis Untermeyer. 1927.

Prelude. 1929.

Selected Poems. 1929.

John Deth: A Metaphysical Legend, and Other Poems. 1930.

Preludes for Memnon. 1931.

The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones. 1931.

Landscape West of Eden. 1934.

Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition. 1936.

And in the Human Heart. 1940.

Brownstone Eclogues and Other Poems. 1942.

The Soldier. 1944.

The Kid. 1947.

The Divine Pilgrim. 1949.

Skylight One: Fifteen Poems. 1949.

Collected Poems. 1953.

A Letter from Li Po and Other Poems. 1955.

The Flute Player. 1956.

Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems. 1958.

Selected Poems. 1961.

The Morning Song of Lord Zero: Poems Old and New. 1963.

A Seizure of Limericks. 1964.

Preludes. 1966.

Thee. 1967.

The Clerk's Journal, Being the Diary of a Queer Man: An Undergraduate Poem, Together with a Brief Memoir of Dean LeBaron Russell Briggs, T.S. Eliot, and Harvard, in 1911. 1971.

Collected Poems 1916-1970. 1970.

A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals. 1977.


Mr. Arcularis (produced 1949). 1957.


Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry. 1919.

Ushant: An Essay (autobiography). 1952.

A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism from 1916 to the Present, edited by Rufus A. Blanshard. 1958; as Collected Criticism, 1968.

Cats and Bats and Things with Wings (for children). 1965.

Tom, Sue, and the Clock (for children). 1966.

Selected Letters, edited by Joseph Killorin. 1978.

Editor, Modern American Poets. 1922; revised edition, 1927; revised edition, as Twentieth Century American Poetry, 1945; revised edition, 1963.

Editor, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson. 1924.

Editor, American Poetry 1671-1928: A Comprehensive Anthology.1929; revised edition, as A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry, 1944.

Editor, with William Rose Benét, An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry. 1945.



Aiken: A Bibliography (1902-1978) by F.W. and F.C. Bonnell, 1982; Aiken: Critical Recognition 1914-1981: A Bibliographic Guide by Catherine Kirk Harris, 1983.

Critical Studies:

Aiken: A Life of His Art by Jay Martin, 1962; Aiken by Frederick J. Hoffman, 1962; Aiken by Reuel Denney, 1964; Lorelei Two: My Life with Aiken by Clarissa M. Lorenz, 1983; The Art of Knowing: The Poetry and Prose of Aiken by Harry Marten, 1988; Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale by Edward Butscher, 1988; Aiken: A Priest of Consciousness edited by Ted R. Spirey and Arthur Waterman, 1989; Time's Stop in Savannah: Conrad Aiken's Inner Journey by Ted Ray Spivey, 1997.

* * *

With several poetry collections and a book of literary criticism to his credit, Conrad Aiken's turn to fiction in the early 1920s was driven by financial need, though he had published a number of stories at Harvard as an undergraduate.

His first collection of short stories, Bring! Bring! and Other Stories, which appeared two years before his Joycean first novel, Blue Voyage, introduces a deft, if conventional, craftsman with a taste for domestic psychodramas in the mode of Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, his prime influences. The title story, Lawrencean in its adroit probing of feminine behavior, derives significant energy from a misogynist vantage. Its weakest stories, including "The Dark City," "By My Troth, Nerissa!," and "Smith and Jones," a thin philosophical allegory as unconvincing as Poe at his most tendentious, foreshadow the difficulties Aiken would always experience when straying too far from autobiography or attempting to explore psyches too remote from his own. "Strange Moonlight" and "The Last Visit," the most effective performances in Bring! Bring!, are also the most personal.

"Strange Moonlight" recreates a crucial trauma from Aiken's Savannah childhood, the death of a neighborhood girl; this occur-rence ushers the sensitive, prepubescent hero to the brink of negation and frightening sexual knowledge in a series of musically scored events and symbols that distances the material to an almost fatal degree. Although looming ominously on a supratextual horizon, the story is missing the savage family climax that had forever warped its author's future self: the murder of his mother by his deranged father before he turned the gun on himself. "The Last Visit" is more visceral, if less ambitious, built upon a harrowing visit Aiken paid to his aged paternal grandmother during her final illness. As an early student of psychoanalytic theory as it evolved and one of the nation's pioneer Freudian critics, he was especially adept at integrating insights gained from depth psychology with traditional aesthetic machinery.

Curiously, Aiken's second collection, Costumes by Eros, provides no similar successes, though "Spider, Spider" achieves considerable force by exploiting a familiar fatal-siren motif. "Your Obituary, Well Written" also retains a certain fascination because it preserves Aiken's London meeting with Mansfield a few years before her untimely death in 1923, but the bulk of its companion pieces, often mere anecdotes or intellectual exercises, lack three-dimensional characters and appear willed rather than inevitable. His third collection, however, Among the Lost People, written while in the throes of composing the major poetry of the Prelude sequences and fighting off a nervous collapse, contains two recognized masterpieces, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" and "Mr. Arcularis," and one near-classic, "Impulse."

As could be anticipated, the hypnotic surge of "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," a Poe horror story in the best sense of tapping unconscious fears, and the sad, chilling power of "Mr. Arcularis," well from the same fear of death and unresolved Oedipal conflicts at the matrix of Aiken's neuroses, which abetted a profound distrust of women and dread of having inherited a father's madness. Later transformed into a play that highlights the mother's treacherous role in her son's existential despair, "Mr. Arcularis" evokes the raging insecurity of a traumatized child now grown into a friendless old man. Its trick plot—Mr. Arcularis, recently recovered from a serious operation and sent on a sea voyage by his doctor, is in actuality still on the operating table and sailing for oblivion—permits Aiken (and his audience) to both endure and neutralize tenacious death pressures.

In "Impulse," a smoothly narrated account of an infantile man's suicidal tumble into disgrace and isolation, the main character is a younger incarnation of Mr. Arcularis. With the contempt of a Nietzschean superman, he commits a minor crime to assert his superiority, only to land in jail, abandoned by his supposed friends and wife, whom he has forced into a punishing-mother stance by his selfish neglect of family responsibilities. Aiken subtly illuminates this alter-ego's mental illness without any overt appeals to psychoanalytic doctrine. As a result, besides supplying a persuasive character study, "Impulse" serves as a parable vehicle for uncovering the prototypical American dilemma of immature men compelling their mature women to assume the features of a monstrous mother.

But whatever their sociological or political ramifications, the diamond virtues of Aiken's strongest short fictions reside ultimately in their lyric self-obsession and their quest for psychological truths. If the protagonist of "Impulse" remains too unaware of his own culpability to achieve tragic grandeur, he and his counterparts in "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," "Mr. Arcularis," and "Strange Moonlight" touch and reflect us in ways sufficient to guarantee their literary survival.

—Edward Butscher