Daughter of Max M. and Jennie Siegel Moskovitz; married Erwin Spitzer, 1939 (divorced); Martin Michel, 1947 (divorced); Leonard Lewin, 1963 (divorced); Waldo Salt, 1983; children: Guy, Dee
Best known for her many exuberant and language-loving books for children, Eve Merriam was primarily a poet. She was also a successful playwright, and well before the emergence of the contemporary women's movement, a feminist who wrote, often bitingly, about the relations between women and men. Merriam grew up in Pennsylvania where her parents, who had emigrated from Russia as children, owned a chain of women's clothing stores. She attended Cornell for two years, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (B.A., 1937), and moved to New York to attend Columbia University. Unsuccessful in her attempts to publish her poems, she reluctantly agreed with one of her professors that anti-Semitism might be the cause and changed her name: "Merriam" was borrowed from the Merriam Webster dictionary.
During the early 1940s, Merriam worked in New York City as a copywriter and feature editor on fashion magazines; she later published a wittily critical book on the fashion industry (Figleaf: The Business of Being in Fashion, 1960). She was also a writer for radio and from 1942 to 1946 moderator of a weekly radio program on poetry. A long-sought goal was reached in 1946 when her first book, Family Circle, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award. In his introduction to the collection, poet Archibald MacLeish praised the distinctiveness of Merriam's voice and diction: "If Miss Merriam can continue in her own person, speaking her own tongue, with the courage of her own carelessness, she may well survive."
Merriam continued speaking her own tongue in more than 60 books and plays for children and adults. Her work was consistently motivated by two passions: a love of language and wordplay and an abiding concern for social justice. In "How to Eat a Poem" (It Doesn't Always Have to Rhyme, 1964), she urged children to understand poems as nourishment: "Bite in. / Pick it up with your fingers and lick the / juice that may run down your chin. / It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are." Finding a Poem (1970) includes a series of poems on punctuation marks: "Semi-colon" pictures the diver who "lunges toward the edge; / hedges; / …hesitates; / plunges." Describing herself in "Writing a Poem" as "fooling around with images and rhymes simultaneously," Merriam unlocks the process, leading her readers through the evolution of "Landscape" from the original image, a rusting car, to its final musing on "what you will find at the edge of the world."
Merriam's delight in the potential and joy of language made her unusually successful as both poet and educator; in her work, pleasure and learning are simultaneous. Her poems never speak down to children but offer them ideas to imagine and consider: "Fantasia" (Finding a Poem) invites them into her "dream" of giving birth to a child who will have to ask, "Mother / what was war?" In addition to poems, Merriam also wrote biographies for young readers, including The Voice of Liberty: The Story of Emma Lazarus (1959), and books that raised issues of gender equality. The groundbreaking Mommies at Work appeared in 1961 (reprinted 1995); it celebrates all the kinds of work that women do. Boys and Girls, Girls and Boys (1972) inventively calls gender roles into question. Merriam received the 1981 Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children from the National Council of Teachers of English, and continued throughout her life to travel to talk with children and teachers. She also taught writing at City College of New York in the 1960s and at New York University in the 1980s.
Long committed to a progressive political outlook, Merriam's concern for social justice and her anger at society's failure to overcome the prejudices of race and gender permeate her writing. In the 1950s, she wrote about the civil rights struggle and its leaders: Montgomery, Alabama, Money, Mississippi, and Other Places (1956) contains poems praising Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Inner City Mother Goose (1969, reprinted 1996) draws powerfully on the rhythms and language of nursery rhymes to indict a society that destroys its youth by racism and violence. The controversial book provided the basis for two theatrical productions: Inner City: A Street Cantata, with lyrics by Merriam (produced on Broadway in 1971), and Sweet Dreams, which premiered at La Mama Experimental Theatre Company in February 1984. Satire and anguish predominate in The Nixon Poems (1970), a response to the implications of Nixon's election for the continuation of both the war in Vietnam and injustice at home.
No subject more consistently drew Merriam's attention than relationships between women and men and their inequities. As early as the 1940s, she collaborated with historian Gerda Lerner on "Singing of Women: A Dramatic Review," which offers a panoramic view of women's history and women's struggle for justice. The Double Bed from the Feminine Side, published in 1958, is a series of poetic sequences tracing the story of a marriage from passion to alienation. The bride dreams "He'll make me free / And we'll hold our marriage forever"; the wife finally breaks free of the "monotonous round," and dreams of "becoming her own horizon." When it was published in a new edition in 1972, Merriam noted her hope that The Double Bed might become "a consciousness-raising book." A later book of poems, A Husband's Notes about Her (1976), is wryly subtitled Fictions.
After Nora Slammed the Door: American Women in the 1960s-The Unfinished Revolution appeared to almost no notice in 1964, perhaps overshadowed by the popular success of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963). Combining social and economic analysis of "relations between the middle-class sexes" with poetry and the deconstruction of myths about women, Merriam offers no simple solutions for the modern Nora (the reference is to the heroine of Ibsen's A Doll's House). She argues for the need to alter the gender-bound nature of language, education, and social relations so women might imagine themselves, and so that both sexes might break free of the roles that keep them "bent over, stooped." Merriam's several contributions to the effort of reeducation include Growing up Female in America: Ten Lives (1971, reprinted 1987), a selection of autobiographical writings edited with a historical introduction by Merriam. The subjects range from Eliza Southgate, a 19th-century schoolgirl, to Susie King Taylor and Mountain Wolf Woman. The stories were later made into a play, Out of Our Father's House (1975; first New York production 1977), which had a White House performance in 1978 and was adapted for public television.
From the early 1970s on, Merriam was deeply involved with theater projects. Probably best known of Merriam's dramatic work is the OBIE award-winning The Club (1976). In this satirical feminist commentary set in an "exclusive men's club in 1903…when male chauvinist behavior and banter were in full flower," Merriam made her devastating point by casting women, dressed in formal male attire, in all the roles. Other theatrical productions include At Her Age (1979; published 1983), first staged at the Theatre for Older People in New York, and Plagues for Our Time, produced by Tom O'Horgan (who also staged "Inner City") at La Mama in 1983. Plagues, one critic noted, is "a pointed critique of a society that offers its pets hundreds of varieties of food, yet won't adequately feed all its elderly."
In the last year of her life, Merriam focused her writing on a remarkable series of poems that confront death. "Poems Purgatorio" appear with the Plague poems and the "Jack Dark" sequence in Embracing the Dark (1995). The "Jack Dark" poems are the saga of a fierce and painful struggle: Jack, rapist, murderer, cruel jokester, holds all the cards, except for that of the poet's language, which, still inventive, outwits and outlasts him.
The Real Book about Franklin D. Roosevelt (1952). Tomorrow Morning (1953). The Real Book about Amazing Birds (1955). Emma Lazarus: Woman with a Torch (1956). A Gaggle of Geese (1960). The Trouble with Love (1960). There Is No Rhyme for Silver (1962). Basics: An I-Can-Read Book for Grownups (1962). Funny Town (1963). What's in the Middle of a Riddle? (1963). Inside a Poem (1964). What Can You Do with a Pocket? (1964, reprinted 1990). Do You Want to See Something? (1965). Don't Think about a White Bear (1965). Small Fry (1965). The Story of Ben Franklin (1965). Catch a Little Rhyme (1966). Andy All Year Round (1967). Miss Tibbett's Typewriter (1967). Independent Voices (1968). Epaminondas (reteller, 1968; republished 1972 as That Noodle-Headed Epaminondas). Man and Woman: the Human Condition (1968). I Am a Man: Ode to Martin Luther King, Jr. (1971). Project 1-2-3 (1971). Bam! Zam! Boom!; a Building Book (1972). Rainbow Writing (1976). Ab to Zogg: A Lexicon for Science-Fiction and Fantasy Readers (1977). The Birthday Cow (1978). Unhurry Harry (1978). Good Night to Annie (1980, reprinted 1994). A Word or Two with You (1981).And I Ain't Finished Yet (1981). If Only I Could Tell You: Poems for Young Lovers and Dreamers (1983). Jamboree: Rhymes for All Times (1984). Blueberry Ink (1985). A Book of Wishes for You (1985). The Birthday Door (1986). Fresh Paint: New Poems (1986). A Sky Full of Poems (1986). The Christmas Box (1986). Alligator in the Attic (1987). Halloween ABC (1987, reprinted 1995). You Be Good and I'll Be Night: Jump on the Bed Poems (1988). Chortles: New and Selected Wordplay Poems (1989). Daddies at Work (1989). Poem for a Pickle: Funnybone Verses (1989). Where Is Everybody? (1989, reprinted 1993). The Wise Woman and Her Secret (1991). Fighting Words (1992). Singing Green: New and Selected Poems (1992). Train Leaves the Station (1992, reprinted 1994). Shhh! (1993). Quiet, Please (1993). 12 Ways to Get to 11 (1994, reprinted 1996). Higgle Wiggle (1994, reprinted 1995). Blackberry Ink: Poems (1994). The Hole Story (1995). What in the World? (1997). Bam, Bam, Bam (1998). Ten Rosy Roses (1999).
The manuscripts and correspondence of Eve Merriam are housed in the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College and at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota (materials relating to juvenile works).
Copeland, J. S., Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets Who Write for Children and Young Adults (1993). Heffer, H., A Checklist of Works by and about Eve Merriam (thesis, 1980).
CA (1992). CANR (1990). CLR (1988). DLB (1987). SATA (1972, 1985). TCCW (1989). Who's Who of Writers, Editors, Poets (1989).
Language Arts (Nov./Dec. 1981). Learning (Sept. 1985). Nation (31 Jan. 1959, 21 Mar. 1959, 23 June 1962, 14 Dec. 1964, 7 June 1965, 7 Oct. 1968, 7 Feb. 1972). NYT (22 Dec. 1963, 23 July 1976, 30 May 1980, 17 Apr. 1983, 9 Dec. 1987, 13 Aug. 1992). NYTBR (16 Aug. 1964, 2 Mar. 1969, 1 Nov. 1970, 25 June 1972, 13 Mar. 1977, 15 Nov. 1981, 25 Nov. 1984, 8 Dec. 1985, 25 Oct. 1987, 26 Mar. 1989). Working Woman (Mar. 1982).
—CAROL HURD GREEN