Schuyler, James Marcus
Schuyler, James Marcus
Schuyler was the only child of Marcus James Schuyler, a writer and newspaper owner in suburban Downers Grove, Illinois, and Margaret Daisy Connor. In 1926 the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Marcus Schuyler began working for the Washington Post. Schuyler remembered his father as a “jolly, well-read … enchantingly wonderful man” whose one significant vice was gambling, a problem that led to his parents’ divorce in 1929. At this point Schuy-ler’s maternal grandmother, Ella Slater Connor, came to live with them. An important influence on young Schuy-ler’s creative development, Granny Connor became the model for a character in his first novel, Alfred and Guinevere (1958).
In 1931 Schuyler’s mother married Fredric Berton Ridenour, a stern man who disapproved of Schuyler’s love of reading. Two years later a half-brother, Fredric, was born. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1935, and then to the small town of East Aurora, New York, in 1937. Schuyler felt alienated in this traditional suburban community,
where his interest in books and art were out of place. Moreover, he had become aware of his homosexuality early in life, which led to further estrangement. Encouraged by a perceptive English teacher, Schuyler had decided by the age of fifteen that he would become a writer.
In 1941 Schuyler entered West Virginia’s Bethany College, where he had an unsuccessful and incomplete academic career. In 1943 he left Bethany to join the U.S. Navy, where he did convoy duty in the North Atlantic. On a visit to New York City, Schuyler met Chester Kallman, a poet and lover of the distinguished writer W. H. Auden. After going AWOL, Schuyler was discharged from the Navy as “undesirable” when his homosexuality was revealed. He stayed in New York City, working as a clerk for the Voice of America at NBC.
Hoping to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer, Schuyler sold a farm he had inherited from his paternal grandmother and traveled to Italy in 1947 with his lover, Bill Aalto. Schuyler enrolled at the University of Florence, and the couple later spent the winter of 1948 house-sitting for Auden in Forio d’Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples, where they entertained guests such as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. When Auden returned to Ischia, Schuyler worked as his secretary for several months.
Returning to New York City in September of 1949, Schuyler immersed himself in the contemporary art scene, working first at the Kleeman Gallery and later at the Museum of Modern Art (1957–1961), where he eventually became a curator of traveling exhibitions. He was an editorial associate and critic for Art News (1955–1965) and an editor and contributor to the little magazine Locus Solus (1961–1962). In 1951 Schuyler met Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, two of the most important New York School poets. He became close friends with them, as well as with a host of other New York artists.
Given to bouts of mania and depression, Schuyler had the first of many breakdowns in 1951. He entered the Bloomingdale mental hospital in suburban White Plains, New York, where he stayed for several months. Throughout the rest of his life he was in and out of hospitals, dependent on medication and on the kindness of friends for support. (In one case, he lived with the painter Fairfield Porter and his wife Anne Porter for twelve years.) At Bloomingdale, Schuyler began writing his first poems, which were later published in New World Writing (1952).
Hanging out in such artists’ haunts as the Club and the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, Schuyler became a collaborator with many other poets, painters, actors, directors, and musicians. In 1953 his short play Presenting Jane was produced by the Artists’ Theater in Greenwich Village, with Elaine de Kooning providing hand-painted sets. During a car trip, Schuyler and Ashbery began their collaborative absurdist novel, A Nest of Ninnies (1969), which they would work on sporadically for the next seventeen years. Together with the author and composer Paul Bowles, Schuyler wrote A Picnic Cantata, which was released by Columbia Records in 1955.
By 1960 Schuyler was becoming known as a poet. His work appeared in Donald Allen’s landmark anthology, The New American Poetry: 1945–1960, and his first volume, Salute (with prints by Grace Hartigan), was published by the Tiber Press. Influenced by the early poetry of O’Hara and Ashbery—and through them by Dada and Surrealism—Schuyler experimented with techniques of collage and fragmentation in this volume.
Schuyler’s subsequent volumes, beginning with his first commercially published work, Freely Espousing (1969), tend to be more autobiographical, intimate, and objective than his early abstract work. These are poems of memory, desire, and appreciation, which present subtly detailed portraits of places and objects. The tone of the “intimist,” as the poet Barbara Guest once called Schuyler, who attends to the still moments of daily life, continues through his succeeding volumes: The Crystal Lithium (1972), Hymn to Life (1974), the 1981 Pulitzer Prize—winning The Morning of the Poem (1980), and Few Days (1985).
In a near-fatal 1977 incident, a fire broke out in Schuy-ler’s rooming-house bedroom, caused by the poet smoking in bed. He was kept in intensive care and then, suffering from continuing mental and physical distress, moved for a time to a nursing home. In 1979 concerned friends came up with the idea of Schuyler living at the Chelsea Hotel, an eclectic Victorian building on West Twenty-third Street that had been home to many artists including Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, and O. Henry. An assistant volunteered to come each morning to help with his medication, meals, and errands. While the poet was writing some of his finest work, friends assisted him in applying for grants and fellowships. Among others, he received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts (1972), the Guggenheim Foundation (1981), the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1982), and the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1988). Schuyler was a fellow of the Academy of American Poets (1983), and a recipient of the prestigious Whiting Award (1985).
Influenced by a former assistant, Tom Carey, the poet was confirmed as an Episcopalian in 1989, “after a lifetime as a non-practicing Presbyterian.” In 1991 he was discovered semiconscious in his room in the Chelsea, having suffered a stroke. He was transferred to the intensive-care unit at Saint Vincent’s Hospital, where he remained for a week until his death at the age of sixty-seven. A funeral service was held at the Church of the Incarnation on 16 April. His ashes were buried in the small cemetery on the grounds of Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai, New York.
Compared to his more boisterous colleagues in the New York School, Schuyler and his poetry seem reserved and reflective. His shyness and lack of self-promotion may in part explain his lesser renown. He will be remembered for his domestic meditations on friendship, art, and natural beauty. While the poet’s life lacked the usual workaday pressures, his writing responds to different, perhaps more primal, pressures of memory, feeling, and desire. His poems record moments of serenity in spite of suffering, everyday moments that most people fail to see: “It’s the shape of a tulip./It’s the water in the drinking glass the tulips are in./It’s a day like any other.”
Schuyler’s papers from 1947 to 1991 are held in the Mandeville Department of Special Collections at the University of California, San Diego. The Diary of James Schuyler, edited by Nathan Kernan (1997), includes a valuable introduction and chronology. Book chapters on Schuyler include Geoff Ward, “James Schuyler and the Rhetoric of Temporality” in his Statues of Liberty: The New York School of Poets (1993) and David Lehman, “James Schuyler: things as they are” in his The Last Avant-Garde: The Maying of the New York School of Poets (1998). Denver Quarterly 24 (spring 1990), a special issue edited by Donald Revell, is devoted to Schuyler’s work and includes essays, interviews, and previously unpublished poems. The poet’s Selected and Collected Poems were published in 1988 and 1993, respectively. An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Apr. 1991).