Conrad Aiken

Conrad Aiken was another of the writers I became familiar with through my penchant for perusing the Adult Fiction section of my local public library. Not knowing where to begin I literally started from the beginning at A, and while Agee, Aleichem, Amis, Asch, and Austen (among others) interested me it was Aiken who fascinated me. I’m not at all sure how much of him I read but I remember checking his Collected Stories out several times, and it was enough that his work eventually became the soundtrack to my adolescent subconscious, of that I’m certain. I literally had the actual cover of his Collected Stories with its aqua and green lettering in my mind in subsequent years as emblematic of my escape from the long ultimately boring summers in the air-conditioned aforementioned local public library, and finally found my own copy at a used book sale much later. I do remember that two of his most famous stories, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Mr. Arcularis” were heavily anthologized to the extent that they were even in my high school English anthology. I can’t remember if we read them but my inclination was that we didn’t, because not only would I have remembered such a momentous occasion,  I definitely recall hoping we wouldn’t read them, as they were my secret and I didn’t want to share them with anybody. Mr. Aiken would have loved that scenario.                                                                                                                                        I maintained my interest in Aiken over the years, periodically reading about him in various sources, and as a result of my admittedly ghoulish interest in collecting childhood horror stories, discovered that Aiken’s father, a successful doctor in Savannah, Georgia, shot his mother and then himself. As Aiken relates in his autobiography, Ushant: “After the desultory eary-morning quarrel, came the half-stifled scream, and the sound of his father’s voice counting three, and the two loud pistol shots and he tiptoed into the dark room, where the two bodies lay motionless, and apart, and, finding them dead, found himself possessed of them forever.” It has since been posited that much of Aiken’s obsession with psychology began with that life-changing event. Ya think?

Another mention of Aiken surfaced when Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano became all the rage in the mid-seventies as a major influence on Lowry, particularly his use of the stream of consciousness device as employed by Aiken in Ushant in his first novel Ultramarine. The author or editor of over 50 books of novels, short stories, criticism, autobiography, and, most importantly, poetry, he was also largely responsible for establishing the reputation of Emily Dickinson as a major American poet, which, if he’d done nothing else, we can be eternally graUltrateful for. In addition, he was one of the most decorated writers of the twentieth century, awarded the National Medal for Literature, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and served as Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. His star was in descension after that until it experienced a brief resurgence in the early sixties, and he has been largely ignored or little read from that point on.

Admittedly difficult, he is a fascinating, multi-talented and ultimately rewarding writer; I highly recommend The Collected Stories, UshantCollected Poems (for which he won the National Book Award), and Collected Letters as a good place to begin. It is time this unjustly neglected man of letters is returned to public consciousness, and if this essay garners him any readers, however few, I would consider it a small step in that direction.

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