Poet and biographer John Malcolm Brinnin was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on September 13, 1916, to John A. Brinnin and Frances Malcolm Brinnin. When he was young his family moved to Detroit, Michigan. Brinnin graduated from the University of Michigan in 1942 and within a year entered graduate school at Harvard University.
Brinnin, who was also a critic, anthologist, and teacher, taught at Vassar, Boston University, the University of Connecticut, and Harvard. He was Director of the Young Men's and Young Women's Hebrew Association Poetry Center (the 92nd Street Y) in New York City during one of the Center's most successful periods (1949-1956).
Brinnin was the first person to bring Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to the United States and was responsible for all of Dylan Thomas's reading tours in this country. Brinnin's best known work, Dylan Thomas in America, published in 1955, provides a personal memoir of Dylan Thomas's trips to America as Brinnin observed them, and carries a moving account of the period of Thomas's death in 1953. Dylan Thomas in America was made into the 1964 Broadway play, Dylan. Brinnin later narrated a motion picture, The Days of Dylan Thomas.
John Malcolm Brinnin published a number of collections of poems. Brinnin's first collection of verse, The Garden is Political, was published in 1942. Subsequent collections of poems include The Lincoln Lyrics (1942), No Arch, No Triumph (1945), The Sorrows of Cold Stone (1951), and Selected Poems of John Malcolm Brinnin (1963). Skin Diving in the Virgins, and Other Poems (1970) was Brinnin's final collection of published poetry, although he continued to tinker with a number of abandoned poems until his death.
In 1955 the Poetry Society of America awarded Brinnin its Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to Poetry. Following the publication of his Selected Poems in 1963, Brinnin was awarded the Centennial Medal for Distinction in Literature by his alma mater, the University of Michigan.
In addition to writing poetry, Brinnin edited a literary journal, Signatures (1936-1938), and compiled several anthologies of modern poetry. Brinnin's two popular works on transatlantic travel, The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic (1971) and Beau Voyage: Life Aboard the Last Great Ships (1981), reflect his lifelong love of travel, particularly crossing the Atlantic on luxury liners.
John Malcolm Brinnin authored biographies of Gertrude Stein (The Third Rose, 1959) and Truman Capote (Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy, 1986). His work, Sextet (1981), included biographical sketches of Truman Capote; Henri Cartier-Bresson; Elizabeth Bowen; Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell; Alice B. Toklas; and T. S. Eliot. In addition, he wrote a critical work on William Carlos Williams.
John Malcolm Brinnin died at his home in Key West, Florida, on June 25, 1999.
Evory, Ann (ed.) Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, Volume 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1981. page 72.
Quartermain, Peter (ed.) Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: American Poets, 1880-1945, Second Series. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1986. pages 52-57.
Stewart, Barbara. "John Malcolm Brinnin, Poet and Biographer, Dies at 81," The New York Times. 1998 Jun 30.
The Supplement to the John Malcolm Brinnin Papers comprises thirteen linear feet of material spanning the dates [1800s]-1998 (bulk dates 1935-1998). Most of the collection consists of letters to Brinnin; poems, a memoir, journals, and articles written by Brinnin; and personal documents, such as a passport, birth certificate, medical and hospice information, draft notice, photographs, and college diploma. However, the supplement also includes books or manuscripts written by other authors and friends, artwork, clippings, computer software, travel brochures and itineraries, and audiovisual material related to Brinnin.
There are six series in the Supplement: I. Correspondence, II. Writing by Brinnin, III. Writing by others, IV. Photographs, negatives, and slides, V. Printed material, and VI. Personal papers.
Most of the letters in the Series I. Correspondence, are written to John Malcolm Brinnin, although a few are addressed to his longtime companion, Bill Read; his mother, Frances Brinnin; or to his friends, Howard Moss and James Merrill. There is also a folder of letters, postcards, or drafts of letters written by Brinnin to Caitlin Thomas, Bill Read, John Thompson, and his mother. The letters in the supplement add to the holdings for several correspondents found in the original collection, such as James Merrill, Richard and Charlee Wilbur, and Kimon Friar.
The correspondents reflect the wide range of friendships Brinnin cultivated and maintained, from renowned composer Leonard Bernstein to college classmates such as Bowden Broadwater and Ankey Larrabee (Crumley). Among his correspondents were such poets and writers as John Ashbery, Henri Cole, Kimon Friar, Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Howard Moss, Denise Levertov, and Richard Wilbur.
The topics of conversation in these letters are as varied as the individuals writing: from personal health to current writing projects, from travel plans to congratulatory notes to Brinnin on recent publication. The most substantial groups of letters are all from Brinnin's close friends, Rita Essayan, Kimon Friar, Ankey Larrabee (Crumley), James Merrill, and the Wilburs.
The Larrabee letters elucidate Brinnin's Bennington College, Vermont connection. Ankey Larrabee was a classmate of Brinnin's at Bennington during the summer 1940, when Brinnin held a scholarship to study modern dance. What began as a crush on Brinnin developed into a close friendship. The letters reflect Larrabee's outrageous sense of humor and creative talent.
The letters from poet Richard Wilbur and his wife Charlee reflect details of their lives, including health concerns, travel plans, reports of their children and grandchildren, and Richard Wilbur's poetry. Richard Wilbur sent a number of poems to Brinnin for comment.
In addition to the personal correspondence, the first series includes a folder of business correspondence related to several of Brinnin's writing projects, a folder containing letters from unidentified correspondents, and a folder of pending or "final correspondence" (maintained as it came from the estate). The letters, notes, cards, and faxed messages of love and support sent to John Malcolm Brinnin during his final months of life, as well as Brinnin's list of persons he wished to contact and things he wanted to complete during that time are collected in this folder.
Series II. Writing by Brinnin, is dominated by Brinnin's journals and drafts of a memoir which Brinnin did not complete. From 1943 until several days before his death, Brinnin kept a journal of his daily life. The journal, which began as an appointment book during his teaching appointment at Vassar, multiplied into one hundred and thirty-five volumes available in this collection. An additional two journals (years) are missing from the collections and occasionally pages are missing from a journal. The only period of time when nothing was recorded in the journals was during the hospitalization of Dylan Thomas in 1953. A summary description of the contents of the journals is available in the subseries note on page 26 of this finding aid.
As early as the 1950s Brinnin began compiling material for a memoir. In 1965 Brinnin recorded in his journal, "Abandon memoir project, at least for some years." However, Brinnin continued to return to the project and was working on the memoir in the months prior to his death.
The drafts which are available in this supplement chronicle in detail Brinnin's life from birth to about 1953. The 1950s-1990s are represented by a few drafts, notes, and chronologies; none of which are comprehensive. The last working title for the memoir was "A Passing of Papers," for which Brinnin had written a "Prolegomenon." The memoir is provides enormous insight into Brinnin's life and work and priorities. Whereas his journals can be almost cryptic, his memoir is clear and revealing.
In these drafts he details his childhood and family life, including his sister's death when he was twelve years old and its effect on his family; his teenage years; and his work with Walter Reuther in the fledgling United Auto Workers in Detroit. His collegiate days at the University of Michigan, Bennington, and Harvard are depicted, introducing Kimon Friar, John Thompson, William Auden, the Wilburs, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, and a host of others. The years of his directorship at the Poetry Center are chronicled in rich detail, with Brinnin reflecting on the demeanor and presentations of the poets he engaged for readings. The memoir is particularly substantial with regard to Dylan Thomas.
His memoir also reveals his thoughts about his journals. At one point in his memoir (F143), following an entry for April 5, 1951, Brinnin writes: "As journal entries continued to tell mainly what I did, I developed a secondary language of nuance and silence to remind me what I felt. A code I had myself devised, it could not be cracked simply because no one else was aware of its function, much less its purpose. Booby-trapped with declarative sentences about the pain in my joints that would keep me hunched and crab-like for days, or about the ulcerous eruptions that plagued my nights, this language might satisfy a casual reader without ever revealing that it was designed to deflect rather that inform..."
The second series is completed by a group of autograph and typescript drafts of poems; a notebook listing Brinnin's poetry submissions, readings, and awards for the period of 1935-1946; and several folders of material regarding Dylan Thomas in America or Brinnin's books on passenger ships.
Series III. Writing by Others includes the work of poets, novelists, or friends. Manuscripts of poems by Craig Arnold, Leonard Bernstein, Jane Brooks, Daniel Hall, and Nash Rosenblatt are available in the series. Poems by Richard Wilbur, Irving Feldman, Howard Moss, and Leonard Bernstein are also present among the letters of these individuals which are found in Series I. John O'Shea's story about Truman Capote, Philip Gerber's biographical essay regarding Brinnin, Richard Wilbur's eulogy for Brinnin, and typescript chapters of James Merrill's memoir, A Different Person, are also part of the series.
The travel journals of Bill Read, kept between 1951 and 1976, and six volumes of John H. Thompson's diaries (1939-1964) complete the series. Bill Read's five journals chronicle his trips to Europe. Entries in the journals list purchases and expenses, describe scenery and artwork he observed, detail meals eaten and an occasional recipe, and record information about new friends. The first diary (F8) contains a vivid account of Read's and Brinnin's visit with Dylan and Caitlin Thomas in Wales in 1951.
The entries in Thompson's journals vary from brief summaries of a day's activities to detailed descriptions of particular events, such as trips to New York City. A particularly close friend of Brinnin's who went to school with him in Ann Arbor and with whom he co-edited Signatures, their letters, conversations, and visits are frequently recorded in detail. In fact there are paper markers in the journals indicating that Brinnin acquired Thompson's journals as reference material for his memoirs.
Almost three hundred photographs, thirty contact sheets, as well as numerous negatives and slides comprise Series IV. The photographs are a mix of images taken by professional photographers, such as Rollie McKenna, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Michel Sima, and amateur snapshots. The photographs include images of Brinnin alone, Brinnin with others, other individuals (friends and poets), Dylan Thomas and his family or environs, Brinnin family photographs, and photographs of artwork and landscapes. Of particular note are the portrait images of Dylan Thomas (these complement the Thomas photographs found in the original Brinnin Papers) and other poets taken by Rollie McKenna; Michel Sima's images of modern artists; and Cartier-Bresson's images of Frank Lloyd Wright, Max Ernst, and Robert Flaherty.
Series V. Printed material includes books (many of which are inscribed by their authors to Brinnin), journals and magazines, programs, brochures, catalogs, and clippings. The series includes books of poetry from James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Tram Combs, and Richard Wilbur; as well as novels by John Hersey. The books have been removed from the collection and cataloged for Special Collections, with call numbers noted when available.
Many of the journals and magazines include poems or articles written by Brinnin or by his close friends, such as James Merrill or Kimon Friar. Among the programs, catalogs, and brochures are works by Rollie McKenna, C. R. Grigg, and John H. Thompson; as well as material related to Dylan Thomas.
The clippings and tear sheets provide samples of Brinnin's poetry, articles, or reviews as published in various newspapers or magazines. The file of obituaries suggests some of the personal loses Brinnin endured over his lifetime.
Series VI. Personal papers encompasses such items as Brinnin's birth certificate and notice of draft classification, his University of Michigan diploma, a passport, a guest book for his 70th birthday celebration, and his final journal and medical records. Several ephemeral items and realia reflect Brinnin's personal interests, such as his fountain pen and nibs used for his beautifully calligraphic letter writing, information about the game of anagrams, and material related to world travel. A video tape of an interview with Brinnin, conducted in Key West during the 1990s, reveals other elements of Brinnin's personality and interests.
Brinnin's active participation in such organizations as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Key West Literary Seminar and Festival, and the Poetry Center is documented with programs, clippings, and correspondence. Among the miscellaneous items is a photocopy of an eighteen-page cartoon in which Brinnin is a central character.
The distinguishing documents in this supplement to the John Malcolm Brinnin Papers are Brinnin's journals and the drafts of his memoirs. These reveal much about the life, work, and character of John Malcolm Brinnin, as well as the individuals and life events he encountered.