January 28, 2022

Digital Humanities: James Merrill Digital Archive Brings Poet’s Creative Process Into View

From Washington University in St. Louis:

The James Merrill Digital Archive illumines the intriguing work that led to Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim,” a series of poems first published in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Divine Comedies in 1976 and the first installment of his apocalyptic epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. The result of collaboration among staff from Washington University Libraries’ Manuscript and Digital Library Services units, the Department of English in Arts & Sciences, and students and staff in the Humanities Digital Workshop on campus, the archive can be viewed here.


The occult was central to all of Merrill’s later work, including “The Book of Ephraim,” the current focus of the James Merrill Digital Archive. As the poet himself puts it, the poem distills “a Thousand and One Evenings Spent / With David Jackson at the Ouija Board / In Touch with Ephraim Our Familiar Spirit.” The new website brings within easy digital reach hundreds of transcripts resulting from the many Ouija sessions Merrill and his partner conducted using a teacup and simple board, along with drafts of “The Book of Ephraim,” bearing witness to a complex creative process.


One of the challenges involved in developing the archive was determining the best way to organize the materials and present them in a meaningful way, said Digital Projects Librarian Shannon Davis, who provided technical support and design assistance. Duerden and another student — junior Samantha Rogers — spent many hours among the library’s physical James Merrill Papers collection, sorting through reams of paper material preserved from the Ouija sessions and then creating high-quality scans of hundreds of individual pages.


The James Merrill Papers have remained one of the most popular resources in Special Collections. Joel Minor, curator of the Modern Literature Collection and Manuscripts, said he sees multiple researchers each month visiting in person or working with library staff long-distance to access the collection

Direct to James Merrill Digital Archive

Learn More About James Merrill and the New Digital Archive

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.