American poet, short story writer, critic and novelist. Most of Aiken’s work reflects his intense interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. As editor of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems (1924) he was largely responsible for establishing that poet’s posthumous literary reputation. From the 1920s Aiken divided his life between England and the United States, playing a significant role in introducing American poets to the British audience.
Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia. In his childhood Aiken experienced a considerable trauma when he found the bodies of his parents after his physician father had killed his mother and committed suicide. He was brought up in Massachusetts from the age of eleven by a great-great-aunt.
Before entering Harvard Aiken was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School, Concord. In Harvard he shared a class with T.S. Eliot, with whom he edited the Advocate and whose poetry was to influence his own. Aiken graduated in 1912, in the same era as Eliot, Walter Lippman, Van Wyck Brooks, and E.E. Cummings. After working as a reporter, Aiken devoted himself entirely to writing, having also a small private income. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Freud, Havelock Ellis, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are evident in his work. Freud considered Aiken’s GREAT CIRCLE a masterpiece of analytical introspection.
Aiken’s first collection of verse, EARTH TRIUMPHANT, appeared in 1914 and made him known as a poet. He was a contributing editor to Dial, which led to a friendship with Ezra Pound. Aiken’s essays, collected in SKEPTICISMS (1919) and A REVIEWER’S ABC (1958), dealt with the questions provoked by his commitment to literature as a mode of self-understanding.
During the First World War Aiken claimed that he was in an ‘essential industry’ because of being a poet, and was granted an exemption for this reason.
Aiken’s adult life was marked by trans-Atlantic journeys. In 1921 he moved from Massachusetts to England, settling in Rye, Sussex. In 1927-28 he was a tutor in English at Harvard. He married Clarissa M. Lorenz in 1930 (divorced in 1937). In 1933 he sailed again for Boston, and then spent two years in Rye (1934-36), writing ‘London Letters’ to the New Yorker. He returned to New York and Boston, and travelled in Mexico, where he married the artist Mary Hoover. They returned to Rye in 1937, but moved to the United States after the outbreak of World War II.
In 1930 Aiken was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection SELECTED POEMS. Most of Aiken’s fiction was written in the 1920s and 1930s, among others novels BLUE VOYAGE (1927), in which he used interior monologue, KING COFFIN (1934), and short story collections BRING! BRING! (1925) and AMONG THE LOST PEOPLE (1934).
After staying two years in Rye, Aiken settled in 1947 in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. In 1953 he published COLLECTED POEMS, which included the masterwork ‘Preludes to Definition’ and ‘Morning Song of Senlin’. Aiken’s ‘autobiographical narrative’ USHANT (1952) depicted his friendships with Malcolm Lowry, T.S. Eliot, and other figures he knew. It dramatized the attempt of its protagonist, the author’s persona, to read the palimpsest of hieroglyphs that constitutes the landscape of his soul, and mingled sketches of the literary generation between the wars with psychoanalytic free association.
From 1962 on Aiken wintered in a Savannah house adjacent to that of his childhood. He died in Savannah on August 17, 1973. Aiken received Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Bollinger Prize in 1956, Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958, and National Medal for Literature in 1969. Aiken’s psychological penetrations and verbal richness never received the wide recognition they deserve in spite of his several awards. Posthumously published THE SELECTED LETTERS OF CONRAD AIKEN (1978) contains correspondence with such literary colleagues as Wallace Stevens, Harriet Monroe, and Edmund Wilson.