Prodigal Son

"Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them.
Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them."

—Oscar Wilde

Louis Simpson stands as an easy example of the poet divided, whose best talents and strongest predilections are at odds with one another. He takes Walt Whitman as spiritual father and his relationship with the figure of Whitman is as troubled and ambiguous as any son's might be with a blood father. He names W.H. Auden as his bête noire, although his own best wit and stylishness are closer to Auden's nice effects than to Whitman's woolly dithyrambs.

But perhaps it is not the contrast between the two poets that so exercises him. Simpson struggles with a problem of cultural identity; he has for a long time been trying to define what an American is and then to become one. Whitman represents America, Auden Europe. Louis Simpson's father was British, his mother a Russian Jew, and the lad spent his early years in Jamaica, separated from his parents. In his autobiography, North of Jamaica, he identifies America as the place where Mummy was, "a place with tall buildings called skyscrapers" where the inhabitants "ate sugar and bananas."

Already in his miniature verse drama of 1949, "The Arrivistes," a character observes: "This European scene / Is like a comedy,...

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