Rediscovering John Berryman

About (Biography)

Early Life

Born John Allyn Smith on October 25, 1914, he was the son of middle class parents. Raised in Oklahoma in an average setting, his parents, John and Martha, decided to leave this lifestyle as a banker and move to Florida to become real estate investors when John was 10. There his parents lived a more tumultuous life both personally and professionally. His parents had affairs--his father even threatening to divorce his mother to marry a Cuban woman. Then the real estate crash of the late 1920s hit the Florida boom. Their fortune was gone.

At fourteen, John's father died of a gunshot wound outside of their apartment. It was declared suicide [since this was happening with many investors of the day]; however, some family members suspected foul play. John's mother, Martha, and John Berryman, her lover, were the ones to find the body.

John Berryman was a successful real estate investor and had sold his holdings prior to the crash. After John Smith's suicide, Mr. Berryman and Martha married, adopted the boys [including John, 14, and his younger brother, Robert, 10] and moved the family to New York, where he worked as a stockbroker.


Once in New York, their lifestyle changed to fit the artistic world of the big city. They were exposed to music, theater, art, and literature. Young John Berryman was sent to a private prep school in South Kent. He was even admitted to Columbia College early. At a young age, he knew he wanted to focus his studies on literature. Influenced by his favorite professors, he read the classics and focused especially on William Shakespeare. He later became one of the leading scholars on Shakespeare. He was also an admirer of Stephen Crane and went on to write a biography of the writer.


Writing Career

Berryman truly loved writing poetry and quickly gained recognition for his first major work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956). It was revered as "one of the best long poems since T.S. Eliot" and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He went on to refine his skills and become one of the creators of what was later called "Confessional Poetry." His seminal work being, 77 Dream Songs (1964). This is the work that actually received the Pulitzer Prize in 1965.

In addition to his scholarly work and poetry, he was a revered teacher. He taught at several universities, including the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop, Harvard University, and ending his career at the University of Minnesota. Berryman was a well-liked, yet harsh instructor. His brutal honesty pushed students to do their best work--many of them going on to be world renowned and Pulitzer Prize winning poets themselves. Two of his students have been U.S. Poet Laureates: W.S. Merwin last term, and now Philip Levine.

Personal Issues

Despite all of his professional success and critical acclaim, Berryman had many personal demons. He was a lifelong alcoholic and married and divorced several times. Even though he had fairly positive success from his last rehab at Hazelden, on  his eleventh month of sobriety he ended his life by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota campus on January 7, 1972.

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