Conrad Potter Aiken was born in Savannah August 5, 1889 and died there August 17, 1973. His father William Ford Aiken was a physician in eye and ear diseases from New York City. His mother Anna Aiken Potter Aiken was the daughter of the renowned Unitarian preacher William James Potter of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Aiken remembered his Savannah childhood (with Summer visits to New England relatives) as sublimely free and happy, with no school until nine. Then, at eleven, Conrad saw his nervously energetic father become obsessed with suspicions that his wife and relatives planned to "send him away." On February 27, 1901, his health and practice failing, Will Aiken killed his wife Anna and himself. Relatives accepted the offer of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of "scientific management," to adopt Conrad's younger sister and two brothers, but not Conrad, whose "wilder habits" made him less susceptible to a highly disciplined household.
Conrad was taken into the Cambridge home of his aunt Grace Aiken Tillinghast and her Harvard librarian husband Will. From Peabody Grammar School and Middlesex Academy, Conrad inevitably entered Harvard in 1907, where he planned his career as a poet. T.S. Eliot held Conrad his closest Harvard friend; they exchanged for criticism work in progress, not only while at Harvard, but until 1916.
Aiken's first marriage in 1912 to Jessie MacDonald gave them John in 1913, Jane in 1917 and Joan in 1924--all later to become successful novelists. Then came the writer and pianist Clarissa Lorenz from 1926 to 1936, and the painter Mary Hoover from 1937 until Conrad's death in 1973. All three marriages voyaged back and forth between Boston or Cape Cod and London or Rye, Sussex, until in 1945 Jeake's House in Rye gave way to 41 Doors in Cape Cod and, finally in 1960, Aiken's great circle came 'round again to Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah.
Conrad Aiken came onstage as a modernist poet in 1914 at the opening of the "poetry renaissance" in England and America, at the same time as Pound and Eliot. Unlike either, as a man he kept himself determinedly off-stage for an entire half-century of his creative life, an "anonymity" that so shaped the course of his life and his reputation that the depth and unmatched variety of his art have been glacially slow to be felt widely.
In 1963 the poet Kathleen Raine, in The Times Literary Supplement , would write:
We used to think [Aiken] less original than [T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound]; a poet rather like Eliot but not so good. Now it seems that his originality was in advance of his time and our judgment.... Conrad Aiken's scope includes every paradox of his age and continent, from the delicacy of his poems of nature and love to the unrefined dross of the most disturbing and distasteful autobiography.... In another writer this might be exhibitionism, or catharsis; in Aiken it is neither. There is something Elizabethan, even Shakespearean, in the scope of his humanity, above all, in the recognition of heights no less inescapable than depths.
"Not to like Aiken," Raine proposed, "is a confession of not being capable of thinking in poetic terms; that is to say with the whole consciousness."
In 1969 the poet-critic Allen Tate, Aiken's opposite both in poetic temperament and in his views on art, politics and religion, called Aiken "the most versatile man of letters of the century: He has excelled in criticism, in fiction and in poetry."
Depressed as he could become when a book lacked recognition, Aiken considered all such judgments of art and poets tentative and provisory. Two weeks before his death he told a young student:
No, I don't have any great notion about where I stand as a poet. That will be taken care of by those wise people who come later on the scene than we do. Thus, as in their turn, those opinions too will be revalued over and over. None of us knows in what direction poetry and the other arts will turn -- that's part of the cruel fascination of being interested in the arts as you are, and keeping your head about it. If there is anything good in my poetry people like yourself will find it.
F.C. Bonnell's Conrad Aiken, a Bibliography (1902-1978) lists 64 "books and pamphlets" produced by Aiken, as well as 93 "contributions to books" and 761 "contributions to periodicals." Named Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress from 1950-1952, Conrad Aiken has earned numerous prestigious national writing awards, including a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, and the National Medal for Literature. Honored by his native state in 1973 with the title of Poet Laureate, Aiken will always be remembered in his native state as the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize -- in 1930, for his Selected Poems.
Conrad Aiken biographical material and photo courtesy of Joseph Killorin.
The following titles are held by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
3 Novels: Blue Voyage, Great Circle, King Coffin. New York: McGraw-Hill,1965.
A.D. 1930. (Publisher unknown), 1930.
American Poetry 1671-1928: A Comprehensive Anthology. New York: The Modern Library, 1929.
Among the Lost People. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1934.
And in the Human Heart. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940.
An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry. New York: The Modern Library, 1945.
Blue Voyage. London: G.Howe, 1927.
Blue Voyage. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1927.
Bring! Bring! And Other Stories. New York, Boni & Liveright, 1925
Brownstone Eclogues. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1962, c1942.
Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942.
The Case of Ezra Pound. New York: The Bodley Press, 1948.
Cats and Bats and Things with Wings. New York: Atheneum, 1965.
The Charnal Rose Senlin: A Biography. Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1925.
The Charnal Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems. Boston: The Four Seas Co., 1918.
The Charnal Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971.
The Clerk's Journal, Being the Diary of a Queer Man; An Undergraduate Poem, Together with a Brief Memoir of Harvard, Dean Briggs and T. S. Eliot. New York: Eakins Press, 1971.
Collected criticism. London, New York, [etc.]: Oxford U.P., 1968.
The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken: Blue Voyage, Great Circle, King Coffin, A Heart for the Gods of Mexico [and] Conversation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
Collected Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Collected Short Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.
Collected Short Stories. Cleveland: World Pub. Co. 1960.
A Comprehensive Anthology of American Poetry. New York: The Modern Library, 1944.
Conrad Aiken... New York: Simon & Schuster 1927.
Conrad Aiken number. New York: Wake Editions, 1952.
Conversation; or Pilgrims' Progress; A Domestic Symphony. London: R. Phillips & Green, 1940.
The Disciple. New York: Harper, 1925.
Earth Triumphant, and Other Tales in Verse. New York: Macmillan, 1914.
Gehenna. New York: Random House, 1930.
Great Circle. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
The House of Dust; A Symphony. Boston, The Four Seas Company, 1920.
The Jig of Forslin, A Symphony. Boston, The Four Seas Company, 1916.
The Kid. Edinburgh: J.Lehmann, 1947.
The Kid. London: John Lehmann, 1947.
Landscape West of Eden. London: J. M. Dent, 1934.
A Letter from Li Po, and Other Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals. London: Cape, 1977.
Mutevoli Pensieri. Milano: All'Insegna del Pesce D'Oro,1963.
Nocturne of Remembered Spring and Other Poems. Boston: The Four Seas Co., 1917.
The Pilgrimage of Festus. London, 19XX.
Prelude, A Poem by Conrad Aiken. New York: Equinox 1932.
Prelude. New York: Random House, 1929.
Preludes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Preludes for Memnon. New York: Scribner, 1931.
Priapus and the Pool. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.
Priapus and the Pool. Cambridge: Dunster House, 1922.
Prologue to an Autobiography. The American Scholar, 1966.
Punch: the Immortal Liar, Documents in His History. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1921.
A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present. London: W.H. Allen, 1961.
A Reviewer's ABC; Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present. New York: Meridian Books, 1958.
Scepticisms; Notes on Contemporary Poetry. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967.
Scepticisms, Notes on Contemporary Poetry. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968.
A Seizure of Limericks. London, Allen, 1965.
Selected Poems. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.
Selected Poems, with a new foreword by Harold Bloom. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003.
Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. by Conrad Aiken. London: J. Cape, Ltd., 1924.
Senlin: A Biography. London: Published by L. and V. Woolf at The Hogarth Press,1925
The Soldier: A Poem. London: Editions Poetry London: Nicholson & Watson, 1946
T. S. Eliot, a Symposium from Conrad Aiken [and others]. London: Editions Poetry, 1948.
Thee. London: Inca Books, c1973.
Tom, Sue, and the Clock. New York: Collier Books, 1966.
Ushant. London: W.H. Allen, 1963.
Ushant. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce,1952.
Special Collections Department of the Emory University Libraries in Atlanta, Georgia holds a large amount of Aiken's letters and personal memos.