His Russian mother, Rosalind de Marantz, migrated to the United States on the death of her father to join family in Brooklyn and to work in the New York garment district. It was the era of silent films, and one day a man came into the Manhattan factory where she worked sewing shirts and asked if anyone wanted to be an extra in a movie. The 17-year-old Rosalind volunteered, and ended up in Jamaica. On refusing to wear a risqué body stocking for the role, she was fired immediately.
Painful Family Roots
But all was not lost, as in Kingston she met and eventually married Aston Headley Laselve Simpson, a prominent Jamaican lawyer of Scottish descent. The couple had two boys. The first was Herbert, and the second, born in Kingston on March 27, 1923, was named Louis Aston Marantz Simpson. In 1930, when Louis was seven, his parents separated and later divorced; quite a scandal in those days of Jamaican colonial high society.
Years later, he wrote, “…one day, she disappeared. No one told me why. They said she had gone away. That was all. This was the great blow of my life, and it occurred in silence. I did not shed a tear…I did not think of asking my father, who surely would have known why my mother was no longer with us. The matter-of-fact air he put on, going to his office and returning, implied that questions were uncalled for, and neither my brother nor I was to ask them; that our mother’s having gone away was none of our business. I buried my anguish deep, and there it would remain, a grief without pang, vast, void, and drear…”
Great art, like the writing Simpson was to become famous for producing, unfortunately often comes from places of great pain, and the separation of his parents was only the beginning of the brooding pain he was to endure. “A poet,” he was later to write, “should wish for enough unhappiness to keep him writing.”
There was no future in Jamaica then for a woman who had left her husband, especially that husband. No lawyer would take her case, since they would be afraid of his father, who was a close friend of Norman Manley, and whose brother had been the first Mayor of Kingston and an associate of Marcus Garvey. She fled the island and went to live in Toronto before returning to New York. Louis and his brother were sent to stay with his father’s relatives, the Fletchers, and remained in primary school in Kingston. Two years later, he was taken from his home in Kingston at nine years old and sent a hundred miles west to join his brother at the best school on the island, Munro College.
He was to spend eight years navigating the austerity of Munro and the fearsome headmaster “Wagga” Harrison, during which time his father remarried the proverbial evil stepmother and had another child. In 1939 at 16 came another blow. In Simpson’s words, “…when our father died and the will was read, my brother and I had been disinherited. He left us a few hundred pounds; the rest of his large estate went to our stepmother. She arranged matters so, and the day after the funeral she sent us packing. No one seemed to care what would become of us…”He returned to Munro on his own to complete his final year, where he began to flex his literary muscles.
A group of Jamaican movers and shakers launched a weekly newspaper called the Public Opinion in 1938, which was to be instrumental in the nation’s independence movement, and helped shape and define Jamaica’s political as well as artistic thought. Right beside big adult names like Roger Mais, Edna Manley, and Archie Lindo, as well as the equally precocious H.D. Carberry, who was two years younger, Simpson, as a 16- and 17-year-old schoolboy, had his poems and stories published in Public Opinion no less than nine times in 1940 before leaving Munro and Jamaica. One of his poems, fittingly named Last Stand, was published in July 1941 after he left.
With no home in Kingston to return to after Munro, when his mother wrote from New York asking him if he’d like to visit after school, he had no hesitation, and left Munro with the mail van that took him to the nearest train station, in Balaclava.
Upon reaching New York, he was somewhat surprised to learn that his maternal family was Jewish. His mother had never mentioned it, and seemingly wanted to forget her poverty as a child in Russia and a working girl in New York. She had come to admire the British-type aristocracy of Jamaican high society, and had even learned to serve tea at four o’ clock and played golf at the Liguanea Club.
Back in New York, she took it a step further, telling Louis not to tell anyone he was Jamaican, but to say that he was from England. Obviously, he realized, this was to prevent anyone thinking he was coloured. Some years later, when he found out that his father’s mother had been black, a detail his father never mentioned, he had to wonder if this was why his mother had left him. The disillusioned Simpson disapproved of his mother’s pretentious ways, ignored her advice and buried himself in his college studies at Columbia, where he was taught by legendary professor, poet, and editor, Mark Van Doren.
His studies at Columbia were violently interrupted when he was drafted to serve in World War II as a combat infantryman, first with the tank corps and then with the elite 101ST Airborne Division. He was present at the Eisenhower-led Normandy beach landing in France in 1944, and saw 21 of his comrades die under heavy shelling at Arnhem, in the Netherlands. He later writes cynically of the ambush on his platoon, “…O, Captain, show us quickly, our place on the map. But the Captain’s sickly, and taking a nap…” He was also in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, where he nearly lost his feet to frostbite in freezing conditions.
In addition to other duties, he was a runner who carried messages across the battlefield, often dense with corpses, where he once saw a German soldier’s flesh melt down the side of a burning tank. He draws upon this traumatic experience in his autobiographical long poem, The Runner, in which he relates, “…There was a field the runner loathed to cross, a place of horrors. Here, on the first day, there’d been fierce charges, combats at close range, and the dead were mixed as they had fallen…” At the war’s end he returned to resume his studies at Columbia as a U.S. citizen and war hero, decorated with a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
US Citizen and War Veteran
But he also had psychic wounds that were hard to heal, and his studies were interrupted again with a mental breakdown in 1946. He spent six months in a mental hospital fighting off post-traumatic stress disorder, where it didn’t help that he saw a guard beat a patient to death.
After recovering enough to return to writing and to Columbia, he received his Bachelor’s in English in 1948. He then spent a year studying at the University of Paris, where his first book of poetry, “The Arrivistes,” was published. Even there, he still struggled with nightmares from the war. He wrote that it was no trouble to see bodies lying about in his room, and a German officer who kept reappearing on his furniture.
Educator and Writer
He returned to Columbia to receive a master’s degree in English in 1950. He worked as an editor at the Bobbs-Merril publishing company for five years, then again returned to Columbia as a tutor, where he received his Ph.D. in 1959. He became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for eight years until 1967, and then joined the faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, until his retirement in 1993.
After his retirement, he continued to write literary essays and poetry and to translate French poetry. Making his permanent residence in Stony Brook, New York, he travelled extensively to Australia and Europe. He travelled to Jamaica a bit as well, visiting in 1991 to deliver a lecture at the University of the West Indies, as part of the school’s distinguished lecture series. On that trip he came to Munro to address the boys in the Chapel and exchange pleasantries and poetical banter with Iverine “Mother” Blair of blessed memory. He also came back to the parish to perform at a rainy edition of the Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach in 2003.
Despite trying to forget her own past, his mother’s stories of her early life in Russia, stories full of poverty and rats, had influenced his writing style as much as his traumatic experiences in the war. It is said that he really wanted to write novels, but turned to poetry because shorter works were all that his ravaged mind could handle after the war. Moving to a new country after his childhood in a British colony and belatedly discovering his black and Jewish heritage had also left him with an identity crisis, but as he grew more confidently comfortable in his own skin, he also grew more confident in his own voice, and eventually revelled in his role as a quintessential commentator on American life. He wrote with first-hand insight, but with the cynical and clinical detachment of an outsider, a Jamaican outsider. “I couldn’t invent myself as a boy who has grown up in Iowa and lived in America all this time,” he told the New York Times in 1996.
He was described as the Chekhov of contemporary American poetry, and the exemplary writer of narrative poetry in America. Influenced by the great Walt Whitman of the 19th century, he portrays a different America, the contemporary America of shopping malls, highways, and sub-urban life. The poet Seamus Heaney called Simpson’s work “a touchstone for poetry,” and wrote: “Louis Simpson has perfect pitch. His poems win us first by their drama, their ways of voicing our ways … of making do with our lives. Then his intelligence cajoles us to the brink of a cliff of solitude and we step over into the buoyant element of true poetry.”
Renowned Critic and Poet
In addition to having a separate career as a critic, with a style as direct and honest as his poetry, he published about twenty critically acclaimed books of original poetry. He was awarded the Rome Prize, given by the American Academy in Rome, in 1957; the Columbia University Medal for Excellence in 1965, the American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature in 1976, and in 1988, was awarded the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. The big one, the Pulitzer Prize, for his landmark 1963 collection “At the end of the open road,” described as a tour de force of American poetry and his stylistic watershed, was awarded in 1964.
On September 14, 2012, after battling Alzheimer’s for some time, Dr. Simpson died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 89. He was married and divorced three times, and is survived by his daughter Anne, two sons Matthew and Anthony, and two grandchildren. In accordance with a last request, we are told, he was buried wearing his Munro blazer.
For the above and other reasons, Dr. Louis Aston Marantz Simpson, Pulitzer Prize poet and war hero, Dr. Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.