Conrad Aiken was born on August 5, 1889 in Savannah, Georgia. He was the son of William and Anna Potter, who lived in Savannah where William was offered a position as a brain surgeon. Orphaned at an early age, Conrad spent the later part of his childhood in Massachusetts. His first book was published in 1914, just two years after he graduated Harvard. Writing or editing over fifty books in his lifetime, he won several awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal for Literature, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He spent the last years of his life in his birth city, where he passed away on August 17, 1973, just twelve days after his 84th birthday.
At a young age, Aiken had a very significant and devastating change in his life. His father, had been slowly becoming increasingly agitated, and eventually violent. On February 27, 1901, when he was eleven years old, Aiken found the bodies of his parents. His father committed a murder suicide with a shotgun. After their deaths, Aiken went to live with an aunt in Massachusetts. He attended private schools, eventually being accepted to Harvard. While there he began writing poetry and also met his lifelong friend T.S. Elliot.
His poetry has been seen as musical, flowing, and deeply philosophical. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that a new study of his work started showing signs of psychological issues. Of the five novels Aiken wrote, two deal with psychology. He was an avid follower of Sigmund Freud; he studied his work and even considered going to Vienna to meet him. He also found a connection to Walt Whitman. Aiken tried to harness the freestyle that Whitman wrote with. “Morning Song of Senlin”, one of his many great works, is a great example.
Aiken was married to Jessie McDonald in 1912. The couple had two children, John and Jane, before they all moved to England in 1921. They welcomed another girl, Joan, in 1924. Unfortunately they separated and their marriage was dissolved in 1929. He was married two more times, once in 1930 and again in 1937. His children by his first wife are the only he had, all of whom become writers. One of his best known works is his autobiography, “Ushant”, published in 1952. In it he discusses his marriages and affairs, his friendship with T.S. Elliot and even his fear of going insane and attempted suicide.
Conrad Aiken won several awards for his writings. Named Poet Laureate in Georgia, he was also the first born in the state to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. Aiken was named the Poetry Consultant for The Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. He was personally involved in the writing or editing of over fifty books. His story, “Mr. Arcularis” was chosen by The Library of America to be included in a collection of Fantastic Tales.
Aiken spent the last eleven years of his life in Savannah. He lived near the Wilmington River, a site made famous in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. He passed away on August 17, 1973. He wanted a bench to be erected as his headstone, to encourage others to stop and have a drink with him. The words “Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown” are inscribed on the bench. His numerous awards and accomplishments well punctuate his lifelong love affair with the written word, solidifying his place as an influential poet in the 20th century.