James Ingram Merrill was born in New York City on March 3, 1926, and grew up in Manhattan and Southampton. He was the son of Charles Merrill, cofounder of the brokerage firm Merrill Lynch, and his second wife, Hellen Ingram. At the age of eight, he was already writing poems, and at age sixteen, while he was in prep school, his father had a book of them privately printed under the title Jim's Book. His parents divorced in 1939, when he was thirteen.
He attended Amherst College, where he studied under Reuben Brower, who would later, at Harvard, train many renowned critics and teachers of literature. It was also at Amherst that he first met Robert Frost. His studies were interrupted by service in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1945. Another book, The Black Swan, was privately printed while he was still in college, in 1946, and in 1947 he graduated summa cum laude. His undergraduate thesis was on metaphor in Proust, and John Hollander writes that Merrill's work "was continually reengaging those Proustian themes of the retrieval of lost childhood, the operations of involuntary memory and of an imaginative memory even more mysterious . . ."
He went on to teach for a year at Bard College, then spent the next two-and-a-half years traveling Europe, a period described in his 1993 memoir, A Different Person. His first trade book, First Poems, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1951 to great acclaim. In 1955 he moved to the small coastal town of Stonington, Connecticut, with his companion David Jackson. (The address of that house, on Water Street, furnished the title for his 1962 book of poems.) In 1956 he used a portion of his inheritance to found the Ingram Merrill Foundation, which has since awarded grants to hundreds of artists and writers. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Seraglio, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1957. Two years later, he and David Jackson moved to a house in Athens, where they spent part of each year until 1979.
James Merrill's second novel, The (Diblos) Notebook (1965) was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, and the following year his Nights and Days won the National Book Award in Poetry. He went on to earn numerous awards for his poetry, including the Bollingen Prize for Braving the Elements (1972), the Pulitzer Prize for Divine Comedies (composed with the help of a Ouija board; 1976), a second National Book Award for Mirabell (1978), the National Book Critics Circle Award for his epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover (1982), and the first Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the Library of Congress for The Inner Room (1988).
He served as a Chancellor of the Academy from 1979 until his death on February 6, 1995. James Merrill died of a heart attack, at the age of sixty-eight, while on vacation in Arizona. His last book, A Scattering of Salts (Alfred A. Knopf), was published a month later.