Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who captured in simple verses the complexity of 20th century American life, including the beauty and the emptiness he sometimes found in middle-class suburbia, died Sept. 14 at his home in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 89.
His death, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, was confirmed by his son Matthew Simpson.
Born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a Russian mother, Simpson became a U.S. citizen while serving in the Army during World War II. In the postwar boom of the 1950s, through the social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s, and in every decade since, Simpson lived, observed and wrote with the clarifying detachment of an outsider.
“I couldn’t invent myself as a boy who has grown up in Iowa and lived in America all his life,” he told the New York Times in 1996. “I wanted things reflected through me with as little interference from me as possible, as if my language were coming from someone who didn’t have a language.”
He received the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his collection “At the End of the Open Road.” The volume was one of more than 18 books of poetry he produced over six decades, including “Searching for the Ox” (1976), “In the Room We Share” (1990) and “The Owner of the House” (2003).
“At the End of the Open Road” contained many of the salient characteristics of his writing: everyday imagery, wry turns of phrase and a contrarian, at times darkly disillusioned view of the American dream.
In “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” which became one of Simpson’s frequently anthologized poems, the speaker stands before a statue of the 19th-century American bard and laments:
Where are you, Walt?
The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.
“The moral genius of this book,” poet and critic Edward Hirsch wrote in the New York Times in 1988, “is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are.”
A professor for many years at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Simpson illuminated suburban living in prose that could be barbed. He described “taking part in a great experiment,” namely “whether writers can live peacefully in the suburbs / and not be bored to death.”
Yet at the same time, his poems contained a deep humanism. In one, he described an everyday scene in which he found transcendent meaning:
At the edge of the parking lot
two men are managing to lift
an enormously fat man out of a van…
wedging him into a wheelchair.
He is sweating and waving his arms.
To go to so much trouble . . .
Something or someone
must love him very much.
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born March 27, 1923, in Kingston, Jamaica, then part of the British West Indies.
His father was a prominent lawyer. His mother had left Russia and settled in New York City, then left for Jamaica when she was offered a job in the movies working with Annette Kellerman, the swimmer and silent-era film star.
Simpson was attending boarding school in Jamaica when his parents divorced. After his father died, his stepmother booted him from the family’s home.
He moved to New York to live with his mother. Before shipping out for Army service, he came to learn that his maternal family was Jewish. (When he was older, he retraced his lineage on his father’s side and learned that his paternal grandmother had been black.)
During the war, he reportedly participated in one of the early bloody landings on the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion. He later fought at the Battle of the Bulge, including the siege of Bastogne. His decorations included a Bronze Star and two awards of the Purple Heart.
After the war, Simpson returned to the United States and resumed his writing. He began suffering from the psychological condition known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. He once wrote:
Arm in arm in the Dutch dyke
Were piled both friend and foe
With rifle, helmet, motor-bike:
Step over as you go.
Simpson was institutionalized in a facility where, he wrote years later in an autobiography, he watched guards kill a patient.
He emerged from that bleakness and resumed his education, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English in 1948, a master’s degree in English in 1950 and later a doctorate in comparative literature, all from Columbia University. His teachers there included the eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling. Simpson’s first volume of poetry, “The Arrivistes,” was published in 1949.
In the early years of his career he was a literary editor and a teacher at Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley. Besides his poetic output, he wrote nonfiction works including “Three on a Tower,” a volume on the lives and literature of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams (1975), and two autobiographical works, “North of Jamaica” (1972) and, two decades later, “The King My Father’s Wreck.”
His marriages to Jeanne Rogers, Dorothy Roochvarg and Miriam Bachner ended in divorce.
Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Matthew Simpson of Acton, Mass.; two children from his second marriage, Anne Simpson of Pasadena, Calif., and Anthony Simpson of West Hollywood, Calif.; and two grandchildren.
“I don’t envy popular writers their success,” he wrote in his book “In the Room We Share.” “The feeling I have when I read something that matters . . . is the object of life, the reason we are born, live, and die.”