Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who told characteristically American tales of common people and often cast a skeptical eye on the American dream, died Friday at his home in Stony Brook, N.Y. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Anne Simpson. Louis Simpson had Alzheimer’s disease and had been bedridden for some time. He taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for many years.
Simpson sought the poetry in everyday life, writing in a simple, unadorned style with specifically American settings. The poet and critic Edward Hirsch called him “the Chekhov of contemporary American poetry."
“It’s complicated, being an American," Simpson wrote in the poem “On the Lawn at the Villa." “Having the money and the bad conscience, both at the same time."
His collection “At the End of the Open Road," for which he won the Pulitzer in 1964, painted a grim picture of the American temperament in the last half of the 20th century in poems like “In the Suburbs":
There’s no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
You were born to this middleclass life
As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.
In later years Simpson’s poems displayed less pessimism and more of an acceptance of the world as it is. In a valedictory poem, “A Farewell to His Muse," he reflected:
All you really know is given
at moments when you’re seeing
Being in love
is a great help.
Oh yes, but keep a dog.
Louis Aston Marantz Simpson was born on March 27, 1923, in Kingston, Jamaica. His mother, the former Rosalind Marantz, was born in Russia but left when her father died and immigrated to New York. She was working in the garment district when a man asked if anyone in the shop wanted to be in the movies. She raised her hand, and was hired to travel to Jamaica to work with the swimmer and movie actress Annette Kellerman, who was shooting a film there.
When Marantz refused to wear the risque body stocking the part required, she was fired. But while there she met Aston Simpson, a lawyer of Scottish descent, whom she later married.
Louis attended a Jamaican boarding school, modeled on those in England — “except that we could never be truly English," he told The New York Times in 1996, “so we felt we were pale carbon copies."
“We were without a real identity," he said.
That sense grew stronger when, visiting New York as a teenager, he was surprised to find his maternal grandmother lighting candles for the Jewish Sabbath. Although he had often been told about his mother’s Russian childhood — stories full of poverty and rats — she had never mentioned being Jewish. Nor had his father ever mentioned that his own mother was black, a fact he would not learn until years later.
His parents became estranged — perhaps in part, he later theorized, because his mother found out about her husband’s black ancestry — and eventually divorced. When he was 16 his father died suddenly and his stepmother disinherited him. Shortly after that he moved to New York.
By then he had already been writing for a few years.
“I did not intend to be a poet," he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1965. “I wanted to tell stories."
Writing, he said, “came as naturally as playing games."
His earliest published writing was for Public Opinion, the newspaper of the Jamaican independence movement.
Simpson attended Columbia University, where he studied with Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, but left to serve as an Army combat infantryman in World War II, first with the tank corps and then with the 101st Airborne Division in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Injured in battle, he later wrote extensively about his experiences in both poetry and prose.
“To remember a battle in which he has taken part," he wrote in 1964, “a man must make himself innocent again — innocent of newspapers, books and movies. He must remember his actual life, the life of the body. Everything else is journalism."
After the war he suffered a breakdown, attributable to what is now known as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
After recovering he returned to writing and to Columbia, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1948. The next year, while studying at the University of Paris, his first book of poetry, “The Arrivistes," was published.