Irish Ghosts of America: John Berryman, the poet on the bridge

Poet John Berryman.

John Berryman, the poet, took his life by jumping from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on January 7, 1972. He was a troubled man, haunted his entire life by his own father’s suicide, and struggling with the twinned demons of depression and alcoholism. He had a job at the University of Minnesota, and it was here that he conceived and wrote much of “The Dream Songs,” his masterpiece, a complicated, idiosyncratic, and wide-ranging autobiographical collection of 385 poems.

Berryman was at least a quarter Irish, thanks to a grandmother from County Cork. The influence of this background on his writing had been the subject of some debate — editor Daniel Tobin included Berryman in his 2008 collection “The Book of Irish American Poetry,” and made a case that Berryman’s Irish-American identity informed him as a writer. There are certainly hints of it in “Dream Songs,” such as when Berryman’s autobiographical narrator refers to himself as “Henry,” and the fact that Berryman includes in the book references to a 1965 trip to Dublin, and his fascination with Yeats.

The most startling, and most hidden, Irish-American element of his writing is his frequent use of a interlocutor who speaks in an affected black dialect, and explicitly identifies himself as a blackface performer. The presence of this character is informed by Berryman’s reading of Carl Wittke’s “Tambo and Bones,” a book that, in part, identifies the Irish-American roots of the minstrel show, where virtually all of the earliest and best-known troupes were started by and made up of Irish-American performers.

Berryman’s suicide on the Washington Avenue Bridge wasn’t unprecedented — the high bridge spans the Mississippi River between two campuses of the University of Minnesota and is heavily foot trafficked, and so has been a popular sport of bridge jumpers. As a result, the bridge has a reputation for hauntings, mostly represented by unidentifiable footsteps and cold spots, but also occasional claims of figures that approach pedestrians and then disappear. Is Berryman among these restless spirits?

Author Thomas M Disch thought so. Late in his career, he wrote a series of horror novels set in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the first of these was 1984’s “The Businessman: A Tale of Terror.” The book’s monster is its eponymous businessman, an amoral, ruthless psychotic, but when he kills his wife she enters an invisible spirit world filled with the trapped remains of the unhappy dead. Among these is John Berryman, still on the bridge and fastened to the spot by his misery.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.