On the morning of January 7, 1972, John Berryman, bearded and stoop-shouldered, trudged across the campus of the University of Minnesota in gelid Minneapolis before halting on a cement pedestrian walkway above the Mississippi River. He balanced himself on the metal rail, much as his hero Hart Crane had balanced on the stern rail of the S. S. Orizaba forty years earlier. Then, like Crane, he waved goodbye to those around him, before pushing forward and plunging into the unforgiving void below. He was fifty-seven years old.
Berryman was in Alcoholics Anonymous and had been dry for eleven months. But shortly before that January day, he had started drinking again. Two days before his death he had scribbled out one last poem, explaining how he meant to escape yet one more disappointment—the lectures he had prepared for the class he was going to teach that semester had fallen far short of his own expectations, and he anticipated students
dropping the course, the Administration hearing & offering me either a medical leave of absence or resignation—Kitticat, they can’t fire me—
He had a better plan for keeping everyone off his back: a simple tilt forward and he could escape all that.
Berryman’s troubles began early: with the death of...