Joyce Kilmer was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in December of 1886. He was the fourth child born to Episcopalian parents Annie Ellen Kilburn and Dr. Frederick Barnett Kilmer. Kilmer’s father was a doctor and chemist, known for his invention of Johnson and Johnson baby powder, and his mother was a writer and composer. Throughout his early youth, the family lived in a small home that is now dedicated to Kilmer’s works.
About Joyce Kilmer
Early Life and Education
When he was eight years old he entered Rutgers College Grammar School, an institution now known as Rutgers Preparatory School. He spent time as the editor of the school’s paper, the Argo, and dedicated many of his studies to the classics. Kilmer won a prize for oratory, obtaining him a scholarship to Rutgers College. He graduated from grammar school in 1904 and followed his scholarship to Rutgers College.
Kilmer attended the college from 1904 to 1906. It was during this time period he worked as the associate editor of the Targum, the university newspaper. His studies were not up to the level the school required and he was asked to repeat his sophomore year. Rather than continuing at Rutgers, he moved on to Columbia University in New York City. His time at Columbia was more successful. He served as the vice-present of a literary society and the associate editor of Columbia Spectator. He finished his degree in 1908.
Soon after receiving his Bachelors in Arts, he married Aline Murray. She was a fellow poet with whom he had been involved for many years. Together the couple would eventually have five children. That same year he found employment at Morristown High School in New Jersey and began submitting essays and poems to periodicals. Within the next year, Kilmer decided he no longer wanted to pursue a teaching career. He moved the family to New York where he focused on his writing career.
By the end of 1908, Kilmer was teaching Latin at Morristown High School in New Jersey. It was during this time period that he started submitting essays to Red Cross Notes. His first published piece of writing appeared in the publication. It was an essay titled “Psychology of Advertising”. At the same time, he was sending poems to other periodicals of a literary nature.
As another source of income, Kilmer wrote reviews of books for The Literary Digest, The Nation, as well as several other publications. By mid-1909 he decided to move to New York City where he focused on writing.
Over the next three years, he worked with the publisher, Funk, and Wagnalls where he helped to prepare an edition of The Standard Dictionary. He also published his first book of verse. This volume was titled, Summer of Love. In 1912, he began writing for the New York Times Review of Books and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Kilmer’s final years before the start of World War I was spent in Mahwah, New Jersey. By this time he had become an established poet. He was also gaining popularity for his lectures which he gave without preparation.
Loss, Success, and Religion
Kilmer and his wife were struck by tragedy shortly after the birth of their daughter Rose. She was stricken by infant paralysis. The stress of the illness lead the Kilmers to convert to Roman Catholicism. They entered the church in 1913. That same year he published the work which would his most popular, ‘Trees,’ in Poetry magazine. His lectures were also becoming more geared toward a Roman Catholic audience.
The following years saw his literary output increase. He published Trees and Other Poems in 1914 which included ‘The House With Nobody In It.’ In 1915 he became the poetry editor of Current Literature. He was also working as a contributing editor of Warner’s Library of the World’s Best Literature. From 1916 to 1917 he published four more books. The first was a volume of essays entitled, The Circus and Other Essays. It was followed by Literature in the Making and Dreams and Images: An Anthology of Catholic Poets. Then finally, a collection of verse, Main Street and Other Poems.
World War I
In 1917, soon after the United States entered into World War I, Kilmer enlisted with the National Guard. He rose quickly through the ranks of the service and became eligible for commission as an officer, but he refused. He professed a desire to remain in his unit rather than an office in another regiment.
The days before, and directly after Kilmer left for Europe were dramatic. His daughter Rose died shortly before he left and twelve days later his son Christopher was born. It was also at this time that he informed his publishers that he’d be writing a war-themed book titled Here and There with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth. Unfortunately, the book was never written. His time was spent otherwise occupied, although he did manage to write some prose and poetry towards the end of 1917.
He was assigned work as a statistician with an infantry regiment. He arrived in France in November of the same year. While Kilmer did not write another volume of poetry during this time period, he did complete a number of sketches. The most popular of these is ‘Rouge Bouquet’ which spoke on the deaths of two dozen of his comrades in a German artillery barrage in the Rouge Bouquet forest.
Final Act of Bravery
In April of 1918, he was transferred by request to military intelligence. Kilmer was held in high regard by his fellow soldiers and volunteered for extra duty during the Second Battle of Marne. He led a scouting party that was assigned the mission of locating a German machine gun. His battalion found him later, peering over the edge of a hill. He had been shot by a sniper. He was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Republic and was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial, in Aisne, Picardy, France. In New Jersey, visitors can see a cenotaph erected on the family plot in Elmwood Cemetery.