Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born on December 6, 1886, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He was the son of Frederick Barnett Kilmer, a chemist with Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company, and of Annie Kilburn Kilmer, a poet. Joyce Kilmer attended Rutgers College (1904-1906) and graduated with an A.B. from Columbia University, New York, in 1908. In June of that year, he married Aline Murray whom he’d met at Rutgers Preparatory School. Kilmer was editor of the school paper and collaborated with Murray on literary projects. She was the daughter of Kenton Murray and Ada Foster who later married Henry C. Mills Alden, editor of “Harper's” magazine. Ada Foster also wrote poetry and was published frequently by the “New York Times.” In 1907, Aline Murray graduated from Vail-Deane School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a year before her marriage to Joyce Kilmer, in 1908.
The year following his marriage, Joyce Kilmer taught high school Latin in Morristown, New Jersey. He and his wife then moved to New York City, where, after a round of random employment, he joined the staff of the “Standard Dictionary” (1909-1912). During this period, he also did considerable occasional writing for magazines. After a year as literary editor of the “Churchman,” a publication of the Episcopal Church of which he was a member at the time, Kilmer was hired by the “New York Times” Sunday magazine and book review sections (1913). During the fall of that year, Joyce and Aline Kilmer converted to Roman Catholicism.
Besides his work for the “New York Times,” Joyce Kilmer wrote for the “Literary Digest” and “Current Literature”; he wrote prefaces to books including Hilaire Belloc's “Verses” (1916) and Thomas Hardy's “Mayor of Casterbridge” (1917); and lectured extensively on contemporary literary matters. Kilmer's major book publications include:
“Summer of Love” (The Baker & Taylor Company, N.Y., 1911)
“Trees and Other Poems” (George H. Doran Company, N.Y., 1914)
“The Circus and Other Essays” (L.J. Gomme, 1916)
“Main Street and Other Poems” (George H. Doran Company, N.Y., 1917)
“Literature in the Making” (a series of interviews with literary personages) (Harper & Bros., 1917)
“Dreams and Images” (Boni and Liveright, N.Y., 1917; later published as Joyce Kilmer's “Anthology of Catholic Poets,” 1939)
For a full listing of publications by Joyce Kilmer, see the “National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints,” pp. 27-29.
When the United States entered World War I, Joyce Kilmer enlisted. He had originally joined the Officers' Reserve Training Corps, but resigned to enlist in the 7th Regiment, National Guard, New York. In July 1917, the 7th Regiment was mustered into Federal service. At this time, Kilmer transferred to the 165th Regiment (originally known as the "Fighting 69th") of the 42nd ("Rainbow") Division, which he accompanied to France (October 1917) as senior statistician. With him was Fr. Francis P. Duffy who served as regimental chaplain and with whom Kilmer became close friends during their time abroad.
For a time, Kilmer worked in the adjutant's office, but in April 1918, he requested a transfer to the Regimental Intelligence Section. Many of his letters to Aline Kilmer describe his time in this section, working in dugouts, camping in various locations of the French countryside, of which Rouge Bouquet is memorialized in the eponymous poem. On July 30, 1918, during the American advance through the Soissons-Marne-Reims salient, the first battalion of the 165th Regiment attacked a village held by the Germans in the hills above the Ourcq River, near Seringes-et-Nesles. Kilmer was sent ahead of the battalion with the Intelligence Section. He was later found in the woods, shot through the head by an enemy bullet. He had originally volunteered to assist Col. W.J. Donovan as a replacement for Lt. Oliver Ames, who had just been killed.
Kilmer's bravery was honored by burial near the place where he fell. He was reburied with fellow officers at the American Military Cemetery of Fere-en-Tardenois. Later, the French government was to present the Croix de Guerre in Kilmer's honor to his mother Annie Kilburn Kilmer, his widow Aline Kilmer, and to his son Kenton Kilmer (December 21, 1918). Joyce Kilmer had entered the 165th Regiment as a private and had been promoted from corporal to sergeant.
Joyce and Aline Kilmer had five children: Kenton, Rose (who died at age four), Deborah (aka. Sister Michael, O.S.B.), Michael (who died in 1927), and Christopher (“Kipper”). After Kilmer's death, the family remained in Larchmont, New York, where they had moved in 1917 while the former went through military training in Plattburgh and Camp Mills, Mineola, Long Island, prior to his departure for France. Eventually, Aline Kilmer was to move the family back to New Jersey. They resided at Englewood Cliffs during the period approximately from 1926 to 1929. After that, Aline Kilmer retired to Stillwater.
A poet in her own right, Aline Kilmer published several volumes of verse, as well as of prose:
“Candles that Burn” (George H. Doran Company, c.1919)
“Vigils” (George H. Doran Company, c. 1921)
“Hunting a Hair Shirt and Other Spiritual Adventures” (George H. Doran, c.1923)
“The Poor King's Daughter and Other Poems” (George H. Doran Company, c.1925)
“Emma, Nicky and Greg” (George H. Doran Company, c.1927)
“Selected Poems” (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1929)
“A Buttonwood Summer” (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1929, 1930)
Aline Kilmer died on October 1, 1941, at her home in Stillwater, New Jersey.
Kenton Kilmer resided in Vienna, Virginia, with his wife, poet Frances Frieseke. They were the parents of 10 children. Mr. Kilmer attended Georgetown University, from 1930 to 1931, although he obtained his A.B. from St. Mary's College in Kansas. He would later acquire his Master's degree from Georgetown University, in 1931. Two of Mr. Kilmer's sons are also Georgetown University alumni, Nicholas J. Kilmer, A.B. 1962, and Hugh Kilmer, a former student of the Georgetown University Graduate School.
A number of biographical works are available on Joyce Kilmer. Of the most notable are those by his mother, Annie Kilburn Kilmer and by Robert Cortes Holliday, editor of the “Bookman” magazine, family friend, and Joyce Kilmer's literary executor.
“Memories of My Son, Sergeant Joyce Kilmer,” by Annie Kilmer (Brentano's Publishers, N.Y., 1920)
“Joyce Kilmer: Poems, Essays and Letters,” by R.C. Holliday (Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1918, 1940)