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Sanitizing Robert Lowell

By: A.M. Juster
August 14, 2017

ur recent major poets should be grateful that they did not read their own biographies. Robert Frost’s official biographer, Lawrance Thompson, vengefully portrayed his subject as a monster. It took decades of scholarship by Paul Mariani, Jay Parini, William Pritchard and others to restore an appropriate balance to our understanding of the great poet. Philip Larkin seemed to have suspected that his official biography would be a train wreck. In his poem “Posterity” Larkin imagines his arrogant official biographer referring to him as “this bastard” and “this old fart.” His fear was well-founded: Andrew Motion’s savage 1993 biography severely damaged not just Larkin’s personal reputation, but his literary reputation as well. James Booth’s 2014 biography and other scholarship have helped correct Motion’s portrayal.

The documentation of Robert Lowell’s life has followed this pattern. Ian Hamilton’s 1982 biography approached Lowell without a sufficient understanding of the poet’s mental illness, so it is unsurprising that we now have a revisionist account by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. Her book’s subtitle, A Study of Genius, Mania and Character, flags her intention to restore the reputation of a man notorious for erratic and violent behavior, including attacks on women and his own father.

This conceptually flawed and poorly written book fails in its ambitions. From the beginning, Jamison attempts to free herself from customary standards for judging biographies: “This book is not a biography.” If not a biography, what is it? Jamison's introduction provides us with her alternative: “I have written a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell; it is as well a narrative of the illness that so affected him.”

As Jamison was defining her mission and detailing her credentials, she should have disclosed what a careful reader discovers near the end of the book: Jamison is hardly an objective observer of Lowell’s life because she married into the family. She also relies heavily on medical assessments (included as an appendix) written by her husband, “a cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.” Only in the acknowledgments section does the bias created by both of their family relationships become readily discernible.

This lack of timely clarity occurs elsewhere in the book. As is Jamison’s right as a clinician, she avoids the use of the term “bipolar” for the largely abandoned term “manic-depressive.” However, she does not reveal her idiosyncratic use of medical terminology until the text is well along, and discusses it in detail only in an appendix. Particularly for a book that purports to be a “psychological account,” instead of a traditional biography, her failure to be clear about her terms and perspective is irresponsible.

This lack of clarity and transparency is also a sign of larger problems. Jamison never resolves the tension between normalizing Lowell’s mental illness and portraying him in heroic terms. She consistently assumes Lowell's genius and courage are indisputable, to the extent that she never lays out facts that might support her claims.

Jamison’s occasional forays into literary analysis are brief and superficial. Seemingly aware of that shortcoming, she tries to bolster her advocacy of Lowell’s “genius” with highly selective second-hand quotations. That technique does not begin to rescue Lowell’s wildly uneven body of work.

She makes an even weaker case for Lowell’s courage. The only serious adversity in Lowell’s highly privileged life was his severe bipolar disease. To overcome that adversity Lowell had wealth and class advantages that guaranteed him the best and least restrictive medical care. Had he been named Robert Jones, Robert Connolly, or Robert Berkowitz, the odds are that he would have been warehoused for life in a hellish Massachusetts institution, like the one that Frederick Wiseman exposed in his famous 1967 documentary film, Titicut Follies.

According to Jamison, Lowell’s life consisted of “sane” periods interrupted by a series of awkward, and sometimes violent, episodes, all excused by his mental illness. Most readers will be sympathetic to her efforts to “normalize” bipolar disease, but will also be bewildered by her insistence that Lowell demonstrated character and courage. In fact, Jamison undercuts her own case by supplying overwhelming detail about periods of highly manic behavior and providing almost no detail about periods of less manic behavior.

Jamison sidesteps the two periods of Lowell’s life that one might expect would provide examples of character and courage. She discusses Lowell’s time as a conscientious objector in World War II only glancingly—and for good reason. Lowell had initially volunteered for military service but was rejected due to poor eyesight. In his poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” he appears to write off his conscientious objection (which included a grandiose letter to President Roosevelt) as a symptom of his mental illness:

                    I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
                    and made my manic statement,
                    telling off the state and president.

Jamison briefly and blithely comments on Lowell’s lines in this way: “If it was a manic statement, and certainly there were signs of early mania at the time, it was not past the bounds of reason.” She does not attempt to look at previously unavailable information to assess whether Lowell was indeed manic, relying instead upon her presumptions of character and genius to excuse Lowell's conduct. 

Jamison only briefly mentions Lowell’s famous protests against the Vietnam War and his support of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign, presumably because there was too much evidence of mania to use that activism to defend her claims of character. Indeed, with all her bloodless clinical terminology to excuse “violence associated with Lowell’s mental instability” she almost never uses words that would suggest the presence of courage or moral character, such as “duty,” “sacrifice,” “charity,” or “selflessness.”

By ignoring Lowell’s Vietnam War protests, Jamison avoids the scholarly controversies concerning those protests. For instance, in the September 1999 issue of the New England Quarterly, Lowell scholar Stephen Axelrod harshly criticized Lowell:

Lowell’s “pacifism” was never an abstract good in itself but always constructed in relation to political issues and events unfolding at the time. A further complicating factor is that his “pacifism” was doubled, in both his life and his texts, by a fascination with aggression and violence. And finally, one must calculate the inevitable multiplicity of the poet’s motives. Expressing his defiance of presidents in the most public forum he could find, he used his conscientious objection and his antiwar poems in the 1940’s to help establish his career as a poet, and he used his antiwar activities and poems in the 1960’s to make himself famous…. In surveying Lowell’s engagements with history, I see no unalloyed moral heroism but rather contingent political and textual acts.

Axelrod and other Lowell critics may be wrong, but it is impossible to understand how Jamison can justify brushing off their criticism.

Jamison also ignores or sanitizes other bad Lowell behavior. She includes only a cursory account of Lowell’s first marriage (to Jean Stafford), in which he disfigured her in an auto accident, re-broke her nose in a brutal assault, and tried to strangle her. Amid frenetic promiscuity, he assaulted and tried to strangle other women as well, events Jamison summarizes only briefly.

Jamison even makes the breathless, improbable claim that Lowell—during his abusive marriage to Stafford—“pursued a life of monastic purity and poverty, becoming in the process a ‘veritable messiah’ while working for a New York publishing firm.” Her “messiah” description distorts a sarcastic comment by Stafford: the wealthy poet never experienced poverty and never pursued “monastic purity,” except perhaps during fleeting periods of remorse for the wreckage he created. 

Jamison is particularly toxic toward Lowell’s second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, the only figure in the book who displays the character Jamison so desperately wants to attribute to Lowell. Hardwick entered into marriage with Lowell more knowingly than Stafford did. She loyally endured Lowell’s violence, infidelities, incoherence, and grandiose delusions with both grace and a solid understanding of the best demonstrated practices for her husband’s care. Bizarrely, this dedication earns the scorn of Jamison, who twice sniffily dismisses the label of “martyr,” with which more objective observers have described Hardwick.

Puzzlingly, Jamison is almost rapturous about Lowell’s beautiful, much younger third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, who abandoned Lowell whenever he was out of control (which was often). He was in the process of divorcing her and trying to reconcile with Hardwick when, at the age of 60, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

As River on Fire proceeds, Jamison’s manipulations mount. She whitewashes Lowell’s highly controversial incorporation of intimate letters from Hardwick into his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Dolphin.  With a patronizing tone, she dismisses Lowell’s nonconsensual appropriation “as not particularly egregious” and only of interest to “those most involved.” She also sanitizes Lowell’s absentee parenting. In short, her template is clear: every poem is a work of genius, every obnoxious act a result of mental illness, every return to the pleasures of poetry after institutionalization an act of great courage.

The book’s style is as problematic as its substance. The prose becomes fragmentary after the first 100 pages—incomplete sentences, redundancies, self-indulgent side trips that do not bear on Lowell’s life, and almost fugue-like disconnects from paragraph to paragraph. Even the capitalization is sloppy. Sometimes it is “the Navy” and sometimes “the navy.” More significantly, the book will confuse some readers when it refers to the “the new criticism” instead of “New Criticism.”

The wealth of new medical records included in this book provides little in the way of new insights. That information could have advanced our understanding of Lowell if Jamison had used it to pinpoint Lowell’s periods of comparative sanity and to document moments of character and courage, but she fails to do so. Instead, Jamison’s biography goes beyond normalizing mental illness to sanitize and glorify its subject. 

A.M. Juster is a critic and poet. For more information, click here.