Robert Lowell Memoirs: I II III
Edited and with a Preface by Steven Gould Axelrod & Grzegorz Kosc
Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 384 pgs; photos
Robert Lowell emerged as one of the most celebrated poets of the mid-20th century, as well as a sought-after academic, lecturer and socialite, but he was equally famous for his very public episodes of outrageous behavior ignited by cycles of depression that landed him at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic for what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disease.
So much has been written about Lowell’s life and work, and by Lowell himself, a through the glass darker self-portrait ‘My Autobiography’ written at a crucial time in his life. It is part of a new collection of Lowell’s previously unpublished prose edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc. The editors preface each of the book’s distinct sections and, when needed, bring context with concise footnotes.
A photo of Lowell as a young man graces of ‘Memoirs’ and you immediately want to know what is behind his steely gaze and you find out quite a bit, however fragmented. The first section ‘My Autobiography,’ Lowell wrote during his stay at Payne Whitney. in 1954 as part of his treatment therapy. Under the circumstances of his experiencing a breakdown,
Lowell writes not only a clear-eyed character studies of his parents, Robert, and Charlotte (nee Winslow). It is written from the perspective of the Lowell as a toddler to age 13. His writing is so dynamic that you are just swept along, never mind that he is describing astute emotions and thoughts experienced at that age.
His adversarial relationships and lineage inspired (however darkly) some his most lauded books of poetry, ‘Life Studies’ and it was well known that Lowell also believed that that his bouts of manic depression fueled his most dynamic poetry.
He viewed his father as a self-absorbed military officer and his mother, a steely Bostonian who resented the uprooting duties required of an officer’s wife.
Bobby was alienated from both of them for in different ways in vividly unsentimental terms, but reliving all of his resentments in his memoir, with droll, if sometimes merciless accuracy about his parents’ dysfunctional marriage. His mother bitterly resented being away from what Robert describes when Robert Sr. was commissioned to other cities. Charlotte wanted to live in what her son calls ‘Antebellum Boston’ and observes the customs of the gentry with snarky Jamesian precision. The most animated are his intimate remembrances of many of his noted Lowell and Winslow relatives.
However formulated Lowell’s prose writing stuns in its energy and objectivity. Stylistically it is as unforced, crafted, and vivid as anything he achieved in verse. A sense of raw discovery about his own nature, wry observation of the titled world around him, a astute observer of family demons that would haunt his poems that established his style and craft in such collections as ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ ‘Life Studies’
Lowell reports on his family’s dysfunction, and his own volcanic anger, with ugly episodes of acting out. He mocks a friend, for instance, after she urinated at her desk. In another incident he started punching boys on the playground and hurling manure at 3rd grade students during a playground recess.
Both rational and irrational behavior are chronicled by Lowell in the ‘Crisis and Aftermath’ chapters of the book, with such droll titles as ‘I had periodic wild manic explosions’ ‘ Seven years ago, I had an attack of pathological enthusiasm’ and ‘For Two Years I’ve Been Cooling Off’ and other short essays in which Lowell describes his experiences of breakdown, treatment, and incidents at Clinic.
Again, the verisimilitude of the prose and his dynamic style, just sweeps you along, but raises questions about and how much of the stories are spun for effect. It is total recall, or the feral expressions of a literary savant, or performative?
In one episode he describes what was going through his manic mind when he attacked a fellow patient listening to another patient play the piano in the day room at Payne Whitney. Annoyed by the pianist’s tight dress and the man’s yellow socks so much so that he pulls the man off the chair by is feet.
He recalls detouring his travels deliberately when he was informed his mother died in Italy after a series of strokes and he had to bring her body back to the US. And Even after his father’s death, Lowell’s bitterness is expressed on an unpublished ‘draft’ poems collected in his private archival documents.
The final section of the book- ‘My Life Among Writers’-he weighs in on his peers and his sharp assessments of their literary merits and deficits of heavyweights including T.S.Eliot, Anne Sexton, Silvia Plather William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, John Berryman, et al. The best among them is his portrait of social theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt who he obviously admired personally and for her work,
After Lowell’s dynamic and incisive writing in ‘My Autobiography’ and ‘Crisis and Aftermath’ the final chapters on writers and an appendix with ‘Fragments’ of Lowell’s private prose, everything from a single page essay on his parents bickering to his mother’s compulsiveness neatness, and notes on his grandfather’s funeral, but will be of interest to devoted Lowell readers as extra pieces of the puzzle.