The Letters of Robert Lowell. Edited by Saskia Hamilton; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005; 852 pages; $40.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Over the course of his life, Robert Lowell impressed those who knew him by his "refusal to be boring on paper" (Christopher Benfey). One of the most influential poets of the 20th Century, Lowell was also a prolific letter writer who corresponded with many of the remarkable writers and thinkers of his day, including Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Hannah Arendt, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Edmund Wilson.
Wilson noted of Lowell's company, "What he says is probing and witty, sometimes perverse, with a desire to startle." These letters, conversations in writing, document the evolution of Lowell's work and illuminate another side of the intimate life that was the subject of so many of his poems: his deep friendships with other writers; the manic-depressive illness he struggled to endure and understand; his marriages to three prose writers; and his engagement with politics and the antiwar movement of the 1960s.
The Letters of Robert Lowell shows us, in many cases for the first time, the private thoughts and passions of a figure unrivaled for his influence on American letters.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Poetry: The publication of Robert Lowell's letters has the potential to help clarify the complex relations between his life and work.... In these letters -- more than 700 of them, written over 40 years -- Lowell's friendships and romances, manias and recoveries, which have been flattened by years of biographical speculation, suddenly stand out in high relief. Inevitably, a first reading must surrender to all the drama and color and revelation the book so generously, and fearlessly, offers.
From Publishers Weekly: Already excerpted in the New Yorker and elsewhere, these letters have been awaited at least since Ian Hamilton's monumental 1985 biography of Lowell (1917-1977). Brilliant, intimate, free, sculpted, various and wildly desirous of communication, the letters were worth the wait. The letters to Randall Jarrell and John Berryman have a peculiar professional intimacy. Those to his various wives, particularly Elizabeth Hardwick, have a raw pleading that often centers on the aftermath of episodes of mania or depression, but they never veer into bathos. The letters to Elizabeth Bishop form the core of the collection, and they are extraordinary, particularly the letters describing Maine, where both summered (though almost never at the same time): Lowell's eye for physical detail and feel for emotional valence seem directly wired into his prose. There are love letters to an Italian mistress and lovely, frank letters in friendship to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Lowell corresponded at one time or another with many major modernists (Eliot, Pound, Frost, Williams); watching Lowell simultaneously assert, defer, and posture without obsequiousness is fascinating. Over the course of this vast volume, Lowell's reading, moods, professional obligations, political engagements, family life, and final sense of isolation come through with often searing clarity. Even for those who don't care for Lowell's verse (or any verse), this is a major epistolary life.
From Booklist: Given his status as a major American poet, Robert Lowell's manic depression, friendships with prominent people, and influence on other poets, including Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, have been well documented. Now, with this monumental volume of his letters to friends, family, peers, teachers, and even political leaders, those facets of his life are further illuminated.... Lowell had his finger on the pulse of writing during his lifetime and was motivated to stay in the thick of literary movements. Mainly for readers intrigued or inspired by Lowell, this collection is an invaluable primary resource, supplement to Lowell biographies, and companion to his fascinating poetry.
ABOUT THE POET: Robert Lowell (1917-77) was the renowned and controversial author of many books of poetry, including Day by Day (FSG, 1977), Life Studies and For the Union Dead. FSG published his Collected Poems in 2003.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
Saskia Hamilton was born in Washington, D.C., in 1967. On the day that we talked, she from her office at Barnard College in Manhattan, where she teaches, Ms. Hamilton said that as a child, she read "voraciously. We -- my older brother and I -- were sort of ritually read to when we were younger, when we were learning to read. It was part of the social life. It was a way to gain access to privacy. It was both of those things in an interesting way."
The first book she recalled as really wowing her was Where the Wild Things Are. "It's still a wonderful book to read. I still love to read it. My grandmother read us The Secret Garden. And I loved Beatrix Potter.
"Someone said recently that a lot of children have an English childhood because the great children's books by and large are English. Everybody has some imaginative idea of what a Yorkshire moor looks like."
The first "adult" book that Ms. Hamilton recalls loving was not a book but poetry. "My Dutch grandmother and my American father both read a lot of poetry to me. They both read me Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot when I was 11 or 12. The first books that I remember buying with my own money were Faber paperbacks of The Waste Land and Other Poems and Selected Poems. I bought them both on the same day. Those were the first grownup books that totally mystified me. I was in love with the sound of the poems."
Ms. Hamilton attended Georgetown Day School in D.C. In the eighth grade she'd been bassist in a girl band. "It would have helped if I could play, but we were very bad. We were terrible. We were called 'The Outsiders.' " She went on to Kenyon College, where Lowell studied. For her M.A. in creative writing and English, Ms. Hamilton attended NYU.
I had wondered how someone born ten years before Lowell's death was chosen to edit Lowell's letters. Ms. Hamilton explained. "It's a funny little history or a strange little history, or, should we say, an unpredictable history. When I was in graduate school, someone said, 'Elizabeth Hardwick [Lowell's second wife] needs secretarial help.'