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"I went to her apartment [on Manhattan's west side], the apartment that she shared with Lowell, where she still lives, and she said, 'I have this whole room full of Cal's [one of Lowell's nicknames was Cal] things.' She wanted to get them in order. She said, 'I don't want to die and have my daughter have to do it. I don't want to leave that burden with her.'

"So she hired me to catalog all these papers. In the early 1970s, Lowell sold his papers to Harvard. But a lot was kept back, intimate stuff, and that's what she had. There was correspondence through the course of their marriage and divorce. There were Elizabeth Bishop letters that had been kept back. Things like that."

Ms. Hamilton said, about Elizabeth Hardwick, the ex-Mrs. Lowell, "I was very mindful at the time of not intruding on her privacy. I was quite young, but even at that age I could imagine that it might not be pleasant to have somebody going through your private papers. I remember that during the time I did this that the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Souter were going on. Hardwick, of course, reads everything and follows political developments avidly. She would drift down occasionally and tell me some funny anecdote about what was going on in the hearings. She, Elizabeth Hardwick, was very, very witty and wonderful.

"For the most part, she left me alone in this room to go through this lifetime of correspondence. I tried not to read them because I thought, 'It would be nosy of me.' And I just wasn't comfortable doing it.

"But occasionally I would have to look at something, to get a sense of the context from which it was written, that kind of thing. There were sentences that I would catch that were haunting. There would be letters apologizing for something and writing that things were going to be better in the future. Or he would apologize for something he'd done when he was ill and write, 'Next year, I'll get over this.'

"I remember thinking that it's haunting to read letters for that reason. Because you're caught up in the moment where the letter writers themselves can't see the arc of their lives, but after they die, we do. We know the plot, but they don't. I hadn't studied letters before, and that was the first time that occurred to me."

Ms. Hamilton believed that it was 1989 when she first began sorting the Lowell letters in the apartment where he and Ms. Hardwick had lived. "And then," said Ms. Hamilton, "in 1995, Paul Mariani's biography of Lowell [Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell] was published. In the same year, Elizabeth Bishop's letters were published. Paul Mariani's biography takes snippets of letters in order to move his narrative forward. There were a few that he quoted that I remembered from this cataloging work that I had done. So I asked Lowell's literary executor, Frank Bidart, what had become of Lowell's letters and said that since Bishop's letters were now published, and there was interest in this generation, that if anyone did Lowell's letters, I would love to work as his or her assistant.

"Bidart said, 'Write me a letter about that, and I'll send it along to the publisher.' I did. I hadn't written to Elizabeth Hardwick because I didn't want to bother her. But I suddenly began to feel I was being very rude. That it would be weird for her to hear about this from the publisher without having heard from me.

"So I sent her a note saying that I would love to assist whoever might do a letters project. She phoned me right away and said that she had phoned Lowell's publisher and said that I should do the job."

"Did you jump up and down?"

"I couldn't believe it. I was pleased, yes. I felt it was quite a responsibility. I wasn't an academic, I wasn't a Lowell scholar. Who was I? But that's how it started."

"How did your work on the Lowell letters change your life?"

"In lots of ways. First of all, there was the immersion in somebody's life in that way, especially somebody like Lowell who was brilliant but also had a manic brilliance, which meant a kind of wildly allusive brilliance. You might say that I went to the Graduate School of Robert Lowell. It was an extraordinary education.

"I didn't pursue a doctorate, although I had considered it and sometimes wished I'd done it. I did the letters instead, an immersion in scholarship and the history of the period during which Lowell lived.

"He came of age and into his own as an artist right at the beginning of American Imperialism. So his relationship to himself as an American, should we say, is interesting and complicated. He knew not only everyone in the literary world, but he knew everyone beyond that world -- the Kennedys and so on and so forth.

"He changed me intellectually. I grew enormously from the experience. I learned also just the daily discipline. For a long time when I was working on this project I worked full-time, nine-to-five, in jobs that were quite demanding of my time. I also began to figure out why the academic calendar is organized the way it is. Because when you're trying to do sustained work, and it's constantly interrupted, it takes much, much longer because you're always trying to retrace yourself and then hop on the train again. I had decided that I would transcribe everything I could get a hold of before beginning to select. So I would get up very early in the morning and I would spend weekends transcribing the letters."

We talked then about how a book, once it's finished, takes on a life of its own. "And, of course," said Ms. Hamilton, "as a friend once said to me: 'It could go on forever. It's as long as a piece of string.' The other thing is that I know there are things I missed. There must be. There are always unconscious things slipping out.

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