The Letters of Robert Lowell
edited by Saskia Hamilton
Although he was honored from the start as the leading American poet of his generation, Robert Lowell lived what was, in important respects, a terrible life. From 1949 (his thirty-second year) until his death in 1977 he suffered nearly annual attacks of acute mania followed by bleak depression, requiring hospitalization and often physical restraint. The mania usually involved behaviors of a kind to embarrass and alienate those most dear to him, but he never lost their affection. His funeral was attended by six hundred, a measure of the attractive force of his personality on an expanding circle of admirers. The letters collected in this volume, well edited by Saskia Hamilton, are a sufficient explanation of that force.
This is only a selection of Lowell’s letters. I wish Hamilton had told us the relative volume-a rough percentage of the whole-that they present; she does, though, speculate in her introduction that a “multivolume” complete edition will eventually be published. It seems safe, then, to estimate the 711 letters in this volume are 30 percent or less of the total. So Lowell was startlingly prolific, yet he begins almost every note with an almost formulaic apology for being such a neglectful and tardy correspondent. I suspect (or do I hope?) that I am not the only letter writer who feels rebuked by this.
There are important gaps in this collection, as there would be in a larger one. Lowell’s...