Review: “Memoirs,” by Robert Lowell

Review: “Memoirs,” by Robert Lowell

Though Lowell could be both humorous and lighthearted in life, he rarely showed it in his work. But here, his portraits — of bibulous old salts, friends of his father from Navy days, a Christian Science society lady, his overbearing mother’s tart rejoinders — are deft and sprightly, adjectives we don’t usually associate with Lowell. At times they call to mind one of Congreve’s or Sheridan’s comedies of manners. Lowell exhibits an ear, in this instance for talk, nowhere to be found in his often clotted, leaden verse. Then there is his remorselessly withering portrayal of his weak and dithering father, a family embarrassment, it seemed. Lowell unaccountably takes real pleasure in humiliating the old man, who, if generally oblivious to his son and only child, seems not to have been especially unkind.

Were Lowell nearly as cruel in his rather anodyne and flattering portraits of his literary mentors, friends and epigones, the “Life Among Writers” section of “Memoirs” would be immeasurably more interesting. (By way of comparison, consider Hemingway’s brilliantly nasty portraits in “A Moveable Feast,” of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Wyndham Lewis, with the eyes “of an unsuccessful rapist.”) But Lowell was nothing if not politic in this regard, among others.

Apart from a chapter called “91 Revere Street,” which made its way into “Life Studies,” “My Autobiography” sat in Lowell’s desk drawer for decades, unpublished and unread until Giroux plucked two more of its chapters and combined them for an essay in “Collected Prose.” It deserves a wider audience. Taken as a whole, “My Autobiography” is nothing less than a treasure in the literary memoir genre. One might well wonder if it becomes, over time, the piece of writing Lowell is best remembered for.

It had an interesting genesis. While at Payne Whitney, Lowell was engaged in “talk therapy” sessions with his psychoanalyst. His own poetry had been blocked for some time, and in the process of relating the scenes and events of his childhood Lowell experienced a loosening up of feelings attached to memory. Upon leaving the clinic in 1954 after a protracted stay he immediately went to work on “My Autobiography,” going so far as to move with Elizabeth Hardwick, his wife at the time, to a house only a block away from 91 Revere Street so as to better stimulate these memories of childhood. His breakthrough book, and what many regard as his best, “Life Studies,” was published five years later to both praise and, in some quarters, dismay. American poetry would never be the same.

August Kleinzahler is the author of more than a dozen books of poems and a memoir, “Cutty, One Rock.”

MEMOIRS, by Robert Lowell | Edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc | 387 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $40

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