In Robert Lowell’s “Memoirs,” Mental Illness, Creative Friends, and Dad’s Teardown


He remembers the high-ceilinged houses, the Dresden porcelain chandeliers and the armors in the corners; men in squeaky shirts; Sunday roasts; Harvard-Yale football games; the agitation of the supernumeraries. American literature has been there, and has done it, but Lowell refreshes the eye.

Lowell revered his mother’s father, a handsome, husky, self-taught, “moose-shouldered” man, a half-mothballed warship, because “he was everything I could want to be: the bad boy, the problem child, the commodore of his house. »

His own father, on the other hand, was a perpetual disappointment. “Memoirs” contains one of the most systematic dismantlings of a father in American literature. Lowell’s father was a mumbler; he looked badly dressed; he was bald; he couldn’t properly carve a roast; he looked like, when he gained weight, “a juicy earth beaver.”

He lacked that WASP knowledge; his son recoiled from the books he read, with titles like “How to Play Tennis” and “How to Sail.” The anarchic instincts of the family slumbered within him.

Lowell quotes an aunt who said of him, “Bob doesn’t have a mean bone, a quirky bone, a funny bone in his body!” She wanted to lobotomize him and “stuff his brain with red peppers”. Lowell writes: “In his forties, Father’s soul went into hiding. He adds, in a particularly blunt sentence: “He was post-Edwardian, post-Teddy Roosevelt, post-riding, post-panache, post-personality and post-World War I.”

Those who are engaged take note: Lowell is convinced that his parents’ choice of honeymoon location, the Grand Canyon, doomed the marriage from the start. “The choice was so heroic and unoriginal that it forever left them with a gaping sense of emptiness,” he wrote. He adds:

I never thought our lives were determined by the stars, and yet, at idle moments, I could imagine myself branded with the mark of the Grand Canyon, as if it were a sticker on an automobile.

The editors of this book, Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, silently and skillfully correct Lowell’s many small errors of fact in their footnotes and indicate where he seems to have invented characters. There’s a whole other book going on there in the footnotes.

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