Book Review: Kay Redfield Jamison’s Superb Psycho-Biography of Robert Lowell

Kay Redfield Jamison, co-director of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins, stands as one of the most highly respected researchers, practitioners, and writers regarding manic depression. Herself a sufferer, she has authored several true classics in the field — among them Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide (1999), Exuberance: The Passion For Life (2004), and the acclaimed memoir An Unquiet Mind (1995). These are all in my personal library, in part because I find Jamison’s writing to be excellent, and in part because I myself am harassed by these same demons.

In her new book Robert Lowell: Setting the River On Fire — A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character (Knopf, 532 pp., $29.95) — Jamison brings both her superior scientific expertise and her outstanding literary skills to bear, producing a result that is uniquely insightful and certainly an invaluable contribution to both the literature of manic depression (a term Redfield favors over bipolar disorder) and the literature of Lowell scholarship.

None of us needs a brief on two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lowell’s over-arching importance in American Letters — and Jamison wisely opts not to waste our time with an extended discussion. Instead she focuses on the mind which underpinned both Lowell’s undisputed brilliance and his profoundly troubled life — in the end revealing a valiant man who walked through fires and forced himself to come out whole, or nearly whole, every time. Yes, this book, in the end, is a tale of survival and triumph, albeit one with many causalities and much collateral damage.

As a personality, Lowell was — like every un-medicated manic before or after him — utterly unpredictable. Those who knew him as a kind and thoughtful friend, a generous supporter of colleagues, a gracious comrade, a constant husband [Elizabeth Hardwick], and a peaceful spirit would all — each in his or her own time — find themselves startled by the poet’s sudden transformations into a greedy and self-conceited ogre, a scathing critic, a duplicitous “friend,” a flagrant womanizer, and a frighteningly-violent carouser.

On the heels of each episode, Lowell did stints at such institutions as the elegant McLean Hospital and the equally rarefied Payne Whitney Clinic. (Several of his ancestors also did time at McLean, and Jamison discusses ancestry as a thing which is “preordaining, corrupting, benevolent, benign, damning.”) Drugs, psychotherapy, and electroshock treatments proved only marginally successful. During his last ten years, beginning in 1967, Lowell was finally dosed with lithium, the only thing that really seemed to do him any good. Thus his final decade proved more peace-filled than those which had come before it.

Jamison quite rightly casts Lowell as a hero who struggled bravely following his succession of manic disasters to reconstitute his life, his relationships, and his art. (As Lowell told a friend: “I’ve been sixteen times on my knees . . . I’ve got up sixteen times. But if one day I don’t get up, I don’t mind.”)

Jamison also, of course, traces links between Lowell’s affliction and his genius. The same condition that pounced as a beast when least expected, also played a key role in the flights of creativity which enabled Lowell’s great depth of vision and undisputed craftsmanship with the written word.

Lowell himself, in 1975, told his London doctor: “I write my best poetry when I’m manic.” But Jamison is quick to remind us that mania, though often key, was not the lone element in Lowell’s genius: “When mania swept through Robert Lowell’s brain it did not enter unoccupied space. It came into dense territory, thick with learning, metaphor, and history . . . When Lowell was well, which was most of the time, his mind was fast, compound, legendary.”

Early on in her narrative, Jamison tells us: “This book is about fire in the blood and darkness; it is about mania and the precarious, deranging altitude to which mania ascends. It is about the poetic imagination and how mania and imagination come together to create great art. But it is as much and more about the vital role of discipline and character in making art from an inborn gift.”

Revealing a brilliant and brave man who variously — and through no fault of his own — found himself at peace and at war with his own mind, Jamison has created a masterpiece of analysis, and a fine tribute to a great artist.

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