Diagnosing the Lowells

In her latest book, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison uses Robert Lowell’s medical records to explore the connection between his bipolar disease and his fecundity as a poet. Based on his records and his own observations, as well as the experiences of those with whom he was intimate, there is no doubt that Robert Lowell suffered from mental illness.

Robert Lowell

However, Jamison goes beyond diagnosing Robert Lowell. In an introductory chapter titled “Origins” she lays claim to there being in the Lowell bloodline “a link between volatile moods and the determination and ability to write…” She goes on to cite the mental illness of Robert’s great-great-grandmother Harriet Brackett Spence Lowell (“she died insane in Boston”); of his great-great-aunt Rebecca (she had inherited her mother’s “deranged mind and dark moods”), and of his great-great-uncle James Russell Lowell (she quotes from one of his letters, “The drop of black blood I inherited … is apt to spread itself over the pupil of my eye and darken everything”). Jamison even goes further back, finding in the letters of Robert Lowell’s ancestors related to his great-great-grandmother indications of “depression and mental instability.” She finds among Robert Lowell’s cousins evidence of instability as well, citing the nervous breakdowns of Percival Lowell, the astronomer who determined the location of the ninth planet and for whom Pluto would be named.

Since publication of her book, numerous reviewers and many readers of the book (who have written to me, as a biographer of the Lowell family) have tcome to accept Jamison’s diagnosis of the “madness” of the Lowell family to be fact. But is it?

As difficult as it is to diagnose a living, breathing patient, there is something rather bold about tracing mental illness through the letters and diaries of those long dead (and long, long, long dead) , and even more so to find evidence of mental illness through the observations of others (one of the sources Jamison cites for Rebecca Lowell being “mad” was that Fanny Longfellow said so in a letter to a friend in 1866). Haven’t women been called “mad” for centuries merely for stating their own opinion? It is true that Rebecca Lowell, called Little Bec by her family, was strange. She never married, preferred to be on her own, and eschewed speaking for months at a time. But could not we as easily draw the conclusion that instead of being crazy, she was justifiably angry at a world that refused to value a spinster daughter as anything more than a burden at worst and household help at best?

James Russell Lowell did report feelings of despondency at different times in his life. But if we look at those specific times, we see that his unhappiness was well-founded; his despair was a natural response to such events as the deaths of two daughters, one son, and of his first, and beloved, wife.

James Russell Lowell

The one documented (by him) time when he held a pistol to his head and considered firing it occurred during his teen years after a young woman he’d had a crush on became engaged to someone else. It should be noted that after holding the pistol for a moment or two, Lowell put the gun away and went down to dinner, his appetite for food and life restored.

Percival Lowell did indeed suffer physical and mental breakdowns (or perhaps better called, exhaustion) brought on by periods of intense physical and mental labor, such as setting up the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona while at the same time finishing his last book on his travels to Korea and Japan, while also beginning his first book on Mars, and at the same time settling the estate of his mother who died after battling illness most of her adult life.

If such incidents of despair over thwarted or lost love (James Russell Lowell) or exhaustion after physical and mental distress (Percival Lowell) were an indication of mental illness, we would all be candidates for medication at different points in our life. And most of us are. But does that mean we carry mental illness in our bloodline? And did the Lowells?

There was a Lowell family practice of providing for the disposal of all personal letters after death; the method of choice was a bonfire in the backyard. Fortunately for us biographers, only the letters within the possession of the deceased Lowell at time of death could be subjected to such scorching.

But given the manner in which the personal and private display of feelings can be expressed through letters, and then later manipulated by readers for whom such letters were not intended, I understand why the Lowells might have wanted to destroy their personal papers. In an effort to control the image of the family left for posterity, they sought to control entrance into their personal thoughts, tragedies, losses, and sorrows — as well as joys.

It is the role of historians to go beneath the presented image of historical figures in an effort to find the truth. Proposing an interpretation of what that truth might be is well within the purview of what biographers and historians do. But let’s not take that interpretation as fact, especially in the case of diagnosing an entire bloodline down through generations.

The Lowells were creative, ambitious, hard-working: in my biography of the family over 300 years, I find plenty of evidence of these qualities. But did they also exhibit a long history of mental illness? The hundreds of accumulated letters, journals, observations, and recorded experiences that I read through in five years of research don’t support the diagnosis — no matter what Fanny Longfellow had to say about it.