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Lowell, Robert Traill Spence, IV ("Cal")

LOWELL, Robert Traill Spence, IV ("Cal")

(b. 1 March 1917 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 12 September 1977 in New York City), poet, playwright, and teacher known for his complex, confessional style, whose widely publicized protests against the Vietnam War and campaign for the peace candidate Eugene McCarthy propelled him into the political turmoil of the 1960s.

Lowell was the only child of Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, a U.S. naval officer and executive at Lever Brothers, and Charlotte Winslow Lowell, a Boston socialite; both parents were descendents of distinguished New England families. Lowell attended Saint Mark's preparatory school, where his slovenly appearance and bullying earned him his lifelong sobriquet "Cal," short for both the beastly Caliban of Shakespeare's The Tempest and the Roman despot Caligula. Lowell entered Harvard in 1935 but after two years transferred to Kenyon College in Ohio. He married writer Jean Stafford on 2 April 1940 before graduating in June. His first book, Land of Unlikeness, was published in 1944; his second, Lord Weary's Castle (1946), won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. In June 1948 he divorced Stafford and on 28 July 1949 married the writer Elizabeth Hard-wick, with whom he had a daughter. During this time Lowell began suffering from a series of mental breakdowns due to bipolar disorder, which would plague him the rest of his life.

Life Studies (1959) was a landmark in Lowell's poetic development. Unlike his earlier poetry, which was highly stylized and remote, Life Studies is looser in structure and more personal in tone, drawing on the poet's own life experiences—childhood memories, marital woes, and mental breakdowns. Such poems as the justly famous "Skunk Hour" evoke an almost unbearable existential anguish. Described as a "heartbreaking statement of the human condition" by friend and poet William Carlos Williams, it initiated the "confessional" school of poetry and won the National Book Award in 1960.

In September of that year the Lowells moved from Boston, where Lowell had been teaching at Boston University, to New York City. They settled into an apartment at 15 West Sixty-seventh Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where they lived for the next ten years. Unfortunately, Lowell's illness resurfaced, and he became wildly infatuated with Sandra Hochman, a young poet. Drinking heavily and threatening to leave his wife, he was admitted to the Neurological Institute at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Upon his release Lowell completed work on Imitations (1961), a collection of loose translations of works by various poets that won the Bollingen Prize in poetry for translation in 1962. During this time Lowell was also working on his drama, The Old Glory (1965), a trilogy of plays—"Benito Cereno," "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and "Endecott and the Red Cross"—based on short stories by Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

During the early 1960s Lowell became increasingly involved in politics. A staunch liberal who had been dismayed by the "tranquilized" era under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was buoyed by the election of John F. Kennedy and attended his inauguration in 1960. On 11 May 1962 he, along with other artists and intellectuals whose favor the administration courted, attended a glamorous White House dinner in honor of André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, and Lowell was suitably impressed. Still, the Bay of Pigs fiasco of the previous spring—in which U.S.–backed Cuban exiles attempted to invade the island—and the intensifying cold war troubled Lowell. In February 1963 he assumed a teaching position at Harvard to which he commuted from New York two days a week. He also assisted his wife in the founding of the New York Review of Books, intended to fill the gap left by the loss of the New York Times Book Review during a prolonged newspaper strike. The trauma of Kennedy's assassination in November, however, resulted in another breakdown, and Lowell was admitted to the Institute for Living, a psychiatric hospital in Hartford, Connecticut.

For the Union Dead was published in the fall of 1964. The title poem is Lowell's scathing indictment of contemporary decline, nuclear peril, and racial injustice in America. The volume was widely praised, and the critics now heralded Lowell as the American poet. In addition, The Old Glory premiered on 1 November at the American Place Theater in Manhattan to favorable reviews. It won five Obie Awards for the 1964–1965 season, including one for best off–Broadway play. Such heady success, however, pushed Lowell over the edge yet again. In January 1965 he began a relationship with a Latvian dancer, Vija Vetra, precipitating another stay at the Institute for Living.

In June 1965 Lowell made headlines by declining President Lyndon B. Johnson's invitation to a White House Festival of the Arts, a ploy designed by the administration to quell the protests that had erupted on campuses across the country as the war in Vietnam escalated. Lowell had initially accepted but then reneged. Instead he wrote an open letter to Johnson excoriating his foreign policy and expressing his fears that America was in danger of "becoming an explosive and suddenly chauvinistic nation, and may even be drifting on our way to the last nuclear ruin." Lowell's letter ran on the front page of the New York Times on 3 June 1965. The next day twenty other artists and writers joined his rebuff, leaving the festival in shambles.

An awkwardly handsome man, Lowell now emerged as an important public figure whose voice was one to be listened to in political debate. He stood six feet tall with thick black hair graying at the temples and quizzical blue eyes behind black, horn-rimmed glasses. The poems he composed that summer and that later appeared in Near the Ocean (1967) reflect his many political concerns. "Waking Early Sunday Morning," a key political poem of the 1960s, laments the endless cycles of violence perpetuated by corrupt governments, while "Central Park" portrays a nation torn by "fear and poverty," racial unrest, and police brutality. Lowell was also working on a translation of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, in which a vindictive Zeus unleashing thunderbolts on hapless mortals seems chillingly reminiscent of Johnson dropping bombs on Vietnam. In the spring of 1967 the Yale Drama School received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a production of Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus (1969), with $10,000 going to Lowell. Enraged that a government agency had granted money to the poet who had publicly humiliated him, Johnson tried, but failed, to revoke the grant. The play premiered to mixed reviews on 9 May 1967. Lowell spent the rest of the year campaigning vigorously against the war. On 20 October he traveled to Washington, D.C., along with the author Norman Mailer and others to take part in a protest against the government's "immoral authority." Lowell, who had been jailed as a conscientious objector during World War II, spoke eloquently in defense of the assembled draft-resisters and their sympathizers from the steps of the Department of Justice and later marched on the Pentagon.

Lowell returned to New York and resumed work on a series of blank verse sonnets he had begun in June 1967, which would be published as Notebook 1967–68 (1969). Lowell produced the sonnets at a remarkable rate: by Christmas 1967 he had written more than seventy and over the course of the next year produced an average of four per week. Inspired by the example of John Berryman's Dream Songs, everything became grist for Lowell's poetic mill—headlines, historical figures, sex, memories, conversational fragments, politics, banalities—as he strove to create a sprawling epic of his own consciousness and times. Lowell later revised and republished the volume as Notebook (1970) and still later revised, reorganized, and expanded it into three volumes: History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and the 1974 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Dolphin— all published in 1973.

In the fall of 1967 Lowell began campaigning for Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had challenged Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination. Running on an antiwar platform, underdog McCarthy captured an astonishing 42 percent of the vote to Johnson's 49 percent in the New Hampshire primary, prompting Senator Robert F. Kennedy to enter the race. Although Lowell was intrigued by the Kennedy mystique, he remained loyal to McCarthy. After McCarthy's loss to Kennedy in the pivotal California primary and Kennedy's assassination on 5 June 1968, however, Lowell lost interest, although he continued campaigning for McCarthy up through the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August, in which police and protesters battled in the streets.

Disillusioned with America, Lowell accepted a teaching position at the University of Essex in England beginning in October 1970. There he became romantically involved with the writer Lady Caroline Blackwood. They had a son on 28 September 1971, and in October 1972 the couple flew to Santo Domingo, where Lowell secured a divorce from Hardwick and married Blackwell. In his final years Lowell suffered increasingly from failing health and severe bouts of depression, and as his marriage to Blackwood grew strained, he drifted back toward Hardwick. He died of congestive heart failure at age sixty in a taxi on his way to visit her in Manhattan. He is buried in Stark Cemetery in Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

Lowell was arguably the greatest American poet of his generation and a unique chronicler of the American scene during the turbulent 1960s. The poet Richard Tillinghast has observed, "Lowell straddled the poetry scene of his day like a colossus," and other critics have spoken of the era as the "Age of Lowell." The personal or "confessional" style of Life Studies set the tone for a generation of younger poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Although the polemics of Lowell's plays now seem dated, his "public" poetry of the mid-1960s remains an artful and compelling commentary on the political, social, and ideological upheavals of the decade. As important as Lowell's literary achievement is his example of the poet as public spokesman and political activist. Through his highly visible protests, Lowell braved the glare of public scrutiny for the sake of his moral convictions and inexorably altered the poetry and politics of America.

The Houghton Library at Harvard University, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library are major repositories of Lowell papers. In-depth biographies are Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982), the first and best account of Lowell's turbulent career, and Paul Mariani'smore sympathetic Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994). Richard Tillinghast, Robert Lowell's Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (1995), is an informative critical memoir. Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968), features an informative portrait of Lowell during the protests of the 1960s. Richard J. Fein, Robert Lowell (1970), is a handy introduction that contains some biographical material. Jeffrey Meyers, ed., Robert Lowell, Interviews and Memoirs (1988), is a useful resource on the poet's life and times. Voices and Visions: Robert Lowell, A Mania for Phrases (1988), a fifty-six-minute documentary film, contains readings by and interviews with the poet interspersed with illustrative footage. An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Sept. 1977).

Michael McLean

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