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Berman, J. (2018). Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. Kay Redfield Jamison. New York: Knopf, 2017. 532 pp.. Am. Imago, 75(1):105-113.

(2018). American Imago, 75(1):105-113

Review Essays

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. Kay Redfield Jamison. New York: Knopf, 2017. 532 pp.

Review by:
Jeffrey Berman

Kay Redfield Jamison's magisterial Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire reveals two stories: the one she tells, about the most famous American postwar poet, who struggled with severe manic-depressive illness throughout his adult life, and the other she does not tell, about her own battle with the same mood disorder. The two stories, stitched seamlessly together, are both fascinating.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was the early major figure behind the Confessional poetry movement, later joined by two of his Boston University students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Lowell's Life Studies, one of the transformative poetry volumes of the twentieth century, won the 1960 National Book Award. Two other poetry volumes, Lord Weary's Castle and The Dolphin, earned Pulitzer Prizes in 1947 and 1974, respectively. Lowell served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, an appointment now called the U.S. Poet Laureate, from 1947-1948. He was one of the few poets to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in June 1967, where he was hailed as the “best American poet of his generation.”

Lowell was born into an illustrious Boston family that included on his paternal side the poets James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) and Amy Lowell (1874-1925), also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and on his maternal side the Calvinist fire-and-brimstone theologian Jonathan Edwards and the Puritan preacher and poet Anne Hutchinson. Serious mental instability affected both sides of Lowell's family. He suffered sixteen psychotic breaks, beginning in his early thirties, resulting in prolonged hospitalizations, many of which occurred at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where, according to Jamison's research, his great-great-grandmother (James Russell Lowell's mother) had also been institutionalized a century earlier.

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