This article appeared in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday October 12 2014
Go South, Young Man
Charlotte told Merrill Moore to get her son committed to an institution. Moore suggested that Lowell take a leave of absence from Harvard and study with Moore’s friend, the poet-professor Allen Tate who was then living in Nashville and teaching at Vanderbilt University.
It was agreed that Lowell travel south with Moore in spring 1937. On arrival, Lowell asked Tate if he could live with him and his wife, novelist Caroline Gordon,
and Tate joked that if he wanted to, Lowell could pitch a tent on Tate’s lawn; then Lowell bought a tent, set it up on Tate’s lawn, and lived in for two months. Lowell called the act “a terrible piece of youthful callousness”.
After spending time with the Tates in Nashville (and attending some classes taught by John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt), Lowell decided to leave Harvard. When Tate and John Crowe Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell went with them and majored in Classics. He shared accommodation with other ambitious young writers: Peter Taylor, Robie Macauley and Randall Jarrell. Lowell graduated summa cum laude in 1940.
Lowell had converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. This was partly in rebellion against his parents, partly under the influence of the work of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and French philosopher Étienne Gilson. Part of the reason for his conversion was his dark moods and what his first wife Jean Stafford (Anne Dick had faded out of the picture) called “fire-breathing righteousness.” Lowell left graduate school in September 1941 to work briefly at the New York Catholic publishing house of Sheed and Ward. By the end of the forties, he would leave the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, his particular brand of Catholicism shaped the character of his first two published books of poetry, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).
Lowell’s first wife, Jean Stafford, blamed Catholicism for the failure of their marriage. Her own Catholicism was “light-hearted…though she had serious moments about it.” Some of her closest friends remained unaware of her conversion. For Lowell it became a round-the clock obsession.
Stafford was twenty-two when she met Robert Lowell. Her father was a writer of pulp westerns whose pen names were Ben Delight and Jack Wonder. He was also a religious fanatic. Jean was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado, Boulder and won a one-year fellowship to study philology at the University of Heidelberg from 1936 to 1937. She first met Lowell at a writers’ conference in Boulder and later stopped by at Kenyon to visit him. When he made his first proposal of marriage to her, she told him yes, if he bought her another drink. Obsessed, he followed her east. “He wants you more than anything else in his life,” a mutual friend informed her. “It makes me sick because he is an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet.”
In Boston, a drunken Lowell crashed his father’s car into a wall. Jean’s skull was badly fractured and her nose broken. Lowell tried to make his escape. They fined him $75 and took his licence. Lowell broke Jean’s nose again with a punch. She described her trauma in one of her best-known stories, “The Interior Castle,” and the disfigurement she suffered as a result was a turning point in her life. Nevertheless, on April 2nd of 1940, Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford were married at St. Mark’s in New York.
From the beginning, there was little marital bliss. Jean’s intellect intimidated most of Lowell’s friends. She was the only person they knew who had read Proust and could quote it. Lowell’s parents, especially Charlotte, disapproved, but then, Charlotte disapproved of all of Bobby’s women. Before he was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Lowell had set Jean up with an apartment and she received his trust fund allowance of $100 a month. She found this hard to live on and told Charlotte so. Predictably, Charlotte was not sympathetic: “I hope, Jean, for your own sake, as well as for Bobby’s that you will see in the present situation an opportunity for courage, selfdevelopment, and integrity of purpose”.
One wonders what Charlotte thought when Jean’s first novel, Boston Adventure, was a huge critical and commercial success. The novel sold thousands of copies in its first printing, and the Overseas Book-of the-Month programme purchased and shipped thousands more to military personnel in Western Europe. The book made her enough money to buy outright a house called Damarascotta Mills in Maine. In October of 1945, Stafford wrote, “a house is really the only solution for anyone. And certainly for me, who desires to immobilize myself like an eternal vegetable.”
They entertained many guests at Damarascotta including Gertrude Buckman, ex-wife of Delmore Schwartz. Lowell and Buckman had an affair and talked of marriage. Stafford wrote about this in her short story “An Influx of Poets” in which Minnie Zumwalt is charming her way along the coast of Maine after her divorce from poet Jered Zumwalt. Buckman later recalled that at this time, Jean was drinking herself into stupor.
Lowell and Stafford’s marriage ended in 1948 although they continued to correspond for many years. The following year he married the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick.
Stafford wrote two more novels but her real forte was the short story: her works were published in The New Yorker and many literary magazines. In 1950, she married Life magazine staff writer Oliver Jensen but they divorced after three years. She had a brief period of domestic happiness with her third husband, New Yorker regular AJ Liebling, but he died in 1963. After his death, she stopped writing fiction. For many years, Stafford suffered from alcoholism, depression, and pulmonary disease. By age sixty-three, she had almost stopped eating and died of cardiac arrest in 1979.
At LSU Lowell taught introductory courses in English for one year before the US entered World War II. While at St Mark’s, Lowell had written in the school magazine: “…not only the good that [wars] bring outweighs the evil, but also that they are essential for the preservation of life in its highest form”.
Lowell had volunteered for military service but was rejected. However, when he was called up in 1943, he refused to serve. He based his refusal partly on a newfound but principled pacifism, partly on political opposition to President Franklin D Roosevelt’s demand for Germany’s unconditional surrender. His conversion had strengthened his aversion to communism. He raised this point in a letter to Roosevelt and also condemned the Allied bombing of civilian populations.”Three weeks ago we read of the razing of Hamburg, where 200,000 non-combatants are reported dead, after an almost apocalyptic series of all-out air raids. This, in a world still nominally Christian, is news”.
He wrote to the President about “the betrayal of my country”. A major factor was the alliance with Stalin. He continued:”In 1941 we undertook a patriotic war to preserve our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor against the lawless aggressions of a totalitarian league: in 1943 we are collaborating with the most unscrupulous and powerful of totalitarian dictators to destroy law, freedom, democracy, and above all, our continued national sovereignty”.
As a conscientious objector, Lowell served five months in West Street Jail in New York City and in federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut, an experience he later described in poems such as “In the Cage” and “Memories of West Street and Lepke.”
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
A Jehovah’s Witness
… pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
Next week, Lowell’s first published book.