Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire “is not a biography.” Instead, Ms. Jamison clarifies, it’s a “psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell,” a prominent twentieth-century American poet who suffered from severe manic-depressive illness. His disease, and related behavior, often made for sensational headlines, meaning that Lowell was a poet occasionally “more written about than read.” Ms. Jamison does both well, coupling a sympathetic narrative of Lowell’s illness with astute readings of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
Ms. Jamison’s authority is no accident — she’s a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. But, unexpectedly, the way she writes so beautifully about Lowell and his poetry renders her clinical expertise almost irrelevant. Allowed access to Lowell’s medical records and personal papers, she writes movingly about his episodes of mania, when he was prone to, for example, “[proclaiming] that Hitler was a better writer than Melville.” These periods, frustratingly, were both detrimental to his health and personal relationships and fertile ground for writing, a dilemma Lowell struggled with his whole adult life, complaining that drugs like lithium made him “less vulnerable but stagnant.” With a mind like Lowell’s, biographical details would only get in the way.
Kay Redfield Jamison
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