Author Kay Redfield Jamison examines Lowell’s mental illness and its connection with creativity.
Robert Lowell, the most admired American poet of his era, was a man of extraordinary talent and drive who suffered from crippling manic depression. He’s the ideal subject for “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” (Knopf, 532 pp., $29.95), Kay Redfield Jamison’s superb examination of manic depression and its connection with creativity.
Lowell (1917-1977) led a life of incredible highs and terrifying lows. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice for his poetry collections, in 1947 for “Lord Weary’s Castle” and in 1974 for “The Dolphin.” The highs were interrupted by long, debilitating bouts of mental illness, often ending in hospitalization. In 1949, two years after winning his first Pulitzer, he told friends at the Yaddo writing colony that God was speaking through him. In Chicago, he held his friend Allen Tate out of a second-story window “while reciting Tate’s poem ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’ … Later, Lowell opened the window in his hotel room and shouted obscenities to the world beyond. It took four policemen to overpower and handcuff him,” Jamison writes.
Jamison herself was diagnosed with manic depression as a teenager (she prefers the term manic depression to the more current label, bipolar disorder), and has made its study her life’s work. She vividly describes the arc of Lowell’s multiple manic episodes — early bursts of inspired language, chaos as he spiraled out of control, depressions that drowned the creative spark, heroic efforts to keep working despite it all. Only when Lowell started taking lithium, still the preferred treatment for the disorder, did his ordeal begin to end.
Kay Redfield Jamison
The author of “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” will appear at 7 p.m. March 15 at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
Author of best-selling books on manic depression (“An Unquiet Mind,” Touched With Fire”) and suicide (“Night Falls Fast”), Jamison will appear at the Seattle Public Library on March 15. She answered some questions on how she came to write the book:
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Q: How did you decide on Lowell as a subject? Were you drawn to the story of his illness, or to his poetry, or both?
A: I was attracted to both his poetry and to him as a person of remarkable courage. When I was 17, I had had my first breakdown, and one of my English teachers gave me a couple of his books. I found them fantastic.
Q: He was an unusual man — highly creative, suffering from manic depression but with incredible ambition, a Puritan work ethic and an ability to endure suffering. Is that combination unique?
A: I think it’s very unusual for anybody. He started with an extraordinary mind. He had enormous discipline that allowed him to channel his energy, both pathological and normal. I think he took suffering and turned it into something that was powerful to other people as well as himself. He had a way of coming back to life after enduring a great deal of pain.
Q: You’ve studied manic depression and creativity and have found that both are heritable traits — you write that in both intelligence and creativity, “the genetic contributions are estimated to be at least 50 percent.”
A: In the Lowell family, there was a lot of creativity. The Lowells had poets and writers … and a lot of capability in business, mathematics, astronomy.
The research was both pleasure and privilege … you take one person and you see all these links to the history of psychiatry, the history of mania, seeing how people struggled with what to do in a humane away but were not able to curtail it.
Q: His family authorized you to review his medical records. What was their motivation? What did you decide to use, or not?
A: I spoke with his daughter at great length. I had not been planning to speak with her or ask for the medical records — I was not writing a biography, and I thought the Lowells had already been invaded quite a bit.
A person who knew her well and had done research into Lowell’s poetry suggested we get together. I think she trusted me to do everything I could to be straight about it. … I wasn’t in it for sensational findings, but for what he had to say about his illness, and what his doctors had to say about his treatment and his illness … how mania affected what he thought and how he expressed it.
I think most of his doctors liked him very much. Most people who knew him really loved him and admired him. They were frightened of him when he was manic, but (they knew him) as someone who had no control over it and was immensely remorseful.
Q: The women in Lowell’s life, especially his three wives (Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood), endured a lot. He had innumerable affairs, launching them on the “up” side of the manic-depressive cycle, ending them on the downward plunge into depression. How did that affect your view of him?
A: I suppose I put it in the context of his basic character, as a strong, admirable character who does things that are not admirable.
We’ve known since time began that having a lot of affairs can be part and parcel of mania. Violence likewise. These are things that are very difficult to reconcile with being civilized.
Elizabeth Hardwick was an enormously strong, intelligent woman. … People say she was a martyr, but she made it clear that she saw his illness and she loved him till his dying day. … To me what makes it such a human story is you have this great intellect and mind and imagination, with this huge flaw. It’s pure tragedy.
Q: I’m guessing that the story of Lowell’s illness and its impact on his family and friends will resonate with anyone with a loved one suffering from manic depression. What is the most problematic thing about treating it?
A: Getting people into treatment and getting them to stay on treatment. In psychiatric illnesses, particularly bipolar illness, it’s hard to get them to take the medication. Particularly younger people — if you tell someone that age (the age of onset for manic depression is often ages 17-18) that you have an illness that you can only control through medication, it’s pretty hard for people that age to believe that they’re not invulnerable. … adolescents are much more effective at getting other adolescents to stay in treatment than adults are.