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Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire : A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
by Kay Redfield Jamison


Overview - In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison, brings an entirely fresh understanding to the work and life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose intense, complex, and personal verse left a lasting mark on the English language and changed the public discourse about private matters.  Read more...

 
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More About Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison
 
 
 
Overview
In this magisterial study of the relationship between illness and art, the best-selling author of An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison, brings an entirely fresh understanding to the work and life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), whose intense, complex, and personal verse left a lasting mark on the English language and changed the public discourse about private matters.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, Robert Lowell put his manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder) into the public domain, creating a language for madness that was new and arresting. As Dr. Jamison brings her expertise in mood disorders to bear on Lowell's story, she illuminates not only the relationships among mania, depression, and creativity but also the details of Lowell's treatment and how illness and treatment influenced the great work that he produced (and often became its subject). Lowell's New England roots, early breakdowns, marriages to three eminent writers, friendships with other poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, his many hospitalizations, his vivid presence as both a teacher and a maker of poems--Jamison gives us the poet's life through a lens that focuses our understanding of his intense discipline, courage, and commitment to his art. Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell's medical records, as well as to previously unpublished drafts and fragments of poems, and she is the first biographer to have spoken with his daughter, Harriet Lowell. With this new material and a psychologist's deep insight, Jamison delivers a bold, sympathetic account of a poet who was--both despite and because of mental illness--a passionate, original observer of the human condition.

 
Details
  • ISBN-13: 9780307700278
  • ISBN-10: 0307700275
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publish Date: February 2017
  • Page Count: 560
  • Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.6 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.94 pounds


Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Literary
Books > Psychology > Psychopathology - Bipolar Disorder
Books > Psychology > Creative Ability

 
Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-11-28
  • Reviewer: Staff

Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), a psychologist and honorary professor of English at St. Andrews University, is uniquely qualified to pursue the connections between creativity and maniain this case, through the brilliant example of American poet Robert Lowell (19171977). He was born into a prominent New England family from which he inherited both deep Puritan roots and a legacy of manic depression. Jamisons study is a narrative of his illness. She is not interested in biography per se, but does place Lowells mental health in the context of his life and show his illnesss influence on his poems. Jamison paints a sympathetic but brutally honest portrait of what manic depressive disorder can do to both sufferers and the people around themher depiction of Lowells second wife, critic and fiction author Elizabeth Hardwick, is especially compelling. She is able to draw on medical records from his various hospitalizations, released by Lowells family to Jamison, and bring her own medical expertise to bear. Some judicious editing would not go amissthis is a long read with some repetitionbut Jamison has constructed a novel and rewarding way to view Lowells life and output. (Feb.)

 
BookPage Reviews

Poetic highs and lows

Robert Lowell’s poetic imagination emerged from the extremes of New England’s weather, its frozen winters and fiery summers. Similarly, his temperament reflected the seasonal extremes of “passivity and wildness” in the depression and mania that afflicted him throughout his life. Scion of an old New England family with a history of mental illness, Lowell was able to transform his illness into art, becoming one of the 20th century’s most significant American poets. In her new book, Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, brings her medical and personal experience of bipolar disorder to bear on the entwining of Lowell’s poetry and psychology. 

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character is a compelling and intuitive account of his life and poetry against the backdrop of repeated hospitalizations for mania. Much of Lowell’s -poetry—including important poems like “For the Union Dead” and the collection Life Studies—emerged from a fertile “hypomanic” state, when an elevated mood and quickened mind helped the poems spill out onto the page. As Jamison discusses, many other artists have shared this combination of genius, creativity and illness. But Jamison, who received unprecedented access to Lowell’s medical records, doesn’t glamorize or trivialize the experience of mania or the havoc it caused Lowell’s family and friends.

The poet’s nearly annual hospitalizations were finally slowed late in the 1960s, after lithium was introduced as a treatment for bipolar disorder. The medication gave him a stability he’d never experienced before. But would the same medication have altered his poetry had it been available sooner?

Jamison has been studying the complex relationship between brain chemistry and creativity throughout her career; in Lowell, she has found her ideal subject.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

 
BAM Customer Reviews