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The Art and Illness of Robert Lowell

April 18, 2017 by Nantucket Book Festival

“...The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,

Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush

At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush

Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones

Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast

Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East.”

-Robert Lowell, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket

Is there a link between mania and artistic creativity? In Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Kay Redfield Jamison seeks to explore this connection while uncovering a fuller picture of the great poet.

There is much to say about Lowell’s life, his struggle with manic depressive disorder, and how it affected his art and his interpersonal relationships. Jamison’s biography is not a traditional look at the arc of her subject’s life, but rather a deep dive into his medical history, his writing, and his relationships in an attempt to understand how a man could not only survive, but thrive an as artist, in in the midst of madness.

Between the publications of Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Lowell was hospitalized a dozen times. Lowell’s daughter granted Jamison, an expert in the field of manic depression and other mood disorders, access to his medical records, which allows for a unique look at his emotional landscape. To Lowell, history and ancestry were of the utmost important to understanding his place in the world, and so it is fitting that Jamison explores both Lowell’s family history of mental illness as well as the linkages between mental illness and artistry throughout the writing community.

Reading of some of the horrors Lowell and his family and friends endured at the hands of his manic episodes, one is certainly left wondering what could have been done for the poet today. Jamison writes of Lowell’s improvement with the introduction of lithium, a drug useful in treating both mania and depression. Lowell was forthcoming about his episodes, and many creative people have since been “out” with regards to their struggles with mental illness--James Taylor was also hospitalized at McLean, and recently Bruce Springsteen wrote of his struggles with depression in his best-selling autobiography.

Yet despite the advances in treatment, understanding, and openness since Lowell’s day, there is still much work that remains, especially when it comes to battling stigmas that surround topics of mental illness. I hope that books like Setting the River on Fire encourage people to talk more openly about mental illness and other struggles we all endure in the day to day business of being human.

If you would like to join the conversation, please catch Kay Redfield Jamison at the Nantucket Book Festival, in conversation with Mindy Todd from WCAI on Friday, June 16th and with author Megan Marshall on Saturday, June 17th.

- Mary Bergman