I once made a pilgrimage to 239 Marlborough St. in Boston, where Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick lived for several years.
The home, now part of a Catholic school, was blocks away from where Lowell spent his childhood and adolscence.
As Lowell says in a recently discovered 160-page autobiographical essay written when he was a patient at a New York City mental hospital after one of his first bipolar attacks, he like Henry Adams was born under the shadow of the Massachusetts state house.
The essay about his Boston childhood has been published in a new collection of Lowell's prose, titled "Memoirs." A descendant of old Boston families in decline by his generation, Lowell writes with acute historical awareness.
His obsessive, hyper-observant study of his parents' fraught marriage and his warm memories of his maternal grandfather, who had made a fortune as a mining engineer, revisit the same milieu as the prose memoir "91 Revere St." and autobiographical poems in his collection "Life Studies."
"Memoirs" concludes with Lowell's recollections and appreciations of contemporaries Randall Jarrell, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Ford Madox Ford, John Berryman, Hannah Arendt, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Glaringly absent is any mention of his close friend and now more acclaimed poet, Elizabeth Bishop.
In an entertaining piece, Lowell recounts the familiar story of his sojourn at the home of Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon in Clarksville, Tenn. Tate told the hulking young Lowell when he unexpectedly showed up that the only way he could stay would be if he put up a tent. Taking Tate literally, Lowell bought a pup tent at a local Sears & Roebuck store, and lived in it on Tate's front lawn. Later, Ford arrived at the nutty household.
Lowell's views on his contemporaries' poetry show an original critical intelligence. He might have achieved the renown Jarrell and T.S. Eliot gained as critics had he devoted more attention to analyzing other's work.
A standout is his warm appreciation of Jarrell following the critic, poet and novelist's death, possibly by suicide. Jarrell's personality comes alive in Lowell's portrait.
Lowell balances his praise of his contemporaries' work with acid-tinged assessments of their weaknesses. He''s particularly wounding in his criticism of Berryman, Sexton and Plath.
The section gives a group portrait of a generation whose poetic brilliance was tinged with mental illness, alcoholism and suicide.
Lowell's poetic reputation has declined in recent years, and he's been pilloried for his disgraceful treatment of his wives Jean Stafford, Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood. While Lowell was too often monstrous, he possessed a generosity and a gift for friendship.
While "Memoirs" covers familiar ground, Lowell's voice is fresh and vital. But new readers seeking to enter Lowell's world should turn to the poems.