Early last March, I read a piece in the New York Times Book Review section and decided to pick up a book I might not otherwise have paid much attention too.
It was Kay Refield Jamison’s “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.” It was not so much a biography as a “psychological account” of the great poet’s life, a life spend wrestling with the demons of manic depression.
Jamison brings a unique perspective to the work, not only as a professor of psychiatry and expert on mood disorders, but as someone who suffers from manic depression herself, and wrote about it in a best-selling memoir called “An Unquiet Mind”. (That is now on my list of reads for the summer.)
I didn’t know much about Lowell or his work, but Jamison brings both the man and the artist to life in a quite wonderful way. She makes clear early on that she believes he was ill-served by the author of a biography of Lowell who spent much time with him before his death, only to write a fairly scathing portrait of the man and the damage he did to those around him, without showing much sensitivity to the challenges Lowell faced in dealing with an illness that often led him to episodes of manic behavior that hurt those he cared about and left him feeling ashamed of himself.
More than just a chronological description of his life, this book provides context for his illness, exploring the history of treatments of manic depression and probing the links between manic episodes and creative expression. Jamison also delves into the issue of character—making a strong case that it was an incredible act of will for Lowell to continue to pick up the pieces of his life after a manic episode (and the inevitable depression that followed) and to get back to the fundamentals of living and working.
It is a fascinating book, with healthy doses of his poetry, interviews with family and friends who remained loyal to him through the years. It may not be typical summer beach reading, but it’s well worth the time.