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This review is taken from PN Review 268, Volume 49 Number 2, November - December 2022.

Cover of Memoirs
Tony RobertsRobert Lowell, Memoirs, eds. Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc (Faber) £40

Lowell’s missing line-ends

Robert Giroux, famed editor and Lowell’s friend, published a valuable selection, Robert Lowell: Collected Prose, which I have had at hand for more than thirty years. Now Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, veteran Lowell critics, have applied serious scholarship to papers housed in Harvard University’s Houghton Library and elsewhere, to offer a comprehensive compilation. The editors’ brief is to establish the case for his standing in prose – to ‘display another dimension of Lowell’s artistry’ – which was first evident from the extract ‘91 Revere Street’ in Life Studies (1959). To support that end, each section has also an introduction, a note on the texts and very many corrective footnotes.

The result is a meticulously edited volume, which greatly expands on Giroux’s book, centrally in bringing out Lowell’s substantial, incomplete autobiography begun during rehabilitation after a bipolar episode, which was the source of much of the highly influential Life Studies. In ‘My Autobiography’ we are treated to a version of the unlovable young Lowell, his hysterical, ‘Napoleonic’ mother and a father whose ‘soul went underground’. Lowell writes with brio and not without humour: the generous> deployment> of> the> Lowellian> triplets,> those surprising, surreal adjectives (‘Through a wide-open window and blowing organdy, drowsed the tepid, seedy, elephantine air of an April afternoon in Washington’) and clever thumbnail sketches: his talkative grandmother and her friend who ‘never sounded like poultry’, or the husband for whom ‘children were a hallucination’.

Being Lowell, everything reprises the nation’s history and his family’s role in it. The ...

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