ROBERT LOWELL, SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE

A STUDY OF GENIUS, MANIA, AND CHARACTER

A deeply informed investigation of a poet’s suffering and creative triumph.

A renowned psychologist connects bipolar disorder to creativity.

MacArthur Fellow Jamison (Psychiatry/Johns Hopkins Univ. School of Medicine; Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir, 2009, etc.) brings her professional expertise to an intimate, sensitive, and perceptive account of the illness from which poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) suffered most of his life: bipolar disorder, characterized by violent mood swings, an illness from which Jamison also suffers. Drawing on Lowell’s medical records, Jamison closely examines the course of his disease and the various treatments—psychotherapy, electroconvulsive shock treatments, drug therapy—offered to Lowell as medical knowledge evolved. Mania has a long cultural and scientific history, which the author recounts in fascinating detail. Her focus, though, is on Lowell, who was first hospitalized in 1949; subsequent episodes recurred throughout his life, often requiring monthslong hospital stays. Lithium allowed him longer stretches of stability, but Jamison believes it dampened his creativity. Unfortunately for the narrative—and surely for Lowell—the onslaught and course of illness repeat the same trajectory: “the mind leaps; speech rushes; words ribbon out fast, unbidden, cutting. Ideas and schemes proliferate, alliances shift.” Lowell suffered grandiose delusions, hallucinations, religious mania, and impetuous love affairs, much to the dismay of his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. Jamison offers chilling testimony of these episodes from Hardwick, Lowell’s friends, and his doctors, and she mines Lowell’s poetry and letters for his own responses. The author insists, as she has done in previous books, that mania corresponds to artistic brilliance and intellectual prowess; manic patients display “enhanced memory and originality”; biographical studies of individuals of “creative eminence” reveal a high rate of mental disorders; and students who perform exceptionally well in music and language “were four times more likely to be hospitalized later for bipolar disorder” than were average students. Similarly, records of 20 “socially important families” revealed that they were “saturated with manic-depressive psychosis.” Jamison argues persuasively that mania fueled Lowell’s poetry, but her celebration of psychosis seems to romanticize an affliction that she presents as devastating.

A deeply informed investigation of a poet’s suffering and creative triumph.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-307-70027-8

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

NIGHT

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS

FROM MEAN STREETS TO WALL STREET

Well-told and admonitory.

Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.

Well-told and admonitory.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-074486-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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