ROBERT LOWELL, SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE by Kay Redfield Jamison

ROBERT LOWELL, SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE

A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
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KIRKUS REVIEW

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. 28th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-307-70027-8
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2016




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