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Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell

by Sarah Payne Stuart

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-017689-X
Publisher: HarperCollins

No literary tell-all, this chatty yet reflective history instead charts the Lowell family’s dissolution through money and mental illness. With considerable narrative deftness, novelist Stuart (Men in Trouble, 1998) motors through centuries of Lowells (James Russell was Robert Lowell’s great-granduncle, Amy a distant cousin) and related families, concentrating on some of Bobby’s (his family nickname) pivotal relations. There was his “cold and proper” mother, Charlotte Lowell; grandfather Arthur Winslow, whose approval he craved; and stern, rich Aunt Sarah, who loved yet then spurned Bobby. Sarah, the “sweet, silly” baby sister of Charlotte, centered the clan, revealing their occasional artistic blind spots (“Why doesn’t Bobby write about the sea?— she once asked. “It’s so pretty”) and holding the family together even when it didn’t want that. Depression-era real-estate investments and disinheritance in the 1960s lost the family money, and Stuart offers enough equivocation about it for cynics to call this the “I was related to Lowell and all I got was a lousy book contract” memoir. Not only did Great-uncle Cot (Sarah’s husband) bequeath fortune and effects to museums, but Stuart was also denied the official family “Sarah” painting by John Singleton Copley because she “didn’t have a proper wall to hang it on.” Stuart, who rebelled her way through the 1970s, knows the score: “we asked for such treatment, though we didn’t like it when we got it.” The family also lost money when financing psychiatric treatment for Bobby, for Stuart’s mother and brother, and others. Stuart describes the roller-coaster of manic-depression with precision and compassion; her quotations from Bobby’s works are particularly useful. Above all, she is matter-of-fact. Though her glib asides sometimes backfire and her analysis lacks distance, this is an idiosyncratic alternative view of a leading American literary family. (8 pages b&w photos, not seen)