Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character

Kay Redfield Jamison. Knopf, $29.95 (544p) ISBN 978-0-307-70027-8
Jamison (An Unquiet Mind), a psychologist and honorary professor of English at St. Andrew’s University, is uniquely qualified to pursue the connections between creativity and mania—in this case, through the brilliant example of American poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977). He was born into a prominent New England family from which he inherited both deep Puritan roots and a legacy of manic depression. Jamison’s study is a “narrative” of his illness. She is not interested in biography per se, but does place Lowell’s mental health in the context of his life and show his illness’s influence on his poems. Jamison paints a sympathetic but brutally honest portrait of what manic depressive disorder can do to both sufferers and the people around them—her depiction of Lowell’s second wife, critic and fiction author Elizabeth Hardwick, is especially compelling. She is able to draw on medical records from his various hospitalizations, released by Lowell’s family to Jamison, and bring her own medical expertise to bear. Some judicious editing would not go amiss—this is a long read with some repetition—but Jamison has constructed a novel and rewarding way to view Lowell’s life and output. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 11/28/2016
Release date: 02/28/2017
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 560 pages - 978-0-307-74461-6
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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