April, 2017

The great Margaret Atwood, Vladimir Lenin, and other venerables

by Laurie Hertzel | Apr-24-2017

Associated Press photo.

A glorious spring day. The magnolias are blooming (they smell like bubblegum!), the forsythia is glowing golden and my tulips have not yet been eaten by rabbits. Here are the latest reviews and other good news from the hardworking members of the NBCC:

Former NBCC board member and Tampa Bay Times books editor Colette Bancroft reviews Sarah Gerard’s “Sunshine State” for the Tampa Bay Times, and also interviews Margaret Atwood, novelist, poet, essayist and winner of this year's NBCC Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

Board member Kerri Arsenault's essay, "Vacationland," was published in "Freeman's: Home," and also at Lithub. Her review of Sara Baume’s novel "A Line Made by Walking" appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And her interview with Fizcarraldo Editions editor, Jacques Testard, was published on Lithub.

Board member Lori Feathers, a judge for the Best Translated Book Award, writes about why Stefan Hertmans’s "War & Turpentine" should take the prize.

Board member and Minneapolis Star Tribune senior editor for books Laurie Hertzel profiles debut author Lesley Nneka Arimah for the Strib, and also reviews Drew Philp's book "A $500 House in Detroit.

Frank Freeman reviews Eleanor Brackbill’s "The Queen of Heartbreak Trail" in the Portland Press Herald.

Julia M. Klein reviews Anders Rydell's "The Book Thieves" and Norman Ohler's "Blitzed,"  as well as Caroline Kitchener's "Post Grad," all for the Chicago Tribune. She also reviewed Bernhard Schlink's "The Woman on the Stairs" for the Barnes & Noble Review. 

David Nilsen reviewed "Guera" by Rebecca Gaydos for The Collagist.

Joseph Peschel reviewed Michel Stone's “Border Child” in the Raleigh News & Observer.

Michael Magras reviewed "Lenin on the Train" by Catherine Merridale for the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed "American War," by Omar El Akkad, in the Boston Globe, and "The Idiot," by Elif Batuman, in the Toronto Star.

David Walton reviewed Alex Ryrie's "Protestants," for the Dallas Morning News.

Other publications, awards, honors and good stuff:

SAVE THE DATES: PEN World Voices (with a 10% discount for NBCC members), NBCC membership meeting and "Beyond the Buzz" panel moderated by NBBC board member Michele Filgate, with panelists New York Times's Nicoly Lamy and Julian Lucas, plus Balakian winner Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post NBCC VP/Tech Bethanne Patrick.

Former NBCC President John Freeman published his third issue of Freeman’s biannual (this one is "Freeman's: Home") and he and his contributors will be making appearances from Chicago to Stockholm. The full tour schedule is HERE. He will be appearing with Freeman's contributor and NBCC board member Kerri Arsenault in Berlin on April 22nd, Brooklyn on May 2nd, Stockholm on June 5th and Malmo on June 7th.

Your reviews seed this roundup. Please send items, ncluding news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password. Please include your name, the publication, a description of your article, and a URL. We love URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the author of "News to Me," and a member of the NBCC board.

SAVE THE DATES: PEN World Voices, NBCC Membership Meeting and ‘Beyond the Buzz’ Panel

by Kate Tuttle | Apr-20-2017


SAVE THE DATES! Take note, as there's been a slight adjustment to the BEA events. The May 31-June 1 events take place during BookExpo (aka BEA), so there will be plenty of literary happenings and festivities in the area.

April 30-May 7, 2017: PEN World Voices 2017

NBCC members will be given a 10% discount code when purchasing tickets to any of the PEN World Voices events through the PEN website. On each event page, you will be able to click "Buy Tickets" and then enter the discount code included in the membership NewsWire just sent to you by email when prompted.

May 2, 2017, 7:30 pm:
PEN World Voices 2017. Former NBCC President, John Freeman will be discussing "home" the current theme of his literary journal, Freeman's, with contributor and Board member, Kerri Arsenault, alongside Barry Lopez, Emily Raboteau, and Lawrence Joseph. The event is at Greenlight Bookstore, 632 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn. More information HERE.

May 4, 2017, 7:30-9 pm: PEN World Voices 2017. NBCC award winner Margo Jefferson and NBCC autobiography finalist Honor Moore will be discussing "Legacies: Militancy and Sisterhood" with Alix Kates Shulman as part of the PEN World Voices. 509 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn. More information HERE.

May 31, 2017: General Membership Meeting, from 10-12 at the Center for Fiction in New York City. The meeting is open to all members, but is not required. Address: The Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th Street,
New York, NY 10017

June 1, 2017: NBCC panel at 4 pm with a wine reception to follow, both at the Center for Fiction. The panel topic will be "Beyond the Buzz: Finding Hidden Gems, from Small Press Books to Translations and More," and it will be moderated by Board member Michele Filgate, with panelists Balakian winner Carlos Lozada, the New York Times's Julian Lucas and Nicole Lamy, and NBCC VP/Technology Bethanne Patrick.  

Please join us in New York or on FacebookTwitter, @bookcritics & Instagram (bookscritics), and take part in our lively discussions and posts about criticism and literature!

Kate Tuttle is NBCC President and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, among others.

Murdered Indians, Margaret Atwood, and Dani Shapiro times two

by Laurie Hertzel | Apr-17-2017

Mollie Burkart, from


NBCC President Kate Tuttle interviews Jane Mayer, author of "Dark Money,"  for the Los Angeles Times.

NBCC  VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's weekly Lit Hub column includes new books by Fiona Maazel, Frances Fitzgerald and Ariel Levy.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel reviews David Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon" for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Anita Felicelli reviews Lisa See’s “Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” and Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko,” both for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In Tin House,  Natalie Bakopoulos writes about Greece, the contemporary moment, and inhabited realities in an essay that includes discussions of "A Separation" by Katie Kitamura, "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid, and "Outline" by Rachel Cusk.

Sara Elaine F Tankard reviews "How We Speak to One Another,"edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold, for The Woven Tale Press.

 Paul Wilner's notice of Grace Paley's new collection, "A Grace Paley Reader - Stories, Essays and Poetry'' was published in The Millions.

Christine Brunkhorst reviewed "Once in a Blue Moon Lodge" by Lorna Landvik for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead profiles Margaret Atwood, this year's Ivan Sandrof award winner, ending with the NBCC awards ceremony.

Joan Silverman talks to memoirist Dani Shapiro about her new book, "Hourglass," for the Portland (Maine) Press-Herald.

 Joan Gelfand reviews Susan Cohen’s new collection, “A Different Wakeful Animal," for  Poetry Magazine.

 Frank Freeman reviews Czeslaw Milosz’s "The Mountains of Parnassus" for America Magazine, and Joseph Leo Koerner’s "From Bosch to Bruegel" in Commonweal.

Heather Scott Partington reviews "Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life," by Yiyun Li, for The Los Angeles Review of Books; Mohsin Hamid's "Exit West" for Las Vegas Weekly; and "Show Her a Flower, A Bird, a Shadow," by Peg Alford Pursell, for Entropy.

Priscilla Gilman reviews Dani Shapiro's "Hourglass," for the Boston Globe.

Your reviews seed this roundup. Please send items, ncluding news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password. Please include your name, the publication, a description of your article, and a URL. We love URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Laurie Hertzel is an NBCC board member and the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

A comic book Zora Neale Hurston and the truth about Jim Jones: Members’ reviews

by Laurie Hertzel | Apr-10-2017


Do the National Book Critics Circle awards predict the Pulitzers? The NBCC gave fiction awards to Junot Diaz, Jennifer Egan, Marilynne Robinson, Edward P. Jones and Jane Smiley, to name a few, before they won that year's Pulitzer, points out the Chicago Tribune's Biblioracle John Warner. (Edward P. Jones's The Known World, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, John Updike's Rabbit at Rest, John Cheever's The Stories of John Cheever. William Kennedy's Ironweed, also were NBCC award and Pulitzer Prize winners).  Electric Literature handicaps this year's list, including NBCC fiction awardee Louise Erdrich, finalists Michael Chabon, Adam Haslett and Ann Patchett, and former finalist Colson Whitehead. 

NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari's BBC Between the Lines column includes April short story collections by Lesley Nneka Arimah, Richard Bausch and Leonora Carrington. And her weekly Lit Hub column features dystopias, detectives, and new biography of Tricky Dick (plus a shout out to NBCC Balakian winner Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post).

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune about books that make you feel like spring, and she covers a talk by two-time NBCC fiction finalist Marlon James and Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation. She also reviews "Alice in France," a collection of letters from a Minnesota woman in France during World War I.

NBCC board member and Best Translated Book Award judge Lori Feathers makes the case in Three Percent why Javiar Marias’s "Thus Bad Begins" should win the Best Translated Book Award.

Board member Mary Ann Gwinn reviews five biographies of writers (including one told as a graphic novel)  for the Seattle Times.

Diane Scharper reviewed "The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy," by Michael McCarthy, in The National Catholic Reporter.

Dan Cryer reviewed Jeff Guinn's "The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple," for the Boston Globe, and Hari Kunzru's "White Tears" for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Julia M. Klein reviews Daniel J. Sharfstein's "Thunder in the Mountains" on the Nez Perce War and its aftermath, for the Chicago Tribune. She also wrote about "Rebel Mother" by Peter Andreas for the Boston Globe.

Paul Wilner reviews "A Horse Walks into a Bar," by David Grossman, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Joe Peschel reviews Richard Bausch's story collection, "Living in the Weather of the World," for the Houston Chronicle, and David Vann's novel, "Bright Air Black," in the Raleigh News and Observer. He also reviewed "The Underground," by Kevin Canty, also for the Houston Chronicle.

David Cooper reviews "Sonora" by Hannah Lillity Assadi and "God's Ear" by Rhoda Lerman, both for the New York Journal of Books.

Andrew Ervin reviews "Compass," by Mathias Enard for the Washington Post.

Jim Ruland reviews "Broad Strokes" by Bridget Quinn, and "Whereas," by Layli Long Soldier, both for the San Diego City Beat.

Marthine Satris reviews Ariel Levy's "The Rules Do Not Apply" for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Harvey Freedenberg reviews Nathan Hill's "The Nix" for Harrisburg Magazine.

Ilana Masad reviews "Generation Revolution," by Rachel Aspden and "Temporary People" by Deepak Unnikrishnan for the Washington Post. Her piece about fairytales, Angela Carter and Helen Oyeyemi is in Broadly.

Amy Brady reviews "Ill Will" by Dan Chaon for the Dallas Morning News.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews "The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria," by Alia Malek, for the National Book Review. He also did a Q&A with Omar El Akkad, author of "American War," for Portland Monthly.

Katharine Weber reviewed a roundup of Irish fiction for the New York Times Book Review.

Tara Cheesman reviewed "Cockroachesby Scholastique Mukasonga, for the Quarterly Conversation, and "The Impossible Fairy Tale," by Han Yujoo, for the Rumpus.

Amy Brady interviews novelist Emily Robbins for Hazlitt Magazine.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson reviewed Hannah Tinti's "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" for Barnes and Noble Review:

Michael Lindgren reviewed two biographies of famous baseball men Casey Stengel and Leo Durocher for Newsday.

Cliff Garstand reviewed "Eveningland," by Michael Knight, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Frank Freeman reviewed "Ireland's Immortals," by Mark Williams, for the Washington Free Beacon.

Peter Lewis reviewed "Insomniac City" by Bill Hayes, and "Refinery Town" by Steve Early, both for Barnes and Noble Review; "The Enigma of the Owl," by Mike Unwin and David Tipling for the Minneapolis Star Tribune; "The Age of Jihad" by Patrick Cockburn and "What Have We Done" by David Wood, both for the San Francisco Chronicle; "No Friends But the Mountains," by Judith Matloff, for Christian Science Monitor. Whew!


Awards, honors and publications:

Andrew Ervin's first book of nonfiction, "Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed our World," will be published by Basic Books on May 2.

"Contemporary Australian Literature," by Nicholas Birns, has been shortlisted for the Walter McRae Russell Award, which recognizes the best book of criticism on Australian literature in the past two years.

Your reviews seed this roundup. Please send items, ncluding news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password. Please include your name, the publication, a description of your article, and a URL. We love URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Laurie Hertzel is a board member of the NBCC and the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

March, 2017

Critical Notes: Super-Sized NBCC Awards and Catch-up Edition

by Jane Ciabattari | Mar-29-2017

Here is the news rundown on the National Book Critics Circle awards:

Critical Mass.

Video of awards ceremony.

Associated Press.

New York Times.

Washington Post.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Brooklyn Magazine.

Los Angeles Times.

Miami Herald.

Tampa Bay Times. (And here.)

PW Daily.

Shelf Awareness

Publishers Lunch.


Lit Hub.

Library Journal.

Parnassus Books blog (Ann Patchett).

Emory News.



Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Michelle Dean remarks on Critical Mass and The New Republic.  

Margaret Atwood remarks on Critical Mass and Lit Hub.

Yaa Gyasi remarks on Critical Mass. Interviewed by Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Laurie Hertzel.

Newly elected NBCC president Kate Tuttle reviews Marina Benjamin's The Middlepause for the Los Angeles Times.

Michael Lindgren's review of all the NBCC criticism finalists for the Washington Post.

Former NBCC board member Rigoberto Gonzalez writes about the bittersweet experience of being a professional of color for the Los Angeles Times.

NBCC Balakian winner and current board member Katherine A. Powers picks the best audiobooks for March for the Washington Post.

Priscilla Gilman reviews NBCC criticism finalist Elif Batuman's first novel, The Idiot, for the Boston Globe.

Creative Writing MFA New School student, Kelly Stewart, interviews New School alum and NBCC Board member, Kerri Arsenault, about her forthcoming book, What Remains.H

Helene Cardona reviews Ghost/Landscape by Kristina Marie Darling and John Gallaher in the Colorado Review. Salmon Poetry will publish Next year Salmon Poetry will publish The Birnam Wood, her translation of El bosque de Birnam (Consell Insular d'Eivissa, 2008) by her father José Manuel Cardona, in a bilingual edition. And Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016) was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award for the best poetry collection published by an independent press in 2016.

Minneapolis Star Tribune books editor (and NBCC board member) Laurie Hertzel writes about the secret joys of reading aloud. She also reviews Jess Kidd's  Himself for the Star-Tribune and wrote about the “poetry coalition” and a plan to give away poems at Twin Cities bookstores.

Former board member and Balakian winner Steve Kellman reviews Mohsin Hamid's Exit West for the Dallas News.

Former NBCC board member Katharine Weber reviews Hari Kunzru's White Tears for the Washington Post.

Lisa Spaar's most recent  Second Acts installment for the Los Angeles Review of Books pairs second books by Rosanna Warren and Melissa Range.

Just departed NBCC board member David Biespiel notes that many people are calling for a political poetry of social engagement. In his column for The Rumpus, he offers a different take: the political as personal.

Michael Berry reviews John Darnielle's International Harvester for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Julia M. Klein reviews Joselin Linder's The Family Gene and Niki Kapsambelis's The Inheritance for the Chicago Tribune. She also reviews Wendy Lesser's You Say to Brick  and Peter Hayes' Why? for the Forward.

For Inside Higher education, John Domini reviews memoirs by Peter Selgin and Scott Abbott, both "sensitive about the strange shapes that passion can take:” In Brooklyn Rail, Domini hails Mary Troy’s new novel for it’s “gallows humor” and “rueful sympathy:” In the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Domini praises a memoir of life as an illegal immigrant by a Mexican “gonzo journalist.”

Michael Magras reviews Last Day On Earth: Stories by Eric Puchner for the Houston Chronicle.

Grace Lichtenstein reviews High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic by Glenn Frankel in the New York Journal of Books.

Joan Silverman reviews Ron Currie's The One-Eyed Man for the Portland Press-Herald.

Lanie Tankard reviews A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea by Melissa Fleming on Women's Memoirs and a debut noir novel, Graveyard of the Gods by Richard Fleming.

Joe Peschel reviews Kevin Canty's novel The 'Underworld': Gritty Life and Death in a Mining Town in the Houston Chronicle.

Chuck Greaves reviews Hannah Tinti's The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley for the Four Corners Free Press.

C.M. Mayo, a native of El Paso, was recently elected to the Texas Institute of Letters.

Andrew Hazlett reviews The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History, by Thomas Harding (Picador) in the February 2017 issue of Reason Magazine.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, the new columnist for Book Spine, KQED's column about books, reviews Melissa Febos' Abandon Me, 

Kai Maristed reviews Peter Handke's The Moravian Night for Boston's Artfuse.

Rebecca Kightlinger reviews Ashley Mace Havird's debut novel Lightningstruck for Historical Novels Review.

South and West: From a Notebook  by Joan Didion, reviewed by Ann Fabian in The National Book Review. Paul Wilner also reviews the Didion, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Philip Graham's recent essay for The Millions, “Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again,” examines the possible reasons behind Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Frank Freeman reviews C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law  and Alica Kaplan's Looking for the Stranger for University Bookman.

Photo credit: John Midgley

Your reviews seed this roundup. Please send items, ncluding news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password. Please include your name, the publication, a description of your article, and a URL. We love URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Jane Ciabattari is a former president and current vice president/online of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a columnist for BBC.com and Lit Hub, and contributes regularly to NPR.org and others. She serves on the advisory board of The Story Prize and is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She is the author of two story collections, Stealing the Fire and California Tales. She can be found on Twitter @janeciab.

Balakian Winner Michelle Dean Reviews #1: “Robert Lowell’s Tainted Love”

by Michelle Dean | Mar-22-2017

Robert Lowell had been dead seven years when The Paris Review interviewed Elizabeth Hardwick, the novelist, critic, and his second-to-last wife. In the conversation, she admitted that “Cal,” as everyone called Lowell—a boarding school nickname that stuck—sometimes thought her critical work “snippy” but:

He liked women writers and I don’t think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn’t a writer—an odd turn-on indeed, and one I’ve noticed not greatly shared. Women writers don’t tend to be passive vessels or wives, saying, “Oh, that’s good, dear.” 

Probably no one had more justification to complain about Lowell in print than Hardwick did. Though they were married for 23 years, their union was worn down by Lowell’s nearly annual hospitalizations for manic depression, his endless philandering, and his alcoholism. At the end of it, almost on a whim, he left her for the writer and “muse”—always a loaded term, that—Lady Caroline Blackwood. Then he took Hardwick’s alternately furious and anguished letters to him and folded them, without her consent, into a full-length book of poetry, The Dolphin. This artifact of her humiliation won a Pulitzer. Yet Hardwick still continued to try to get him back, right up to the day of his death.

This all provides pretty good copy, as they like to say, for Jeffrey Meyers’s new book, Robert Lowell in Love, a detailed accounting of the women Lowell pursued and lived and conversed with. Hardwick was the second wife of three. The first had been Jean Stafford, a writer now chiefly remembered for her caustic, hilarious short stories, many of which fictionalize the events of this disastrous relationship. Before the figurative banns were even issued, a drunken Lowell got them into a car accident that left Stafford permanently disfigured. Their subsequent wedded bliss was marked by mutual alcoholism, a punch in the face that broke Stafford’s nose once again, and four months in prison for Lowell, who claimed conscientious objector status in World War II.

But while Meyers presents what is clearly a considerable amount of research—in an appendix he sets out all his work tracking down mistress after mistress—he misrepresents the texture of Lowell’s relationship with Hardwick in particular, and with women more generally. Lowell, the reader learns, is a “hunk” with a “harem” of female devotees. Meyers titles the chapter chronicling the experiences of Lowell’s mistresses as “The Heedless Heart,” apparently unironically. He rhapsodizes at every opportunity about “the prestige and power that came with being Mrs. Robert Lowell”—a concern that he clearly feels was the chief engine of Hardwick’s affection for her husband.

This is unfortunate, and not just as regards historical accuracy. We live in a time of abnormally loud complaint about Men Who Explain Things in the literary world. These arrogant men who ignore and denigrate the work of women are discussed and analyzed, again and again, to the point where it has felt, recently, like there is no other kind of male writer. But Lowell was never like that. Yes, he cheated, he cracked up, he was irresponsible and even cruel in the way he marshaled his life for his art. Lowell nonetheless believed that women were his intellectual and artistic equals. He spent most of his life behaving accordingly even as he treated his wives and mistresses so terribly, in romantic terms, that it was almost operatic. That is the puzzle of Lowell and women.

Another sort of book should be written on Lowell and the women in his life. It would not spend as much time on the mother and the wives as Meyers’s does, but would be forced to reckon with Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop and Lowell were both tortured people, occasionally suicidal, and seasoned alcoholics. But they met through their work, and their relationship was primarily intellectual and epistolary. The correspondence between them was published in 2008 as Words in Air, which is among a certain sort of reader a talismanic book. They advised each other on their poems; they discussed the greats of their time (Marianne Moore, John Berryman) and of the past (Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins). The book has the magic quality that poets’ letters often have—the ratio of meaning to language is high, which gives their observations, flirtations, and arguments a near-cinematic quality. The playwright Sarah Ruhl loved them so much she turned them into a play, Dear Elizabeth.

Meyers gives the whole Lowell-Bishop friendship just a few pages, which is difficult to justify even in a book restricted to Lowell’s “loves.” Not least because Lowell was, at one time, in love with Bishop. He said so himself. The correspondence reaches a romantic crescendo early on, when Lowell in a letter dated August 15, 1957 admits to Bishop that he’d once wanted to marry her, and in fact had assumed they would marry. Things had almost come to a head in the summer of 1948 when they were sitting on a rock, looking out at the ocean from the coast of Maine. “When you write my epitaph,” Bishop told him then, “you must say I am the loneliest person that ever lived.” This was the moment, he confessed in the letter, that he’d fixed upon marrying her. But other events had intervened, and he never asked—which did not mean he forgot about it or stopped justifying it to himself. “I do think free will is sewn into everything we do,” he reasoned:

You can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. … I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would have improved. … But asking you is the might have been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.

Lowell hinted that he’d written this while in a manic state: “The last part is too heatedly written with too many ‘and’s and so forth.” He was also aware that Bishop was gay and, by the time he wrote this letter, living with her lover in Brazil. It was a confession of love made with no hope of reciprocation.

Bishop did not reply—or at least not directly. But clearly she knew what he was talking about and details of the incident made their way into their common language. In another letter many years later, she’d correct a few facts, which Lowell had written up in a poem he called “Water”:

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler

She also sent him a postcard of Winslow Homer’s Marblehead, which, as Colm Tóibín pointed out in his review of the letters in 2009, depicts two people talking on a coastal rock. This romantic image recurred in their writings.

As Hardwick well knew, Bishop was not a passive vessel for Lowell either. When he sent Bishop the poems he intended to fashion into The Dolphin, she wrote back in carefully measured horror. Because so much of his poetry had used the words of friends and family, Lowell appears to have thought that using Hardwick’s letters to him was merely an extension of his usual practice. “One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust?” she asked. “If you were given permission—if you hadn’t changed them… etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.”

It speaks to Lowell’s profound respect for Bishop that he did, on her advice, actually alter the poems. But he published them nonetheless, still containing some passages from Hardwick’s letters. The Dolphin also includes passages that Lowell actually invented but presents to the reader as hers, like this one, in which she appears eloquent even in a histrionic mode:

You can’t carry your talent with you like a suitcase.
Don’t you dare mail us the love your life denies;
do you really know what you have done?

Meyers seems mostly untroubled by The Dolphin. He has little sympathy for Hardwick to begin with, though he dutifully catalogs her suffering before noting that the episode made Hardwick a “famously betrayed woman and (like Sylvia Plath) a feminist icon.” Then, apparently to demonstrate Lowell’s good faith, Meyers points to the last line of the book: “My eyes have seen what my hand did” and characterizes them as “seething with self-accusation and remorse.”

Perhaps, indeed, that was Lowell’s conscience surfacing about the suffering he had left behind him. It is clear that Lowell had “seen” the damage he’d done to Hardwick’s life, and to his daughter’s. He may, at certain points, have been self-critical about it. But at the time he actually published The Dolphin he did not seem to feel particularly bad about it. To Bishop, he replied that he didn’t think using the letters was slanderous, and that his use of Hardwick’s actual words was “the poignance of the book, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her.” Lowell continued, “It’s oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman’s problem.” His remorse, as performed in the poem, can’t quite negate the coolness with which he decided to go forward, anyway. He had decided, despite Bishop’s warning, that art was worth that much.

The person who ended up taking him to task for it most publicly was another woman poet friend: Adrienne Rich. She had written to him, when he first left Hardwick for Blackwood, to complain that his decisions were based in “sexual romanticism.” Then when The Dolphin came out, she wrote searingly of it in the American Poetry Review:

What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? … I think this bullshit eloquence a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book. 

Meyers characterizes this moment as the break between Lowell and Rich; in fact, their friendship had been dissolving for some time at that point. In 1973, when The Dolphin appeared, Rich had long been blooming into the radical feminist politics that would dominate the second half of her career; Lowell, like most of her friends, disliked the turn in her writing.

He nonetheless felt the break keenly. In response to the review, Lowell sent a letter to its editor sadly noting that Rich had once been one of his closest friends. He could not resist, even in criticism, half complimenting her work: 

I could say she has become a famous person by becoming cheap and inflamed; but that isn’t it. Her whole career had been a rage for disorder, a heroic desire to destroy her early precocity for form and modesty. And wasn’t she right? And wasn’t she unrecognized mostly when she first became a better poet and before the time of her fevers? And who knows how the thing will turn out—such a mixture of courage and the auctioneer now? 

The nominal respect he gives Rich here is interesting, this odd “turn-on” of the intelligence of women writers a curious aspect of the man indeed. I suspect it gives us the clearest answer to why, in spite of all his terrible behavior, Lowell was irresistible to so many talented, intelligent women. He was, much of the time, really listening to them. That this was possible in the midst of so much insensitivity and philandering suggests truly vast possibilities about communication across the gender fault lines. If only someone would write a book about it.


This review of Robert Lowell in Love by Jeffrey Meyers, part of Michelle Dean's submission that won this year's Balakian award for excellence in criticism,  appeared in the February 4, 2016 issue of the New Republic.
Author photo by John Midgley

Michelle Dean is a contributing editor at The New Republic and author of the forthcoming book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

John Leonard Winner: ‘I am grateful for the sacrifices my parents made…’

by Yaa Gyasi | Mar-21-2017

I’m so grateful to be here celebrating with all of you tonight.  Thank you to the National Book Critics Circle for this tremendous honor. Thank you also to Sue Leonard and to the late John Leonard for championing new writers.  What a privilege it is to be recognized for the John Leonard award tonight.

I’d also like to thank my brilliant editor, Jordan Pavlin, my firecracker of a publicist Josie McGehee, and my endlessly encouraging agent Eric Simonoff, all of whom believed in this book so very fiercely.  

Another thank you goes to Matthew Nelson-Teutsch for his exquisite partnership.  

Finally, I’d like to thank my family, especially my parents Kwaku and Sophia Gyasi who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms. In a time where it feels like every day immigrants and refugees are being met with new affronts to their humanity, I am even more grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made so that I could one day stand here before all of you and accept this award.


All 2016 NBCC award winners here.

View video of NBCC awards ceremony here.

Photo credit: John Midgley   

Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (Alfred A. Knopf), an ambitious novel that spans continents and centuries to wrap its arms around the African-American experience of slavery, was the recipient of the John Leonard Prize, recognizing an outstanding first book in any genre. Gyasi was born in Ghana and grew up partly in Alabama. She has an English degree from Stanford, an MFA from the University of Iowa, and now lives in New York.

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