email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
"Are You There Alone?""How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?""My Madness Saved Me"10% Happier365 Days49 Up56 UpA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Beautiful MindA Book of ReasonsA Can of MadnessA Child's Life and Other StoriesA Dangerous LiaisonA Fight to BeA First-Rate MadnessA Good Enough DaughterA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Lethal InheritanceA Lethal InheritanceA Life ShakenA Life Worth LivingA Little PregnantA Message from JakieA Million Little PiecesA Numerate LifeA Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth CenturyA Slant of SunA Special EducationA Tribe ApartAbout FaceAddicted Like MeADHD & MeAEIOUAgainst Medical AdviceAgents in My BrainAileen - Life and Death of a Serial KillerAlgernon, Charlie and IAll Out!All Seasons PassAll That You Leave BehindAlphavilleAlways Too Much And Never EnoughAlzheimer'sAn Anthropologist on MarsAn EducationAn Unquiet MindAngela's AshesAngelheadAnna Freud: A BiographyAnnie's GhostsAnother Bullshit Night in Suck CityAnthology of a Crazy LadyApples and OrangesApproaching NeverlandAre You There, Vodka? It's Me, ChelseaAs I Live and BreatheAs Nature Made HimAt Home in the Heart of AppalachiaAt the End of WordsAvalancheBad BoyBad GirlBeautiful BodiesBeautiful BoyBeautiful WreckBecause We Are BadBecoming AnnaBecoming MyselfBen Behind His VoicesBequest and BetrayalBereftBertrand RussellBlackoutBlanketsBloodlettingBodies in Motion and at RestBoneBorn on a Blue DayBoyBoy AloneBoyleBrain on FireBreaking ApartBreaking the SilenceBrokenBulimics on BulimiaBuzzCamus and SartreCharles DarwinChasing the HighCheeverCherryCity of OneCluesClumsyComfortComplications Compulsive ActsConfessions of a Cereal EaterConfessions of a Former ChildConfessions of a Grieving ChristianConfessions of the Other MotherConfidingConquering the Beast WithinContesting ChildhoodCrackedCrazyCry Depression, Celebrate RecoveryDamned to EternityDancing at the Shame PromDante's CureDaughter of the Queen of ShebaDavid Sedaris Live at Carnegie HallDays With My FatherDefeating the VoicesDementia Caregivers Share Their StoriesDepression and NarrativeDescartesDetourDevil in the DetailsDiagnosis: SchizophreniaDirty DetailsDirty SecretDivided MindsDivine MadnessDon't Get Too ComfortableDown Came the RainDress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDrinkingDriving My FatherDrunkardDryEarly Embraces IIIEarly ExposuresEinsteinEinstein and OppenheimerElectroboyElegy for IrisElijah's CupElliott Smith and the Big NothingElsewhereEnough About YouEpilepticEvery Girl Tells a StoryEverything In Its PlaceExamined LivesExiting NirvanaFaces of Huntington'sFamily BoundFast GirlFearless ConfessionsFind MeFinding Iris ChangFirst Person Accounts of Mental Illness and RecoveryFirst Person PluralFixing My GazeFlanneryFolie a DeuxFor the Love of ItFortress of My YouthFrank Ramsey (1903-1930)Franz KafkaFraudFree RefillsFreudFreudFreudFriedrich NietzscheFrom Joy Division to New OrderFumblingFun HomeFuriously HappyGalileo Get Me Out of HereGetting OffGirl in Need of a TourniquetGirl Walking BackwardsGirl, InterruptedGirl, InterruptedGirls on the VergeGoing BlindGoing Through Hell Without Help From AboveGraysonGrowing Up JungGuttedHalf a Brain Is EnoughHardcore from the HeartHead CasesHeal & ForgiveHeal & Forgive IIHeavier than HeavenHeinz KohutHeinz KohutHello from Heaven!Hello to All ThatHer HusbandHer Last DeathHigh PriceHole in My LifeHolidays On IceHolidays on IceHope's BoyHouse of Happy EndingsHouse of Happy EndingsHow I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying to Kill MeHow to Lose Friends & Alienate PeopleHow to Make Love Like a Porn Starhow to stop timeHumeHumeHunger Makes Me a Modern GirlHurry Down SunshineI Am Dynamite!I Am I Am I AmI Feel Bad About My NeckI Never Promised You a Rose GardenI Remain in DarknessI'd Rather Eat ChocolateI'd Rather LaughIf I Die Before I WakeImagining RobertIn Search of FatimaIn the Realms of the UnrealIn the Wake of SuicideInside TherapyInternInvisible No MoreIt Happened to NancyIt Takes a Worried ManJack Cole and Plastic ManJean-Paul SartreJohn Stuart MillJourneys with the Black DogJust CheckingKafkaKantLa SierraLab GirlLast Flight OutLearning to FallLet Me Make It GoodLife As We Know ItLife InterruptedLife ReimaginedLimboLincoln's MelancholyListening in the Silence, Seeing in the DarkLittle PeopleLive For Your Listening PleasureLive Through ThisLiving in the Shadow of the Freud FamilyLiving With SchizophreniaLiving with SchizophreniaLockeLonelyLong ShotLook Me in the EyeLooking for The StrangerLoose GirlLosing Mum and PupLosing My MindLove Is a Mix TapeLove SickLove Times ThreeLove Works Like ThisLove You, Mean ItLuckyLudwig WittgensteinLyingMad HouseMad PrideMadame ProustMadnessMagical ThinkingMalignant SadnessManicMarcel ProustMarcus AureliusMary BarnesMaverick MindMaybe You Should Talk to SomeoneMe Talk Pretty One DayMeaningMelanie KleinMemoirMemoirs of an Addicted BrainMemoirs of My Nervous IllnessMen-ipulationMisconceptionsMiss American PieMockingbird YearsMomma and the Meaning of LifeMommies Who DrinkMonkey MindMore, Now, AgainMortificationMy Age of AnxietyMy Body PoliticMy Brain Tumour AdventuresMy DepressionMy Father's HeartMy First Cousin Once RemovedMy Flesh and BloodMy Horizontal LifeMy Life Among the Serial KillersMy Sister LifeMy Stroke of InsightName All the AnimalsNeural MisfireNever EnoughNietzscheNietzsche: The Man and His PhilosophyNinety DaysNo Apparent DistressNo Hurry to Get HomeNo Impact ManNo More ShavesNo One Cares About Crazy PeopleNolaNotebooks 1951-1959NothingOdd Girl Speaks OutOedipus WreckedOf Spirits & MadnessOn Being RapedOn the Edge of DarknessOn the MoveOne Hour in ParisOne Hundred DaysOphelia SpeaksPagan TimePassing for NormalPeople Who Eat DarknessPerfect ChaosPerfect ExamplePermanent Present TensePersepolisPlanet of the BlindPlaying with FirePlease Don't Kill the FreshmanPoisoned LovePollockPOPismPortraits of Huntington'sPoster ChildProzac DiaryPsychiatrist on the RoadPsychosis in the FamilyPuppy Chow Is Better Than ProzacQuitting the Nairobi TrioRaising BlazeReasons to Stay AliveRebuiltRecovered, Not CuredRelative StrangerRescuing JeffreyRestricted AccessRevengeRewind, Replay, RepeatRichard RortyRiding the Bus With My SisterRobert Lowell, Setting the River on FireRoom For JRosemaryRough MagicRunning After AntelopeRunning with ScissorsRXScattershotSchizophreniaSchopenhauerSecond OpinionsSectionedSeeing EzraSeeing the CrabServing the ServantSet the Boy FreeSex & Single GirlsSex ObjectShakespeareShe Bets Her LifeShe Got Up Off the CouchShut the DoorSickenedSilencing the VoicesSimone de BeauvoirSinging in the FireSkin GameSlackjawSlut!SmashedSome Assembly RequiredSome Kind of GeniusSometimes Amazing Things HappenSometimes Madness Is WisdomSongs from the Black ChairSongs of the Gorilla NationSoren KierkegaardSpeak to MeSpeaking Our Minds: Revised EditionSpecial SiblingsSpentStandbyStick FigureStill LivesStretchSunset StorySurviving OpheliaSwing LowTales from Both Sides of the BrainTales of PsychotherapyTalk to HerTell Me Everything You Don't RememberTellingTelling Tales About DementiaThe Accidental BillionairesThe AddictThe Anatomy of HopeThe Anti-Romantic ChildThe Art of MisdiagnosisThe Bastard on the Couch CDThe BeastThe Bell JarThe Best Seat in the HouseThe Big FixThe Body SilentThe Boy on the Green BicycleThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Boy Who Loved WindowsThe Bright HourThe Buddha & The BorderlineThe Burn JournalsThe Camera My Mother Gave MeThe Cancer Monologue ProjectThe Center Cannot HoldThe Chelsea WhistleThe Churkendoose AnthologyThe Day the Voices StoppedThe Devil WithinThe DisappearanceThe Discomfort ZoneThe Doctor Is InThe Eden ExpressThe Family GeneThe Family SilverThe Farm Colonies: Caring for New York City's Mentally Ill In Long Island's State HospitalsThe Fasting GirlThe First Man-Made ManThe First TimeThe Geography of BlissThe Glass CastleThe Good DoctorsThe Hillside Diary and Other WritingsThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Infidel and the ProfessorThe Last AsylumThe Last Good FreudianThe Last Time I Wore a DressThe Liars' ClubThe Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet HiltonThe Lives They Left BehindThe LobotomistThe Long GoodbyeThe Looked After Kid: Memoirs from a Children's HomeThe Loony-Bin TripThe Madness of Our LivesThe Making of a PhilosopherThe Making of Friedrich NietzscheThe Man Who Couldn't EatThe Man Who Shocked the WorldThe Man Who Tasted ShapesThe Marvelous Hairy GirlsThe Maximum Security Book ClubThe Me in the MirrorThe Memory PalaceThe Mercy PapersThe Mistress's DaughterThe Mother of Black HollywoodThe Naked Bird WatcherThe Naked Lady Who Stood on Her HeadThe Neuroscientist Who Lost Her MindThe Night of the GunThe Noonday DemonThe Notebook GirlsThe NursesThe Only Girl in the CarThe Only Girl in the WorldThe Orchid ThiefThe Other HollywoodThe OutsiderThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Philosophical Breakfast ClubThe Philosophical IThe Pits and the PendulumThe Pornographer's GriefThe Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner The Professor and the MadmanThe Psychopath TestThe Quiet RoomThe Quiet RoomThe RecoveringThe Red DevilThe Rescue of Belle and SundanceThe Ride TogetherThe Rules of the TunnelThe Secret of LifeThe Shaking Woman or A History of My NervesThe Shared HeartThe Shiniest JewelThe Siren's DanceThe Statistical Life of MeThe Story of My FatherThe Strange Case of Hellish NellThe Summer of a DormouseThe SurrenderThe Talking CureThe Thought that CountsThe Three of UsThe Undoing ProjectThe Vagina MonologuesThe Velveteen FatherThe Winter of Our DisconnectThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaThe Years of Silence are PastThe Yellow HouseThe Yipping TigerThick As ThievesThinThis Close to HappyThomas S. SzaszTiger, TigerTits, Ass, and Real EstateTo Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the WorldTo Walk on EggshellsTransforming MadnessTrue CompassTruth & BeautyTruth Comes in BlowsTuesdays with MorrieTweakTwitch and ShoutUltimate JudgementUndercurrentsUnholy GhostUnlikelyVoices of AlcoholismVoices Of Alzheimer'sVoices of CaregivingVoices of RecoveryVoluntary MadnessWaiting for DaisyWar FareWashing My Life AwayWastedWaveWe're Going to Need More WineWe're Not MonstersWeather Reports from the Autism FrontWeekends at BellevueWhat Did I Do Last Night?What Goes UpWhat I Learned in Medical SchoolWhat's Normal?When a Crocodile Eats the SunWhen Breath Becomes AirWhen Do I Get My Shoelaces Back?.....When It Gets DarkWhen the Piano StopsWhen You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhere Did It All Go Right?Where is the Mango Princess?Where the Roots Reach for WaterWhile the City SleptWhile They SleptWho Was Jacques Derrida?Why I Left, Why I StayedWhy I'm Like ThisWildWill's ChoiceWinnicottWinnieWish I Could Be ThereWith Their EyesWomen Living with Self-InjuryWomen, Body, IllnessWrestling with the AngelYou All Grow Up and Leave MeYou Must Be DreamingYour Voice in My HeadZeldaZor
Kay Jamison's interest in mania is well known from her acclaimed memoir An Unquiet Mind; and she has previously explored the link with mania and creative genius (Touched with Fire). But her magisterial new study of the New England literary figure Robert Lowell goes beyond these previous books, first in its explication of the subjective and personal experience of manic-depressive illness for its subjects, and its effect on those around them, and second for a persuasive demonstration of the way mania can interrupt, and yet contribute to, imaginative endeavor.
Setting the River on Fire is in many ways a work by, as well as about, Robert Lowell -- a collaboration between him, his friends and Jamison. The autobiographical nature of Lowell's writing, his ability with language, and what has been described as his hawk's eye on immortality, trained on himself, are elements that leave this volume so valuable for the study of madness, creativity and character. It is Lowell who gives us the unmatched personal descriptions of his rages, for example: "I have stood too long on a chair or ladder,/ branch-lightening forking through my thoughts and veins;" or "I climb the spiral stairs to my own music,/ each step more poignantly oracular,/something inhuman always rising in me;" "our hallucinatory, the disenchantress." From him we hear the form of his subsequent shame and depression: "my antics/ and insupportable, trespassing tongue/gone astray"; "dust in the blood," "During all that blind mole's time -- the fascinated spirit watching the holocaust of irrationality, apathy tormenting apathy…"
Such telling lines and powerful phrases are offered again and again to amplify Jamison's own observations, and we hear as well from those surrounding the poet. No ordinary friends and loved ones, either: these are people of letters, skilled in observation, alive to nuance and meaning, in the thrall of invisible worlds beyond what can be observed, measured and replicated, and possessed of a rare ability with language. They are not content with simplistic biological reductions, or intimidated by clinical knowhow. (It must be added that the depictions of Lowell's many clinical encounters and in-patient stays reflect well on the psychiatric care he received over these many years of breakdowns and arduous, sad recoveries.) His literary loves, including his wife of many years, Elizabeth Hardwick; long-suffering and sympathetic friends; and fellow poets, all amply quoted by Jamison to complete her picture, are equally enlightening, as well as a pleasure to read, in their subtle, generous and observant appreciation of this literary lion. Together with carefully assembled historical, biographical and medical facts about Lowell's life, work and illness, these evocative and moving voices added to Jamison's own contribute immeasurably to the impact of the book. Indeed, in comparison to Jamison's 'collective' enterprise in Setting the River on Fire, the frequent self-indulgence of memoirs, and the impersonal dryness of academic research and statistics, seem wanting. This one case study, so amply developed and framed, tells us more than either can, and the book is a ringing endorsement of "qualitative research" (if we can rightly call it that) into psychopathology and its effect on human life.
Ordered chronologically, Setting the River on Fire begins with Robert Lowell's ancestry, both his Mayflower-descended, illustrious, proper Bostonian antecedents, and those who succumbed to a madness so recurrent through the generations, and so like his own, as to appear a familial trait. From there we are introduced to his difficult mothering, the classical education that enriched his writing, his literary successes and accolades, his sixteen breakdowns, his marriages and affairs, and finally to his early death, from heart attack, the burial among ancestors' graves, and memorial service, with many fine words of praise. "You drank America/ like the heart's iron vodka," wrote Seamus Heaney; "You are…the most American of souls" said his second wife,"the most gifted in finding the symbolic meaning of this strange place;" "a force to be reckoned with, a supreme artist who leaves work that will endure as long as the American language lives." Likening the poet's "civic valor" (the expression comes from William James) to the military valor shown by a kinsman Charles Russell Lowell in the Union army, or that of Robert Gould Shaw and his Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, our author ends with her own eloquent summation: Robert Lowell had "lived with iron, and often with grace. He kept always in the front of his mind what he thought he ought to be, even when he couldn't be it; believed in what his country could be, even if it wasn't. He worked hard at his art."
Through this chronology, Jamison assembles her case: the mania was a high and painful price to pay, but along with the fortitude, humility, and talent, and a deep sense of place - historical/familial (among the Lowells), and geographical (New England) - it contributed to the works of genius that ensued.
Jamison accepts the assessment of the literary world on both sides of the Atlantic: Lowell was a great poet. Although Setting the River on Fire is interspersed throughout with quoted passages, even whole poems, and accompanied by frequently insightful psychological analyses of particular lines and progressions in relation to Lowell's life, no independent literary assessment is proffered. Nor are others' reasons for his literary greatness represented in any depth. The imprimatur of a literary prize; a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford; teaching positions at great universities, are taken as sufficient. In this respect, perhaps, the work falls somewhat short as a biography of a literary figure.
Setting the River on Fire contains three themes, genius, madness, and moral character. The status of Lowell as a man of literary genius is assumed, and his mania is amply and revealingly demonstrated. What then of his character? As a way of showing how the man's background, gifts and frailties combined to make the persona of the poetic genius and man of letters, Jamison's efforts succeed: as the literary lion and mad poet Robert Lowell comes to life in these pages. But the outsized reputation aside, here is a person who, although he continually left distress and chaos in his wake, our author asks us to not only forgive but love, and even revere. Despite her best efforts, the sheer amplitude of Lowell's personality and that persona, the force of his ambition, and distinctiveness of his muse, leave it difficult to assess the underlying moral character of the man, and the reader may be left, as I was, less than entirely sharing Jamison's admiring assessment.
The genetics of bipolar disorder (as of the suicidality that often accompanies it), have been a focus of Jamison's past work, and she frames her story around the way the traits characterizing Robert Lowell re-appear in the Lowell family tree. Compared with her earlier work, the interpretation of heritable disorder in Setting the River on Fire is muted, apparently acknowledging that 'heritability' knows many forms. The complex merging of genes and experience in any given individual must always discourage leaning too heavily on solely genetic explanations of psychological conditions and responses. But for Jamison's subject, where the influence of cultural traditions linking madness to genius and imaginative achievement are also co-mingled with something close to ancestor-and-place-worship (of past Lowells and New England), this is especially true, and the heritability of Lowell's madness and genius must elude dissection into its elements. Only possible is to make the case that some sort, and perhaps several sorts, of heritability were powerfully at work in the forming of her subject. Jamison does that, and does it well.
© 2017 Jennifer Radden
Jennifer Radden, previously of University of Massachusetts, Boston, has recently published Melancholic Habits: Burton's Anatomy & the Mind Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2016)