Was the Art of S-Town Worth the Pain?

How a decades-old literary argument adds insight to the debate over the popular nonfiction podcast

The S-Town host Brian Reed (right) doing an interview with a horologist (Andrea Morales)

This story contains spoilers for the entirety of the podcast S-Town.

As I listened to the first few chapters of S-Town, I couldn’t help but wonder how Flannery O’Connor would have reacted to the popular new podcast. S-Town’s deep exploration of white, rural America makes the comparison inevitable; the podcast’s inadvertent star, the eccentric John B. McLemore, could have risen whole from a Southern Gothic landscape. But by the end of the series, I wasn’t thinking of O’Connor, but of her friends and fellow writers, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Forty years ago, the two had a stark disagreement over a book of poems that Lowell wrote—poems that Bishop felt knowingly and cruelly used someone else’s private pain without permission because Lowell thought they made his work better. In her critique of Lowell’s book The Dolphin, Bishop lays out issues of intimacy, trauma, and consent in a way that speaks to the ongoing debate about the ethics of S-Town. Her words give listeners a framework for weighing their own queasiness that goes past questions of lawfulness. Given that the makers of Serial and This American Life were behind the podcast, it seems all but certain that the necessary releases were signed—in a legal sense, permission was granted. But S-Town also takes its listeners into murky ethical territory when the story shifts to examine the life of McLemore after his suicide.

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation about Bishop and her contemporaries, I delved into their views on issues of representation—who gets to say what about whom in literature. As Slate’s Katy Waldman wrote, ­S-Town feels like a new genre, “something more like aural literature.” Indeed, many of the meditations in the podcast on time and horology, love and consequences, sound more like poetry than journalism. It feels appropriate, then, to turn to a debate between two of the most brilliant, innovative poets of the last century to help frame two key questions about this new genre: Is the aesthetic value of a work of art worth the moral cost of revealing traumatic details about a person? And is it okay to confess another person’s pain for the sake of a really good story?

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First, an overview of the response to S-Town immediately following its release: The podcast was downloaded more than 19 million times within the first week, and there seems to be general consensus that the series is beautiful art that’s both timely and complex. Going into S-Town’s seven, roughly hour-long episodes, I shared many people’s initial concern that a liberal reporter—the host Brian Reed—journeying into the rural South would rely on stereotypes or half-digested information in order to make sweeping assumptions about his subjects. But S-Town was deliberately crafted to avoid speaking for an entire group of people; it’s a delight to hear the “characters” of Alabama’s Bibb County speak in their own voices about their experiences.

As the story shifted from investigating a murder to delving into one man’s life, Reed used McLemore’s genius, his quirkiness, and, eventually, his trauma and pain to give poignancy and sympathy to a tale about a whole community, all without making the town a morality play for listeners. But, despite the many things I enjoyed about the podcast, I couldn’t get past my discomfort about what the podcast description calls “an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.” In a Vox review, Aja Romano lays out the crux of the criticism against the podcast: that despite being “painfully beautiful,” S-Town doesn’t go far enough in arguing that “the public is entitled to explore the internal complexities of John’s life, particularly after his death.”

Which is where Bishop comes in. She and Lowell were friends for the better part of their lives; their robust, engaging correspondence is curated by Thomas Travisano in the book, Words in Air. They began writing letters to each other in 1947 and for decades were each other’s confidants and literary critics, despite having remarkably different styles of writing and views on poetry. Bishop and her partner, Lota de Macedo Soares, were close with Lowell’s wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. The couples visited each other in Rio de Janeiro and New York. They vacationed together. Lowell and Bishop dedicated books to each other. Even the few times they disagreed, they were polite about it, especially Bishop; her responses to Lowell’s poems were minor quibbles and thoughtful questions more than full-on critiques. That is, until 1972, when Lowell sent her a draft of his book The Dolphin.

Unlike Bishop, Lowell was one of the original Confessional Poets. Along with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and others, Lowell drew from his own life for material to write poems in the new, looser art form he was helping to create. Lowell’s Life Studies showed two aspects of confessional poetry: the commitment to craftsmanship and the willingness to talk about real-life events in shocking, groundbreaking ways. This poetry pushed against genre-based and societal boundaries of what was or wasn’t acceptable to talk about. In the early days of this movement, the 1950s and 1960s, examples included Plath’s unfiltered accounts of her suicidal thoughts or Sexton’s thoughts on menstruation at age 40.

Bishop, meanwhile, hated confessional poetry. She didn’t much like that shift in Lowell’s later poems, and she definitely didn’t like the tell-all poems about sexual escapades written by the college students she taught. But her major problem with Lowell came when he used his wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s pain to lend narrative intensity to The Dolphin—when he wasn’t confessing just for himself but for someone else. In responding to the poems Lowell sent her, Bishop drew a distinct line: Probe your own life and past if you must, but you cannot use another person’s trauma without permission for your aesthetic gain.

Hardwick, herself a writer, had endured a tumultuous marriage with Lowell that included his many affairs and mental breakdowns. In 1970, Lowell left Hardwick for another woman, Caroline Blackwood, with whom he had a child and who he eventually married. After he left, Hardwick wrote him a series of intimate letters in which she laid out her angst and grief. Lowell turned those letters into poems for The Dolphin. In the book, he enjambs the letters to make lines and stanzas, edits the results without making clear where these changes occur, and even fictionalizes some lines—they still read like Hardwick’s letters, but they became Lowell’s work. He did not get her permission, and he told Bishop he knew it would hurt Hardwick. But he ultimately felt that the aesthetic value was worth the moral cost. As Lowell wrote Bishop later, “the letters make the book.”

Bishop was horrified. It took her weeks to write back after seeing drafts of the poems and when she did, her response was scathing. In a letter dated March 21, 1972, Bishop lets Lowell have it: “Aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them ... etc. But art just isn’t worth that much. I keep remembering [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’s marvelous letter to [Robert] Bridges about the idea of a ‘gentleman’ being the highest thing ever conceived—higher than a ‘Christian’ even, certainly than a poet. It is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel.”

Lowell still published the poems, and his friendship with Bishop never recovered. He never denied being cruel; he privileged his art over his kindness. In fact, he acknowledged the pain he was causing in his letter to Bishop a week later: “I did not see [Hardwick’s letters] as slander, but as sympathetic, tho [sic] necessarily awful for her to read. She is the poignance of the book, tho [sic] that hardly makes it kinder to her.” The book won Lowell his second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. But even at the time, reviewers publicly echoed Bishop’s private concerns that Lowell had crossed an important line.

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By the end of S-Town, I kept thinking of the phrase Bishop italicized for Lowell: “Art just isn’t worth that much.” And I thought of Lowell’s response, a literary shoulder shrug that Hardwick’s pain was a worthwhile price to pay for a sympathetic arc to his narrative. There were several moments when I felt the same artistic shoulder shrug from Reed, despite his often empathetic treatment of McLemore and his friends, family, and neighbors. There are necessary differences between poetry and a podcast. But in many ways, the stakes are much higher for a podcast, because more people are paying attention. A book of poetry is highly successful if it sells thousands of copies; S-Town had millions of downloads within days.

And so I wonder: Did McLemore know he was giving permission for Reed to reveal intimate details about his sexual liaisons, his pain fetishes, his financial situation? What about the real-life ramifications for Tyler Goodson’s children, for example, growing up with the stories about his ritualistic “church” sessions with McLemore as part of the local lore in a very small town? I worry about the reputation of the lawyer, Boozer Downs; the podcast raises doubts about his integrity that it never resolves. I think about the reaction of cousin Rita’s church-going friends in Florida to the episode where she describes wanting McLemore’s gold nipple rings to be cut off his body. I wonder if one of McLemore’s purported former lovers (who’s both married and implied to be closeted) knew the interview he was giving would be part of a larger conversation about LGBTQ life in rural Alabama. Like Bishop, I’m troubled by the thought of what hurt may have resulted from the pursuit of a gripping narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that no pain was caused by S-Town—that everyone was perfectly fine and happily signed off on the revealing nature of the podcast, or that McLemore would have been pleased with the complex memorial to his tumultuous life. But these questions are worth asking in a larger way, especially if S-Town helps give rise to a trend in podcasting where in-depth explorations of a single life are sold as binge-worthy narratives. If that’s the case, it seems worth issuing the same sort of caution that Bishop gave to Lowell more than 40 years ago: Evaluate the moral price of producing good art and what damage it might cause to those involved when their secrets are instantly available for the entertainment consumption of thousands or millions of listeners. ­­S-Town may be a groundbreaking new kind of podcast; it also, like many poems, memoirs, and articles before it, confesses other people’s pain in a public—and at times questionable—way.