Amy Lowell: A Chronicle
[Houghton Mifflin, $5.00]
AMY LOWELL was one of the great personages of the early twentieth century. To her contemporaries who came into personal contact with her, whether as loyal friends or honest antagonists, the reason for her preeminence, for her supremely memorable impact upon the thoughtful conversation, the writers, and the currents of literature of her time, was patent. Two words completely explained it: Amy Lowell. That, however, could not be true for the general public. They were fed upon apocryphal and saffron press anecdotes. Some of these tales were illuminating; but most of them were trivial, nearly all of them humorous, and many belittling and untrue. This flock of petty stories that fluttered about one of the truly great women of our time has persisted, and, although it is in itself an earmark of the enduring interest in her character, the true estimate of her achievement has sometimes suffered. For Amy Lowell’s achievement, her great and tragic fight for freedom, straight thinking, and real feeling in life and poetry, has been obscured too much by anecdote — too often purposely, I think, because many an artistic busybody and artful editor, whole departments of academic starched shirts, and prairies full of pie-eyed poets that lushed unseen wilted before her, and recovered only by and in their anecdotage. Hence Amy Lowell both needed and deserved an honest biographer. And in the full, fine old meaning of the word ‘honest’ she has found one in S. Foster Damon.
In his biography of 728 pages Mr. Damon does not triumph by honest intent alone. His performance with a difficult subject and in an intricate and controversial critical field is excellent. This was to be expected after the sensitive biography of Blake by the same author. But in his Amy Lowell Mr. Damon has again shown not only his remarkable scholarship but an even greater and more mellow understanding. He has elected to be the chronicler of Amy Lowell rather than merely to interpret her without full presentation of his evidence. And in this choice he has undoubtedly been wise. For the evidence for his biography, the letters to and from many of the outstanding literary figures of our time, the live contemporary comment, and the mass of unique source material which Miss Lowell assembled herself for her biography of John Keats and her other books, was a golden, albeit a supremely difficult, field in which her biographer had to work. Mr. Damon has not merely hung his material upon a life line of narrative. His arrangement and just use of it to illustrate and illuminate his subject is in itself a difficult act of literary and human criticism — and a constructive and successful one. For the result is, above all, an absorbingly interesting biography.
Amy Lowell’s early Boston background and New England parentage and environment is handled with more than ordinary restraint by her biographer, himself a New Englander and a sometime member of the Harvard faculty. Not only the advantages which her background offered, but the elements of her environment with which she struggled and from which she escaped, are made clear. Her character emerges from this, but even more vividly from her letters. These are compact of real wisdom, full of lasting critical comments on the nature and function of art and poetry; ardent, generous, and sincere. Her correspondence with D. H. Lawrence and his letters to her, here first printed, are of themselves a major illumination of two fascinating personalities. Why Amy Lowell was loved, respected, hated, and feared amply appears from these pages. But it is not to be supposed that all her judgments upon poets and poetry, or the conclusions of her biographer about her own work, are to be swallowed whole. The inevitable restrictions upon both Miss Lowell and her biographer must here be implicit, but they do not, I maintain, detract importantly from a biography lacking which the history of American character and literature in modern times would be sadly incomplete. When all is said, this will remain as the finely told story of a splendid and noble life—perhaps definitive. The book is in the same format as Miss Lowell’s biography of Keats and the index reads like a roster of American and English letters.