Lowell in Jail

October 13: On this day in 1943 Robert Lowell entered New York City's West Street Jail, convicted of draft evasion. The twenty-six-year-old poet was barely published at this point, but because he came from a venerated Boston family the event made headline news. Looking back, Lowell would describe his stand as "the most decisive thing I ever did, just as a writer." He would also turn the memory into "Memories of West Street and Lepke," a central poem of Life Studies, the 1959 collection regarded by many as the most important book of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.


Lowell's protest was principled, but not that of a pacifist. He had answered earlier draft calls willingly, and had even tried to enlist; on all occasions he had been turned down because of poor eyesight. There was every reason to think that he would be turned down again at his upcoming recall examination, but in the interim Lowell had become an even more devout Catholic, and America at war had shown a new "Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations." This phrase is from Lowell's "Declaration of Personal Responsibility," mailed to President Roosevelt on September 7th and then to 110 other family members, friends, and newspapers. Such comments got him a year and a day at the West Street correctional facility.


Often described as the first book of the "Confessional School," the Life Studies collection represented a breakthrough in style for Lowell, and brought him a National Book Award. But the writing triggered his fourth and fifth mental breakdowns from manic-depression and, as described here by biographer Paul Mariani, put him back in jail:

Afraid of shock treatments, afraid of being locked up again, afraid of what was happening to him, Cal [Lowell's nickname] appeared to be resisting arrest in the station and was once again treated roughly by the police, who even refused him water, until his friend demanded they stop treating him like some ape. Then he drove Cal out to McLean's, where Cal was admitted, isolated, and stripped to his underwear to keep him from hurting himself.

Lowell would continue to suffer from manic-depression, continue to gather awards, and, when the war in Vietnam arrived, continue to protest.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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