The push and pull of love and anger course through this riveting collection of correspondence between onetime literary power couple Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Beginning soon after Lowell’s move to England, without Hardwick, to teach, the book then tracks her discovery of his infidelity, their 1972 divorce, and his 1973 publication of The Dolphin, a sonnet sequence drawing extensively on her letters to him. It then covers the aftermath, which saw Hardwick deeply hurt, and their friends (including Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Adrienne Rich) rallying around her. Though Lowell is perhaps better known, Hardwick emerges as the collection’s central figure. Her voice resonates more deeply, with frustrated but loving concern for Lowell—who struggled with manic-depressive disorder—and with protectiveness toward their daughter, Harriet. Despite such pressures, Hardwick also, as Harriet noted, “was never freer or more lively” than after the divorce, when she was able to focus on her own creativity rather than on her feckless husband. Bolstered by a helpful introduction and timeline by poet and Barnard professor Hamilton (Corridor), this compulsively readable collection illuminates a tumultuous time in two celebrated writers’ lives. (Dec.)
"The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 . . . will be the essential volume for any understanding of what actually went on. A sort of casebook, it assembles material from all the participants in the turmoil, including Elizabeth Hardwick, whose letters from this period appear in full for the first time. With 'Lizzie' as its principal author, The Dolphin Letters turns out to be a better and a more important book than The Dolphin." Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker
"A peculiarly fascinating volume containing hundreds of letters between poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and his estranged wife, novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (1915-2007). . . . The book includes not just Hardwick's shocked responses to the poems, but also the more outraged reactions of poets Adrienne Rich, who broke off her friendship with Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, who famously told Lowell that "art just isn't worth that much."A devastating examination of the limits of the written word." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"These letters, which draw from the last years of Lowell’s life, detail a profoundly creative time for the couple as well as the breakup of their marriage (and eventual reconciliation). Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Mary McCarthy and other friends make appearances; taken together, the correspondence offers a debate about the cultural role and legacy of art." Joumana Khatib, The New York Times
"The push and pull of love and anger course through this riveting collection of correspondence between onetime literary power couple Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick . . . compulsively readable . . . [The Dolphin Letters] illuminates a tumultuous time in two celebrated writers’ lives" Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
"The Hardwick-Lowell correspondence on its own would make a fat book, but a less absorbing and significant one than Hamilton has created by including letters to and from the writers who constituted “their circle.” The other voices Hamilton introduces . . . enlarge the picture." Langdon Hammer, New York Review of Books
"The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 brings to life one of literary history’s most famous scandals . . . What makes the letters so darkly compelling, and such uneasy, thrilling company . . . is the elemental question of motive. Why do people do what they do? How much do they understand their own impulses and responsibilities?" Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"At first glance, the voyeuristic interest offered by the living drama of the messages between Lowell and Hardwick almost outweighs their nature as letters. But neither can put a foot wrong in writing a sentence; each has the instinctive cadence of a born writer, the sophistication of an adult who has seen and felt almost too much, the directness and candor of an intimate acquaintance, and the steady capacity for irony even in sadness. " Helen Vendler, Harper's
“Saskia Hamilton has performed the miraculous editorial task of putting together [The Dolphin Letters] . . . a gripping story . . . I was on the edge of my seat for the entire time I was reading it . . . It is as intense and as beautifully composed as a well-constructed epistolary novel, but with the added force of being . . . real.” Wendy Lesser, Threepenny Review
"Buoyed by the dialectical elegance of its form, The Dolphin Letters is an extraordinary philosophical inquiry into what is permissible in a work of art . . . Each of their letters was in some sense a private story that partook of life as a means of making sense of shared experience, confirming it or mourning it or holding it to the light. If their correspondence anticipated aspects of their arta working through of opaque materialit was also the final coherence of a great and conflicted love." Dustin Illingworth, The Nation
"With graceful authority, poet and editor Saskia Hamilton defines the emotional and literary issues raised by this controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning book, reissued to reveal Lowell’s revisions as The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972–1973 in conjunction with these ensnaring and affecting transatlantic letters between two poets who, in spite of epic hurt, never ceased loving each other." Booklist
In the spring of 1970, shortly after Lowell and Hardwick's 20th wedding anniversary, Lowell, in Oxford on a scholarship, moved in with writer and muse Lady Caroline Blackwood, former wife of painter Lucian Freud. A distraught Hardwick disclosed her anger, humiliation, and depression in a series of letters to Lowell from 1970 to 1973. Without Hardwick's knowledge or approval, Lowell quoted, paraphrased, and emended the letters, incorporating them in the sonnet sequence, The Dolphin (1973). Anguished at the betrayal of her privacy, Hardwick tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to retrieve the letters. She passed away in 2007 believing they were either lost or destroyed. Unpredictably, Blackwood, through an intermediary, had deposited the letters at Harvard's Houghton Library on condition they be released after Hardwick's death. The correspondence is published here for the first time with letters, extending to 1979, to Lowell and Hardwick's daughter Harriet and close friends Mary McCarthy, Elisabeth Bishop, and Adrienne Rich. VERDICT Replete with editor Hamilton's masterly and well-researched footnotes, this will be an indispensable gloss to the reading and interpretation of The Dolphin.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal
A peculiarly fascinating volume containing hundreds of letters between poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and his estranged wife, novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (1915-2007).
Beginning in 1970, Lowell was living in England, where he met and later married his third wife, Caroline Blackwood. Hardwick was living in New York with their teenage daughter, Harriet, during the school year and on the coast of Maine during the summer. This is a long, lush, and impeccably footnoted volume, and yet some of the most intriguing action happens between the lines. Poet Hamilton (English/Barnard Coll.; Corridor, 2014, etc.), who also edited The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), sets up the book with a well-informed section of biographical context and a chronology covering both the two writers and the broader political arena. As a result, before the exchange of letters begins, readers knows what Hardwick doesn't: that Lowell, playfully depicting his time in England and dithering about when he will return to the States, is already deep in a relationship with Blackwood. This quality gives the letters the sometimes-voyeuristic thrill of watching a slow motion train wreck. As Hardwick gains awareness, the dynamic between the two becomes apparent: Hardwick, forced to be the practical one, dealt with Harriet's daily life and begged Lowell to pay his taxes while Lowell, frequently hospitalized for bipolar disorder, wrote whimsical letters to Harriet and focused on his own internal feelings. All the while, they exchanged their thoughts about their work and their reading. In addition to the marital betrayal, the volume covers another, more insidious one: Lowell, writing the confessional volume of poetry called The Dolphin, appropriated and changed lines from Hardwick's letters to create a series of poems about his estrangement from her and love for Blackwood. The book includes not just Hardwick's shocked responses to the poems, but also the more outraged reactions of poets Adrienne Rich, who broke off her friendship with Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, who famously told Lowell that "art just isn't worth that much."
A devastating examination of the limits of the written word.