Balancing act: Robert Lowell's impossible career

Hilene Sue Flanzbaum, University of Pennsylvania


Since James Fenimore Cooper set incorruptible protagonists in imaginary landscapes, the American writer has attempted to appeal to popular tastes while presenting themes elevated enough to satisfy high culture's call for a great national literature. Emerson's advice to the poet, that he not only "represent the common man," but also "see and hear what others only dream of," captures this prototypical American literary paradox. Indeed, the American writer has felt pressures on him to be both special and ordinary; he has needed to sell books to survive, all the while knowing that success in the marketplace portended ominous results in the literary academy. The career of Robert Lowell, more than that of any other canonical American writer, was defined by this tension between two distinct and incompatible American audiences: the Modernist critic called for poetry that was as complex and ambiguous as contemporary culture, while the general reader complained that poetry had become accessible only to the highly trained. While not succeeding, Lowell's attempt to balance the conflicting demands of the academic and general readers is the crucial but often overlooked context for his poetry, as well as a major chapter in the ongoing American struggle between the commercial and academic markets. At one point in his career, Lowell was the most esteemed poet of his generation; at another, he was a playwright, public speaker and political activist. This study examines Lowell's career as a product of these two competing drives; it also argues that Lowell's dilemma is paradigmatic and proves instructive for an understanding of many of our most important poets, including Emerson, Whitman, Ginsberg, Plath, and Ashbery.

Subject Area

American literature|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Flanzbaum, Hilene Sue, "Balancing act: Robert Lowell's impossible career" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9200335.