February 21, 2018

Lowell & the West Street Jail

On this day in 1943 Robert Lowell went to jail for draft evasion. The twenty-six-year-old Lowell was barely published at this point, but because he came from a venerated Boston family -- one with Mayflower roots, and distinguished military leaders -- 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 a centerpiece poem in 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. Military service was a "moral responsibility" which he and his family had long honored, but the recent saturation bombings -- Hamburg, other places, eventually Dresden -- and the demand that Germany and Japan unconditionally surrender had forced Lowell to "the conclusion that I cannot honorably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country."

Such comments got him a year and a day in a correctional facility. Much of the time was spent in community service, but the first ten days of confinement were in New York's West Street Jail, in which Lepke Buchalter, gangster boss of "Murder, Incorporated," was also being held as he awaited Sing-Sing. In "Memories of West Street and Lepke," Lowell recalls him as untroubled:
    ...there piling towels on a rack,
    or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
    of things forbidden to the common man:
    a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
    flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
    Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
    he drifted in a sheepish calm,
    where no agonizing reappraisal
    jarred his concentration on the electric chair
    hanging like an oasis in his air
    of lost connections....
The poem was written when America was in "the tranquilized Fifties" and Lowell, now forty and no longer "a fire-breathing Catholic ... telling off the state and president," seemed accommodated:
    Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
    in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
    I hog a whole house on Boston's
    "hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
    where even the man
    scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
    has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
    and is "a young Republican."
Beneath the surface resignation, the poem seems to bristle with change, or the hope for it. The poet of Life Studies was certainly not at rest. The collection represented a breakthrough in style for Lowell -- it is often described as the first book of the "Confessional" school -- and brought him a National Book Award. 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 write -- two Pulitzers to go with the National Book Award -- and, when the Vietnamese War arrived, continue to protest. He died in 1977 of a heart attack, just sixty years old.

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