Fear of Flying: Robert Lowell and Travel

Article excerpt

... the true shark, the shadow of departure.

--"Flight to New York," The Dolphin

Americans began traveling abroad in unprecedented numbers in what Robert Lowell called, in "Memories of West Street and Lepke," the "tranquilized fifties" (Life Studies 85; line 12). (1) In 1957, the first edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day appeared, its title suggesting the strength of the dollar against European and other currencies. "One shouldn't gloat over a good exchange rate," said Elizabeth Bishop in a letter, pleased nevertheless at how easily she could get by in Brazil (One Art 321). The wherewithal and the inclination of the U.S. middle class to vacation in Europe was but one index of the strength of American economic interests that, following World War II, moved into markets formerly controlled by French and British corporations. In this context, Robert von Hallberg has argued that American poets abroad, far from being opposed to political expansion, were as caught up as other Americans in the proliferation of American interests. Indeed, he suggests, they carried out the poetic counterpart of that expansion--the establishment of an American cultural hegemony. Allen Tate, von Hallberg reports, could write to the U.S. State department, "Mr. Lowell is the kind of a man I think we should send abroad more and more in order to eliminate some false impressions that foreigners seem to have about the qualifications of Americans to participate in international cultural life on equal terms with them" (72).

Tate may have been hasty in his judgment. Did the United States really want to send its most celebrated literary manic-depressive to foreign nations so that he could insult local officials, rave about the Bomb, and have to be sedated and packed home again? The idea of Lowell as government spokesman, promoting U.S. interests abroad, does not sit easily with Lowell's abundantly documented instability. Even had Lowell wanted to aid U.S. political and cultural expansion--not unthinkable, despite his left-liberal political affiliations and activism--how would he have done so? (2) Whatever small power American poets wielded at the mid-century--more than they wield today--they occupied a space still well below the horizon of the average citizen or the average head of state.

Von Hallberg's poet-traveler conforms well to the versions of travel presented in postcolonial critical texts of the past two decades. Numerous culture critics have traced the first-world traveler's subjecting of the foreign site to conceptual control--psychic or physical, artistic or geographic--by means of the colonial "gaze." (3) But the poems of late-twentieth-century travelers, American or not, suggest little in common with this age-of-empire version of the subject. The traveler of the past century (not only post- but pre-war, as in the much-documented cases of modernist U.S. expatriates) has, on the contrary, been largely conflicted and unstable, vulnerable both to centrifugal forces within himself or herself, and to pressures and assaults from without, including, particularly, those issuing from home.

For present purposes, the European trip von Hallberg discusses--in which Lowell lectured as part of the Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization and which resulted in a manic episode followed by hospitalization--will not be as germane as two subsequent and still more traumatic periods in Lowell's poetic career: the period in which he traveled to South America and Mexico, and the period, toward the end of his life, when, having left Elizabeth Hardwick for Caroline Blackwood, he made numerous flights between England and the United States. It was during these years, rather than during the earlier European trip, that Lowell's travels began to erode an already vulnerable psyche and to become subject matter for his poems.

"FALLING, FALLING": THE NORTH-SOUTH AXIS

Near the middle of Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead, a new trope appears, one that will continue in several successive books, particularly those whose poems are often presented as daily notes--Notebook 1967-68, Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. …