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Miss Lowell Regrets

The New York Evening World November 13 1915
Fig. 1. New York Evening World, November 13, 1915, Amy Lowell Additional Material 2005M-32, Box 4, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Used with permission.

Amy Lowell is tired. “This is a work, this poetry,” she writes Harriet Monroe in March of 1922, finalizing the poems she’ll have included in the 1922 version of Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson’s The New Poetry anthology.[1]  Lowell had published her eighth and ninth books the previous year, and would publish her tenth in ten years later that fall. She has pulled back on the rigorous lecturing schedule which has kept her away from her home in Brookline, Massachusetts and has had her crisscrossing the country the past several years. She is deep into the painstaking research that will become her two-volume biography of John Keats. It will be published in January of 1925, just a few months before her death of a stroke at the age of fifty-one. Monroe is tired too. She is in the midst of moving Poetry magazine’s office from its iconic, if shabby, 543 Cass Street location to spacious offices on Erie Street in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood.[2] These two women, sometimes friends, often combatants, have spent the last decade pioneering the New Poetry movement, as editors, critics, poets, and proselytizers. “I am awfully sorry you’re so tired,” Lowell tells Monroe, “but I’m not surprised.” 

When I got an NEH Fellowship to spend a year editing and annotating Amy Lowell’s letters, it didn’t occur to me how much of that time I would spend watching her work herself to death. Lowell’s papers are at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which has scanned her outgoing letters. As the PI and Project Director for the Amy Lowell Letters Project (ALLP), an open-access digital critical edition of her collected correspondence, I am working with a team of scholars and graduate students in English and Digital Humanities to edit, annotate, and digitize her letters (using TEI/XML) with the goal of tagging basic metadata for each letter (date, recipient, location of recipient), as well as content-specific metadata (topics discussed, personal and historical events, financial transactions, people, poems, books, and magazines referenced). This work will enable us to turn the letters into a searchable dataset spanning 1910, the year she published her first poems, to 1925. My job this year is to work through as much of her correspondence as possible, as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and so I spend my days immersed in the minutiae of Lowell’s days, living in her world almost as much as in mine.

If you’ve ever heard me speak at a conference, or sat next to me in the audience, or shared an elevator with me, or walked by me at the hotel bar, you know I’ve been arguing for two decades that we need to be paying more attention to Amy Lowell and that her exclusion from literary histories of modernism means we’re only ever getting a partial view of that moment.  As a searchable and visualizable dataset, ALLP will make that case by enabling us to trace her professional relationships with other modern poets—supportive, as well as antagonistic—and the lifecycle of poems and volumes, not only Lowell’s, but those of the many poets she mentored and advocated for. It will offer real-time insights into the publication histories of little magazines, showing the very beginnings of magazines such as Poetry and The Little Review, significant leadership changes in journals like The Egoist and Mercure de France, and the mainstreaming of modern poetry in wide-circulation magazines such as The Century and The Atlantic Monthly. It will track the financial transactions subtending modernist poetry (royalties, printing costs, journal subscriptions, and sponsorships), and by detailing Lowell’s cross-country lecture tours in support of her volumes and the New Poetry movement more generally, will help trace the outlines of the early twentieth-century literary lecture circuit.

In this way, her letters function as a sort of flipside to the Modernist Journals Project. Where MJP allows users to engage with modernist texts as early twentieth-century readers might have encountered them, the metadata we are creating for this edition of Lowell’s correspondence offers insights into the labor that precedes publication: the queries, submissions, revisions, rejections, and financial transactions that bridge artistic creation and public consumption.

Lowell’s papers at Harvard are uniquely complete because she had secretaries type her letters in triplicate, allowing her to build and manage her own archive. (She started saving them in earnest around 1913, the year she first traveled to England to meet the poets writing under the mysterious and provocative Imagiste banner.) ALLP has approximately 1700 letters written by Lowell to work with, most of which are unsigned drafts of letters typed by secretaries and hand-corrected by Lowell, or unsigned mimeographs of final drafts. Final drafts of some of her correspondence can be found in other people’s archives, of course, but this project draws primarily on the archive Lowell herself created. Two months after Lowell’s death, her longtime companion and literary executor Ada Dwyer Russell wrote to one of Lowell’s closest friends, composer Carl Engel, explaining the significance of the archive. “The files mean a perfect history of the whole poetry movement and we have her answers in carbon to everything she wrote.”[3]

Lowell’s papers at Harvard are also uniquely incomplete, because she requested that her personal correspondence be burnt at her death, which Russell did. “She kept everything—a note or a telegram—of no interest or value to anyone,” Russell explains to Engel. “I wish to tell you also,” she continues, “that all your letters to her were burned unread. She wanted me to do that—clear out the drawers of her desk in her own room. Also I burnt all mine and that was easy in one way—only it was a hot Sunday morning and I watched it all” (Bedford 522).

Many years later Russell’s grandson, publisher Theodore S. Amussen remembered being ten and “watching [his grandmother] in the back garden burn in a small bonfire boxes full of letters and other papers belonging to Amy Lowell. Even then,” he recalls, “I felt that what was being done was not right. And it was only many years later when I was an executive officer and editor in chief of two New York publishing houses did I realize that a terrible archival disservice had been done” (Bedford 522).

Even with the loss of her personal letters, the intimacies of Lowell’s personal life, her satisfactions, disappointments, triumphs and sorrows thread their way through her professional correspondence. Sometimes her voice is warm and witty, compassionate and practical, as when she mentors an aspiring poet; other times it’s supercilious and pedantic, as in letters to critics she believes have misunderstood Imagism, free verse, and the New Poetry; and sometimes the voice roaring out of these letters is flush with emotion—Lowell’s anguish over slights, her sarcasm, and her vitriol on occasion rival that of her alleged archnemesis Ezra Pound.

Text of letter by Amy Lowell to Harriet Monroe, September 15, 1914
Fig. 2. Amy Lowell to Harriet Monroe, September 15, 1914, MS Lowell 19.1 (909), Houghton Library, Harvard University.  Used with permission.

Editing a collected letters is by nature repetitive work. You start at one end of an epistolary relationship and dutifully work your way through it until it ends. Along the way you’ll hear versions of stories, both major and mundane, that you’ve heard your subject tell a dozen times to a dozen different interlocutors. For the print version of Lowell’s selected letters, which I’m working on simultaneously, I can only use about two hundred letters, so I have to make hard choices about which letters best convey events in Lowell’s life and her response to them. There, traditional footnotes do exactly the sort of work you’d expect them to do, introducing subjects and contextualizing life events within the larger narrative arc I'm mapping, often linking them to letters I don’t have room for in the book. 

The comprehensive nature of the digital edition, however, requires me to write reusable stand-alone biographical entries of correspondents and people Lowell mentions, summaries of world events, and brief histories of the periodicals, publishing houses, and booksellers referenced throughout the letter corpus, tracked on spreadsheets for encoders to use to tag those entities in individual letters. I also have to create reusable entries for topics Lowell returns to again and again, such as her worries that keeping D. H. Lawrence in the 1916 Some Imagist Poets anthology after The Rainbow is banned in the UK for obscenity will cause Houghton Mifflin to back out of their contract (it didn’t), or that she overstepped in buying up and hoarding all copies of The Egoist’s May 1915 “Special Imagist Number” for sale in the US because she objected to an article by Harold Monro (she most definitely did). I have to create, as well, entries summarizing her various illnesses, surgeries, and recoveries.  

When I begin working through a correspondence with someone, I wade into the newness of a relationship, witnessing familiarity deepen or wane, acclimating myself to the business pulling Lowell and this person together. Is this a publisher, a magazine editor, an Imagist collaborator, a journalist? Do they know each other outside of poetry? Do they have friends in common? Each round of letters brings new business transactions to describe, new people, poems, and periodicals to track down, but running through each correspondence is the basic trajectory of Lowell’s career, as she moves from a novice poet trying to get her work into magazines to a best-selling author shepherding the work of poets she’s taken under her wing into publication.  

After she injures herself in the summer of 1918 lifting the back wheels of a carriage out of a muddy ditch on a New Hampshire road, pain enters Lowell’s letters and it never leaves. “I wish I had walked home that night, and left the old carriage and horse to go to Guinea, instead of so laboriously lifting it back into the road,” she tells Carl Sandburg.[4] She will have four surgeries between 1918 and 1920 to repair an umbilical hernia; this injury will exacerbate, and be exacerbated by, several bouts of pneumonia and flu—including that flu, when she is so ill she reports losing 66 pounds. She also develops dangerously high blood pressure as a result of the injury, which leads to eye problems that limit the hours she can work each day. When the hernia ruptures again on April 10, 1925, she never recovers, dying a month later, before she is strong enough for another surgery. 

Each time I work my way through a set of letters, I witness, again, those first setbacks from her accident, the apologies for delayed responses, the push to complete, or delegate, or reschedule projects in the weeks leading up to a surgery, knowing that her convalescence will be long and difficult, and hope each time that she is right when she reports that “the specialist in New York assures me that I shall be cured” (Lowell to Sandburg). Each time 1925 rolls around, I find myself getting caught up in her preparations for a spring lecture tour of England in support of the Keats biography. Maybe this time she’ll get there. But always, of course, the correspondence ends abruptly, with a note signed by a secretary explaining that the conversation is over.

Headline in Kansas City Post, February 6, 1926
Fig. 3. Kansas City Post, February 6, 1926, Amy Lowell Additional Material 2005M-32, Box 4, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Used with permission.

Lowell’s experience of illness registers in her letters as at once unremarkable, an aside in an instruction-filled missive reminding a collaborator that she’ll be away from her desk for the next month as she recovers from surgery, and as catastrophic. “I lift my head from my bed of pain to tell you that this has been the most dubious three weeks I have ever passed,” begins an October 1920 letter to North American Review editor Elisabeth Brown Cutting, a friend at this point as well as a professional connection. She notes that this letter, signed by her secretary (“Dictated but not read by Miss Lowell”), “is my first attempt at epistolary correspondence, for beyond saying ‘Write this’ or ‘Write that’ or ‘I won’t pay attention to it,’ I have not yet gone.” She regrets having had the surgery, has developed a blood clot, and wishes she were back at her pre-surgery levels of pain. “However,” she continues sardonically, “the professional instinct is strong even in death, wherefore I send the enclosed poem.”[5] 

In short, Lowell’s daily life included a significant amount of illness and chronic pain, which she acknowledges in the process of conducting business. Importantly, she is quick to clarify that she has had an accident, not an illness, seemingly resisting the Gilded Age association of poor health with femininity. “It would be bad enough to have an illness,” she tells Sandburg, “but there seems something helplessly dismal in being laid low on account of a mere accident.”[6] When fellow Imagist John Gould Fletcher, at one time a close friend, offends her by suggesting she has compromised her health by giving too many lectures, she responds furiously to his condescension: “Where is your brain if you can imagine that giving lectures can cause an operation?” She describes the accident to him at length as, in fact, an act of heroism: “Mrs. Russell, who was with me, was not strong enough to help me, so the necessity for lifting the whole back carriage fell upon me. I did it and saved Mrs. Russell’s life and the runaway, and ruptured myself in the process.” Lowell suggests that while giving a lecture might make Fletcher sick (“You cannot lecture,” she says bluntly), it is inherent to her character. “You forget [that] I come from a long line of orators,” she reminds him, asserting dominance and aligning herself squarely with the men of her family. (She was the first Lowell woman to ever speak in public.) “Public speaking is natural to me, . . . it is no more effort . . .than it is to talk in a drawing-room.”[7]

Headlines on Lowell's Death, May 13, 1925
Fig. 4. Headlines from May 13, 1925, Amy Lowell Additional Material 2005M-32, Box 4, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Used with permission.

Lowell would have been appalled by the headlines trumpeting the news of her death as the result of overwork, for to her work was the point of life. “But after all,'' she tells Richard Aldington, “we are all just here for the working.”[8] When a high school teacher writes twice asking for advice to inspire her students Lowell balks at “the silly sentimentalism” of the request. “If a person cannot be inspired by their own sense of duty and their own anxiety and ambition to do good work, no amount of mottoes will help them.” Rather, she admonishes her, “Tell them . . . that the object of life is work and not amusement; that the way to get ahead is to be jealous of your hours of work, not jealous of your hours of leisure; that no man ever succeeds on eight hours a day.”[9] 

As the post-surgery letter to Elisabeth Cutting shows, this work ethic imbues even her most vulnerable moments. When Harriet Monroe leaves her out of a long list of best American poets, defending her decision by asserting that Lowell does not need the publicity as much as others, Lowell calls her justification “a surprise and a pain.” Her tone is raw as she explains, “I was not contending for recognition by other people but by you. It was your words which I thought I had a right to receive and your pronouncements which I regretted your withholding from me” (emphasis in the original). Lowell is a literary celebrity by this point, trailed by reporters and mobbed by autograph seekers, but she knows that popularity is not necessarily indicative of an enduring legacy. “I want the serious recognition of thinking people,” she writes, “and I want you to accord me the place which I have won for myself as well as to have others accord it to me.” And then, abruptly, she drops the matter (”But we will not discuss that anymore”), turning back to business to ask if she might review recent books by Eunice Tietjens and Louis Untermeyer for Poetry.[10] 

She stands up for herself in this way throughout the letters. She outlines her terms clearly and gets contracts that serve her and her colleagues well, but not without some back and forth and not without ruffled feathers. The dust-up with Ezra Pound over the use of the name Imagism is her most well-known conflict, but briefer than has been represented, hardly the most serious, and not even the most fun. My favorite is a heated Pound-adjacent exchange with William Carlos Williams throughout 1916 that begins with Williams asking for money for the literary magazine Others. The first letter reads in its entirety, “Dear Miss Lowell, Accept my homage—much as I dislike you: ‘The Cross-Roads’ is good. Perhaps I won’t like it as much tomorrow. Send money for Others.” “Thank you for your love letter,” Lowell’s response begins. When she refuses to send money, Williams accuses her of having built a career on “a little stolen notoriety” from Pound and of being unwilling to help other poets as she rises in power.[11] Even as she refutes Williams’ accusations here and in the next several letters—“your letter would be insulting if it were not pathetic”—she repeatedly invites him to meet with her to talk them over in person.[12] I don’t know how often they met, if ever, but eventually they get past this animosity, and by the time their letters end in 1921 they are exchanging tickets to one another’s readings, as well as compliments and advice on each other’s poems. 

This is a pattern throughout Lowell’s archive, where conflicts ignite, flare up, and almost always, resolve productively, warmly, even, because she insists on addressing them and talking them through. Nobody stays mad at Amy Lowell, nor does she stay mad at them.  Even Fletcher seems to have come around. In their last letters they make plans to meet in England the next time she is there. At the time of their falling out in 1920 she urges him, “Fletcher, don’t behave this way. It is not good for the poetry, it is not good for anything. Try and remember that I am fond of you, that I admire your work and always have, and try and remember my loyalty and interest.”[13]

I think a lot about the steady self-assuredness of moments like this in her letters. She models how we might orient ourselves as professionals, by taking as a given our right to be involved in the work, by asking for what we want, by not being afraid of conflict, and by trusting that conflicts can resolve, relationships evolve.

I also think a lot about the belief in poetry underscored by Lowell’s use of the definite article when she cautions Fletcher that his anger “is not good for the poetry,” as though it were some sort of finite, mutually understood thing to which they are both responsible. She lived and died in service to “the poetry,” spending the last four years of her life writing her 1200-page biography of Keats, the poet she loved most. After twenty years amassing one of the largest and most significant private collections of Keatsiana in the world—manuscript drafts, unpublished letters, annotated books from his own library—she was determined to use those materials to create a Keats who would speak to twentieth-century readers.[14] She wanted them to understand the poet as a gifted visionary, but also an ordinary human being with ordinary problems and contradictions, not a sickly victim preyed on by manipulative friends and an opportunistic girlfriend.[15]  But the work was exhausting, consuming—it filled every second of her life. She rarely slept more than four hours a night; while on lecture tours she wrote in hotel rooms and backstage almost until the moment she appeared at the lectern those last few years. 

At times her compulsion to take on hard, often overwhelming work in the name of poetry, even when it is killing her, even when, to my mind, she doesn’t need to do it—she was rich, after all, and she didn’t have to answer to anyone—mystifies me. What must it be like to believe so wholly in art? To toil for culture, confident that the sacrifices are worth it? Here I’m projecting the malaise of being an academic in the twenty-first-century corporatized university and my own mid-career ambivalences onto Lowell. I am a little wearied by this work, I confess, by the caution and conservativeness editing requires, by worries that I’ve missed a reference or recorded it on the wrong spreadsheet, or even worse, that I’ve missed or misplaced a reference, my funding will run out, and interest in the project will lag and it won’t ultimately matter. I’m tired by the uphill struggle of getting Lowell’s work back into modernist conversations; tired, at times, by Lowell, who hangs like a shadow over my career, who is my career; tired of her voice ringing in my ears.

But when I sit down at my desk in the morning and open up the next letter, her voice seizes me again, and I fall right back into her world. Her letters—scholarly, newsy, and practical, full of candor, warmth, and scorn—are an amazing place to live. She is excellent company. I can’t resist the gravitational pull of her self-confidence, her deft, clear-eyed negotiation of the literary marketplace, her loyalty to friends (and impatience with charlatans and the presumptuous), her dedication to an art that felt worth dying for.  

Logo for The Amy Lowell Letters Project, Lowell's face
Fig. 5. Logo for The Amy Lowell Letters Project (website under construction)


[1] Amy Lowell to Harriet Monroe, March 16, 1922. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Amy Lowell’s letters are from Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Lowell 19.1.

[2] Monroe writes about this move in “Moving,” Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May, 1922), pp.88-93.

[3] Quoted in Bedford, William C.“A Musical Apprentice: Amy Lowell to Carl Engel.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. LVIII, No. 4 (October, 1972), p. 522.

[4] Amy Lowell to Carl Sandburg, September 23, 1920.

[5] Amy Lowell to Elisabeth Brown Cutting, November 16-18, 1920.

[6] Amy Lowell to Carl Sandburg, September 23, 1920.

[7] Amy Lowell to John Gould Fletcher, March 17, 1920.

[8] Amy Lowell to Richard Aldington, November 16, 1914.

[9] Quoted in S. Foster Damon. Amy Lowell: A Chronicle, with Extracts from her Correspondence. (Houghton Mifflin, 1935), 602.

[10] Amy Lowell to Harriet Monroe, May 26, 1917.

[11] William Carlos Williams to Amy Lowell, October 4, 1916, October 12, 1916.

[12] Amy Lowell to William Carlos Williams, October 9, 1916, October 13, 1916.

[13] Amy Lowell to John Gould Fletcher, March 17, 1920.

[14] Lowell left her collection of Keats’ manuscripts  to Harvard, where it remains the “defining gift” of the Harvard Keats Collection.

[15] Lowell’s groundbreakingly sympathetic interpretation of Fanny Brawne as herself an artist is reflected in Jane Campion’s Bright Star.