The distinguished 20th-century poet Robert Lowell, despite his impeccable-seeming Boston Brahmin pedigree, liked to bring up the fact that he was “one-eighth Jewish.” As Stuart Schoffman details, Lowell in fact had one Jewish great-great grandfather on his father’s side and another on his mother’s side. More immediately, his literary career brought him into regular contact with the many Jews among the New York intellectuals. He once told another writer: “Most of my friends are Jewish, and the people I’ve learned the most from, and that I like best, in New York are Jewish.”
Reviewing two recent books about the Lowell—a scholarly biography and a memoir by an ex-lover—Schoffman explores the poet’s eccentric and contradictory relations with Jews and the Jewish people.
At age nineteen, [before World War II], Lowell had written the [notoriously anti-Semitic Ezra] Pound from Harvard, boldly requesting tutelage. . . . Pound, an infamous fascist, made anti-American broadcasts from Mussolini’s Italy, for which he was [later] locked up for treason. He [then] spent twelve years at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, DC, where Lowell visited him. But Pound’s Jewish-conspiracy theories were more than Lowell could bear. As he wrote to him in 1956, “I have no mind for your gospel, and don’t let us talk about the Jews.” . . .
Lowell was obsessed with the Holocaust. In 1953, living in Amsterdam, he wrote the poet Randall Jarrell, . . . that he had just read “twenty volumes of the Nuremberg trials,” as well as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. But [he] was also drawn to tyrants, and morbidly fixated on Hitler. . . . [I]n the 1970s, he read Mein Kampf aloud to his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, telling her that Hitler was a better writer than Melville. In his manic phases, [Lowell, who suffered from serious mental illness for much of his life], sometimes believed he was Hitler, though at other times it was Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Homer’s Achilles, Dante, Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, or the “Jewish messiah.”
Sandra Hochman’s memoir reveals Lowell’s chilling capacity to lurch from Jew-lover to the opposite. At his request, she made him a seder. “He loved wearing a yarmulke I gave him,” [she writes].
In another episode Hochman relates, Lowell threw a cocktail party in which he became very drunk, started yelling about Hitler and Stalin until his guests slipped out, and then pushed her to the ground, placed his hands around her neck, and declared “I’m Hitler and you’re a Jew, and I’m going to kill you.” While finding the anecdote at least credible, Schoffman suggests that it reveals not so much latent anti-Semitism as something about “the treacherous interplay of anti-Semitism and its sneaky twin, philo-.”