When she died in 1970, Louise Bogan had received most of the accolades the United States bestows on its best writers: membership in the Academy of American Poets, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters; a Guggenheim Fellowship; the Harriet Monroe Award for Poetry; the Bollingen Prize. She had lectured and taught at several colleges and universities, sat on panels with many distinguished colleagues, and served as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. In addition to being recognized as one of the best lyric poets of the century, she had become an important critical voice, helping to determine the nation’s literary tastes as the poetry critic for The New Yorker for more than three decades. Yet, as her biographer Elizabeth Frank shows in her sympathetic study, these successes came late in Bogan’s life and were wrought out of great emotional pain. They brought her neither widespread fame nor personal happiness, and her last years were marred by paralyzing depression.
At the heart of Frank’s book is her understanding of the paradoxical connection between Bogan’s artistic achievement and her psychological struggles. Though her poems are almost never autobiographical in the strictest sense, they are nevertheless profoundly tied to the events of her life. In her spare, crystalline lyrics she was able to express her alternating moods of despair and serene acceptance—the spiritual “chiaroscuro,” the blend of light and dark, which Frank uses as a dominant metaphor throughout her work.
Using as her sources Bogan’s brief memoirs and autobiographical stories, her letters to friends and family, and personal interviews with many of those who knew her, including her daughter, Maidie Alexander Scannell, Frank has been able to reconstruct her life in remarkable detail. The biographer has given special attention to those events and relationships that provide clues to Bogan’s art. She puts special emphasis on the poet’s early childhood and the character of her mother—influences which Frank, as did Bogan herself, identifies as central to much of her later distress.
Bogan was born in 1897 in Livermore Falls, Maine, where her father, Daniel Bogan, was superintendent at a paper mill. Her mother, Mary Helen Shields Bogan, was a volatile, unhappy woman who quarreled constantly and bitterly with her husband and was often unfaithful to him. On at least one occasion she involved her young daughter in one of her affairs in some profoundly traumatic way. As Frank notes, Bogan never revealed—if she even remembered clearly—the nature of the experience, but she did record the fact that she once went blind for two days in her early childhood, apparently reacting against some sight she desperately needed to block out. By the time the family moved to Boston in 1909, the situation had stabilized enough for Bogan to have a satisfactory, productive career as student and apprentice writer at the Girls’ Latin School and as a freshman at Boston University. Yet her marriage at nineteen to Curt Alexander, a German-born soldier, seems a classic case of a young woman seeking escape from her parents.
As Frank observes, one critical result of Bogan’s family heritage was a lasting difficulty in establishing permanent relationships. She found it hard to trust anyone and at times seemed to expect betrayal from both lovers and friends. Within a few months of her first marriage, she recognized that it had been a terrible mistake. She and Alexander had little in common, and she was miserable during the months they were stationed in Panama as she awaited the birth of their daughter. She soon took the baby home to her parents in Boston. Although she and Alexander were briefly reunited when he was sent back to the United States, they separated again and would almost certainly have divorced had he not died of pneumonia in 1920. By then Louise had moved to Greenwich Village and had at least one short and painful love affair.
Second only to her conflict with her mother in its damaging effects was her relationship with Raymond Holden, whom she married in 1925 after living with him for a year. Their ten years together brought her the greatest happiness she was to know, but they also moved her inexorably toward a complete breakdown. Socially and temperamentally they differed greatly. He came from a well-established, wealthy New York family; she still smarted from the insults she had suffered as an Irish working-class girl in Boston. He disliked scenes; she, like her mother, was given to violent rages. In addition, she was almost pathologically jealous.
Frank’s description of the last years of the marriage suggests that Bogan forcibly broke it apart. The cost of her anger and suspicion was depression, which became so severe that she hospitalized herself for treatment in 1931. Two years later, perhaps sensing restlessness in Holden and certainly feeling unhappy about the marriage herself, she applied for and won a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel to Europe. Her husband was unhappy about her departure, and Frank quotes extensively...
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