Robert Giroux’s selection and editing of Lowell’s prose is valuable as a contribution not only to the poet’s artistic legacy (he died in 1977) but also to American letters. Never a literary critic in the technical sense of a writer who establishes a distinct aesthetic or rhetorical system, Lowell is more a judicious guide to writers and to ideas that he cherished. Among writers whom he examines with balanced appreciation are his friends, mentors, and colleagues, such as John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Yvor Winters, Randall Jarrell, and Ford Madox Ford. Other distinguished writers are remembered on the basis of brief or lengthy acquaintance or from anecdotal reminiscences of friends, among them Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and John Berryman. In all these appreciative essays, most of them brief but carved with the precision of a poem, Lowell records his insights into character as well as art. He attempts to discover in his subject a key trait or artistic predilection that illuminates the writer’s special quality. Even in writers as neurotically secretive as Frost or Eliot, Lowell discovers qualities of warmth, flashes of kindness.
Giroux divides the prose pieces into three groupings: the first treating contemporary or near-contemporary figures, mostly poets; the second, formal essays for special occasions or for literary-critical journals; the last--for most readers the most moving--on Lowell’s own career. Two selections from the poet’s uncompleted autobiography appear (“Near the Unbalanced Aquarium” is a devastating but unsentimental view of his hospitalization in 1954 for mental illness), as well as two important interviews, one with Frederick Seidel in 1961 and the other with Ian Hamilton in 1971. Without exception, the collected pieces reveal a fine intelligence, a delicate sensitivity to the great theme of the artist’s struggle to create, and the gentle, tolerant, engaging personality that was Lowell’s.