I am in the midst of writingThe Rebels of Braintree – a story of how a group of young idealists from the village of Braintree – John Hancock, Dolly Quincy, John Adams, Abigail Smith Adams, Josiah Quincy, and his wife Abigail Phillips – recognized early in the 1760s that their rights as human beings and as citizens of England were being violated by Parliament and the King of England, and their rights would continue to be curtailed, suppressed, and denied until the colonists themselves demanded that their rights were inviolate, sacred, and worth fighting for – and dying for.
These young people organized themselves, their colony of Massachusetts, and then all the thirteen colonies, to eventually rise up and secure independence from one of the greatest powers in the world.
I am deeply grateful to the Massachusetts Historical Society for receipt of the Marc Friedlaender Fellowship, and for unlimited access to the meticulously maintained collections held by the Society. The fellowship and the collections were crucial to my research. Now it is up to me, having organized my research, to write my book. Due to my publishers, the marvelous St. Martin’s Press in the late fall, The Rebels of Braintreewill arrive in bookstores in 2019.
When I was in second grade I edited my first book of poetry. All the poems I chose had fall as the theme and I decorated the cover of the book with autumn leaves, witches’ hats and a jack l’lantern.
One of the poems I carefully copied into my book(not carefully enough: note the message stamp from my teacher, Mrs. Andersen) was The City of Falling Leaves by Amy Lowell. I could not have imagined that forty-six years later I would write a book about Amy Lowell, and the fascinating family from which she sprung.
For those past forty-six years, I have relied on poetry, again and again, for comfort and joy and understanding. Words are the balm to my soul, and poetry places those words in a form that is easily absorbed.
Poetry can charge the very air I walk through with energy and meaning: today I looked out across a field of grass punctuated by tupelo and surrounded by tall elm and pine trees, and saw every color in the range of orange and gold and red, and yes, even brown. I understood then how huge a place I live in, and how grand a gift this life has been.
I thought back to Amy’s poem, so simple and yet so absolutely right. She wrote the poem about Venice — how could she have known it would become my favorite city in the world? But for leaves in the fall — and for falling leaves — there is no place like New England.
The City of Falling Leaves
by Amy Lowell
Yellow leaves streaked with brown.
The brown leaves,
And the streaked yellow leaves,
Loosen on their branches
And drift slowly downwards.
One, two, three,
One, two, five.
All Venice is a falling of Autumn leaves —
And yellow streaked with brown.
On a cold, wet day in March of 1915, Amy Lowell stepped up on the dais in the large meeting room of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York City. She had been asked to address the Poetry Society of America about a new genre of poetry called “Imagism.” The room was filled with poets and poetry lovers, literary critics and publishers. Amy felt nervous but betrayed no sign of it as she settled her notes on the podium, then straightened the pince-nez on her nose. She raised her eyes and looked out over the rows of filled seats. She been allocated five minutes to speak. Time constraints meant nothing to Amy. She was certain that once she began to talk, the audience would become so enthralled that all sense of time would slip away.
She wore a gray silk suit that artfully covered her large bulk; the high collar of her white shirtwaist framed her delicate face. Lowell’s thin hair had been augmented with a wig and was arranged into a bun to give her some height. A pin of polished silver was stuck in her lapel. She wore a plain pince-nez on her nose. The only color was on her fingers, rings studded with semi-precious stones: garnet, opal, and tourmaline.
To illustrate her points, Amy began to recite her poem titled “Spring Day.” , At first her audience listened politely, soothed by the opening lines and interested in what would follow. But what followed was a vivid image, and one that made them increasingly uncomfortable. It was as if the tasteful and elegant clothing Lowell had dressed herself in that morning was now falling away before their eyes, revealing a naked Lowell, frolicking lazily in a bath:
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar…
Discomfort gave rise to snickers, then the audience began to call out in reproof. Lowell did not falter. She continued on reciting, her voice clear and steady:
I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me… I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots….
By the time Lowell finished reciting, the crowd was booing loudly and angrily. No matter, thought Amy Lowell. She had wanted a reaction and she’d gotten one. Her new way of writing poetry would be the talk of the poetry community and eventually the larger reading public. She had manipulated the reaction through a masterful performance, a mastery she would employ for years to come.
From her first public reading, when Lowell arranged for backstage drums to accompany her reading of a poem titled Bombardment, to the hundreds of appearances that followed (many standing room only), Lowell always gave a great performance. She chided (“Clap or hiss, I don’t care which, but do something!”); provoked (“when she lighted up a very long and very black cigar, she presented a spectacle such as Ann Arbor had never seen…” ); and seduced her audience into adoring her — or if not adoring her, at least never forgetting her.
She published seven books of poetry before she died at the age of fifty-one, appeared on the cover of Time, and won the Pulitzer Prize. But her writing of poetry would never have been enough to propel her to prominence. It was her stagecraft, the art of performance, that made her a star. Robert Frost wrote after she died, “how often have I heard it in the voice and seen it in the eyes of this generation that Amy Lowell had lodged poetry with them to stay….”Poetry held a permanent place in the hearts of her audiences, and seated right on top was the queen herself, Amy Lowell.
 Amy Lowell, “Spring Day,” Men, Women, and Ghosts, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), p. 330.
In December 1917, Amy Lowell’s local newspaper, The Brookline Chronicle, ran a notice that caught her eye. U.S. Army training camps were in need of books for their libraries. Amy called up Miss Louisa M. Hooper of the Brookline Public Library and offered to help. The two women put together collections of poetry books, funded by Amy, to be sent to the six Army camps set up in the state of Massachusetts.
A few weeks later, when the Poetry Society of America’s monthly bulletin included a notice that the librarian at Camp Sherman in Ohio was asking for poetry books, Amy knew just what to do. She wrote to him immediately, including a list of the books she had provided to all of the camps of Massachusetts.
She went further: she offered to outfit not only Camp Sherman but any other camp that might be in need of poetry books. In the end, Amy sent poetry libraries to thirty-four army camps around the United States. When military hospitals contacted her for books, she was just as eager to help and sent packets of books to hospitals around the country. By the summer of 1918, Amy Lowell had placed poetry in the hands of just about any United States soldier asking for it.Modern or classics: they wanted poems and she answered their need.
Letters from the men fed by her libraries began to trickle in. Then the stream turned to a flood, a steady flow of gratitude and praise. As Amy described it “the doughboys have had the poetry to their hands, and from the letters I have received, they seem to have made use of it.”Amy was even presented with the gift of original poems written by aspiring poet soldiers. A staff sergeant named George Gordon Ladds sent in one that Amy had framed and hung on the wall of the kitchen at Sevenels:
This custard of ice/ Is full of mice
Bubbles that blink/ Bubbles that wink
And are of blue/ Seen water through
To rigidness of a staring cow.
A letter came from Donald Evans, a published poet and the founder along with poet Max Bodenheim of the Claire Marie Press in New York City — but he wrote to Amy as an enlisted man. He was posted at Camp Crane in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and wrote to tell Amy that he had received four of her books at the camp. For two months, those books had been all he had to read. Inspired by her works, he had begun writing poetry again. Amy read his letter with delight, and then wrote back to him:
“Of course we need more beauty in the world; of course that is what we are all fighting for; and of course that is what we must make the world safe for….You can be soldier and poet, as we poets can do everything in the world better and at the same time….”
When the war ended, Evans returned to civilian life. He published a book of poetry titled Ironica and dedicated one of the poems to Amy Lowell: “Perhaps .
And why not? She had motivated him with poetry and he paid her back in kind.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Lowells of Massachusetts faced the same overriding question that Americans face today: what kind of nation world we want all Americans — friends, family, and strangers — to live in? The question in the 1840s and 1850s centered around the issue of slavery, the buying and selling of human beings for the purpose of putting them to hard labor.
The Lowell family divided on the question of slavery, and the division can be traced to the same divisions we see today as we deliberate questions of race, gender, and sexuality: how we define the community — the “America” to which we belong, determines whom we feel it is our obligation to protect and promote.
Most of the members of the Lowell family were against slavery in theory but still they split on the question of how and when to bring about the end of slavery. The wealthier side of the family, whose wealth came from manufacturing mills dependent upon southern cotton, took the stance that slavery was an institution that was fated to die out. There was not need to rush its demise. Education as to its evils, limiting it to within the bounds of the south (and sending funds and settlers to western territories to ensure they would become free states), and slowly working to shift labor sources would lead to the end of slavery eventually. These Lowells did not include black slaves in the community — in the “America” — to which they owed any kind of duty or obligation.
The poorer side of the family, however, did include blacks within the community they cared about and to whom they owed a duty. Reverend Charles Lowell of Boston provides a wonderful example of such a Lowell.
Reverend Charles led the West Church in Boston, congregation of some of the region’s wealthiest families. But Rev Lowell opened his church to parishioners of all races and class, and extended his ministry of care into some of the worst neighborhoods in Boston. He had traveled in the south and seen the horrors of slavery, and from his pulpit he railed against the institution. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, he was asked to speak at a rally with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglas.
Under the Fugitive Slave Law, slavers in search of runaways could now come to any northern state and seize black men and women off the streets to carry them back to slavery. A kind of kangaroo court of determination was set up in the northern states to accept proof that the seized man or woman was indeed a runaway slave; and northern law officers were required to assist southern slavers in capturing and processing runaways. Black Bostonians began to flee the city in droves, and Reverend Lowell understood why: they would go as far north as they had to go to remain free. Reverend Lowell believed that the migration would hurt the community of his city, both literally and figuratively. Boston had been the cradle of freedom in the 1700s — and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips put it, the cradle needed to be rocked once more.
At the rally against the Fugitive Slave Law, Reverend Lowell spoke to the standing-room only crowd, and began the evening with a prayer, “May the time shortly come when this whole nation shall feel the injustice of making merchandise of human beings…God of mercy, who hath made of one blood all nations, incline the hearts of all men, everywhere, to kindness and brotherly love; hasten the time when, …every yoke shall be broken and the oppressed go free…”
Reverend Lowell was joined in his fight against slavery by his children, including his daughter, Mary Lowell Putnam. From her house on Beacon street in Boston, she organized meetings of abolitionists, and wrote poems and a novel exposing slavery in all its evils. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabinis the novel we all know now, in the 1850s Mary’s writings were among the most widely-read — and influential in New England. Mary was by her father’s side at the Faneuil Hall Rally and would continue to agitate for abolition through Lincoln’s election to the presidency.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the divided sides of the Lowell family joined together again, unified in their desire to save the Union. The sacrifices made by the Lowell family during the Civil War were many. Mary’s only son Willy was killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff early in the war, and five more Lowell sons would never make it back home. These boys had defined their community — their America — to include black slaves in the south, to whom they owed a duty and for whom they paid the ultimate price.
In her latest book, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison uses Robert Lowell’s medical records to explore the connection between his bipolar disease and his fecundity as a poet. Based on his records and his own observations, as well as the experiences of those with whom he was intimate, there is no doubt that Robert Lowell suffered from mental illness.
Since publication of her book, numerous reviewers and many readers of the book (who have written to me, as a biographer of the Lowell family) have tcome to accept Jamison’s diagnosis of the “madness” of the Lowell family to be fact. But is it?
As difficult as it is to diagnose a living, breathing patient, there is something rather bold about tracing mental illness through the letters and diaries of those long dead (and long, long, long dead) , and even more so to find evidence of mental illness through the observations of others (one of the sources Jamison cites for Rebecca Lowell being “mad” was that Fanny Longfellow said so in a letter to a friend in 1866). Haven’t women been called “mad” for centuries merely for stating their own opinion? It is true that Rebecca Lowell, called Little Bec by her family, was strange. She never married, preferred to be on her own, and eschewed speaking for months at a time. But could not we as easily draw the conclusion that instead of being crazy, she was justifiably angry at a world that refused to value a spinster daughter as anything more than a burden at worst and household help at best?
James Russell Lowell did report feelings of despondency at different times in his life. But if we look at those specific times, we see that his unhappiness was well-founded; his despair was a natural response to such events as the deaths of two daughters, one son, and of his first, and beloved, wife.
The one documented (by him) time when he held a pistol to his head and considered firing it occurred during his teen years after a young woman he’d had a crush on became engaged to someone else. It should be noted that after holding the pistol for a moment or two, Lowell put the gun away and went down to dinner, his appetite for food and life restored.
Percival Lowell did indeed suffer physical and mental breakdowns (or perhaps better called, exhaustion) brought on by periods of intense physical and mental labor, such as setting up the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona while at the same time finishing his last book on his travels to Korea and Japan, while also beginning his first book on Mars, and at the same time settling the estate of his mother who died after battling illness most of her adult life.
If such incidents of despair over thwarted or lost love (James Russell Lowell) or exhaustion after physical and mental distress (Percival Lowell) were an indication of mental illness, we would all be candidates for medication at different points in our life. And most of us are. But does that mean we carry mental illness in our bloodline? And did the Lowells?
There was a Lowell family practice of providing for the disposal of all personal letters after death; the method of choice was a bonfire in the backyard. Fortunately for us biographers, only the letters within the possession of the deceased Lowell at time of death could be subjected to such scorching.
But given the manner in which the personal and private display of feelings can be expressed through letters, and then later manipulated by readers for whom such letters were not intended, I understand why the Lowells might have wanted to destroy their personal papers. In an effort to control the image of the family left for posterity, they sought to control entrance into their personal thoughts, tragedies, losses, and sorrows — as well as joys.
It is the role of historians to go beneath the presented image of historical figures in an effort to find the truth. Proposing an interpretation of what that truth might be is well within the purview of what biographers and historians do. But let’s not take that interpretation as fact, especially in the case of diagnosing an entire bloodline down through generations.
The Lowells were creative, ambitious, hard-working: in my biography of the family over 300 years, I find plenty of evidence of these qualities. But did they also exhibit a long history of mental illness? The hundreds of accumulated letters, journals, observations, and recorded experiences that I read through in five years of research don’t support the diagnosis — no matter what Fanny Longfellow had to say about it.
In March of this year, John Kelly describes the Civil War as arising out of a failure “to compromise”; he also cautions against applying contemporary standards of ethics to historical events — “very very dangerous” — and contends that such application demonstrates “a lack of appreciation of history.” He is out and out wrong. All the way back to colonial times, numbers of Americans recognized the dignity inherent in every human being, and knew that such dignity needs to be protected, promoted, secured. The honorable course to take, then and now, was to fight for the rights of all human beings, black and white. In 1700, Judge Samuel Sewall of Newbury, Massachusetts published the first anti-slavery tract, The Selling of Joseph, in which he proclaimed “These Ethiopians, as black as the first Adam, the Brethren and sister of the last ADAM, and the offspring of GOD; They out to be treated with a Respect Agreeable.”
Before the Revolutionary War, lawyer John Lowell brought “freedom suits” on behalf of enslaved blacks. Arguing that “The precepts of revealed law, golden rule of the gospel, are that we are not to sell our brethren, that we are to do as we would be done unto…,” Lowell won suit after suit before Massachusetts juries. As John Adams noted, “I never knew a Jury by a Verdict, to determine a Negro to be a slave. They always found them free.” Lowell, joined by fellow colonists from Massachusetts charged with writing the constitution for the new state, ensured that language guaranteeing the freedom of all men, black and white, be included; their failure to secure such language in the federal constitution would haunt the country for the next 73 years.
The Civil War was fought over slavery. Before the election of 1860, James Russell Lowell wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “The slaveholding interest has gone on step by step, forcing concession after concession, till it needs but little to secure it forever in the political supremacy of the country. Yield to its latest demand, — let it mould the evil destiny of the Territories, — and the thing is done past recall. The next Presidential Election is to say Yes or No.” Yes or no to slavery, and with the election of Lincoln, the southern states knew that voters had voted for abolition of slavery. Rather than face the end of slavery, the southern states, one by one, seceded from the United States.
On April 12, 1861, fighting between the Union and the Confederacy began when the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter, setting off more than four years of brutal, bloody fighting between the states. Young men across the North joined up without reservation, certain that the fight to end slavery was the honorable course to follow. As William Lowell Putnam wrote to his mother from his camp in Maryland in October 1861, “God grant…utter destruction of every vestige of this curse [of slavery]…Human beings never drew sword in a better cause than ours.”
By month’s end, Lowell was dead, killed at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff. Five more of his Lowell cousins would die fighting to end slavery. All young men, all abolitionists from an early age — and joined by hundreds of their friends and classmates with the sole purpose of ending slavery in the United States.
A close friend of Charlie Russell, Robert Gould Shaw, led the 54th Battalion made up of black soldiers. Shaw, along with eight hundred other Union soldiers, died at the battle of Fort Wagner, where his body and the bodies of the blacks serving under him were tossed into a common grave. The mass burial was intended by the Confederates to be seen as a degradation of the white officers killed in the battle. But as Frank Shaw, father of Robert, made clear, it was an honor to die fighting side by side with blacks. Shaw demanded that that the black and white men of the 54th, equal in death as in life, lay undisturbed in their mass grave, joined for all time in honor and in sacrifice.
John Kelly praises the “men and women of good faith on both sides” of the Civil War who followed their “conscience” in their fight, and considers Confederate General Robert E. Lee to have been an “honorable man.” Kelly talks a lot about honor and about understanding history through the lens of the time. But “honor” was clear then, and it clear now: true honor belongs to those who rise above their own needs and interests to do whatever it takes to ensure the freedom and dignity and safety of all Americans, black and white.
I am thrilled and honored to be Westport Library Guest Curator for November. In the list of 100 books I chose as curator, I share thosebooks that changed my life. Great good comes from reading great books – check out my list of 100 great books online or visit the Westport Library (or any library or bookstore!) to find them for yourself.
The best books are transformative experiences. By reading a great book, we are changed forever: changed in how we think about something or someplace; changed in how we address joy and sorrow in our own lives; changed in how we find purpose in our lives; and changed in how we appreciate the diversity of experience that the world offers.
Nine years ago I began a project of reading a book a day for one year. My purpose was to find a way to live with the unbearable sorrow of losing my oldest sister to cancer. During the experience of reading 365 books, I was transformed. I came out of the darkness of loss into a place of warmth and light and understanding. I will never be the person I was before I lost my sister but because of the year I spent reading, I am a better person than I was. I am more compassionate, more patient, and more resilient.
In this list of 100 books, I want to share the books that I have found to be most transformative for me during my lifetime of reading. These books changed me for the better and made me appreciate all the beauty in the world. I have greater patience now to get through the hard times that come up in every life (every day!). I am resolved to face down the worst qualities in humankind, and to celebrate, always, the best.
Booklist calls The Lowells of Massachusetts“a fascinating collective biography … paying tribute to both worthy individuals and everyone else in this prominent, complicated family.”
Recommended by Library Journal for readers of biography and American History: “Sankovitch’s use of interpretative passages breathe color into descriptions of home life of various Lowells, adding an artistic dimension to the account. Her ability to switch the focus among the family members while keeping readers fully engaged in the narrative is a significant achievement.”
“A sturdy, busy multibiography of an eminent American family… Exhaustive work by a clear admirer and dogged researcher,” says Kirkus Reviews.
And at latest count, 4.33 star rating on Goodreads.
Book therapy, that is. Eight years ago I began my year of reading a book a day. I was looking for escape, wisdom, comfort, and clarity after losing my oldest sister to cancer.
When my year was over, I found myself stronger, calmer, happier. I knew I would always grieve for my sister but I learned through books that I could always carry her with me in my heart. As I wrote in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair about my year of reading, “We all need a space to just let things be, a place to remember who we are and what is important to us, an interval of time that allows the happiness and joy of living back into our consciousness.”
I need that space and the therapy of books — immersion in reading — again. It has been a long, brutal election season and instead of finding relief in the result, I find myself waking in the middle of the night filled with fear. Fear for the future, fear of what America has become, such a divided and angry nation. In researching my book on the Lowell family, I followed them through the years of the Civil War and the aftermath of the divided nation. I found proof in family letters and journals of individuals struggling to bring the country together again with new dignity, new rights, new dreams. I need to find the energy and the hope to work for positive change for all who live here in the United States.
I hope to find that energy and hope in books. I find myself gravitating towards books about women, looking for role models of survival and strength, resilience, and power. Books like Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan, with its heroine who fights for truth at a terrible cost, and The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, in which women from different times strive to understand the unique power of words, the power to record and reflect and inspire. Nicotine by Nell Zink has a quirky and sometimes even flaky heroine who is ultimately tough enough and resilient enough to get it done — “it” being bringing new life to an abandoned house (and way of life).
I will indulge in the books by Elly Griffiths, in which mysteries are solved by Ruth Galloway, a single woman of large build and big heart and keen intelligence. I gave myself an afternoon of fun in reading Hot Flash Holidays by Nancy Thayer: five women in their fifties and sixties deal with aging parents, faltering bodies, annoying in-laws, and impatient children — and through the ups and downs all five rely on the strength of their shared friendships to keep them going. As Renee notes in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I am re-reading, “the complicity of indestructible friendship…is what life is all about.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was the very first book I read during my year of reading a book a day. Over the past eight years, I have looked back at the notes I kept in the book, and passages I underlined but this is the first time I am re-reading the entire book. What struck me right away is that Renee, one of narrators of the book, is fifty-four, the same age I am now. She also happens to weigh exactly what I weight now. Strangely enough, these similarities are changing the book for me — I feel now as if Renee is my double, and I am cheering her on as she enters new territory with trepidation but with hope as well. Right back at me: enter the future with trepidation (and rightly so) but also with hope.
But as you can see from the photo, I am not only reading books about women or by women in my new book therapy. I have a wide range, fiction and non-fiction. With so many books to anticipate, the future looks brighter. I feel sure that I will come out of this round of immersion stronger, and ready to work for what I believe in: a future that brings people together to work for the welfare, security, and dreams of all who live here in America.