--Simone de Beauvoir to Nelson Algren, 5 March 1951
As Lionel Trilling and others debated the death of the novel in the mid-1950s, Robert Lowry experienced his career suicide as a novelist. The way that tragedy played out has prevented an overdue reconsideration of his life and a body of work that was praised in the years after the Second World War. He had all the trophies of what a professional author did after 1945, writing at least one of each of the period's "war novels, veteran's-return novels, race novels, or New York novels" (Aldridge 197). Reviewers labeled him "a virile, pungent" stylist, a writer of "peculiar virtues," a "conscientious craftsman," "never without impact and immediacy." Academic critics saw him initially as making modest, workmanlike advances on the overwhelming influence of 1920s modernism. They had yet to be charmed by the cunning indirections of postmodern texts; Lowry's were expected to be simply "moving and significant--a sort of direct humanness" (Hartman 314). This was not to last.
Lowry by 1951 was one of the neo-Hemingways in John Aldridge's After the Lost Generation, dispraised for their thick-laid negation and lack of technical innovation (88). And as he rose from behind the shadow of a previous generation, he was eclipsed by a postmodern one. He does not qualify as a producer of literature under most yardsticks, a producer of those necessarily difficult books, like a Gaddis or Barthleme, writers esteemed by Frederick Karl in American Fictions, 1940-1980, where Lowry is "modified Hemingway" that "allows for few modulations" (113). From this point Lowry disappears from any consideration save for a few blips that come from Europe. These are intriguing mentions, like Lowry being called, by Emilio Sanz De Soto, a "fasciste dement" (26), but they make taking him on more like the task of the advocatus diaboli.
The other limitation found in Lowry's development is not getting beyond the state-guide-like regionalism of the 1930s--in his case it is a micro-, even hyperregionalism. Lowry's transparent eyeball looked out from the dead end of Hutton Street in Cincinnati, where his career began, and ended by way of his promising debut in the hipster-era, in the Village where he was one of Anais Nin's "transparent children" (95). His Emersonian lens rolled brutally, romantically, and narcissistically from one end of Hutton, closed off by the technology and logic of the Pennsylvania Railroad (for which his father worked), to the other--an Edenic floodplain where he would hunt rabbits, walk among the stones of the pioneer graves, or be trapped again by the rising waters of the Ohio. Its ultimate value for Lowry is a becalming nihilism, which he actualized in his careerless metatext, that surrounding life in his later years no longer set into words: "What he wanted was to read, to walk around, to look at things. Not to be anything more than exactly and precisely nothing. Uninvolved. He was through with the world, he had buried himself. He'd come back here to the womb, to Doanville, because he was through, because he wanted no more travel, no more excitement, no more nothing" (Lowry, Find Me in Fire 48-49).
As close to "home" as this reads, Lowry's world has much in common with the inescapable hells of European existentialists; and his is far worse than Vonnegut's Midwestern-placed "asshole of the universe." Self-taught, he parallels the intellectual Sartre and Camus more than he knows. But Lowry did read their forebears, de Maupassant and Dostoyevsky, and could say that he conversed with the latter during his long mental illness, recording the Russian's praise during an imaginary analysis that also included the psychiatrist who had given up on him. Other European strains exist, too. Kafka did not sit in, but he could have. Only Lowry's Cincinnati-New York-Rome axis and the messy whorl of his American grain obscure how much of the tall, thin, and meticulously written Prague insurance company clerk rubbed off. (His presence and demeanor obscure this too; as diarized by Nin, he was an "inflated child" (144), more Goth than Gothic modernist, in keeping with the alter egos of his fiction, "brutal ... ugly, sinister. Bitter" (165).) Yet much of Lowry's best writing is about those confined, inescapable, and usually dark spaces of existence. Even his most spatially American novel, The Big Cage, is a concatenation of cubicles and withdrawals and not just the on-the-road book that Kerouac knew before he wrote his. (1) Lowry also has his metamorphoses. It is writing from the perception of a woman, not as the surreal cockroach or Philip Roth's breast--though he does see through cat's eyes in two stories without violating the naturalism of his usual method.
Despite these hidden European lines that other, younger writers would exploit with more discipline, Lowry offers something else to bring him back into view, to even find him a place in the canon. It is itself a postmodern conceit, for he is an outsider artist. He is not unlike the untrained and reclusive folk painter--even more so he is the psychiatric-case artist whose works sell in the gallery world for what he sees and we cannot. Nevertheless, here he will not be so ennobled with R. D. Laing's day-pass that the mad are really the saner. Indeed, had the psychoanalyst-turned-poet treated Lowry, he would have discarded this idea.
"I have had the most interesting literary career in Twentieth Century America," Robert Lowry wrote as though for a prize-acceptance speech, a career "completely satisfying to me for its great variety and grand scope of publication." His audience, however, were the recipients of his curious 1975 resume, where, among his many publications and an old photograph of him in uniform, he could also capitalize on his experience in telephone sales for aboveground swimming pools and handing out towels at the Y.
The irony of such a lapsed man of letters began early in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Lowry was born on 28 March 1919 to Beirne Clem Lowry, a Pennsylvania Railroad conductor, and his wife Alma Collas Lowry, a former telephone company operator. Robert was the younger of their two children, his sister Ruth being two years older. Though the Lowrys lived in lower Linwood, one of the poorer, river-bottom neighborhoods subject to flooding by the nearby Ohio and its tributary, Duck Creek, they were considered one of the better-off families on Hutton Street. Beirne would soon be promoted to yardmaster of the Pennsylvania's Undercliff yards, which ran perpendicular to Hutton Street and which could be crossed by an Escher-like footbridge to Eastern Avenue, where the trolley line ran. It appears in Lowry's fiction and even has its own story, "The Bridge," from which this cadence of second-person sentences is taken, a cadence that reappears in Lowry's work, usually as an argument in the narrator's head:
You cannot crawl under it. It is all fenced in. You cannot go another way. You have to go up the steps and over it. You have to do it in silence, because any wasted breath and you may not make it. (Lowry, New York Call Girl 113)
Lowry's childhood here where Cincinnati ended in bottomland fields was both urban and pastoral, dissonant and idyllic. The events in his life reflect this, from being stuffed with food by his doting mother to being forced to witness a neighbor shoot a sick dog. He never saw his probable sexual abuse by a teenage girl as victimhood, but rather as a pleasantly warm, wet experience--like the assignations he had already had with a little neighbor girl. He had the experience to come halfway with the babysitter, and this, more than reading Henry Miller, contributed to the casualness and candor about sex in his work.
The other precociousness in Lowry's life is that he began to write and see himself as a boy-wonder writer, an image he would never let go. To him (and certainly to his contemporaries who developed "normally" after their debuts in the 1940s) and the general public, the American novelists of the Jazz Era were as much celebrities as the era's cinema stars and aviators. To want to be like Hemingway was as natural for Lowry as the other boys wanting to be the next Lindbergh. During the late 1920s, he began to type his own stories on a toy Simplex wheel typewriter and make his own books and magazines filled with his detective and prizefighter stories, jungle adventures, and the like, inspired by comic strips, penny dreadfuls and boys' adventures, radio and movie serials, and sports broadcasts. Lowry also read and collected the Little Blue Books printed by E. Haldeman-Julius, which stimulated his many interests and led to his own little book-printing ventures, from the highly collectible prewar Little Man productions to his manic and fetishistic mimeographings of the late 1950s, which resemble cargo cult objects invoking his lost high-flying career of the previous decade.
Writing, seeing his name and words in type, and the tactile pleasure of the printed objects associated with his name became the way Lowry played. It gave him an early start, but he was never the perfectly divided self of adult-child that we find in other writers. The adult gap between the outward, civilized person and the inner, organic anarchy of fantasies and fears is at its thinnest in Lowry. His creativity is so transparently play--especially during his mentally uninhibited years--that he would have made a revealing subject for Gregory Bateson's human and animal play research during the 1950s, when the renowned anthropologist observed only children and zoo animals. And the secrets that Lowry might have revealed would force a disturbing reassessment of even the most serious thinkers and creators, those "players," in the way he failed at being a player. What he might prove could be one reason for the omerta that fell around him to the point that even those still living who knew him remain guarded--including Gore Vidal, who rated Lowry's The Wolf that Fed Us as having a "virtue of being felt"; compared to Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, it was "not created out of stern ambition and dogged competence" (33). (2)
When Lowry was nine, the Cincinnati Times-Star printed one of his mystery stories in its "Sunshine Page" for young readers. This experience left him exhilarated, and he still talked about it to the end of his life. However, in his novel The Big Cage he seems to recall his mother's reaction to her gifted son's first success: "She just looked at me sadly then. She wanted me to be little and innocent; to resemble other kids; to coast along and just grow. And here I was going at it furiously at the age of eleven, hell-bent for glory or the booby hatch ..." (91-92).
At Withrow High School Lowry was a reporter for the student newspaper and a voracious reader of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, de Maupassant, and all the new names that appeared in James Laughlin's New Directions anthologies. He came to the attention of Delphine "Duffy" Westheimer, who reviewed books for the Times-Star and whose family is still well known for their cultural philanthropy. She introduced Lowry to her "salon," in the mansion district of Avondale, as an exotic specimen who came literally from across the tracks of working-class Linwood. She plied him with books, let him help her write reviews, and pulled strings to get him a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati. Lowry depicted her as the character Sary Farber in The Big Cage; he also drew on his other mentor, Mildred Cook O'Nan, a librarian, whose letters to William Saroyan resulted in Lowry's connection to the novelist who then personified the kind of success that Lowry's supporters wanted from him.
In the fall of 1937 Lowry enrolled as a premed student rather than an English major. Being a psychiatrist, he thought, might be "a possible alternative" if he could not make it as a writer--a practical solution that was not only driven by his parents but also by his first exposure to analysis. The Big Cage, which is relentlessly autobiographical, gives evidence that Duffy Westheimer had succeeded in getting a resentful and resistant Lowry psychoanalyzed that summer. His manic writing and antisocial and oppositional behavior alarmed her. He already had a confrontational edge that would manifest itself later in hit-piece or revenge-themed fiction, written with little disguise of the intended victim, and in sudden and precipitous fallings out with even close friends. (That Lowry was never successfully treated for a deleterious cocktail of such indicators, including his lifelong bizarre and inappropriate advances on young women, suggests that he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that can be correlated with creative genius. This relationship is explored in Michael Fitzgerald's The Genesis of Artistic Creativity.)
His first months at the university, however, were taken up with founding the publishing enterprise that would become the Little Man. Stirred by European surrealist magazines, Laughlin's New Directions, and independent small presses that printed handsome, limited editions of modern poetry and fiction, Lowry mixed serialization, radical typography, graphic art, social commentary, and avant-gardism with his editing and, as a self-reward, samples of his own writing. (The foil stars that he pasted on one of his last Little Man productions, The State of the Nation, are the kind used by teachers for their students' best work.) The Little Man's name originated from an incident when Lowry was five years old and sitting at the kitchen table with his grandfather and namesake, Robert Collas, who had pasted a cartoon of a funny little man from a newspaper comic strip on the kitchen wall: "we both laughed like hell," he wrote in an unpublished fragment, "Of course there was Henrik Ibsen's magazine THE MAN.... I was a great admirer of Ibsen.... And then too 'the little man' was in the headlines in those days, the days and years of the Great Depression when 'the little man' was glamorized and eulogized and given a job on the Works Progress Administration...." (3)
Lowry had won university funding for the Little Man magazine on the understanding that it would be a student-run journal with contributions mainly by students. This arrangement, the uneven quality of the submissions, and a revolt led by his fellow editors for his "dictatorial ways" made him abandon the magazine and drop out of college in March 1938. He had also been showing too much favoritism to a married graduate student, Shirley Wheeler, with whom he was also having an affair. (Her poem in the Little Man faced his love poem to her.) She had solved any outstanding inexperience he had, not only with sex but with driving--she also provided him with the idea of hopping a freight to "Tibet." The couple got as far as Little Rock, where Wheeler's mother retrieved her troubled daughter. Alone and still in love, Lowry continued on to Texas and then hitchhiked east, back to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he reunited briefly with Wheeler, who had promised her family to return to her husband. Lowry then went on to New York City.
From April to June 1938, Lowry lived in Greenwich Village, where he tried to support himself by selling his short stories to magazines. Finding no takers, he returned to Cincinnati and, backed by the Westheimer family, reformed the Little Man. He also took a partner, James Flora, an Art Academy student who would later be celebrated as an innovative illustrator of record covers and children's books. Much of his style, based on marionette-like figurations, was developed in the books that he and Lowry produced. The first new Little Man production was a reproduction of a Thomas Mann letter to Lowry and Flora, written during his lecture tour on neohumanism and endorsing the Little Man as a center for the aspirations of young and progressive artists in America. It was followed by small ingeniously printed and illustrated chapbooks, including the work of Saroyan, William March, Weldon Kees, Gilbert Neiman, and a number of cult figures such as the proto-Beat sonneteer Charles Snider, whose discovery Kerouac credited to Lowry.
Lowry charged very little for the colorful letterpress chapbooks that he, Flora, and Hugo Valerio, another illustrator, designed. Even by the populist standards of the Depression, Little Man prices were always just a few pennies more than trolley fare. Lowry advertised his press in small literary magazines and New Directions anthologies in exchange for advertising space in Little Man issues. These were sold through subscription and in a handful of bookstores. An early supporter, Frances Steloff, featured stacks of Lowry's Little Man wares in her Gotham Book Mart, including a literary magazine that he printed for two student editors at the University of Wisconsin, Diogenes.
From 1939 until 1942, the Little Man operated out of Lowry's home on Hutton Street--the printing press was in the basement--and from the apartment living room of his first wife, Bella Cohen, whom he married in 1941. Bella was seven years older than her husband and worked for the Division of Public Relief in Cincinnati. The marriage took place as much to elude the draft as it did for love, for the Selective Service was not yet calling up married men.
Lowry lost any exempt status in early 1942 and left for boot camp in Alabama in June. From that point he began writing the hundreds of letters and V-Mail he sent to Bella (or "Mookie," which rhymes with his comic-strip character-sounding pet name, "Bookie"). These reveal a passionate relationship--with little held back about their sex life--and the energy that Lowry put into his writing and literary interests despite the vicissitudes of army life and relocating first to a base near Spokane, Washington, and then in October to Ft. Huachuca Military Reservation near Douglas, Arizona. There Lowry, now a corporal in the army air forces and attached to an aerial photo-reconnaissance unit, the 953rd Topographic Engineers Company, learned mapmaking and edited and produced the 953rd's magazine, Phisterus. He also continued to fold up the Little Man. Bella during this time acted as her husband's agent for this and for sending out his manuscripts. She also followed him from camp to camp on rare weekends that were carefully timed by the "rhythm" method.
The army provided Lowry with the experiences that would inform much of his fiction, the work for which he should even now be well known. Initially, he was horrified by the war--before 1941 he could have been considered a pacifist. After his first bayonet drill, he came to see his situation as a punishment, that he "deserved it" for not resisting the war and the encroachments of an American-style crypto-fascism--a punishment for inaction that would be the irony and rough justice that the characters of his fiction would suffer. To Bella, he came close to expressing the worldview that informs everything that he wrote:
don't laugh darling Mookie--I'm in a position of terror and fear; confused but sort of serious too darling. You see--somehow this killing's got to stop. This regimentation--all conditions in which one man holds the power of life or death over another man. Mookie sweet, this isn't the little C.P. urge that every college freshman feels to reform the world--every day I go through I know better and better that in this one way I was living a little-boy life not knowing what terror could be, not knowing what horrible things Are in the world. (Lowry to Bella Lowry, 8 June 1942)
Douglas, however, was like that prewar army base in Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye: settled, boring, and sexually tense. In such a setting Lowry could find and instigate his own material among the other soldiers, the Mexican bar whores, and a teenager he picked off the porch of her parents' home when he saw her watching him. Mary Beth Nelson became Lowry's third muse and a female mirror of himself, even a protege. Before he embarked for the invasion of North Africa, while still in New York, he compelled Bella to pay for a parcel of Little Man remainders from Gotham Book Mart that Lowry wanted sent to the high-school girl whom he had already tried to seduce, along with a book of Klee reproductions and Hemingway's The Torrents of Spring. "[I]t's a wonderful thing to find someone like this," Lowry wrote Bella, "a really honest person who, working all by herself without any encouragement from anyone, comes on the good things alone, develops an extraordinary taste without any prompting" (Lowry to Bella Lowry, 16 Aug. 1943). Throughout his long tour of duty, Mary Beth reciprocated, sending him her short stories, poems, and small paintings, nudes of Mexican girls who posed for her or whom she imagined. Lowry already knew that these were outward expressions of her real sexual preference, and this made him identify with her all the more. He even sent her feminist literature.
In Bari, on the boot heel of Italy in Apulia, Lowry drafted The Big Cage and published in mimeograph an illustrated version of his novella Casualty under its original title, War, which he tried to distribute among the soldiers like the semi-official newsletters he produced for the engineers. His officers, however, deemed its content defeatist and antiwar, and Lowry was court-martialed and demoted to private for the misuse of army equipment and stationery. Disturbed over the shame this brought his parents, Lowry nevertheless continued his self-publishing between sojourns to the brothels of Rome, taking over an Italian print shop in Bari to produce two "Piccolo Uomo" story collections in 1945.
That same year he had to choose between Bella and Mary Beth, Cincinnati and New York. For her part, Bella had refused in her last letters to leave her job and clients and come live with him and the vagaries of the New York writer's life that he proposed. Mary Beth, however, even though involved in a lesbian relationship at college, agreed to join him in the autumn in a cold-water flat on Downing Street in Greenwich Village, her interest sustained, perhaps, by Lowry's plastic physical appearance--he could modulate it from the feminine softness of his mother, whom he resembled closely, to that of a thick-bodied tough--and by the good news that he had been hired by James Laughlin as a project manager and book designer for New Directions.
While Lowry designed the covers and text for books by Dylan Thomas, Federico Garcia Lorca, Thomas Merton, and Pablo Neruda, he did the same for his first hardcover, the revised and expanded War that New Directions published as Casualty in 1946. The novella, about the last days of a disgraced young soldier in the Italian theater, brought him to the attention of book reviewers and Doubleday's fiction editor, Ken McCormick. But by this time Lowry had already been discovered by the fiction editor of Mademoiselle, the legendary George Davis. Davis had become intrigued with Lowry after reading his story "The Ticket, the Train, the Journey Out"; he found it in one of the small, unusually designed books that Lowry had printed in Italy which had subsequently made its way into a secondhand bookstore on Fourth Avenue that the editor frequented. The story--in which Lowry had channeled much of what he knew about Mary Beth--about a creative, sexually ambiguous adolescent girl, appealed to Davis, who had made his own contribution to gay fiction with the novel The Opening of a Door (1931). The next day, he gave his editorial assistants the task of finding Lowry so that the story could be bought and reprinted in Mademoiselle. It did not take long, for a telephone call to New Directions revealed the author to be on the staff.
Confronted by the intriguing combination of an ostensibly straight man living with the very girl in the short story--made stranger by the couple sometimes dressing alike in corduroy coats--Davis brought Lowry into the circle of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and others, including the African American painter-playwright Charles Sebree and the poet Owen Dodson. When Mary Beth left after her relationship with Lowry became abusive, Davis gave the rising young novelist a room in his Yorkville brownstone on 86th Street in New York's German district. (4) There Lowry drafted his next novel, Find Me in Fire, which Davis practically midwifed, and was introduced to the next two women in his life, first McCullers's sister Margarita Smith (Davis's assistant at Mademoiselle) and Frances "Frankie" Adelman Abbe, who became Lowry's second wife. The latter matchmaking may have been both an act of kindness and way out of a disappointing arrangement for Davis, even an act of revenge. Lowry, as perceived by Davis's co-workers, was a sexual tease and grifter with whom the editor was infatuated, taking advantage of him for the free room and constant loans of money that he offered.
Despite Lowry's lifelong chronic need for income, with his Doubleday advance for Find Me in Fire and forthcoming work, he had a modicum of income and independence in 1948. He started living with Frankie and her son (by her first husband, the photographer James Abbe II) and married her in that same year, just before leaving for an extended stay in Italy and France to coincide with translations of Casualty in both countries. There he finished his collection of war stories in The Wolf that Fed Us and the novel The Big Cage (both published the following year by Doubleday). He also enjoyed the celebrity that came with publication of the Italian edition of Casualty, the translator of which, Giorgio Monicelli, praised Lowry for transforming "realism into a redemptive poetry ... and his apparent defeatism into a love of humanity" (Monicelli 18-19). (5) Monicelli, responsible for introducing much American postwar fiction to an Italian audience, was also in a position to know of the praise Hemingway had given Lowry in response to an Italian publisher who asked him what he thought of Lowry: "Best writer in America today--il migliore scrito tore che oggi abbia l'America" (qtd. in Monicelli 16).
So anointed, Lowry returned from Europe in 1949 because the now pregnant Frankie wanted to give birth in an American hospital. She may have had another reason to return: her husband had been unfaithful in both Rome and Paris--perhaps even flagrantly in their suite at the Hotel Saint-Cloud. He had also become obsessed with a Doubleday assistant editor he knew as Judy Bailey (now the editor emeritus Judith Jones at Knopf), whom he continued to practically stalk, even when she took a new job at the Ober agency, where Lowry himself went after many years of being represented by Macintosh & McKee. However, with the birth of his first son, David Beirne, Lowry agreed with Frankie to move to the Connecticut suburb of West Redding in 1950. There, with money from his advances, paperback and translation rights, and a new job as a book reviewer for Time, he was able to afford a comfortable 1840s farmhouse and a new Hudson Hornet.
In contrast to his upper-middle-class milieu--the inventor of the corn-chip snack Fritos lived across the road--Lowry began sketching his next Doubleday novel, The Violent Wedding, which explored the taboo of an interracial relationship between a boxer modeled on the real-life Sugar Ray Robinson and a troubled young woman artist. Set in the boxing camps of rural New Jersey and the hipster bohemia of Greenwich Village, this manuscript, Lowry hoped, would make him the most important and controversial author in the country. His research for the book took him to Robinson's training camp and to the climactic bout with Jake LaMotta in February 1951 (nearly missing it after an afternoon of drinks and writers' shoptalk with Nelson Algren), which Lowry used as a chapter and a stand-alone short story, "Blood Wedding in Chicago," published in the American Mercury. This passage is a mimesis of the swaggering reportage of the "Time man" of Marshall McLuhan's famous Partisan Review essay, "The Psychopathology of Time and Life," and painterly, too, in the way it riskily celebrates diversity (long before that became trite) and seemingly resonating in prose what the abstract expressionists were doing with their Black & White shows of that same year:
All the people you always see at fights were here, except that tonight there were more of them. Instead of two or three platinum and peroxide blondes in seven-and-a-half-inch heels, I counted eighteen--all with chins held high and lashes lowered to half-mast. Gorgeous Negro women all around me offset the blondes with a beauty that most white people have no idea exists, since in their isolation they deal only with the Negro girls not pretty enough to do something better than vacuum rugs and scrub pots in a white woman's house. This sweep of faces in the great bowl of the Stadium made a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, a pattern that added a colorful border of latent violence to the square patch of brilliantly lit canvas which surrounded it. (New York Call Girl 184)
As Lowry took on the themes of an increasingly restive and liberated society, he deracinated himself from Hutton Street and wrote in registers that made both his Harlem boxer and the passing black chanteuse in his 1951 story "Passing Star" believable. He showed that social justice had taken on a life of its own. Yet in his personal life he turned away from being Doubleday's agent provocateur. As his father's health declined and it became clear he would lose that connection, he increasingly romanticized his roots. He decorated the room in which he wrote with railroad memorabilia and even started to wear a railroader's denim shirt as he worked. He had hoped that his literary success would impress the elder Lowry and even make up for his father's refusal to take a promotion with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which wounded the son's self-esteem. But the East Coast career was a brittle accomplishment, for Beirne Lowry, a freight-train conductor and a farmer's son from West Virginia, did not see it as a real man's work. This insecurity and a "professional" one of not betraying that self-made boy genius--the Little Man incarnate, that "big, affable kid" in Ken McCormick's glimpse at the real nature of his author--also made it hard for Lowry to conform to the politesse and rigors of that unforgiving cultural cityscape that was New York after the war. He may have been more put out with the role of the intellectual than those who suffered from his dismissive--and often acute--book reviews in Time and the Saturday Review of Literature. (Gore Vidal took umbrage at what he had written about his friend Anais Nin.) Another source of professional insecurity may have come from his pursuit of Judith Bailey, which was the stuff of high and hushed gossip about his sanity.
That Lowry's womanizing contributed to the events of early summer 1952 is uncertain. But his uninhibited libido was a source of mental discipline in the way he understood it--as he told Truman Capote while pointing to his own head and then his crotch, "I'm not all here. But I'm all there." This means there was a practical dimension to the bizarre personality change he underwent and the breakdown that followed: Lowry may have "wanted" to frighten his second wife into a divorce to feed his writing again with his favorite subject, himself alone, in love, and disappointed with both, even as he moved away from autobiographical fiction in The Violent Wedding. And if there was no "other woman," the crisis would open up some unexplored self-territory from married life in West Redding.
If there were elements of theater as well as real pathologies that faced Frankie when she returned from Los Angeles with the infant David after a three-month absence, during which she visited her family following the suicide of her father, her reaction backfired horribly on Lowry. Frankie was devoted to making their relationship work and his books achieve monetary success as well as the critical kind. (She was Lowry's typist and editor, a role she had played for George Davis's boarders when she lived next door to 7 Middagh Street during the war years.) When he reacted violently after his two-year-old son repeated what one of his relatives had told him, that he was Jewish because his mother was, Frankie had her husband committed to Connecticut's Fairfield State Hospital and signed a permission form for a series of twenty-two shock treatments. Lowry was later transferred to the Bronx V.A. Hospital, where he finished The Violent Wedding and managed to recover enough to be discharged.
He returned to his family in West Redding and resumed writing and working as a part-time editor for the Popular Library, a publisher of paperback editions (including Lowry's, which attracted readers with lurid and often sexually explicit covers). However, once again he began to act bizarrely. He even kidnapped Frankie's son, James Abbe III, for a day. Finally, he could no longer socialize with friends and neighbors without getting into some accusatory argument with his wife. Alcohol, which had once made him the bad boy of George Davis's cocktail parties, now left him an open psychological wound in mixed company. The couple agreed to separate in early 1953.
In the summer Lowry moved into a hotel in Danbury and sold the West Redding farmhouse, furniture, and even the letterpress he had used to print his Little Man books, using his share of the money to buy a "Toro red" 1953 Hudson Jet, which he used for making forays to the Village to pick up women or drink at the White Horse Tavern, where his bar mates would have included Delmore Schwartz and James Baldwin. The publication of The Violent Wedding put him on an upswing for a time, but there was no wide readership for a book with an interracial relationship (and by the time there was, in the 1960s, authenticity would clearly limit what a white writer could do). Nevertheless, a confident Lowry, freed at last from his wife and son, found the sign he had been looking for: a redheaded ticket-taker and actress at the Cherry Lane Theatre named Katherine Kelleher--who went by the more slatternly "Kit." In a performance of The Plough and the Stars she pointed to Lowry in a half-deserted row and cried out, "I see a star," and he was smitten.
A few days later, in early July, Lowry, intent on meeting Kit, started hearing the voice of God as he drove down toward New York on the Hutchinson River Parkway. "Bob, I am giving up. You are the last man. I am giving this world to you.... You are the new Christ." Lowry, who had recently signed a contract for a new collection of short stories, Happy New Year, Kamerades!, was in no condition to disbelieve and started "taking charge of the world" by ramming and sideswiping cars on the busy highway with his new Hudson. He was arrested after he crossed the state line.
Lowry spent the rest of 1953 and part of 1954 in different mental institutions. His treatment at New York's Harlem Valley State Hospital included insulin shock therapy, in which epileptic-like seizures and coma were induced to relieve the psychotic patient's symptoms. (The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, whose story is told in the book and film A Beautiful Mind, was also treated in this way.) Lowry's constitution and stamina and his manic need to edit proofs forced his doctors to use a more rigorous regimen in implementing what is now a dangerous procedure. It left him increasingly, and inexplicably, anti-Semitic. Given his two Jewish wives, his Jewish benefactors in Cincinnati, his many Jewish friends and associates in the army and in his "good years" after the war, and his taking on bigotry in his fiction, no one expected this from Lowry. Nevertheless, his way of shocking his second wife and doctors did not come out of thin air. Lowry had absorbed the folk prejudices of his upbringing and had repressed them to the point of being little more than class envy or being true to the aesthetics of realism and Cincinnati's upstairs, downstairs--this despite Duffy Westheimer (6): "Because Lillian Sunday did not go to the tuberculosis hospital that time, like all the times before. Instead she got on as a housegirl in Avondale, and she got more nervous and thinner all the time ..." (Lowry, Hutton Street 13)
Lowry actually felt a bond to Jews who were not so much assimilated as taking the step of repressing their identity and reinventing themselves, much the way he had reinvented himself as a writer from the railroad people who lived around the Undercliff Yards. And for his Jewish wives and some Jewish friends, this made Lowry a member of an attractive outgroup that had room for others taking an existential risk (which he preserved in those character dyads of his fiction). His first wife, so wounded by waiting through the war years to find him in love with another woman, ironically kept his "gentile" name to make herself employable in Cincinnati, where Pound's "suburban prejudice" still exists.
The shocking symptoms of his illness (and the disturbing possibility of it all being an act over which he lost control) hardly made Lowry the celebrated cause that Ezra Pound was. And he had none of the entertainment value of a Robert Lowell, as famous for his psychotic outbursts as his poems. Instead, Lowry lost one friend after another who might have interceded for him. Chandler Brossard felt endangered by Lowry, and George Davis, who had let Lowry spend a night at his house, woke up to the fear of being murdered. He eventually decided he could do no more for his friend after Lowry wrote him the day after his first insulin shock treatment at Harlem Valley State Insane Asylum and begged Davis to form a committee of influential men, preferably writers such as W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers ("well, of course, she's not a man, but she might be willing to help"), Charles Henri Ford, Richard Wright, Janet Flanner, Jean Cocteau, Truman Capote, Maxwell Anderson, the ethnographer Colin McPhee, cartoonists Bill Maudlin and Virgil Parth, to sign a petition to free him or write letters to protest his being committed against his will.
Ken McCormick and the Popular Library's Charles Heckelmann stuck by Lowry. For much of 1954 and 1955, he had work and income from a new novel for Doubleday, What's Left of April, and a new short-story collection, The Last Party. Lowry, promising her that he would be rich and famous again, successfully romanced Kit Kelleher through the mail and moved in with her upon his release from the Bronx V.A. He even took lessons with her at Stella Adler's and Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen's acting schools (although this seems to have been to keep an eye on her). Kit refused to marry Lowry, even after she divorced her husband and made him pay for an expensive abortion so that she could continue her career. Eventually, this impasse led to his moving in with a sailor with whom Lowry had his only admitted homosexual relationship. Then, following his arrest for attempting to break down the door to Kit's apartment, Lowry was persuaded to commit himself. Upon his release, he recuperated at his parents' home in Cincinnati through much of 1956 and 1957.
While Lowry was still with Kit, he had met a younger woman, Anne LoBianco. After a long courtship on visiting days at King's Park State Hospital, she flew into Cincinnati's Lunken Field, less than a mile from Hutton Street, and the two were married in 1958. As Lowry's third wife, Anne tried to support him as he restarted his career in their new apartment on Bleecker Street overlooking the San Remo Cafe in the Village. Lowry's mental condition, however, had degraded so much that he was content to run off homemade mimeographed magazines, doggerel verses, and short stories that were more a reprise of his childhood publishing than a revival of the Little Man. He had little contact with his old milieu and with the Beats save for a few contacts with Jack Kerouac (for whom Lowry printed a section of Some of the Dharma). The Ober agency dropped him--as did Doubleday. Ken McCormick even told Lowry, who had once been his most promising writer, that Doubleday had lost money on every one of his books. A collection of previously unpublished short stories, New York Call Girl, relieved Lowry of his contractual obligations. And James Laughlin's secretary endured years of telephone calls from an increasingly rancorous Lowry in need of money.
Lowry's reputation was not helped by the film adaptation of his short story "Layover in El Paso," That Kind of Woman (1959) with Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter. His writings in his magazines and his increasingly eccentric behavior marginalized him. The islands of lucidity and false sanity became fewer, but he managed to novelize the screenplay of That Kind of Woman, write a few more striking short stories--collected in his last hardcover, Party of Dreamers--and hold a clerk's job at Doubleday's Fifth Avenue bookstore so that he could support his growing family.
His son Beirne was born in 1959 and Giacomo ("Jack") in 1962. The birth of the second son, however, put a strain on the Lowrys' marriage and caused yet another breakdown. This time, however, because she had promised not to commit him, Anne compelled her mother-in-law to take Lowry back to Cincinnati for the last time. From that point, his career effectively ended. His involvement with American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell further tainted him, and it required some mercy on the part of those few friends and editors who remained in touch. But in the end Chandler Brossard, James Laughlin, and Ken McCormick could no longer endure his letters with even their envelopes festooned with swastikas.
From his mother's home and, after her death, from different residency hotels and group homes, Lowry continued to produce odd bits of poetry and prose. Laughlin published a short piece based on Lowry's father, and the Carleton Miscellany and other magazines occasionally published his last unremarkable writings. Even with all the manic energy that went into this--Lowry was diagnosed as a manic-depressive in the 1970s--there was nothing of his old craft and the professionalism his old editors once enforced. His twilight years were self-parodies of a younger Lowry, check-ins at the V.A. psych ward, a fourth wife and one more live-in girlfriend. Even the cocktail hours and fine drunks of his New York years were burlesques--more often a peach schnapps shared, if at all, with his mother and the side effects of lithium, which gave him the shambling walk seen so often in downtown Cincinnati during the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, Lowry had some sense that he was his generation's Crack-Up and that he had not performed this role or much of his career very well. For this, Lowry apologized in a 1964 unpublished memoir that honored Laughlin:
I was ready to go in 1953, when I was at the top of my career ... and with all the force of my great literary voice fully expressed, fully written, finally put down and forever.... But the decadence, the rottenness, of my work since ... is quite evident, in spite of refinements of style and a new imaginative flair, as well as a willingness and daring to deal with any kind of subject matter. In short, I regard all of my work since THE VIOLENT WEDDING as corrupt and senile and rotten, whatever interesting literary and stylistic and imaginative qualities may be discovered about it.
When a third chance at a comeback arrived in 1994, it came too late. A German journalist, looking for a new American cultural import to fill in for the late barfly and writer Charles Bukowski, took an interest in Lowry and wrote a major piece about him in Der Spiegel. This rediscovery attracted a German publisher and a book deal to have several of his old Doubleday novels translated. But Lowry did not live to see them in print or even cash the check he received for signing. He died of heart failure on 5 December 1994.
Lowry's texts would seem to have a place more in a cultural micro-history than a study of neglected books. On first reading, too, they seem to lack the complexity that would require much discussion, a body of critical writing. Yet his road novel, war fiction, boxing novel, and myriad short stories, which cover the Age of Anxiety that was the 1940s, form a bridge to Kerouac, Heller, Pynchon, even Raymond Carver--but his work is not influential. It is more interesting for the way it deals with influence. Lowry is a dead-ender for the "schools" of Hemingway and, to a lesser degree, Thomas Wolfe. He also belongs among the women writers of his time--especially for his studies of young women and girls--with Carson McCullers, Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, those who are not included in After the Lost Generation. Lowry is and comes close to getting his own chapter in that book. Aldridge found him interesting enough to include among the Neo-Hemingways: he, along with Vidal and "their terse little books," Williwaw and Casualty, had "helped to carry the tradition of Hemingway into our own decade" (133). But, Aldridge concluded, Lowry and others of his generation showed "little evidence of new developments" and did "little to flavor the material present" (88).
This survey of Lowry's published fiction begins with a selection of his prewar, self-published Little Man imprints that brought him notice and show his early promise. Lowry's postwar, hardcover debut for New Directions and Doubleday continue this discussion and reveal aspects of his maturity that were not apprehended during his professional career. The work that followed Lowry's mental collapses in the 1950s is also examined book by book until his illness forces any critic or reader disposed with goodwill to draw a line that he drew himself albeit jaggedly.
Defense in University City (1939) and Hutton Street (1940)
Lowry took secret pride in being the mysterious James Caldwell praised by Ezra Pound in a "Rome literary-artistic newspaper." (7) Defense in University City was Lowry's first book, printed as a stapled folderol in the Little Man series in 1939. It is more a theater piece than a long short story, for Lowry, after some research and mental preparation, had recited a dramatic monologue that his Little Man collaborator, James Flora, transcribed. This took place over the course of an evening in Lowry's Cincinnati apartment, from which he was evicted the next day for all the shouting and pacing that had gone into re-creating James Caldwell's account of his experiences in the Spanish civil war. The method was not untested by Lowry--it was an extension of his writing without looking back, without revision, and publishing the results (a metier that proved untenable as his mental illness progressed). Part of the nineteen-year-old Lowry's preparation was the influence and appropriation of that war experience of the moderns. Lowry skipped the "youthful disillusion" of Dos Passos (Aldridge 64). From the vantage point of that strange Sitzkrieg of an isolationist United States redoubled in the heartland of Cincinnati, he could jettison the pretense of the Hemingway hero, too--in fact, he replaces him with an antihero who anticipates Billy Pilgrim and Yossarian. Lowry also replaces those "damn good times" for his new model, lumpen-Jake Barnes with the daily grind of the Depression.
Caldwell's story begins with his recruitment into a foreign brigade charged with the defense of Loyalist Madrid in 1936. His motivation is not to "consolidate the Communist front" or his reading "a lot of books by Marx and Engels" (1). It is from being "God damn sick of breadlines and looking for jobs every morning" (2) and misanthropic, for despite the brotherhood of the common man he hears about, Caldwell is "sick of turdish friends" (2). There is, though, something higher than the listless negation of Caldwell's joblessness and fecalhood: a vague sense that "we had to do it before they got over here and beat the hell out of us" (3). Brute survival is the only ideal for Caldwell as well as his lost innocence (and infantilism). Lowry depicts this in Caldwell's seeing himself and his fellow brigadiers as a drunken children's crusade with too few "steel hats," tanks, and good leaders. His pacifism is a foxhole conversion, not from a moral or religious conviction: "in a war nothing is right" because the elites who do wars cannot get them right and you are at the mercy of competencies (17). Lowry is harshest, though, on his own kind: "Nobody said anything in the truck. The man next to me was wounded in the arm. He was crying. He was sitting all bent over, crying like some small child. There was nothing you could say to a man like that. That's what happens to your fat little American boys when there's no artillery to break em up on front" (12-13).
Caldwell is finally wounded himself and sent back to recover in a New York City charity ward. Lowry delays the nature of the wound so as to set Caldwell's revelation on the stage as he and other veterans are feted at a rally in Madison Square Garden that is part of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. There, he observes "the dark thin girls you always see" (18), code for the women and camp followers of the Cause (the kind Lowry would marry). He also finds in the crowd his competition for them, the winners, "the fat greasy men in glasses you always see," the Partisan Review-reading intellectual, those "pretty bright people," next to whom, earlier in the story, Caldwell "couldn't hold a candle" (2). Such an erection and the performance with a literal one are not possible for him. Yet Lowry, the envious, generational beta-male writer to Papa Hemingway, takes on the coup of Jake Barnes's testicles in the shocking, closing revelation of what the fascist machine guns took from Caldwell, which hang from the Statue of Liberty: "They were my nuts" (19) is both a riposte and a respect-bite that Lowry would repeat in other work.
According to Stanley Weintraub, Defense in University City was "the most intriguing first-person account of the war in Spain by an American volunteer, one that registered the profound disillusionment of those who had poured themselves into the Cause only to discover that Spain had become a pawn of the great European powers" (226). The problem, as Weintraub researched his cultural history, The Last Great Cause, was that Caldwell was really Lowry and his story a fiction. The need for this authenticity, where fiction and New Journalism began to blur in the 1960s, is still an unfortunate development for the purist storyteller that Lowry was. But Defense in University City is no less invented than The Red Badge of Courage, as Lowry pointed out. He had, like Crane, researched his "story," using what he could find in Cincinnati: newsreels, The Spanish Earth, picture stories in the popular press. He even appropriated Robert Capa's Life magazine image of the dying soldier in a cloth hat, and his battle scenes seem to come from Homage to Catalonia. However, the resemblance to Orwell is coincidental, for Lowry would have had a hard time finding the first edition published in England.
The Little Man Lowry writings are stylistically his most heterogeneous. Lowry can sound like Joyce or the funny papers in the same work, as is the case in yet another one-story 1939 chapbook, "I'll Never Be the Same." It begins as a penitential prayerlike mea culpa before it segues into stream-of-consciousness writing that may have been typed directly out of Lowry's font box. Nevertheless, he moved quickly in making these disparate voices and styles into his own with the stories that he printed in Hutton Street under his own name in 1940. James Flora's whimsical wood engravings decorate this book, beginning with a cabala-tree-like map of Hutton Street on the wrappers. The stories are a fusion of Grimms' fairy tales (the naivete of "Star-Money" comes to mind), Dick-and-Jane-simple sentence cadences, and the social naturalism of the period, like that of William Carlos Williams in his fiction of the 1930s, and of the common-man novels of Hans Fallada (which were available in English translation during the Depression years). There is that American style of regionalism, too, but it is reduced from a Winesburg, Ohio scale to that original center in Lowry's fictive cosmography: "It was getting dark on Hutton Street, a blue mist was settling over all the houses; and in the evening everything became smaller. Under the moon Hutton Street in winter time was like a toy world down which a child could walk like a giant" (6).
United by interpolations that celebrate a false spring on Hutton Street in winter, the stories use Lowry's neighbors as starting points or are barely altered transcripts of their real lives. They reveal a young married couple's lovemaking ("This Is Our House"), a tubercular young woman's short life and epiphanous death ("The Beautiful White Hospital"), and family violence ("The Paper Seller's House"). The plight of the neglected elderly and the disposable children who do not live long enough to imprint Hutton Street with a memory are also themes. Lowry may have planned a larger collection of Cincinnati stories, perhaps with a four-seasons structure. Bella sent Hutton Street to several trade publishers as a teaser. After Pearl Harbor, however, the market for books set in a prewar world disappeared, and Lowry, in the army, redirected his energies. But while keeping up with news from the home front--one of his Little Man contributors had shot his wife--he asked a revelatory question that is applicable to the "found object" method used in Hutton Street and in work to come. "Do you sometimes feel," Lowry wrote Bella, "that certain people hover about your life, some of whom you hardly get to know--people who seem to be working out a little pattern with their lives that you can see ... a pattern which has meaning all in itself, the ends gathered up as in a well-written story" (27 Sept. 1942).
The Piccolo Uomo Books (1945)
Lowry's hand-printed and graphically interesting Piccolo Uomo collections, sixteen booklets with three stories each, are like maquettes for the hardcovers that Lowry was denied as he waited out the war in Italy. They have until now been considered more as bibliophilic objects than steps in the development of Lowry's talent.
The Blaze beyond the Town (1945) collects three of Lowry's army-life stories. The title story is set in the Nighttown of Douglas, Arizona, where the fear of death in war fuels, under the copper-smelting sky, the drinking and screwing, even the soldier farting in the booth of a seedy cantina. There, a group of young soldiers confront "It," a drunken Mexican "with a dark feminine hand," who after standing and smiling and staring at them, suddenly punches one of them. The ensuing fight would seem gratuitous violence among stock characters--the Mexican, of course, is beaten to a pulp--as flat and tensionless as cardboard. But Lowry uses every surface of text to show nihilism as the new cardinal sin and what its punishment should be--he would be consistent here until the end of his writing. "He was the best man," says the character Joe, perhaps the Joe Hammond of Casualty and The Wolf that Fed Us. "He brought everything and we brought exactly nothing." For this, Joe reasons, "all of us ought to be killed in the war ..." (21).
The stories in The Journey Out (1945), the second Piccolo Uomo book, are portraits of two teenage girls and a young woman. Though Lowry's investment in soldier stories, like so many of his contemporaries, is considerable, he is as comfortable and androgynous in writing about women and their experiences as Henry James--and his debut as a professional writer owes to it, for the title story, in full "The Ticket, the Train, the Journey Out," caught George Davis's eye for Mademoiselle. Here Lowry, though restricted by his own gender and endomorphism, could cross over, cross dress really with and without the clothes--"In the shower room at school--all of us girls so ashamed of ourselves" (34). He understudied his teenage protege, Mary Beth Nelson, in person and in her wartime letters, her nude paintings, her still ductile sexuality--"And when a boy would look at me I wanted to be dead. How much I didn't want to be a girl. I didn't want to be a boy either" (34). (Lowry was aware that she had lost her virginity to another woman at the University of Chicago.) The resulting short story is a pocket Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Lowry riffs on Stephen Daedalus's self- and body-consciousness and makes Joycean word sounds that seem to toy with his first wife's name, (8) which may be as much Lowry's subconscious infidelity as it is the story's weather: "Bloom-a-loom! mused Nancy Ann. Aloom, a-loom. That kind of thunder is purple and orange. But you couldn't write it on paper.... it's like an aged giant very hoarse and very far away, maybe in a cave, bellowing his last breath. Bellowing! Now there's a word. It's worth three hundred dollars, that word. It seems like almost a bad word. Maybe because it's like belly. 'The bellowing belly'" (29).
The girl, Nancy Ann, escapes Douglas, Arizona, her widowed mother's dependence on her, a boy who has proposed to her, and the normal life she detests, to attend college in Chicago and be an artist. She falls asleep on the train and instead of seeing herself painting and writing in an urban-academic bohemia, she is trapped in a nightmare where everyone she left is already well established: her despised boyfriend is her professor and the others from her past have been nightmarishly recast. Here is Lowry's gesture of surrealism that found its way into prewar American avant-garde writing and reappeared to express postmodern anomie in such settings as Joseph Heller's B-25.
Lowry's novella about the disciplining and death of Pfc. Joe Hammond is an expanded version of a short story written and printed in 1944, when Lowry was nearly cashiered for using an army mimeograph machine and stationery. For that offense, he was court-martialed under the auspices of his commanding officer, the president's son, Colonel Elliot Roosevelt, and demoted from sergeant to private. Lowry's friend Gene Newstrom, a mission model sculptor, was also tried for illustrating the pamphlet. He believed the verdict had more to do with Lowry's perceived antiwar content and defeatism than the misuse of army printing supplies. The real protest, however, was not against the war with the Germans but rather against the army and, by extension, the structured America that produced it--this microcosm provides Lowry's dramatic structure. (Had there been no war, he could have found that structure working in a car dealership.) The Purple Heartlessness of a "meaningless routine" and the disconnect "with the war or with his former life" (38,39) provided him with a miniaturist's set piece, the kind in which he excelled, to present a single, sociologically defined character, yet another version of himself, and its limited consciousness, only aware of its subtraction and negation: "worming your way up a hill would have its advantages. Even getting killed, he thought with a laugh, would have its advantages. The truth of the matter is that each of us feels his own death more acutely than any real death around him. This sedentary life that's been going on for two years over here is the realest kind of death because we don't have any decisions about our personal lives, our future or our present" (77).
Hammond does not have a Catherine Barkley to think about in Italy, but rather his girlfriend back in Virginia, to whom he piously masturbates, which is at once an expression of the impossibility of a grand Hemingway romance in this war, of its unreality, and an ironic homage to the same and to the master because his student sees himself and his era as debased. His vicissitudes are not the retreat from Caporetto in A Farewell to Arms but the vaguely homosexual Lieutenant Pinkman who catches him performing a drunken friend's guard detail. The punishment is really a reprimand, and the lack of any real drama or tragedy is, by Lowry, added to the American style of oppression, which is muted and unviolent. Hammond is even free to go to Rome where he drinks away the annotativelike thoughts Lowry gives him about being wronged by the "rotten political army" and has real sex only once, rendered closer to the nausea of the European existentialists than to any kind of American writing: "He felt like vomiting, but he got himself drunkenly out of the chair somehow. He felt no passion, no interest in the girl or in sex or in life" (151). This is writing that holds a finger up to Catch-22 but only mystified the first wave of postwar critics. Aldridge granted that Lowry at least showed "signs of developing a distinctly personal idiom" (111). However, he was ultimately disappointed: "The distance between [the Neo-Hemingways'] war world and Hemingway's is the distance between the tenderness Frederick Henry felt for Catherine and the fleeting pity of Lowry's Joe Hammond as he set about his systematic rape of Rome" (116). There is no rape--but it is true of the dysympathy that Lowry forces on the reader with its shock reckoning in that crushing of Hammond's head under a two-ton truck that leaves him in the street "not even kicking" (153).
Find Me in Fire (1948)
Unlike the now neglected Neo-Hemingways of After the Lost Generation, whose attempts to improve on the master's technique annoyed the handful of critics who considered them, Lowry's appropriations are less mannered, less academic. It is very much central to that inkling of a "personal idiom"--that is, Lowry is like the painter who copies out of picture magazines instead of off museum walls. There is no homage, no deference--just the rude economy of compulsion and sampling that allows for what is original in Lowry to surface. There is no overstudy because Lowry is probably incapable. Jake Barnes's testicles can be appropriated the same way that Duchamp repurposes a urinal albeit without the theory.
Art brut was the norm for Lowry--yet during the professional phase of his career he did work with an editor and mentor, George Davis, who must have seen that his discovery needed intercession to force from him more than the rough cut. Find Me in Fire is their book, Lowry's second published novel and first Doubleday hardcover. While Davis's hand can only be surmised, the way the novel is structured shows that Lowry had been "guided" into seeing the disparate characters of his shorter fiction as relatable and capable of being interwoven into a single narrative. The evidence--which must have struck at least some casual readers of the 1940s--is Lowry's cannibalization of a section from "The Ticket, the Train, the Journey Out," his first Mademoiselle story. What is known is that Davis provided Lowry with a fresh scene so that he could write in character again, without the entanglements of now being one of New York's literati, and with just enough difference from Hutton Street to make it new--the editor's own hometown of Ludington, Michigan, where Lowry spent part of the summer of 1947 as a guest of Davis's parents and friends: (9) "I wrote the fire-and-sex chapter this week--I think it's the best thing I've ever done. A great relief to be writing the book in Ludington--with not another writer around and everyone bright-eyed curious to know what I'm saying about them (they stop me on the street)" (Lowry to George Davis, 29 Aug. 1947).
Lowry's best and most deeply felt characters exist in Find Me in Fire. Jinx Miller is an amputee coming home from the war. The bobby-soxer and love object Petey Jordan is another version of Nancy Ann, the tomboy--artist. Her friend and mentor, Genevieve Aronson, a librarian, is the town's only Jew and an agent of social justice based on Lowry's first wife. Len Sharpe is her other project, an African American teenager as troubled as the boy in The Quiet One, Helen Levitt and James Agee's film that appeared in the same year as Lowry's novel. Len's troubles, however, are not so innocent; and here Lowry seems controlled in imagining disturbingly real and speculative adolescent power fantasies--not unconsciously revealing his own strange and damaged semitophilism and where it was taking him:
"Anyhow there he was, all alone in there, and struttin up and down in front of the mirror. Just struttin up and down with his hands on his hips. Then all a sudden he raised up his hand, like this, straight out." "Like Hitler!" "Sure, like Hitler. An struttin up and down. He think he gonna be dictator, tell all the white people where to get off." "An marry that Jew lady in the liberry." (59)
Though not a masterpiece, even with so many provocative scenes, such as the masturbatory washing of Jim's stump and his sex acts with their afterglow of despair, Find Me in Fire drew much praise if not sales. A private memo from the director of Doubleday's publicity department to George Davis termed the book a "perfectly stunning job" and Lowry himself as a "top, new literary talent," with the only regret being that the author was abroad and could not promote the book in his own country (Louise Thomas to George Davis, 22 July 1948). Indeed, the novel, with its Midwestern noir years ahead of its time, would receive more of an audience in Europe, where it was translated into Italian and into Dutch as recently as 1965. In a 1990 monograph about the fiction of the cold war, Find Me in Fire was even praised by a professor of American literature in Sweden: "Lowry's theme is the violence of the postwar world and the need to tackle the new situation and leave the old world behind--fittingly, some of the most poignant scenes occur in the Doanville cemetery, the representation of the old world that has died" (Axelson 46).
The Wolf that Fed Us (1949)
Lowry's first trade collection of short stories included stories that went back to his first Piccolo Uomo book and his subsequent appearances in Mademoiselle, Western Review, and new writing anthologies. This book commanded praise--from Hemingway, Vidal, and other writers and from academic critics in the early 1950s, such as Aldridge and Ray B. West, Jr., who first printed "Layover in El Paso," one of Lowry's most celebrated short stories gathered in The Wolf that Fed Us: "From Capote and Bowles as a ... center, a few other writers of the forties seem to range in two directions: in the direction of the symbol for its own sake, as in the case of Shirley Jackson ... or toward the pure, Anderson-like sentimentality.... Better than these ... is Robert Lowry, whose volume of short stories The Wolf that Fed Us combines the sentimentality of Anderson with the toughness of Hemingway or of Anderson at his best" (115).
As in the fiction collections that followed, Lowry here is an experimenter and a neorealist who can modulate risk-taking, especially in sexual content, with the polished commercial writing that got him into the better paying venues without too much artistic compromise on his part. He is, in fact, virtually devoid of the disciplined ambition that would become a character trait of many of his contemporaries. He could still rely on placing stories that were two-finger typed without revision (and in this Lowry had a point when he imparted to Kerouac that he had reinvented automatic writing before the Beats). The way The Wolf that Fed Us is packaged, too, shows Lowry's nonconformance with the commercial imperative of trade-house publishing. The collection strays with what were to editors filler stories that did not fit the package--the one that Ken McCormick must have intended: episodes about the American occupation in Italy, GIs and Italian girls, the values and mores of nylons, cigarettes, and sex for food. But there is another kind of homogeneity in this looser anthology--one that Aldridge made to show that for the Neo-Hemingways the "frame of Italy" and the war were their only viable dramatic structure. To him, Lowry had only transferred "the war emotion intact to another setting. His women act the same whether they are Italian or American, in Italy or America, and his ex-soldiers in New York are identical with his infantrymen on leave in Rome" (110). Lowry, however, had actually written stories from a "frame" of Douglas, Arizona, one barely removed from the ur- of Hutton Street.
The opening story, "The Toy Balloon," flows from the anxiety of Lowry's boot-camp letters to Bella, in which he protested the way the war had separated them physically and emotionally. It documents one of their assignations as he moved about the country--this one in a San Francisco hotel. The fireworks and balloons of sex that fail in The Sun Also Rises go up for Lowry in what is an incredible subversion of Hemingway, of subtle influence and differentiation that went unnoticed. Here one of Lowry's dyads, with this karmic urgency, exists in a "room [that] took off like a balloon." The narrative is prose-poem-like, resembling or anticipating Howl--"The prophet masturbating and sinking himself, leaving dung floating on the waves" (14). (10)
Yet suggesting a certain phallocentrism on Lowry's part, his real subject is the fear of and power of women--the title directly evokes the she-wolf of Rome. Bella's character is but one wolf ("If you really are an animal you should have a mouth to bite me with, he said, and she bit him" (13)). Lupe in "The Church" is yet another who might be led into a back room to have sex with a "squarefaced soldier," but she can "swallow him, put him inside her" (32). In the title story the newly minted businesswoman and bar owner Nina Bonte seems practically lifted from Pavese's Among Women Only. For her, and the other women in this collection, Lowry's "rape" of Rome is a consensual one, even Oedipal. Joe Hammond, for his making her see herself as a by-product of fascism--because "Maybe he's Jewish, she thought" (115)--can be dismissed through her empowerment. She simply washes her face of what he wants her to see in cold sexless water and coolly returns to selling her liquor--the mother's milk of the she-wolf--with the evaporative decision not to "think of the soldier again" (120). He is as much consigned as the dead soldiers are in the dungeon of "Visitors to the Castle," Lowry's dark comedy of a town's revenge on the Americani for failing to bring Fiorello La Guardia.
The Wolf that Fed Us is Lowry's most myth-larded work, and yet this is virtually unseen with the requisite war-flavor notes. Red, in "Layover in El Paso," with the pun so in the face that it is missed, is the sex slave and prisoner of Kay, his Calypso and Circe, "somebody like Katharine Hepburn" (37), who belongs to that lost wartime demimonde of the American passenger train. However, it is she who does the abandonment--making Red a kind of Ariadne in uniform. This story would eventually become a film vehicle for Sophia Loren and Tab Hunter. "The Terror in the Streets," the slickest of Lowry's newer Village stories, would be adapted for the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars. With its trick ending for a young woman painter frightened by one of the postwar Bleecker Street Goths described by Milton Klonsky, this story, like the others in the collection, is of such contrast that it could be said that Lowry lacks a style let alone a personal one. He seems to mimic or echolaliate outside influences (the New Yorker, Story) and other writers (Shirley Jackson) for what to sound like next. But the fetishistic attention he gives to his women characters frustrates getting the stories' skillful arrangements just right, presumably frustrating his editors and agents, even though it is the essence of his one marketable quality: the sexual content that was now advancing through the culture. It is such a personal investment, too. The frightened girl is a pastiche of all of Lowry's women to date and her roommate simply wears his mother's name, a "wash" that reveals with its thinness that such women are the only kept-wet colors in his paint box.
The Big Cage (1949)
No matter what way Doubleday and Popular Library commodified and sexed up the undressing and sleeping around of Lowry's characters, he was not consciously pushing or holding back the envelope of light pornography. He was not a sexual adventurer like Henry Miller and Anias Nin. (He panned one of her books.) There is, after "Toy Balloon," more interest in depicting joylessness in his sex. He simply added that to zeroing out any affirmative message, which made him a tough sell in a land of bulging automobiles and postwar hubris, even with the mushroom cloud puffing what unease there was and resonating with the mission-creep nihilism that affected Lowry as he moved from George Davis's orbit. (Davis, on reading the first draft of Find Me in Fire, was appalled at how Lowry had ended it with Jim Miller's suicide, as though unnaturally eager to echo the self-murderous ending of Casualty.)
The Big Cage, however, is anodyne, affirmative. It is Lowry's other portrait of an artist--the Nancy Ann-Mary Beth one being its divertimento. It is also the first novel that Lowry wrote, dating from 1944 and revised and expanded in Italy again in 1948 and 1949. He invented almost nothing in his story of becoming a writing tyro; the only gesture made to fiction seems to be renaming Hutton Street, his sister, others, and himself as the outsider Dick Black, whom--and which--he personifies in the hardcover's publicity photo. There Lowry is the noir hipster, Mailer's White Negro par excellence.
Lowry's early awareness of himself as someone different and dispossessed, his tactile joy at typing short stories, his discovery of sex and being discovered by the adults, and his founding the Little Man magazine at college--The Big Cage of the title--are retold with the emotional and personal investment of Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant. Dick Black, however, expresses a postmodern black humor that writers after Lowry would use more fully in depicting the absurdity of the self-romance. This is not to say that Lowry is not fascinated by himself and his demiurgic powers to make it in New York, that he can wax with a sentimentalism that is more true to the 1930s: "Though I'd sensed from the beginning the irony of human existence--this cage of flesh and circumstances that binds the spirit and denies the visions that the imagination conjures up--I'd made the mistake of believing that only I yearned for escape, never realizing that the cage that held me was as big as all humanity" (342). Because of this book, Hemingway, who loathed Wolfesque, took back in private what praise he gave Lowry. He must have seen an advance copy of The Big Cage and, rather than produce a blurb for Lowry's new book, it facilitated an omnibus displeasure in a letter to Malcolm Cowley: "You could put Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Jean Stafford and ... Robert Lowry into one cage and jack them up good and you would find that you have nothing" (681). (11)
As expected, Lowry's self-hero caught the eye of most book reviewers, and his strange new, yet underdeveloped conceit of a prefailed writer only further soured some qualified praise that he had at least been faithful to imitating a modern. Also going unnoticed is "the strangest Iseult in modern fiction"--a serendipitous description supplied by the anonymous writer of Lowry's jacket copy. This is Nancy Williams, whom Lowry created from his Last Flapper, Shirley Wheeler. She imprinted him with what has to be the teleology, the purpose of him writing at all: to re-behold his molls and models as Hutton Street's Pygmalion, as postmortems, as messages in bookstore windows and the newspaper book page that he had won. (12) After The Big Cage, this would increasingly look like revenge, too.
The Violent Wedding (1953)
"To prove himself," Aldridge wrote in 1951, thinking of Mailer, Irwin Shaw, and the other war novelists, "he must ... write a second novel outside the frame of the war and take up characters and situations that will demand some imaginative support from him" (97). Lowry's fourth novel met this criterion for a "dramatic situation" with the pairing of Paris "Baby" James, a boxer modeled after Sugar Ray Robinson, and Laine Brendan, a composite of the many young women who lived in postwar Greenwich Village and studied with the Art Students League and the like. It is, therefore, more social commentary than a boxing novel, mixing into that genre another theme along with a hard-boiled account of left jabs and footwork: the motivations behind that first wave of interracial couples who appeared in the more tolerant quarters of northern cities in the years leading up to Brown v. Board of Education. Nevertheless, The Violent Wedding is Lowry's contribution to that shelf that includes George Bernard Shaw's Cashel Byron's Profession (1882), Jack London's The Game (1905) as well as his prizefighting reportage (which Lowry certainly read as a boy), and Orio Vergani's Poor Nigger (1930). It was also part of a literary fad, riding on the coattails of Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall (1947) and Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm (1949).
What is surprising, even to readers now, is the way Lowry handles such controversial material, going beyond Len Sharpe or the cameos of black MPs in Casualty. The dominance of the African American prizefighter, the racial guardedness of the lovers, even the dialogue is unaffected. The stereotyping is an expression of realism; it never gets beyond what would be natural for the characters themselves. Lowry narrates convincingly as a black man--tapping his Hutton Street otherness and an intimacy with postwar Harlem--through Paris. The resulting cleaner, even minimalist innovations disappointed one early reviewer who expected a more florid relationship between the author and his personae: "You get a curious impression of a nerveless narrator standing off to one side and describing the action of his puppets in neat clinical documentary prose" (Hine 29-30).
To readers more attuned to Gordon Lish's writers, Lowry does get well inside Laine. She is Nancy Ann grown up with, perhaps, her appearance and background informed a little by Lowry's obsession with Judith Bailey, who, like Laine, attended Bennington College. Lowry views the couple not only alone and together but also through Dick Willis, a white sports reporter torn by whether he is experiencing prejudice, jealousy, or both as he waits to pick up Laine after Paris tires of her. Willis is a representation of Lowry's own conflicted views at the time, a sublimation of the book-researcher's role that took him to the training camps of New Jersey, where he shadowed Sugar Ray and became steeped in the black boxing culture. Through Willis, Lowry portrays the anxieties of his own type, the liberal, progressive white male--a self-representation that is hard to square against the mental patient who five years later wrote in one of his crackpot, hand-cranked magazines that his novel was a send-up, that he had given "the Negro ... his day in American literature" as well as a "beautiful blonde mistress."
The treatment of Laine's death is a more troubling sign. She is the suicide that George Davis denied Lowry. Her taking sleeping pills to end her life and pregnancy is also her well-crafted nonevent, a personal, technical knockout to what follows: Lowry's colorful reenactment of the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" of 1951, the Robinson-LaMotta fight in Chicago. Her rationale has little to do with carrying a mixed-race child; rather, she is incapable of being a trophy woman--of being another of Lowry's Eurydices. He sends her, this fresh new composite of women, back to hell. She is a receptacle of the author's punishment with her piled-on years of low self-esteem vis-a-vis unsatisfactory white lovers. The last of them is Dick Willis--who is just another Dick Black, a Bob Lowry. He ruthlessly lays her despite her troubled state. He gets his turn in in a near-necrophiliac act as she looks on, already out of her body, a ghost of herself, with "dead eyes" (198). This quasi-rape makes The Violent Wedding the first in a line of misogynistic works that come with the decay of Lowry's talent.
The "Later" Fiction
The two novels and four short-story collections that Lowry published between 1954 and 1962 form an uneven coda, one that is stylistically unsettled in ways that are good--as though he were succeeding in going back to his prewar, pre-Doubleday freedom, before the novel-writing pushed against the ceiling of his talents and, perhaps, sidetracked the kind of storytelling in which he excelled. It is also disappointing because what is really unsettled is Lowry's mind. Nevertheless, he kept producing publishable work alongside much republished fiction, some of it indicative of what could have been a second wind for his career and an earlier rediscovery in his native country and elsewhere.
Happy New Year, Kamerades! gathers Defense in University City, Casualty, and other stories published or written before Lowry's mental illness. "Little Baseball World" is one of several standouts, a 1947 Mademoiselle story based on Lowry's sister Ruth and her obsession with the Cincinnati Reds and their radio announcer, Red Barber, during one of their near-glory seasons during the 1930s. It is still anthologized as a classic baseball story and was used to form a chapter in The Big Cage. Ruth's partially paralyzed and spastically emotive right arm is depicted as though it were a character in its own right--and Lowry does this without exploiting her condition, ennobling this shy, physically challenged woman without sentimentality.
The title story is a leftover Roman episode from The Wolf that Fed Us, in which a carload of drunken soldiers hurry to the Eternal City for New Year's Eve 1944 and find it cold and deserted. The characters are stock Lowry army buddies that show how Lowry's success had influenced him to make his stories screen-ready. The dialogue and scenes are perfect for the period's method acting along with character parts for Jack Ward and William Bendix--but the gratuitous violence is too far ahead of its time. Another example of this is the story that Lowry agonized with George Davis over publishing, "The Victim," in which a former soldier, Eddie, forces himself into a Yorkville apartment furnished like Davis's at 305 East 86th Street, with its Austrian manservant, a cat like the one Lowry had left behind when he moved out, and its owner, Arnold, a gay television studio executive. There, Eddie, obviously Arnold's former partner in a rough trade relationship, punches his former lover and benefactor--and then, in the deserted house, slits the cat's throat with a Swiss army knife to hurt him further, dumping the carcass on Arnold's bed. Davis had refused to read it despite Lowry's urging. "I could only think," he wrote Frankie Lowry, "that the story was filled with hate, that so many people had reacted to it in a way that made me certain that I had better not read it ..." (22 April 1953).
"Be Nice to Mr. Campbell," which earned Lowry his only O. Henry award, is an Oedipal comedy that was adapted for the Starlight Theatre in 1951 and even anthologized in the textbook Parent and Child in Fiction (1977) as instructional in understanding the fears and anxieties of children in single-parent homes. The title character is recognizably Lowry during his courtship and seduction of Frankie Lowry, made difficult by the presence of her jealous little boy. Less of a chestnut is "For Girlhood and for Love," which originally appeared in 1947 as "The Consolation Prize" in the first number of Epoch, an influential journal of postwar new writing. This story, with its typography indicating what a young woman hears and thinks as the anesthesia takes effect, again shows Lowry's ability to write a woman's self-doubt and sufferings like an intime, like someone who would be comfortable playing with dolls to show us these stories--and again it is Mary Beth Nelson.
Another collection, The Last Party, also needed Lowry's pre-crack-up fiction to fill it out due to a paucity of good new stories, one of which is a disturbing echo of "The Consolation Prize." "Child Bride" tells the events that lead up to its dreamlike abortion; and Lowry's ear seems so true to what actually took place that he even incorporates what could be remembered dialogues between himself and Mary Beth, right down to his character being rebuked for finding a butch-coded young woman to be a more "authentic" lesbian.
An obvious reprisal piece, like "The Victim," is the title story. "The Last Party" is autobiographically linked to Lowry's separation from Frankie Lowry. His character invites their neighbors to a grotesquely uncomfortable party in a soon-to-be-sold house. Then he sleeps with one of them, not caring, as the story ends, that he will be discovered in bed with another woman by the Frankie character as she unexpectedly returns. A permutation of this victimology, with a thinly disguised Robert Lowry as the cheated-on hero-as-injured-party, forms the basis for his final two novels.
Lowry's fiction always required for its structure his personal memories and mythology. He could sublimate his autobiographical representations to the point where only he, his family, and his women might see themselves mirrored in his work--and even those renderings are, though uncomfortably too real for their life models, never undisguised by him in anything else he said or wrote. The narcissism in his later work became more of an obvious and distorted mirror, but it differs only in that it becomes a form of self-justification and the dangerous practice of analysis on himself. A few years earlier he had achieved the objectivity and capacity for the complex experiences of The Violent Wedding, but his new novels retell the story of his breakdown, even as he tries to represent it in the old manner so that there is a semblance of craftsmanship rather than raw, brute life.
The civilizing effect of the 1950s--that "mixture of imitation, counterfeit, economic advances, [and] personal aggrandizement" (Karl 49)--a houseful of antiques, and suburban cocktail hours left Lowry a gentrified hipster in West Redding. His breakdown was, in part, his reaction, maybe his protest; but he still needed to behave as a novelist and an increasingly suburban, middle-class readership wanted to see the world he wanted to leave behind. What's Left of April (1956) is Lowry's mimicry of the Cheeveresque. His heroine, however, is totally his creature. She is an unbelievable pastiche of women--part housewife-divorcee based on Frankie Lowry and part fashion model-actress after Kit Kelleher, the woman nearest Lowry during the osmotic writing of the new novel. She is also part Lowry himself, a vehicle for examining the wrong moves that placed him in his suburban disaster, reimagined as the rise and fall and comeback of an ingenue from Cincinnati. His pathologizing, together with his attempts to make it fiction, comes close to being psychopathology as it makes for some harrowing writing in an otherwise banal book. There is even an element of criminality in the way Lowry frees and punishes Carol Parks from motherhood with an accident in the road involving a little boy not unlike his son. But the only bloodletting is menstrual: the bobby-soxer's "first period" chapter in the promising first part of What's Left of April. The second half of the book is almost tacked on like bad architecture and more the story of Carol's husband's degradation, indeed, her victim--Frankie's--Jim Ramsey, the hero of Lowry's sequel.
Nothing was left to chance during the writing of What's Left of April. Ken McCormick made Lowry submit one chapter at time to prevent him from straying from his narrative or introducing defects to the plot that were now attributable to his uneven mental state and psychiatric care. (This did not, however, limit Lowry's contact with McCormick's staff, for he had become infamously difficult to work with and could be constantly on the phone asking for help.) Despite the precautions, the novel was panned and its piecework construction and other flaws exposed. Carl Hartman, in the Western Review, in which the Carol Parks girlhood chapters had been published as a short story titled "A Cruel Day," felt Lowry should have left an otherwise successful story alone rather than vitiating it and rendering it "almost meaningless" by the "slicked up and uninteresting surface plot" written around it (314). Here Lowry's method of using a short story for the seed of a longer work or incorporating it into one failed.
Lowry had originally killed off both Jim Ramsey and his son. But McCormick ordered him to write the father back in, which resulted in the novel that ended Lowry's contract with Doubleday. It would be a disservice to him to go much further in treating his next and last novel as part of his fraying talent or find it a place among The Bell Jar and other novels about mental illness. Readers who do find a copy of The Prince of Pride Starring (1959) will find passages that treat some of the same disparities faced by McMurphy and Chief Bromden against Big Nurse and the Combine. But they will also see things in it that make its writing seem as far as one can get from a cult novel. It is a reprisal document by a mental patient directed at his former wife and, perhaps, even at Anne Frank for diluting Lowry's monist victimhood with the six million of the Holocaust. (The confessional poets would soon overcome this moral impasse by the conceit of adding themselves to that number--Sylvia Plath with the least discretion.) Jim Ramsey never rises to being Lowry's Winston Smith, as a believable victim of the state. Even his anti-Semitism is received knowledge and, as the critic Frank Schafer observes in his review of the German translation, Lowry more "performs it--unlike the example of a Celine or an Eliot--as role-player's prose (a madman's)" (35).
Despite having self-published a book that made him a pariah (unsold copies of The Prince of Pride Starring were remaindered through the American Nazi Party's bookstore), Lowry's last two hardcover short-story collections provide an almost bittersweet ending to his career. New York Call Girl (1958) includes many of the stories that Lowry published in the revived American Mercury, including "Passing Star" and "Blood Wedding in Chicago." His introduction, the afterword, the thanking of his editor, agent, and parents are virtually a plaintive admission that his career was over, which to him it was in 1957, hors de combat from the Village writer's life and recuperating at his starting point on Hutton Street in Cincinnati. Despite the promise of sex in the title story, Lowry's call girl is the author of a fragmentary memoir. She is more disembodied by her vocation, amorally observing herself at a distance. She is not the stock prostitute with the heart of gold but rather in Lowry's telling a sex worker, one of the first to be depicted this way. There is also much filler from Lowry's first decade--a telling sign of how debilitated he had become.
Lowry was not ready for this swansong of his, though some of his writing had become even more bizarrely prejudiced and pathologically misogynistic as in the case of The Knife (1959), a mimeographed novella similar to Patricia Highsmith's mysteries but devoid of craftsmanship. Instead, he tried for a comeback in Party of Dreamers (1962), his last hardcover trade book and one filled with too many possible directions rather than a redirection of focus or style. The stories, written in the temporary stability made possible by his third wife, are for the most part new work, with several stories having already appeared in new writing venues such as the Carleton Miscellany and Fresco. He even tried to spoof himself, responding to the kidnapping, trial, and execution of Adolf Eichmann in "The Nazi Midgets," in which he accomplishes a miniature Tin Drum-like satire; the English translation of Gunter Grass's novel had appeared in 1959, in time for Lowry to make his outsider art from it. However, unlike Oscar, Lowry's midget sees his scaffold in Israel and leaves his story without its implicit justice. Other stories in the collection are experimental, elusive, encrypted. "A Roar in the Village" is the best of these, in which the Kafkaesque meets Hemingway kitsch. It owes to an obsession with lions that Lowry had (13)--and an earlier story in The Last Party, "Cat about Town," where the animal's
point of view is first used to observe human relationships in New York. The new story reads like a fractured fairy tale and a North American analogy rather than precursor to magic realism, with its performing cat that "can make up sentences" (132) with wooden blocks and that grows to be "a towering creature of jungle proportions" (134). It is also an allegory of Lowry's career and the way it ended in New York right down to being left alone in an apartment in the Village, which Lowry lines with cork, in a nod to the reclusive Proust's bedroom, so that no one hears the cat roaring occasionally and asking, "But who can hear me?" (137).
(1) In a dispute with Lowry over his claim to the origins of Beat literature, Kerouac did concede that, "you wrote very well about cincinnata [sic]."
(2) Vidal was probably familiar with Casualty as well. However, according to Lowry in XXIII Celebrities, a chapbook memoir printed by the bookseller Nicky Drumbolis, Vidal insulted him by referring to it as "Catastrophe" during a Mademoiselle photo shoot at Gotham Book Mart in 1946. And Lowry was aware of his feelings and war fiction vis-a-vis Norman Mailer. The two had met in Paris in 1948 for drinks, a meeting that Mailer still recalls as a "guarded" occasion, given that both novelists "were like young contestants vying for the same prize so neither of us was particularly ready to compliment the other nor to look for friendship." At the time, however, Mailer was agonizing over the success The Naked and the Dead, which had just been published and "was doing very well in sales." Mailer complained to Lowry that now the people who "take books seriously won't read it." This self-pity, he felt, must have offended Lowry, who had not been "recognized enough for his genuine talents" (Norman Mailer to Robert Nedelkoff, 24 March 2005). Lowry's recollection of the meeting is in his American Mercury critique of hipster intellectuals, "Don Quixotes without Windmills." In that essay he invents the "Underground Man Model 1950," who is actually himself:
A couple of summers ago, in Paris, I ran into an ex-GI who was hiding out from the truth: his war novel, which he had written for people who used to read Story and The New Anvil, had turned out to be a big fat bestseller, a book-club selection and all the rage among the overstuffed reviewers he had always thought he hated. While the royalties and acclaim were pouring in, he huddled in shame in a dark Paris flat, harboring Spanish Republicans and ideas that there had been some terrible mistake. "I think it was my publisher," he told me lamely. "He took it in his head to make it a bestseller and he spent enough money on advertising to put it over." His only mistake was his assumption that his opinions could not possibly be popular opinions: that his book (comfortably liberal and no more explosive than the thoughts of ten thousand other ex-GIs) could not possibly appeal to anyone except an underground, diehard, radical few. The last I heard of him he had reached Hollywood, where he was still working hard at preserving his illusions. (655-56)
I thank Robert Nedelkoff and Heinz Wohlers for this information.
(3) The primary sources for this essay include many unpublished documents (Lowry's letters to pen pals, his voluminous ephemera, and the like) that are only in my personal archive. For the sake of readability, citation is provided for sources that can be easily located at this writing.
(4) The Yorkville house was, for the postwar culture set, as interesting and significant as Davis's other celebrated residence at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, his boarding house that counted among its guests W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, and other mostly gay artists.
(5) My translation. The full English text can be found at www.robertlowry.de.
(6) Duffy Westheimer interceded again on Lowry's behalf, helping pay for psychiatric treatment in the mid-1950s at the request of his mother.
(7) My translation of Ezra Pound's Italian:
"Little Man," a new, nearly underground publisher, presents a new writer who, having left his testicles (nuts) in Spain, declares himself disillusioned with Bolshevik ideology: Defense in University City by James Caldwell deserves an Italian translation and is short enough to be publishable in Meridiano.
(James Caldwell, not to be confused with the novelist Erskine Caldwell, is in that line of Hemingway and McAlmon.) (Pound 16)
(8) Bella's maiden name, Cohen, the same as the Nighttown madam in Ulysses, is a literary allusion that, for Lowry, was left silent.
(9) Lowry did check in with Davis via airmail to be jealous at the rising star of Truman Capote: "That fairy Hucksters [i.e., "Shut a Final Door"] that Capootle managed to slip into the Atlantic this month! You can only compare it with the Haidless Hawk, which it is worse than. Did this one burst the bubble at last?" (Lowry to George Davis, 29 Aug. 1947).
(10) The Beats were cognizant of Lowry. He may even have been one of the "best minds" whom Ginsberg evokes at the beginning of his signature poem.
(11) The catalog of Hemingway's personal library reveals that he owned five of Lowry's novels and short-story collections and, ironically, that Lowry is better represented in the collection than all of these contemporaries.
(12) Shirley Wheeler's family, at the time of her death, found a copy of The Big Cage in her library. So Wheeler had followed his career. She also enjoyed some literary success with her biography of her mother, Dr. Nina and the Panther (1976).
(13) Lowry had painted a lion mural on a wall in his Bleecker Street apartment and owned an enormous plush toy lion in his later years that occupied a chair in his room. These and the cat-turned-lion may be just some of Lowry's strange nods to Hemingway, who factors at the top of a "canon" in Lowry's last glossy magazine appearance:
"... I need hardly add that he invented the lion," Marietta said, "the elephant gun and the deep-sea fishing boat."
"Why did he invent the deep-sea fishing boat?" Paul asked.
"I don't know why he invented the deep-sea fishing boat or anything else. I only know that he did and that's all."
"Clever of him," Paul said.
"Yes, wasn't it?" ...
"All of us forgot to mention Gore Vidal," the girl with the short, straight hair said as they walked down the street five-abreast. "We mentioned Truman Capote, didn't we? All right, what about Bob Lowry, Walter B. Lowery and Malcolm Lowry? What about Alfred Hayes and John Horne Burns? Maya Deren? Croswell Bowen? Kenneth Fearing? Kenneth Patchen? Kenneth Rexroth?" ...
"No, you can't mention anybody any more unless you say what they invented," Marietta said. "And anyway, Ernest Hemingway invented all of those people. Or most of them. I don't know. I'm beginning to forget what he did invent, now."
"He invented Ernest Hemingway," Paul said. ("An American Writer" 90)
Aldridge, John W. After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.
Axelson, Arne. Restrained Response: American Novels of the Cold War and Korea, 1945-1962. Westport: Greenwood, 1990.
Fitzgerald, Michael. The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger's Syndrome and the Arts. New York: Jessica Kingsly, 2005.
Hartman, Carl. "Mr. Morris and Some Others." Rev. of What's Left of April, by Robert Lowry. Western Review 11.3 (1957): 311-16.
Hemingway, Ernest. Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters 1917-1961. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner, 1981.
Hine Al. "Do Men Read?" Rev. of The Violent Wedding, by Robert Lowry. Saturday Review of Literature 27 June 1953: 28-29.
Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions, 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
Lowry, Robert. "An American Writer." Esquire May 1959: 90.
--. The Big Cage. New York: Doubleday, 1949.
--. The Blaze beyond the Town. Bari, Italy: Piccolo Uomo, 1945.
--. Casualty. Norfolk: New Directions, 1946.
--. Defense in University City. Cincinnati: Little Man, 1939.
--. "Don Quixotes without Windmills." American Mercury 71 (1950): 653-58; rtp. as "Is This the Beat Generation?" American Mercury 76 (1953): 16-20.
--. Find Me in Fire. New York: Doubleday, 1948.
--. Happy New Year, Kamerades! New York: Doubleday, 1954.
--. Hutton Street. Cincinnati: Little Man, 1940.
--. The Journey Out. Bari, Italy: Piccolo Uomo, 1945.
--. The Last Party. New York: Popular Library, 1956.
--. New York Call Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
--. Party of Dreamers. New York: Fleet, 1962.
--. The Prince of Pride Starring. Cincinnati: National Genius Press, 1959.
--. XXIII Celebrities. Toronto: Letters, 1990.
--. The Violent Wedding. New York: Doubleday, 1953.
--. What's Left of April. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
--. The Wolf that Fed Us. New York: Doubleday, 1949.
Monicelli, Giorgio. Introduction. Naja [Casualty]. By Robert Lowry. Trans. Giorgio Monicelli. Milan: Elmo, 1948.7-20.
Nin, Anais. Diary, Volume 4: 1944-47. Ed. Gunther Stuhlman. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Pound, Ezra. Idee fondamentali: "Meridiano di Roma" 1939-1943. Ed. Caterina Ricciardi. Rome: Lucarini, 1991.
Sanz De Soto, Emilio. "Des Createurs Contre la Barbarie: Les ecrivains et la guerre d'Espagne" [Creators against Barbarism: Writers and the War in Spain[. Le Monde Diplomatique April 1997: 26-27.
Schafer, Frank. "Antisemitisches Gift? Uber den vergessenen amerikanischen Schriftsteller Robert Lowry" [Anti-Semitic Poison? About the Forgotten American Writer Robert Lowry]. Kommune Sept. 1998: 35-36.
Vidal, Gore. United States: Essays 1952-1992. New York: Random House, 1993.
Weintraub, Stanley. The Last Great Cause. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1968.
West, Ray B., Jr. The Short Story in America 1900-1950. New York: Regnery, 1952.
A Robert Lowry Checklist
Novels and Stories
Defense in University City. Cincinnati: Little Man, 1939; rpt. in Robert Lowry Journal 3a. Harrlach, Germany: Heinz Wohlers Verlag, 2004.
Hutton Street. Cincinnati: Little Man, 1940.
The Blaze beyond the Town. Bari, Italy: Piccolo Uomo, 1945.
The Journey Out. Bari, Italy: Piccolo Uomo, 1945.
Casualty. Norfolk: New Directions, 1946.
Find Me in Fire. New York: Doubleday, 1948.
The Wolf that Fed Us. New York: Doubleday, 1949.
The Big Cage. New York: Doubleday, 1949.
The Violent Wedding. New York: Doubleday, 1953; rpt. Westport: Greenwood, 1970.
Happy New Year, Kamerades! New York: Doubleday, 1954; rpt. as This Is My Night. New York: Popular Library, 1955.
The Last Party. New York: Popular Library, 1956.
What's Left of April. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
New York Call Girl. New York: Doubleday, 1958.
That Kind of Woman. New York: Pyramid, 1959.
The Prince of Pride Starring. Cincinnati: National Genius Press, 1959.
Party of Dreamers. New York: Fleet, 1962.
The Mary Beth Stories in Robert Lowry Journal 4. Harrlach, Germany: Heinz Wohlers Verlag, 2005.
The Knife in Edition Depression no. 3. Ed. and intro. James Reidel. Harrlach, Germany: Heinz Wohlers Verlag, 2005. [Artist's book in limited edition.]
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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