Winner of the Poetry Foundation's Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism
The Dolphin Letters offers an unprecedented portrait of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick during the last seven years of Lowell’s life, a time of personal crisis and creative innovation for both writers. Centered on the letters they exchanged with each other and with other members of their circle—writers, intellectuals, friends, and publishers, including Elizabeth Bishop, Caroline Blackwood, Mary McCarthy, and Adrienne Rich—the book has the narrative sweep of a novel, telling the story of the dramatic breakup of their twenty-one-year marriage and their extraordinary, but late, reconciliation.
Lowell’s controversial sonnet-sequence The Dolphin (for which he used Hardwick’s letters as a source) and his last book, Day by Day, were written during this period, as were Hardwick’s influential books Seduction and Betrayal: Essays on Women in Literature and Sleepless Nights: A Novel. Lowell and Hardwick are acutely intelligent observers of marriages, children, and friends, and of the feelings that their personal crises gave rise to.
The Dolphin Letters, masterfully edited by Saskia Hamilton, is a debate about the limits of art—what occasions a work of art, what moral and artistic license artists have to make use of their lives as material, what formal innovations such debates give rise to. The crisis of Lowell’s The Dolphin was profoundly affecting to everyone surrounding him, and Bishop’s warning to Lowell—“art just isn’t worth that much”—haunts.
"The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 . . . will be the essential volume for any understanding of what actually went on. A sort of casebook, it assembles material from all the participants in the turmoil, including Elizabeth Hardwick, whose letters from this period appear in full for the first time. With 'Lizzie' as its principal author, The Dolphin Letters turns out to be a better and a more important book than The Dolphin."—Thomas Mallon, The New Yorker
"In The Dolphin Letters, Hamilton has edited Hardwick’s side of the correspondence, paired it with Lowell’s letters to her, and in this curious way brought together again two people who were never fully separated and never fully reunited. Fittingly, their communication is faltering and out of sync. Letters cross and leave unanswered questions. But the distance between them is less of a force than their continuing need to write to each other. 'Yes, letters are strange' Hardwick begins one letter to Lowell. 'There is no answering in the true sense in our correspondence . . . There is just writing a letter.' The Hardwick-Lowell correspondence on its own would make a fat book, but a less absorbing and significant one than Hamilton has created by including letters to and from the writers who constituted 'their circle.' The other voices Hamilton introduces . . . enlarge the picture."—Langdon Hammer, The New York Review of Books
"The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 brings to life one of literary history’s most famous scandals . . . What makes the letters so darkly compelling, and such uneasy, thrilling company . . . is the elemental question of motive. Why do people do what they do? How much do they understand their own impulses and responsibilities?"—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"These letters, which draw from the last years of Lowell’s life, detail a profoundly creative time for the couple as well as the breakup of their marriage (and eventual reconciliation). Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Mary McCarthy and other friends make appearances; taken together, the correspondence offers a debate about the cultural role and legacy of art."—Joumana Khatib, The New York Times
"Buoyed by the dialectical elegance of its form, The Dolphin Letters is an extraordinary philosophical inquiry into what is permissible in a work of art . . . Each of their letters was in some sense a private story that partook of life as a means of making sense of shared experience, confirming it or mourning it or holding it to the light. If their correspondence anticipated aspects of their art—a working through of opaque material—it was also the final coherence of a great and conflicted love."—Dustin Illingworth, The Nation
"At first glance, the voyeuristic interest offered by the living drama of the messages between Lowell and Hardwick almost outweighs their nature as letters. But neither can put a foot wrong in writing a sentence; each has the instinctive cadence of a born writer, the sophistication of an adult who has seen and felt almost too much, the directness and candor of an intimate acquaintance, and the steady capacity for irony even in sadness. "—Helen Vendler, Harper's
"A peculiarly fascinating volume containing hundreds of letters between poet Robert Lowell and his estranged wife, novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick . . . The book includes not just Hardwick's shocked responses to the poems, but also the more outraged reactions of poets Adrienne Rich, who broke off her friendship with Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, who famously told Lowell that 'art just isn't worth that much.' A devastating examination of the limits of the written word."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"With graceful authority, poet and editor Saskia Hamilton defines the emotional and literary issues raised by this controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning book, reissued to reveal Lowell’s revisions as The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972–1973 in conjunction with these ensnaring and affecting transatlantic letters between two poets who, in spite of epic hurt, never ceased loving each other."—Booklist
"The push and pull of love and anger course through this riveting collection of correspondence between onetime literary power couple Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick . . . compulsively readable . . . [The Dolphin Letters] illuminates a tumultuous time in two celebrated writers’ lives."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
1. Elizabeth Hardwick to Robert Lowell
[15 West 67th Street, New York, N.Y.] Tuesday, April 7, 1970
Darling: Safely home, but quite tired and still not back on a schedule Americana,...