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The Dolphin Letters, 1970–1979

Elizabeth Hardwick

The illuminating letters of Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, including the dramatic breakup of their 21-year marriage and their extraordinary reconciliation.

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The Dolphin Letters
offers an unprecedented portrait of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick during the last seven years of Lowell’s life (1970 to 1977), a time of personal crisis and creative innovation for both writers. Centred 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 – this book has the narrative sweep of a novel, telling the story of the dramatic breakup of Lowell and Hardwick’s twenty-one-year marriage and their extraordinary, but late, reconciliation.

Lowell’s sonnet sequence The Dolphin (for which he controversially adapted 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: Women and Literature and Sleepless Nights. Lowell and Hardwick are acutely intelligent observers of marriage, children, friends and the feelings that their personal tribulations gave rise to.

The Dolphin Letters, edited by Saskia Hamilton, is a debate about the limits of art – what occasions a work of art, and what moral and artistic licence artists have to make use of their lives and the lives of others as material. The crisis of Lowell’s The Dolphin was profoundly affecting to everyone around him, and Bishop’s warning that ‘art just isn’t worth that much’ haunts us today.


Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) was one of the greatest intellectuals of her time. A co-founder of The New York Review of Books, she authored three novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays, as well as contributing more than a hundred pieces to American publications. She was married to the poet Robert Lowell from 1949 to 1972.

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