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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 – 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.
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