[Marxism] Robert Lowell meets Robert McNamara

Brian Shannon Brian_Shannon at verizon.net
Sat Dec 18 19:09:11 MST 2004

The present issue of The New Yorker (December 20 & 27, 2004) has a 
selection of letters from Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop. According 
to the New Yorker, "The Letters of Robert Lowell" will be published in 
June. Of course, the book itself will be a selection. We are not told 
how many letters exist or to whom they are addressed. In any case, this 
selection of letters to Bishop is itself fascinating. Here is one that 
should be of especial interest to readers of Marxmail.

Along with many other poets, writers, painters, and sculptors, Lowell 
was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War. As you can tell from the 
selection below, he was also, due to family genealogy and prominence, 
in the periphery of the ruling class.

Alan Wald ("The New York Intellectuals") could describe the 
associations more fully than I, but the circle of artists opposed to 
the Vietnam War had many connections to the 1930s and 1940s 
non-Stalinist artistic left. "When the editors of The Vassar Miscellany 
rejected a submission of modern verse, she [Elizabeth Bishop] joined 
with classmates Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark, and Muriel Rukeyser in 
founding a less conventional literary journal, Con Spirito." McCarthy 
became identified with the Trotskyist movement for her defense of Leon 
Trotsky, Rukeyser was identified with the Communist Party, and Eleanor 
Clark was briefly married to Jan Frankel, a secretary of and translator 
for Leon Trotsky.

from Brian Shannon

Robert Lowell

Elizabeth Bishop

New York, N.Y.
September 15, 1966

Dearest Elizabeth:

What’s up? It seems almost a year since I’ve had anything in writing 
from you. . . . In mid-summer, following my desire and ignoring my 
better judgment, I went to a birthday party for Jackie Kennedy—white 
turrety inn building at Cotuit, rooms rented for the guests by our 
hostess Mrs. Paul Mellon, through the afternoon glimpses of what must 
be fellow guests, women with hair a foot high, smiles but no 
introductions, the nearest I came to knowing any were Mike Nichols, 
Charles Addams, and Jerome Robbins—most of them were people like 
Forestal’s son, Paley, the CBS president, people with names like big 
figures in news, business or politics, but often not related, or poor 

Launch with champagne in paper cups, harbor boat pacing our boat, 
wonderful sunset over Cotuit accredited to Mrs. Mellon’s plans—then 
landing, swarms of new known-unknowns with lanterns, big tent, air of 
very expensive rustic simplicity. Hours of waiting, feeling that no one 
was known from our world to any of the other guests except Mike 

Later, a luxuriously simple dinner, all I can remember are blood-red 
lamb chops, Mike Nichols next to Jackie, later, middle-aged people 
dancing the new dances, not very wildly, but too young for me, a 
slightly tawdry untimely Marie Antoinette feeling of a festival when 
the age for being whole-hearted about such things has passed, the flash 
of the jet-set, a little lurid and in bad taste in a world of poverty 
and blood, a certain real ease—meeting with McNamara, Jackie putting 
her hand over my mouth and telling me to be polite and I saying 
something awkward about liking him, but not his policy, then Jackie 
saying “how impossibly banal, you should say you adore his policy, but 
find him dull.”

Few minutes talk with Styron and me arguing with McNamara, no great 
impact on either side, except that McNamara seemed a simple brilliant 
administrative soul, who had given little thought to moral 
complications, and who might have even taken the usual liberal line 
against Viet Nam more easily than I would.

The party didn’t get into the news, but somehow a month later, a gossip 
column in Norfolk, Virginia, reported that I stayed up till five with 
McNamara and we had gotten on famously, and the columnist hoped I’d 
learned something—all non-sense. A vague feeling of a heterogeneous 
opposition to Johnson group. The most interesting person to talk to was 
Bobby Kennedy, but like Carlos [Lacerda, Bishop’s neighbor and an 
elected official in Brazil], there is a scary feeling of ambition and 
power about him, along with frankness.

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