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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, October 10, 2004

Biographies Reveal Two Very Different Literary Figures

On the face of it, no authors are more different from each other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Malcolm Lowry.

Longfellow was gentle and serene, while Lowry was the violent architect of his own doom.Longfellow lived in a mansion, and Lowry was a squatter in Dollarton, Vancouver, Canada.

Longfellow wrote poems that rhyme. Lowry constructed fiction that can be read on several levels.

Almost everyone has heard of Longfellow, but the same is not true of Lowry. As did many individuals of my generation, I read and memorized Longfellow's works when I was a child. They stood next to the poems of Edgar Guest and James Whitcomb Riley and the novels of Winston Churchill and Captain Marryat in my grandmother's bookcase.

Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life by Charles C. Calhoun (Beacon, 2004).

The cover portrait of a young, romantic-looking Longfellow announces that this book will reveal new qualities in the poet different from those of the bearded Victorian bard we are used to.

Longfellow's life was extremely lucky and unlucky at the same time. The poet was an excellent student at Bowdoin College, and was rewarded with three years of study in Europe to perfect his language skills.

When he returned, he took up the newly created post of professor of modern languages at his alma mater.

Longfellow's luck continued with his househunting in Cambridge, Mass., when he was able to live in the Craigie House, once the headquarters of George Washington during the Revolution.

His bad luck included the death of his two wives. The first died of tuberculosis, and his dearly beloved second wife, Fanny, died from burns suffered in a freak accident.

Charles Calhoun has written an entertaining biography of Longfellow that, I hope, paves the way for an even more detailed study in the near future.

The Scarlet Professor: Newton Arvin; A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal by Barry Werth (Doubleday, 2001).

This book is a real find. There have not been many outstanding works of criticism on Longfellow, but the best is a study by Newton Arvin, who taught at Smith College for more than 40 years. He died at age 63 in 1962, the same year his work on Longfellow appeared.

During Arvin's lifetime, he was considered one of the great American literary critics, along with Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and Cleanth Brooks, to name a few.

The one thing you learn by reading this book is that Arvin's balanced writing style should be considered a miracle considering the chaos of his private life.

Werth has written a clear and interesting account of how Smith College became caught up in a witch hunt for pornography, when the government had the power to open one's mail and search one's home without a warrant with probable cause.

Inside the Volcano: My Life With Malcolm Lowry by Jan Gabrial (St. Martin's, 2000).

This autobiography, written by Lowry's first wife, is a real eye-opener for his fans. Like Arvin, Lowry's art was squeezed out of him by pain, suffering, fear and loathing.

Lowry is a cult novelist and author of the 20th-century masterpiece Under the Volcano, a depiction of the last day on Earth of an alcoholic diplomat in Mexico before the tourists came.

Film director John Huston popularized the novel in a movie that starred Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset.

Lowry had two wives, and both were aspiring writers. An earlier biography by Douglas Day was obviously written with the cooperation of Lowry's second wife, Marjorie, and repeated the myth that his first wife, Jan, was promiscuous and hard-hearted.

Here, in her only published work, Jan Gabrial sets the record straight.

Though it reveals Lowry's drunkenness too clearly, Gabrial's book expresses fondness for Lowry's memory.

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker (St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Bowker has written the definitive biography of Lowry.

Though I am surprised that he is not more impressed by Lowry's posthumously released works, he does a great job with Volcano and with Lowry's second marriage.

The shocking news here is the possibility that Lowry was murdered by his second wife. Read the book and decide for yourself.

It is a shame that Lowry was making real progress in his fight against alcohol when he died in 1957 while visiting northern England's Lake District.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.