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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 6, Number 1 (January 2008) : 111--133
Connecting Rooms
Entering “Father’s Bedroom” in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies
Frank Kearful
Rubric A: Topoi



With a novelist’s attention to significant detail, in Life Studies Robert Lowell depicts a suite of connecting rooms in which generations of Lowells and Winslows enact their roles in a cultural narrative of the decline and fall of two of New England’s leading families. This paper focuses on three of those rooms – a dining room, a bedroom, and a ship’s cabin – and on how Lowell connects family history and cultural history through use of significant detail evoking Asian associations. Additional rooms, ranging from the prototypical Beacon Hill living room of the Boston Brahmins, to fictional rooms in New England crime novels, to an attic room in Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, are also glanced at on the way to “Father’s Bedroom” in Life Studies. By way of historical prologue to the cultural narrative inscribed in those rooms, the paper begins with a brief account of the origins of New England Orientalism in the China trade and the opening of Japan, before closely examining how Lowell tellingly integrates allusions to the China trade and New England Orientalism in “Fourth of July in Maine” and “Soft Wood,” where they link New England’s past and present, and are assimilated into a broad cultural critique. The detached, ironic rhetorical stance Lowell adopts as New England historian and cultural critic is less distanced, more complex in Life Studies, where he engages with a central personal theme, his problematic relationship with his father.

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