October 21, 2017
Lowell & the West Street JailOn this day in 1943 Robert Lowell went to jail for draft evasion. The twenty-six-year-old Lowell was barely published at this point, but because he came from a venerated Boston family -- one with Mayflower roots, and distinguished military leaders -- the event made headline news. Looking back, Lowell would describe his stand as "the most decisive thing I ever did, just as a writer"; he would also turn the memory into a centerpiece poem in Life Studies, the 1959 collection regarded by many as the most important book of American poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.
Lowell's protest was principled, but not that of a pacifist. He had answered earlier draft calls willingly, and had even tried to enlist; on all occasions he had been turned down because of poor eyesight. There was every reason to think that he would be turned down again at his upcoming recall examination, but in the interim Lowell had become an even more devout Catholic, and America at war had shown a new "Machiavellian contempt for the laws of justice and charity between nations." This phrase is from Lowell's "Declaration of Personal Responsibility," mailed to President Roosevelt on September 7th and then to 110 other family members, friends and newspapers. Military service was a "moral responsibility" which he and his family had long honored, but the recent saturation bombings -- Hamburg, other places, eventually Dresden -- and the demand that Germany and Japan unconditionally surrender had forced Lowell to "the conclusion that I cannot honorably participate in a war whose prosecution, as far as I can judge, constitutes a betrayal of my country."
Such comments got him a year and a day in a correctional facility. Much of the time was spent in community service, but the first ten days of confinement were in New York's West Street Jail, in which Lepke Buchalter, gangster boss of "Murder, Incorporated," was also being held as he awaited Sing-Sing. In "Memories of West Street and Lepke," Lowell recalls him as untroubled:
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections....
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
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