[lit-ideas] Re: Lowelliana

  • From: "" <dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> (Redacted sender "Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx" for DMARC)
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Fri, 21 Nov 2014 21:13:55 -0500

My last post today!
In her book on Literary Criticism along Griceian lines Mary Louise Pratt  
(professor at UC/Berkeley) wonders if fiction should follow Griceian maxims 
(of  trustworthiness, say). She doubts it!
So, what implicatures should we draw from a piece like "91 Revere Street"?  

In a message dated 11/21/2014 7:50:54 P.M. Eastern Standard Time,  
lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx writes: "Regards to Robert and JL:  You both  found 
same article/review that describes Billy Harkness as being fictitious,  
thanks", re: "one purely fictional character, Billy Harkness, supposedly an  
classmate of Lowell’s father."

It is nice now to compare the  original fragment as cited by L. Helm, 
below. In any case, this  


notes  that indeed Lowell's father was Annapolis (class of 1907). His 
epitaph  reads:

"CDR Robert Traill Spencer Lowell, III"



"I don't really see his mother's influence in  ['91 Revere Street'].  I do 
see the influence of Commander Billy Harkness,  his father's friend.  

Lowell writes" as follows:

Lowell on  Harkness:

"The man who seems in my memory 
to sit under old Mordecai's  portrait 
is not my father, but Commander Billy 
-- the Commander after  Father 
had thrown in his commission.  
There Billy would sit  glowing, 
perspiring, bragging.  Despite his rowdiness, 
he even then  breathed the power 
that would make him a vice-admiral 
and hero in World  War II."

Note in particular the subtle implicature of 'would' which  strikes me as 


i. Despite his rowdiness,  
Harkness even THEN breathed the power that 
would make him a  vice-admiral.

versus the more factive:

ii. Despite his rowdiness,  
Harkness breathed the power 
that MADE him the vice-admiral that he  became.

I.e. there seems to be a vagueness about 'would make', as if per  a 
cancellable implicature:

(IMPLICATURE of existence of Harkness  cancelled): 

iii. Despite his rowdiness, 
Harkness breathed the power  that 
WOULD make him a vice-admiral. 
Of course that breathed power never  
did make him a vice-admiral, 
because he never  existed.


I should confess that before finding the New  Criterion link I was misled 
(as it were) twice by google. I did find one  Rear-Admiral William Harkness, 
but he was a British. The second misleading cue  was a reference to the 
Harknesses of Yale fame (and I believe one Edward  Harkness was an admiral of 

In "Robert Lowell", Helm  asks:

"Was Lowell a Manic-Depressive, bi-polar in the kinder-gentle  parlance of 
today, or just a nasty piece of work?  Did he envy those who  poured 
themselves so completely into their poetry that nothing remained, try it,  and 
became changed into the role he set for himself?"

Well, I guess it's  good L. Helm trusts Tillinghast.

Tillinghast "agrees", in Helm's words,  "that Lowell was barking mad", and 
not a mere nasty piece of work! -- with a  great ability to honour his 
father by creating a fictional character that  graduated from his same 

For the record, Borges thought  of Lowell as "the American poet", or so I 
read in ps.

Balderston has written loads about sources for Borges's numerous fictional  
characters, and I shouldn't be surprised if Lowellian critics have further  
explored the sources for Lowell's Billy Harkness. 
As Homer said, in Greek: Fact is stranger than fiction. 





"Borges is nasty about people who are kind and enthusiastic about  him."
"He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford in 1971, 
and I, as a lecturer in Latin American Literature, was one of his 
hosts there."
"We gave a dinner for him to which we invited Robert Lowell, 
who felt he had become a close friend of Borges after a trip to 
Buenos Aires in 1962 and a visit by Borges to Harvard, where Lowell 
had presented him."
"Borges purported not to know who Lowell was."
"So to avoid offending him, we introduced Lowell as “the American poet”. 
"On which Borges started reciting Walt Whitman, as though 
to say he only recognized the category but not the individual."
"On reading Bioy’s diary, I now 
discover that Borges not only 
knew perfectly well who Lowell was, 
but that he had developed an intense dislike for him by 1962."
"It turns out that Lowell had committed the 
gaffe of being rude in front of Borges’s mother."
"In her flat Lowell had asked who the most 
beautiful woman in Buenos Aires was, “to go to bed with her”."
[There must be an implicature there somewhere that perhaps Mrs. Borges  
should have let go].
"Lowell had also made the mistake of praising Fidel Castro, and 
of taking off his jacket and shoes, and sitting on the floor."
"On returning from Oxford, Borges reports to Bioy 
that Lowell is a “complete idiot”."
"Yet Lowell seems to have enjoyed and indeed multiplied 
the meeting."
"In a letter to Elizabeth Hardwick, he says, 
“one of the most exciting things here has been 
Borges’s visit. I have had two nights more or less alone with him, 
talking about Tennyson, James and Kipling, and almost 
wept when he talked ‘without pity’ to an audience about his  blindness”."
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