blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

Reading Amy Lowell's Body(s)--An Essay by Melissa Bradshaw

Melissa Bradshaw

You said, I think, ‘300 pounds and a charmer.’ . . . Poor Amy, poor Amy. It is all very distressing and my Arm Chair has never been the same since she bounced with glee over some witticism. No upholsterer can do anything with it, the springs still do such funny things. 

Ezra Pound, writing to Alice Corbin Henderson

In letters and critical memoirs of key figures in literary modernism—such as Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams—Amy Lowell’s body makes frequent cameos. In referencing the American poet these writers inevitably invoke and mock her body, which at five feet, two hundred and fifty pounds, was rather extraordinary. When I first began studying Lowell I was disappointed to find that memoirs of her contemporaries, as well as biographies and critical evaluations, spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing the size of her body, more time, often, than they spend discussing her work as a poet and critic. Seventy-five years after Lowell’s death and cremation, her body remains. That is to say, her body remains a "presence" inasmuch as its textual reproduction is as much a part of literary history, and contemporary literary criticism as her writings and her role in the development of modern American poetry. Lowell left behind few clues as to how she felt about her size; I obviously cannot understand the way she experienced her subjectivity, nor can I presume that hyper-scrutinized textual representations of her body offer insights into her lived embodiment. What I have access to is a culturally disseminated "body," a multiply-rendered Amy Lowell whose dimensions can never be stable, can never, of course, be "objectively" presented. In this paper I will focus on how Lowell dressed, suggesting ways in which she may have used clothing to manipulate popular perceptions of herself in her campaign to be a leader in the modern poetry movement.

Literary critic and poet Horace Gregory describes Amy Lowell as dressing at least a decade behind current fashion when she met with publishers to secure a contract for her first volume of poetry in 1912: "Her style of dress was, as usual, ten years out of mode, her hair was brushed back in a high pompadour, her collar of net was held stiffly in place by whalebone stays, and her jacket cut was wide to ease her ample figure" (76). He again describes her appearance a year later, and claims that, disappointed by her first volume’s commercial failure, she had determined to remake herself into an unforgettable public figure:

In 1913 that personality was clothed in the immense bulk that would characterize her for the rest of her life. . . . Yet her bulk gave her . . . an air of authority. She had only to take advantage of the necessary burden of flesh she carried—and so she did. There could be no mistaking Amy Lowell for anyone else; once seen in public she would be remembered. (96)

Similarly, Elizabeth Sergeant suggests that

There was at last nothing she would have altered if she could, even her mortal shape. It was, you may be sure, her own keen, not too charitable eyes which, looking down through her glasses on a figure they could not admire, decreed that it should . . . become, with all of its limitations, an adornment and enhancement of that great personage, Amy Lowell. (12)

Often associated with sloppiness and ineptitude, fatness authorizes condescension, even disdain, but Gregory’s claim that Lowell’s bulk gave her an air of authority she might not have had otherwise, and Sergeant’s proposal that it was, in fact, her most powerful tool, need to be considered. Rather than read her as the victim of others’ homophobia, sexism, and intolerance of fatness [which the longer version of this paper does], I will follow Gregory and Sergeant’s lead and read Amy Lowell as secure and unapologetic in her embodiment, actively manipulating perceptions of her body. The dominant narrative of Lowell’s life insists that "the blight of a misshapen body" "disbarred [her] from a normal experience of life," but I want to turn this construction around and suggest instead ways her deviance may have allowed her to negotiate an identity outside the rigidly-defined roles of fin-de-siecle womanhood (Ruihley Shard xvii, xi). In looking at Lowell’s infamous, bejeweled, velvet and satin, richly-colored (albeit distinctly nineteenth-century) clothing, I want to suggest that she not only celebrated her body, but flaunted its excesses, capitalizing on her power to disarm, surprise, confound.

Lowell’s much commented-on manner of dress suggests a deliberate and rigorous effort to construct her public self. Obviously, her demure suits, which Horace Gregory finds so irritatingly anachronistic, are intended to manipulate the shape of her body—stiff whale-bone collars to lengthen her neck, dark colors to give the impression of slenderness, a pompadour and "a false braid of hair like a tiara . . . to keep her head in balance with her body" (Belmont 186). Lowell’s clothing functions to contain her, not only physically, but ideologically. Its primness underscores her unmarried status, her Republican politics, her old money. According to Anne Hollander, "the primary function . . . of Western dress is to contribute to the making of a self-conscious individual image, an image linked to all other imaginative and idealized visualizations of the human body" (xiv). This is not to say that one has total agency in what one wears and the statement it makes; rather, individual appearances are "more like public readings of literary works in different genres of which the rules are generally understood" (xv). Further, "people choose what they will wear and how they will appear in it working, shopping, sitting on the bus, according to the way it may suggest certain pictures (living, moving, or still) that they feel they wish to resemble" (315).

Mining Lowell’s photographs for clues as to the cultural codes she might have intended to invoke with her clothing choices is obviously tricky. Many critics, such as Cheryl Walker, have interpreted her daytime attire—suits, or rather, long skirts paired with vests and three-quarter-length jackets—as masculine, or even androgynous. I myself am tempted to use it to authorize a butch reading of Lowell, because to my mind, her clothing is masculine. But while her style may not have reflected current female fashion, it was representative of an older femininity, specifically, that of upper-class Edwardian women. Hollander in part accounts for the shift in the desirable female body at the beginning of the twentieth century, from plump to slender, in the loosening of physical restraints that typified the rejection of this older femininity and the emergence of flapper fashion: skirts became shorter and lighter, corsets looser, hairstyles more compact (152). In her biography of H.D., Barbara Guest explains the cultural significance of the bob, noting that "it was a hairstyle that initiated a dramatic change . . . . Cutting one’s hair symbolically cut one off from family ties and mores . . . . The bob introduced a new rite of passage, the break with the nineteenth century" (129).

The move away from portrait photography, with the introduction of snapshots and flash bulbs, changed the way bodies could be depicted. It also, importantly, changed the way people conceived of themselves. Whereas individuals previously pictured their overall look as it would be represented in a still portrait, people subject to flash photography and possibly even movie cameras began to dress in clothes that reflected movement. What we wear determines how we move, but at the same time, the way we move determines how we dress.

Lowell, of course, did not cut her hair and she never shortened her skirts. Her clothing resists motion, it represents stasis. It should not be assumed that this was entirely because of her size: Gertrude Stein dressed her similar body in specifically modern clothing—loose, shapeless corduroy suits and open-toed sandals designed by Raymond Duncan. Covered from head to toe in dark, modest clothing Lowell stares out from portrait photographs looking startlingly old-fashioned, a left-behind relic of the past century. Although, as we will see, she also had a taste for bright, flashy clothes, in the formal portraits used as publicity photos, on the lecture circuit, and during business meetings, her clothing remained roughly consistent with what was fashionable when she was in her twenties, at the turn of the century.

I do not want to suggest, however, that she was simply out of step with current fashion or morbidly resistant to change. Amy Lowell’s style is more than just out-dated: it might be read as a rejection of the culturally commodified model of heterosexual womanhood represented by the flapper—an explicitly thin, youthful, woman whose free-thinking, carefree attitudes about sexuality could, ultimately, be recontained within the safe space of companionate marriage. As a cultural signifier, then, the stately, serious Edwardian woman becomes little more than a foil to the "modern" woman, a sight gag implying sobriety, self-denial, prudishness, and a dangerous predilection for over-intellectualizing. Lowell’s somber public uniform may serve as a signifier of her allegiance to this ridiculed model of womanhood, and her pride in being an independent, well-read, thinking woman.

On the other hand, Lowell might be read as adopting a kind of nineteenth-century fat man’s persona (much like that of Theodore Roosevelt), striving for a look that is deliberately and comfortingly anachronistic, one that connotes an artistocraticness since out of fashion. Certainly she demanded the privileges of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. While lecturing this look perhaps enables her to reach a wider, more conservative audience (as opposed to those readers already familiar with her work through the avant-garde press) as she sends the message that while her poetry may be modern, she is, after all, nothing new or threatening.

In analyzing Amy Lowell’s body I’ve focused on the ways in which she contained it—positing that she played with debilitating stereotypes in order to subvert them, and suggesting ways she might have used clothing to police perceptions of herself. What has been missing from my discussion thus far is any sense of joy Lowell’s body may have given her, any sense of pride she may have taken in it. This is important. We need to imagine Amy Lowell not merely controlling her body, and rejecting attempts to pathologize it, but fully conscious of and delighted with its enormity. She then reads, in Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s words, as "not trapped in, but scandalously and luxuriously corporeally cohabitating [a] voluptuous body" (Sedgwick/Moon 230). As Sedgwick explains, there is an unspoken assumption that fat women don’t know that they are fat, that to see a fat woman is to have access to information about her, a "privileged narrative understanding of her will (she’s addicted), her history (she’s frustrated), her perception (she can’t see herself as she really looks), her prognosis (she’s killing herself)" (230). Coming out as a fat woman, Sedgwick insists, "is a way of staking one’s claim to insist on, and participate actively in, a renegotiation of the representational contract between one’s body and one’s world" (Sedgwick/ Moon 230).

After a disastrous reducing experience in her early twenties, which involved sailing down the Nile subsisting on a diet of asparagus and tomatoes, Lowell resolutely avoided losing weight ever again, refusing to modify her eating habits, take diet pills (which commonly contained strychnine and arsenic), or undergo any experimental cures. When one doctor suggested operating on her thyroid to cure her "imbalance" Lowell refused because she feared it would interfere with her thinking process (Gregory 39). Such resistance to changing her body is anomalous in turn-of-the-century American culture, which Hillel Schwartz describes as saturated with marketing campaigns for slimming programs and miracle cures. But Lowell ate, and proudly served her guests, rich, several-course meals, even demanding roast beef sandwiches as soon as she woke from the anesthesia after one of her hernia operations. In a letter to Eleanor Robson Belmont she justifies having single-handedly finished a box of chocolates by explaining "only when I recollect how short is life, how fleeting, do I reflect that it makes very little difference whether a skeleton was once fat or thin. This consoles me greatly and I eat on, unmoved and unmoving" (197).

As I discussed above, Lowell’s daytime uniform—the prim, dark suits seen in her portraits—conveys authority. And, inasmuch as it de-emphasizes her size and sex, and emphasizes her wealth and class to her target audiences—the businessmen she must negotiate with, the general public she must woo—it may be said to have been flattering. But as a member of the upper-echelons of society, Lowell of course had many formal gowns as well, and many opportunities to wear them. Not by accident, I believe, this formal wear is completely devoid of the restraint and modesty of her daytime clothing. Instead, Lowell chose colorful gowns made of rich materials—satin, velvet—"sparkling with passementerie" (J. Untermeyer 88). She never appeared without "a cluster of jeweled chains around her neck" and her fingers always sparkled with rings because "fingers without emeralds and diamonds seemed to her undressed, almost indecorous" (ibid 88, Sergeant 15). C. David Heymann, of all Lowell’s biographers, the most preoccupied with her clothing, sketches Lowell’s costume for the London dinner-party described by Pound in Canto LXXVII: a floor-length gown accented by a "matching cape, white opera gloves, high heels and a large ornamental fan" (197). He also cites a Lowell cousin’s memory of Amy arriving late to the family’s Christmas dinner each year, "looking perfectly enormous in a vast gold dress cut tent-style" as well as a newspaper report of Lowell attending the opera "dressed in black satin covered with net pailletted in jet, silver, and gold" (qtd. in Heymann 258, 181). Looking at a newspaper clipping from a poetry banquet, Louis Untermeyer, always ready with verbal portrait of Lowell, notes her outfit in some detail: "She is clad in a magnificently unbecoming dress with half-length sleeves and a yoke calculated to increase her width, strewn with a maze of gold beadwork" (FAW 119). Glenn Ruihley, too, comments on this picture, remarking that "she is ill-served by the very richness of her costumes" (19).

Why, when Lowell’s daytime attire connotes control, decorum, and propriety, would she choose such flamboyant, apparently unflattering, evening wear? In his 1909 lecture "On the Genesis of Fetishism," Freud speaks of fashion as a code for contemporary norms of femininity and the donning of fashionable clothes as an attempt by knowledgeable women to demonstrate their awareness of this code, regardless of whether a particular style suits them or not. This is done because "to wear the same clothes means only to be able to show what the others can show, means only that one can find in her everything one can expect from women" (qtd. in McCallum 52). Might Lowell’s evening-wear read as a defiant insistence on being, in her unfashionably large body, as fashionable (as feminine?) as thinner, smaller women? Even if the attempt renders her precisely not fashionable? The salient point of fashion is to demonstrate "the subject’s relation to knowledge . . . [of] the system of cultural signs that she is expected to participate in" (McCallum 53). Freud’s hypothesis, E.L. McCallum explains, means that even if the subject cannot adequately fulfill societal expectations, her admirable failure at least demonstrates a willingness to participate, a promise that "she will strive to uphold her gender ideal, which includes making herself the object of heterosexual masculine desire" (53).

Lowell’s biographers, eager to characterize her as a tragic failure, might eagerly rationalize her "magnificently unbecoming" evening wear as part of a valiant bid for "normality." But that Lowell, a lesbian, most likely did not strive to make "herself the object of heterosexual masculine desire," I believe authorizes a queer reading. What if we read her overly-ornate clothing through the discourse of camp? What if we read her as playing with, ironically exaggerating, contemporary standards of femininity? In an era of rising hemlines and increasingly visible limbs, these are standards which, as I’ve discussed, she can only fail to meet because of the size of her body. Her attempted compliance to what Freud calls "the demands of fashion," and the obviously absurd results, then works to signal their arbitrariness. When Lowell dons elaborate, colorful dresses, pins on fake braids ("my purchased hair") in order to push her hair into a pompadour, decorates herself with jewels and baubles, she puts on signifiers of stereotypical femininity. That the otherwise "masculine" Lowell can so easily access "femininity," even to excess, denaturalizes it.

Most importantly, a camp reading of Lowell’s evening-wear transforms what many have described as a "failure" into a triumph. What might appear as a reinforcement of the dominant order becomes instead a daring transgression. Here is a counternarrative to those which describe Lowell’s evening wear as misguided and unfortunate, one which grants Lowell agency and purpose in her clothing choices. This is Amy Lowell coming out as a fat woman. This is Amy Lowell acknowledging a value system that ridicules and excludes her because she is fat, and inserting herself into it loudly and dramatically. Quite simply, these opulent outfits draw attention to a body her society would rather not see. Some of them even reveal parts of it—an expanse of chest, her neck, bare arms. And made up of shiny satin, covered in sequins and beads, these clothes catch and radiate light.

Works Cited

Belmont, Eleanor Robson. The Fabric of Memory. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1957.

Gregory, Horace. Amy Lowell: Portrait of the Poet in Her Time. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1958.

Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined. New York: Quill, 1984.

Heymann, C. David. American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell. NY: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980.

Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. NY: Penguin, 1975.

McCallum, E.L. Object Lessons: How To Do Things With Fetishism. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Ruihley, Glenn Richard. The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975.

Schwartz, Hillel. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies, and Fat. New York: The Free Press, 1986.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky and Michael Moon. "Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little Understood Emotion." Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Fire Under the Andes. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1966.

Untermeyer, Jean Starr. Private Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Untermeyer, Louis. "Storm Center in Brookline." From Another World. NY: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1939.

---. Introduction. The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955.

from Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp. Diss. State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2000.

Return to Amy Lowell