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My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 23, 1998

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The "first cousin" of this compelling, disconcertingly funny memoir is Robert Lowell--scion of two old New England families (the Winslows, his mother's side, go back even further than the Lowells), widely considered America's greatest poet during the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war activist, and incurable manic depressive. Lowell has been biographied before, notably by Ian Hamilton and Paul Mariani, but no other "life study" contains a particle of the intimacy, fondness, dismay, and above all humor that Sarah Payne Stuart brings to the subject. Stuart places "Bobby" in a loose-knit Winslow family tapestry, and reveals the back of the tapestry: the droll stories about Lowell's icy, chic mother and eccentric, rich Aunt Sarah, who disinherited him when he fathered a child out of wedlock; the excruciating holidays and bizarre Brahmin rituals; the family's mix of provincial pride and bruising disdain for their famous relation, "the king of conflicts."

As fresh and smart as the Lowell material is, the book really catches fire when Stuart tells her own immediate family's story: the two-year breakdown her beautiful mother suffered after giving birth to a daughter; the manic depression that nearly destroyed her brilliant brother, Johnny; the bad luck, blindness, and sheer selfishness that kept her branch perpetually strapped. Stuart has a satirist's eye, a standup comic's sense of timing, and fabulous material. And in My First Cousin Once Removed she makes the most of all of them. --David Laskin

From Publishers Weekly

There is undeniable charm in a memoirist who is aware of his or her own failings and can render them plainly. This is the case with Stuart, who admittedly doesn't much "get" the poetry of her mother's famous first cousinAand doesn't much care to. That this anti-intellectualism is more the rule than the exception in her family becomes clear as Stuart details generations of Lowells, Paynes and WinslowsAmany of whom emerge much more clearly here than in Lowell's poems or in previous portraits of the artist. The moneyed Uncle Cot and matriarchal Aunt Sarah, Lowell's grandfather Arthur Winslow ("He was my father," Lowell wrote of him), Grandmother "Gaga" and Uncle Devereux are all clearly and dispassionately drawn, and add to the reading of poems in which they appear. Lowell himself moves through the story as one whose doings are much discussed by the family, and Stuart wryly analyzes what the family thought of, say, his Pulitzer Prize for his first book at age 30, or his front-page letter to the New York Times declining an invitation to the Johnson White House in protest of the Vietnam War. But the main protagonist hereAaside from the family obsession with money and standingAis the manic depression that seems to run through the family, claiming, among others, Lowell and Stuart's mother and brothers, whose trials dominate the last third of the book. Still, it is Stuart's own voice that makes this book so appealing. Whether sympathetically skewering her kin, dissecting her own inheritance or digressing within a beloved anecdote, she is unfailingly forthright and clear-eyed. (Oct.) second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, whose Sight-Readings (Forecasts, May 25) appeared this July.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (September 23, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006017689X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060176891
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,635,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sarah Payne Stuart grew up in Concord MA, under the influence of the writings of Louisa May Alcott. For a brief, terrifying period, she called her mother "Marmee" and emptied the dishwasher without being asked. At age 18, Stuart fled Concord for Harvard, where she avoided classes and became one of the first women editors of the Lampoon. Upon graduation, she took a job working against prisoners, to the horror of her liberal friends, as a paralegal for the Massachusetts Department of Correction (when she accepted the job she thought it has something to do with correcting forms). She got married at age 25 to Charlie Stuart, and became an advertising copywriter, writing ads like "Get a Free Gift with a Two Hundred Dollar Deposit!" After a year of marriage, Stuart and her husband bought the house of her dreams in Boston, only to split up two days later. On the positive side, she never had to finish the thank-you notes. The next year, Charlie returned, and they moved to New York where Stuart had two sons one year apart, and wrote her first novel, which was a whole lot easier than getting those snowsuits on.
When pregnant with her third child, Stuart moved her family back to Concord "so the kids can have swimming lessons at Walden Pond!" though the truth was she had hated swimming lessons at Walden Pond as a child almost as much as she had hated hearing about Henry David Thoreau. While bringing up her kids, Stuart moved too many times, wrote not enough books, and worked for her husband writing a number of documentary films (airing on HBO, Lifetime, TLC), including My Mother's Murder, nominated for a Cable Ace writing award. She is the author most recently of PERFECTLY MISERABLE: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town (memoir), A New York Times Editors' Choice. Two excerpts appeared in the New Yorker ("Pilgrim's Progress: God and Real Estate in New England"; "Pilgrim Mothers: The Ladies Four O'Clock Club"). She has written several other books including MY FIRST COUSIN, ONCE REMOVED: Money, Madness and the Family of Robert Lowell (nonfiction), a New York Time Notable Book; two humor books--HOW TO REGAIN YOUR VIRGINITY and HOME COLLEGING: Because You have no Choice (both co-authored with Patricia Marx); MEN IN TROUBLE (a novel); THE YEAR ROGER WASN'T WELL ( a novel). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review ("Bobby was a Difficult Child," essay; book reviews), Town and Country (Manners and Misdemeanors, August 2014 issue). She lives in Maine, or Manhattan, she's not sure.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on November 16, 1999
Format: Paperback
Perhaps the most entertaining book that I have ever read. Sarah Payne Stuart makes me howl and a second later makes me thank God that I've got both oars in the water. God Bless You SPS.
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This is a wonderful book -- delightfully well crafted and inspiring. It has less to do with Robert Lowell than the title and other reviews imply, but so what. The rest of the author's family is just as interesting if not more so. She deals in a flinty steadfast New England way with madness and eccentiricity and writes with wit and charm, leaping effortlessly from Plymouth Rock to the 1980's. She has the very rare gift of being ironic and insightful about herself and her growing up without degenerating into self-pity. An example from 1967: "Aunt Sarah talked of sending me to Miss Porter's [finishing school], just as she talked about the coming-out party she was going to given me in the garden in Manchester (but which I declined because of the bombing of Vietnam, a connection that was a bit clearer to me then)." If you enjoy crystal clear prose, history and getting to know some delightful characters, this one's for you.
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Format: Paperback
Reading "My Cousin Once Removed" was like going home. Do other people besides my family name their cottages after their children? Ours was Tomberher, and it still embarrasses me to say it.
I perceived backbone and stoicism in the author. She will become a fine, undomnible Boston matron herself someday. These are people that know how to Pull-Up-Your-Socks. No one ever seems to give up. I amend that, the family will not *allow* anyone to give up. Poor Robert Lowell. His poetry must have kept him alive such as it was. The author makes an excellent point when she expresses amazement that he "lasted until he was 60." He seemed so gentle to be so mad. I couldn't resist smiling when I noted that only the Lowells would unfailingly be "God" in their deluded or "manic" states; other manic depressives might be Sam Spade, Peter Pan, or Theodore Roosevelt; but the Lowells went for the whole enchillada. My only complaint is the author neatly sidesteps giving the reader anything but broad outlines of what she was up to when the maelstorm whirled about her. Most younger writers cannot get out of the way; you are buried under their angst, but Ms. Stuart quotes her brothers to give us an idea what is going on in her generation. She's oddly elusive. I think she uses her fine sense of humor to deflect us from coming to close.
I'm going back to reread Robert Lowell. That's my idea of a successful book, one that sends you on a quest for further knowledge.
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An excellent, painfully honest description of an ancient New England clan going on the skids. As one who came from a similar background, I can report the author nailed the witless, wanton, careless vacuity of old families living on the fumes of glories past. Typical of people from such backgrounds, the author has some exaggerated notions about the importance of her family, the Lowells and Winslows of Massachusetts, and I doubt one American in fifty thousand gives a rap about Robert Lowell anymore. Still, the book offers a good peek behind the curtain of hidebound privilege -- and poof! -- there's really nothing there but petty cruelty beneath a veneer of polite chit chat. Spot-on as the author's observations are, I found myself getting lost in too many rich aunts and cousins of cousins -- once removed and otherwise. And while I've no objection to laying bare the foibles of relations long gone, recounting the author's brother's many troubles seems intrusive.
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Many, many others have written poignantly on madness; for learning about Lowell my favorite work is actually the brilliant play "Dear Elizabeth"; but I have never read anything so insightful and frank about money, the last taboo subject in modern America. (Loved her July 2012 New Yorker piece too!)
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Format: Hardcover
Sarah Stuart has done a remarkable job of limning the WASP world of Robert Lowell's family - and her own. She is cheerfully honest, perceptive and quite amazingly intelligent. The picture she draws lingers with the reader long after the book has been put down. Her portrait of Lowell is refreshingly free from the amateur Freudian analysis so tiresomely characteristic of many memoirs.
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Format: Hardcover
"From a sometimes painful family history, Sarah Payne Stuart has created a poignant, funny and ultimately triumphant memoir filled with great warmth and wisdom. Written in a refreshing, unforgettable voice which never falters nor sentimentalizes, MY FIRST COUSIN ONCE REMOVED is a thoroughly terrific book." --Doris Keans Goodwin
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