Robert von Hallberg: On "Inauguration Day: January 1953"

In the 1952 election, New York went solidly for Aldai Stevenson, the candidate favored by intellectuals. Robert Lowell was deeply disappointed at Stevenson's stunning loss to Eisenhower; intellectuals felt shut out of office. This poem gives a powerful sense of how it was then to stand in the cold: frosty, yes, but for a poet invigorating too; with alienation came fresh access to biting, severe statement such as a poet has to be grateful for, though perhaps only in the short run. The political stakes of the 1952 election looked especially high to intellectuals; as Lowell represents them, they were cosmic. General Grant ended his bloody wilderness campaign with the battle of Cold Harbor, the worst slaughter of the war--that is the historical reference Lowell thought appropriate to Eisenhower's election. Even for New Yorkers, though, speaking of Eisenhower as an outland candidate was stretching things some: two years earlier, he had been president of Columbia. Yet Stevenson was plainly the northeastern, urban favorite, and he lost miserably. The forces behind Eisenhower's victory, as Lowell saw them, included a tradition of warrior-presidents such as Grant but, more important, the deathly spirit of America, the mausoleum in the heart of the nation. So sweeping is Lowell's vision here that even the stars are meant to figure in this historical moment, and in an odd way. Those fixed stars are being cracked open, like atoms, to mark a world-historical moment. Lowell manages, quite surprisingly, to associate Eisenhower with nuclear fission, even though the only person ever to order the military use of nuclear weapons was the outgoing Democratic president. (Of course, Eisenhower was involved in the decision to devastate Dresden, in protest of which Lowell refused induction and served a six-month prison sentence.) Lowell's effort to magnify the political loss suffered by Democrats, especially the urban, intellectual Democrats, was so strenuous that Civil War history, astronomy, and an odd manipulation of recent military history were all made to lend resonance to the moment. Given this bird's-eye view of the culture, a single political division becomes the axis for dividing the cosmos. In 1953, when to most observers the nation was settling in for a snooze, the culture seemed in extremis to Lowell; so he reverted conspicuously to the extremist style of his War book, Lord Weary's Castle. It would be another fifteen years before the culture would seem similarly doomed to many of his contemporaries.

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Criticism Overview
Title Robert von Hallberg: On "Inauguration Day: January 1953" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Robert von Hallberg Criticism Target Robert Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980
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