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Amy Lowell’s Cats

In response to:

In the American Grain from the February 22, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

John Ashbery’s review [NYR, February 22] is an admirable foray into the art of the extremely interesting and amazingly up-to-date John Wheelwright. In a city Henry James called “a nation of critics,” Wheelwright was the last thoroughbred local Yankee to hold his ground in the act of turning against his fellow townsmen the full arsenal of their own weapons. His History of the New England Poetry Club: 1915—1931 (Boston, 1932, no publisher) is a gem of American literary history. An excerpt from the entry for 1917 adds weight to what Mr. Ashbery quotes on the subject of Amy Lowell:

In February, Josephine Peabody was elected President. The election was turbulent, and the rivalries between groups of ladies so bitter, that the gentlemen finally withdrew to the University Club. It must be remembered that the Free Verse Revolt was at this time at its height, and we ascribe the battle over the Presidency not so much to personal animus as to aesthetic principle. On the conservative side, the militants, led by Lilla Cabot Perry, desired Josephine Peabody for President. On the other hand, Amy Lowell felt that were she not re-elected, poetic experiment would seem to be repudiated by her fellow New Englanders. We freely admit that these abstract principles descended to a deplorable depth of personal recrimination.

One grave historian remembers that a flustered little lady, obsessed with the name of her adversary, absent-mindedly recorded on her ballot the candidate she most earnestly desired to defeat. When the votes were counted, Amy Lowell was proclaimed President, whereupon the absent-minded voter, knowing that her ballot had been decisive and realizing her slip, insisted upon having her vote changed. The succeeding pandemonium was not a fisticuff. Abbie Brown proved more than the Abraham Lincoln of the situation, as she prevented secession by both sides and stopped the civil war.

Those who were present on this occasion may refresh their memories from our hint that the obesity of felines was publicly banded as a shuttlecock between the contending criteria. ‘You cats’ were Miss Lowell’s parting words. ‘Anyhow, we’re not fat cats’ were the last words, pointed if inaccurate, which she was to hear from the society for many years.”

R. W. Flint

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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