... expertly edited and with wonderfully informative footnotes by the poet and scholar Saskia Hamilton, who also provides an alert and balanced introduction ... The Dolphin letters illuminate Lowell’s life and aesthetic perplexities in his later years, but they are equally useful in unveiling Elizabeth Hardwick’s unforgettable role during that era ... For me, the 'lost' letters testify to Hardwick’s extraordinary depth of character and faithfulness to the past years of love between herself and Lowell ... One cannot but admire Hardwick’s insight into her daughter’s sensibility and gifts ... These letters don’t match the inventiveness of those exchanged by Lowell and Bishop, when each had only to entertain the other and sympathize with troubles from afar. And, at first glance, the voyeuristic interest offered by the living drama of the messages between Lowell and Hardwick almost outweighs their nature as letters. But neither can put a foot wrong in writing a sentence; each has the instinctive cadence of a born writer, the sophistication of an adult who has seen and felt almost too much, the directness and candor of an intimate acquaintance, and the steady capacity for irony even in sadness.
The letters are worth reading not merely for what they tell us about Hardwick and Lowell but also because they are the direct source of many of the poems in Lowell’s book The Dolphin ... Lowell emerges from his poems and letters as both thoughtless and tortured, entitled and damaged. Hardwick’s letters are more direct, her rage—and her interest in protecting her daughter—coming to the fore. But she is also formidable and smart, and there are moments when her daunting presence makes itself impressively felt ... When you reread Sleepless Nights straight after The Dolphin Letters you see how artful Hardwick’s novel is.
... brings to life one of literary history’s most famous scandals ... [an] unusual book ... What makes the letters so darkly compelling, and such uneasy, thrilling company, is a different concern — the very one, in fact, that Hardwick pursued in all her writing, whether on Ibsen’s heroines or on the civil rights movement. It is the elemental question of motive. Why do people do what they do? How much do they understand their own impulses and responsibilities?