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October 1988

The poetry of Robert Graves

by Robert Richman

A review of Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic by Richard Perceval Graves & Collected Poems by Robert Graves.

I stood beneath the wall
And there defied them all.

—Robert Graves in “The Assault Heroic”

At the time of his death in December 1985, at the age of ninety, on the island of Majorca, Robert Graves had long been a legendary figure in the literary world. This was due in part to his immense production: nineteen novels and short-story collections, sixty-three books of nonfiction (including translations), and fifty-six volumes of poetry. Because of this extraordinary productivity, Graves is the only serious writer of our time whose career was on a scale we associate more with the previous century than with our own.

Yet there is another and more important reason why Robert Graves became a figure of legend in the literary world of his time. This was his reputation as a rebel. Graves’s fame as a cranky individualist derives, first of all, from his well-known autobiography, Goodbye to All That, published to coincide with his departure from England in 1929. (He went to Majorca, where he remained until the Spanish Civil War caused him to leave in 1936; ten years later he returned to the island and lived out the rest of his life there.) No reader of Goodbye to All That will forget Graves’s bitter account of his youth in Edwardian England—especially the grim years at Charterhouse, the public school he attended between 1910 and 1914—or his moving portrayal of the war that devastated his generation and almost cost him his life.

Graves was part of the literary generation that was profoundly altered by the war. For some, the response took a political form. In the case of Graves, the war only confirmed what he had learned to despise at school. To him, the nastiness of the generals was a larger and more lethal version of the nastiness of his masters at Charterhouse. As he writes in Goodbye to All That:

… we [the soldiers] could no longer see the war as one between trade rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.

Especially vile to Graves was the generals’ cynical misuse of the army’s regimental pride. His war experiences resulted in Graves’s permanent alienation from his country.

When Graves left England in 1929, however, he was fleeing something more than painful memories. He was also running away from the modern world. Poetry, he said, was his “ruling passion,” and he had come to believe that the modern world had little use for poetry, or for the myths that, in his view, it was derived from. The literary and historical works Graves began producing once he settled in Majorca—works which consistently confounded critics and scholars—were clearly conceived by Graves as a means of avenging himself on the modern world he found so loathsome.

These books were not the only strange things emanating from the island, however. Rumors of a liberated sexual atmosphere in the Graves’s household also filtered to the world beyond Majorca. It was said—correctly—that Graves shared his bed with numerous “muses.” It was also said—incorrectly—that Graves had fathered half the children born on Majorca between 1929 and 1975. So well known were Graves’s emancipated views on such matters that in the Sixties Majorca became a mecca for hippies seeking escape from conventional moral taboos. Some no doubt also came for advice on the proper consumption of hallucinogens, the use of which Graves had advocated in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1962).

There are some ironies, to be sure, in Graves’s posture as a rebel. For one thing, although the content of many of his books is unconventional, the writing itself isn’t. The poems are in fact written in a traditional style. His prosody might even be described as conservative. In Goodbye to All That, he attempted to account for his dual literary nature by pointing to his family history. His father’s side of the family, he said, was cold, rational, and “anti-sentimental to the point of insolence,” while his mother’s side was gentle, “gemütlich,” “noble and patient.”

Another irony is that Graves in his own life craved guidance. This is nowhere better seen than in his thirteen-year association with the American poet Laura Riding. In the early Twenties, Riding was affiliated with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, and with their Fugitive group, which espoused regionalism in literature. Ransom used the occasion of a review in The Fugitive of Graves’s On English Poetry to praise the English poet for his ability to express his “charming personality . . . without embarrassment in prosodical verse,” something certain unnamed “brilliant minds” (i.e., Pound and Eliot) were, in Ransom’s view, unable to do. At Ransom’s urging Graves initiated a correspondence with Riding in 1924. Two years later she arrived in England and moved into Graves’s house. Graves’s growing attachment to Riding resulted in his separation in 1929 from his first wife, Nancy Nicholson.

The Graves-Riding partnership was a curious one, to say the least. Judging from Martin Seymour-Smith’s 1982 biography of Graves,[1] it could easily be characterized by the title of one of Graves’s poems: “Sick Love.” For Graves, Riding was, variously, the incarnation of an ancient Mediterranean moon goddess, the embodiment of the perfection of poetry itself, and a feminist advocating the overthrow of male-dominated society. Whatever role she played, she demanded, and received, total fealty from her subject. The Graves-Riding bond involved far more than Graves’s relinquishing the household to her, or submitting his poems to her for approval, or accepting a subordinate role in their “joint” literary endeavors—all of which he did. The fact is, she treated him, as Tom Matthews, an American writer who stayed with the couple in 19 3 2, observed, “like a dog. There was no prettier way to put it.” Matthews, whose testimony is recorded in Seymour-Smith’s book, wrote that Graves

seemed in a constant swivet of anxiety to please her, to forestall her every wish, like a small boy dancing attendance on a rich aunt of uncertain temper .... Since I admired him and looked up to him as a dedicated poet and a professional writer, his subservience to her and her contemptuous bearings towards him troubled and embarrassed me . . . she was not so much his mistress as his master ….

So enthralled was Graves with Riding that he even emulated her in a (pre-Majorca) 1929 suicide attempt, undertaken because she loved a third party (one Geoffrey Phibbs) and Phibbs loved Nancy Nicholson. Graves leapt from a third-story window after Riding had jumped from the floor above. (This had been preceded by Riding’s drinking Lysol, to no effect.) Graves escaped unscathed; Riding suffered a compound fracture of the spine. According to Seymour-Smith, the police’s grilling of Graves after this incident was “one of the experiences that made him want to leave England.”

The sources of Graves’s idealization of and submission to Laura Riding are well documented in the recently published Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926 by Richard Perceval Graves, the first installment of a proposed three-volume biography of Graves by his nephew.[2] This volume, which is based on heretofore unreleased family letters, diaries, and extracts from a memoir of Robert by Perceval Graves’s father, is a biographical undertaking of a different kind from Seymour-Smith’s. Seymour-Smith’s narrative is a more or less objective rendering of events. Perceval Graves’s book, on the other hand, is a chronology of Robert’s shirting psychological states. As a means of understanding the poetry, this approach leaves much to be desired. But it is invaluable for comprehending the childhood sources of Graves’s bizarre behavior toward Riding. One is certainly given a sense, by both Seymour-Smith and Graves himself in Goodbye to All That, of the moralistic tenor of the Graves family household. “We learned to be strong moralists, and spent much of our time on self-examination and good resolutions,” writes Graves in Goodbye to All That.

But the revelations in those two volumes pale in comparison to what Perceval Graves divulges. It appears the demand for moral perfection in the Graves home was constant and shrill. The letters Robert’s mother wrote to her children at school are the best evidence of this. These letters, none of which are quoted, “were so emotional and intense,” writes Perceval Graves,

that as I read them more than seventy years later I cannot help feeling terribly sad that my father’s generation of the family were subjected to such intense moral pressure. So often, Amy [Graves’s mother] seems to be equating personal worth with the almost impossibly saintly behavior and self-sacrifice which she was accustomed to demand of herself. Any falling short of the highest ideals is greeted with a terrible sorrow, all the more devastating for being couched in such loving language.

The mania for purity pervaded every aspect of the children’s lives. According to Perceval Graves, Robert’s father would become enraged when he saw “a corner of a page folded down to mark a place, or—still worse—a book left open and face down.” The attempt to make the children morally spotless, Graves says in Goodbye to All That, gave him and his siblings “no hint of [the world’s] dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness.” As Perceval Graves says about this remark: “the very words Robert chooses to describe this show the extent to which he had been affected by [his mother’s] moralizing.” The result is that it was “very hard,” according to Perceval Graves, “for [Robert] to come to terms with the world as it really is.”

This puts the matter too benignly, however. What Graves was left with was a truly disabling horror of reality, particularly sexual reality. The disgust Graves expresses in Goodbye to All That at the soldiers’ custom of picking up local girls offers some indication of this, as does his reaction to a girl’s advances in a Brussels pension in 1913: “I was so frightened,” he said, “I could have killed her.” Seymour-Smith observes that “physical desire and the sexual act, the ‘thing,’ is what terrifies [Graves].”

Graves’s craving for purity was undoubtedly one source of his poetry, in which he creates a timeless realm beyond history. (In Poetic Unreason, his Oxford thesis that was published in 1925, Graves describes poetry as something as “remote and unrealizable an ideal as perfection.”) It also helps one understand Graves’s taste for Laura Riding’s poetry, the principal feature of which is her self-chastisement for not having attained the requisite flawlessness.

Graves’s craving for purity also sheds light on his attraction first to Nancy Nicholson—a feminist crusader—and then to Riding. In both cases, Graves tried to escape the world’s “dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness” by submitting himself to someone he invested with redemptive, cleansing powers. (So numinous a realm did Riding inhabit that after a point in their relationship she refused to sleep with him.) Riding’s “unquiet nature and propensity to criticize,” says Seymour-Smith, “was something that Graves was no doubt unconsciously seeking out.” Perhaps it is not all that surprising that Graves, who went to such lengths to spurn what he deemed to be the suffocating moralism of England, became involved with strong-minded women like Nicholson and Riding. The fact is, in England or out, Graves could never escape the stern moralism of family, school, or military; he took it with him wherever he went.

Randall Jarrell believed that Graves’s poetry, along with the theory of poetry he constructed around it, was a sublimation of his life with Laura Riding. There is little reason to disagree. At the heart of Graves’s theory is the idea that all “true” poetry is an invocation of the Mother-Goddess who ruled the world up to the thirteenth century B.C. What Mother-Goddess? you might ask. Well, Graves claimed to have discovered evidence of an ancient matriarchal cult while reading for Hercules, My Shipmate (1945), a retelling of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts. With clues taken from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and other anthropological works, Graves concluded that the Mother-Goddess had been ousted by thirteenth-century B.C. invaders of what is now Greece. These invaders installed in her place the Olympian gods. The legacy of this momentous shift in spiritual power is Western civilization as we know it, with its (in Graves’s view) undue emphasis on rationality and order, and distrust of magic and myths— indeed, all forms of “poetic unreason.”

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Graves’s 1948 study of Britain’s own dethroned Goddess and her connection to the Mediterranean one, is without a doubt the author at his crankiest. In the words of the critic Douglas Day, the book is “a curious blend of fact and fancy, an often impenetrable wilderness of cryptology, obscure learning, and apparently non sequitur reasoning brought to bear on a thesis that has its roots partly in historic fact, partly in generally accepted anthropological hypotheses, and partly in pure poetic intuition.”[3] Suffice to say that Graves’s attempt to prove the existence of this matriarchal religion—which involved him in readings of medieval Welsh poems, analyses of secret Druidic alphabets, musings on ancient tree-worship, and correlations between Greek and Celtic myth—was fervently rejected by anthropologists and literary critics alike. But this never shook Graves’s confidence, for The White Goddess was in his eyes a document of faith. And its debunking by “rational” critics—who (Graves would assert) are products of a patriarchal society and therefore on a covert search-and-destroy mission for every contemporary manifestation of the Goddess—only served to intensify his devotion. It was the same kind of devotion he had evinced for Riding, who appears to have been for Graves a rare embodiment of the long-lost Goddess.

Poetry, an invocation of this beleaguered antique Muse, was, according to Graves, the most meaningful writing a Goddess-worshipper could undertake. As a result, Graves was quite candid about the ancillary role his books of nonfiction and historical fiction played in his life. These volumes, Graves said, were the “show dogs I breed and sell to support the cat.” This does not mean, however, that Graves ever passed up the chance to use these books as a means of correcting the false history propagated by various anti-Goddess forces. In Wife to Mr. Milton (1943), for example, the English poet is portrayed as a ranting Puritan and his wife Marie as the epitome of charm. (The reverse is closer to the truth.) Hercules, My Shipmate, the British title of which is The Golden Fleece, argues that the triumphs of Jason and the Argonauts in the Mediterranean, and their recapture of the fleece, occurred because Jason had been blessed by the White Goddess. Homer’s Daughter (1955) takes off from Samuel Butler’s conviction that the Odyssey was written not by Homer but by the woman who calls herself Nausicaa in the story. Not surprisingly, the books written before Graves’s mythological “discovery"— I, Claudius (1934), Claudius the God (1935), Count Belisarius (1938), and King Jesus (1943)—show a deep need for some redeeming force. Throughout these popular historical novels is Graves’s preoccupation with the unhappy fate of a pure soul in a corrupt and lustful world.

Graves’s rewriting of the past was not his only means of demonstrating his obeisance to Riding and the White Goddess. It can also be seen in his refusal to develop original plots or psychologically persuasive characters. Judging from these novels, at least, it would appear that the Muse tolerated from her vassal no extra-poetic invention. “There is one story and one story only,” goes the first line of Graves’s well-known poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” and Graves seems to have believed this with all his heart. As entertaining as many of these novels are—and I, Claudius, King Jesus, and Count Belisarius are certainly good reads—all have an extremely short imaginative reach.

Most of Graves’s nonfiction is similarly scarred. The underlying assumption of both The Greek Myths (1955) and The Hebrew Myths (1964) is the suppression of the various manifestations of the Goddess in antiquity. Graves’s literary criticism, the bulk of which is collected in The Crowning Privilege (1955), has the same narrow focus. Many of the essays seek to expose the rational impulse that has helped undermine “true” poetry throughout the centuries. As one would expect, Graves detests the poetry of Eliot, Pound, and Stevens. In his view, the motives of these modernist poets are critical, not creative.

Perhaps the most important contribution Graves makes in his criticism is his advocacy of the plain style. In a letter from 1920, Graves declared that he wanted to be “able to write. . . with as much economy of words & simplicity of expression as possible.” Whatever the other defects of his prose, his loyalty to this principle was unwavering.

The one book that does survive as a prose classic is Goodbye to All That. Graves’s autobiography, which was revised thoroughly in 1957 —the original edition was written hastily and poorly—is without a doubt his most important book. It captures the spirit of rebellion—of a young man’s bursting free of the shackles of his elders—in a way that few other books of our time do. In the very first pages, Graves writes:

About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.

This refreshingly heady swagger continues to the end of the book.

Nevertheless, posterity will remember Graves best not as a novelist, mythographer, or biographical legend, but as a poet. Graves himself insisted on this, and his critics have obliged. But even if they are right to focus principally on the poetry—for it is the part of Graves’s oeuvre that has the greatest claim on our attention—many have been inclined to make extravagant and faulty judgments of it. Jarrell declared “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” to be one of the century’s greatest poems. Martin Seymour-Smith referred to Graves as “the foremost English-language love poet of this century—and probably of the two preceding ones, too.” And Perceval Graves writes that his uncle “has come to be regarded as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century.”

These claims are unwarranted. Reading through the newly re-issued 1975 edition of Graves’s Collected Poems,[4] one is struck by how fine some of them are. But one is also struck by how much the verse sinks from the weight of the “one story and one story only,” especially the later poems. What impairs the majority of the poems, however, is not the presence of the Goddess theme so much as its treatment. For in a way, Graves is correct: good poetry is on some level an invocation of the Muse, if the Muse is indeed the embodiment of poetic intuition. The bulk of Graves’s verse is marred because he persists in addressing the Muse directly instead of allowing the poem to invoke her implicitly. If Graves had not been so often compelled to be literal—that is, anti-symbolical and anti-metaphorical—he probably would have been freer to take on a wider range of emotional and thematic concerns in his verse. As it is, too large a percentage of his poems are like “In Her Praise”:

This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom she rides,
Straddling her neck a year or two or three,
Should sink beneath such weight of majesty
And, groping back to humankind, gainsay
The headlong power that whitened all her way
With a broad track of trefoil—leaving you,
Her chosen lover, ever again thrust through
With daggers, your purse rifled, your rings gone—
Nevertheless they call you to live on
To parley with the pure, oracular dead,
To hear the wild pack whimpering overhead,
To watch the moon tugging at her cold tides.
Woman is mortal woman. She abides.

On the level of language and technique, this poem is unobjectionable. What undoes “In Her Praise” is its content. By discussing his conception of the Goddess, rather than presenting his emotional response to her, Graves diminishes the poem’s effectiveness, and he shuts out those readers who do not share his almost religious devotion to her.

“To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” the poem Randall Jarrell thought so much of, is a much better poem, if not a great one. It works as well as it does because its charged, resonant language redeems the “one story and one story only”:

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison of all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When with her right she crooks a finger, smiling,
How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love ….

“On Portents,” another fine poem, also survives the Goddess/Riding theme, not only because of its superb language and technique, but also because the female figure in the poem is more generalized than in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” The fact that “she” could refer to anyone is crucial to the success of the poem:

If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.

“A Love Story” works well because in it Graves sketches a symbolic landscape—rare for him—which gives the reader an equally rare chance to get an extra-literal sense of the poet’s internal emotional state:

The full moon easterly rising, furious,
Against a winter sky ragged with red;
The hedges high in snow, and owls raving—
Solemnities not easy to withstand:
A shiver wakes the spine. . . .

Much more common is Graves’s literalism, which spoils many of his love poems. “Three Times in Love,” “Crucibles of Love,” and “Depth of Love” are almost entirely devoid of imagery. What one is left with are dry arguments that squeeze most of the inspiring passion out of the poem. Typical in this respect is “The Falcon Woman,” in which love’s power is depleted by Graves’s purely intellectual apprehension of it:

It is hard to be a man
Whose word is his bond
In love with such a woman,

When he builds on a promise
She lightly let fall
In carelessness of spirit.

The more sternly he asks her
To stand by that promise
The faster she flies.

“The Visitation,” on the other hand, succeeds because it is invigorated by an image of a living presence: “Your slender body seems a shaft of moonlight/Against the door as it gently closes . . . .”

To my mind, Graves’s best poems are the early ones, the majority of which predate his post-Thirties absorption in the Goddess. “Like Snow,” “The Pier Glass,” “Love in Barrenness,” “The Terraced Valley,” and “The Cool Web” are some of the best among them. “The Cool Web,” in particular —in which the poet expresses his gratefulness for the protection from reality that language affords—is exquisitely written. It is also compelling for the way it seems to set the stage for the later poems—the poems in which Graves seeks similar protection from a fallen world in the cold arms of an abstract Goddess:

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves never let his tongue “lose self-possession,” but his worship of the Goddess prevented him from securing major status as a poet, largely because it led him to adopt an anti-metaphorical, anti-symbolical stance toward poetry. (He once characterized this in a letter as his habit of discussing things “truthfully and factually.”) The limited imaginative range of his work— the “one story and one story only”— obviously owes everything to her as well.

As reductive as it was, Graves’s fixation seems to have been derived from the terror of reality instilled in him as a child. Laura Riding only exacerbated an existing condition. Reading through Graves’s poems, one finds oneself aching for a dose of the hated world the poet seeks protection from—even that portion of reality which is no more than “dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness.”

It is the element of “real” emotion that gives the poem “Through Nightmare” its hint of greatness. Like “On Portents,” the poem is generalized enough to make the reader wonder if Graves is perhaps addressing himself, especially in the final stanza. If “Through Nightmare” is indeed Graves’s confession of his timorousness in the face of the nightmare of the modern world, the poem could easily serve as his epitaph, and as a kind of lament for the unfulfilled promise of this enormously gifted, and tragically tormented, writer:

Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated—

The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.

In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land,
Who are timorous by nature.

 

  1. Robert Graves: His Life and Work was published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston. Go back to the text.
  2. Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926 (387 pages, $24.95) was published last year by Viking. Go back to the text.
  3. From “The Coming of the Goddess” by Douglas Day, in Modern Critical Views: RObert Graves, edited by Harold Bloom. Go back to the text.
  4. Oxford University Press; 592 pages, $27.50. Go back to the text.

Robert Richman's book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press.


more from this author

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 October 1988, on page 66

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

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