James Russell Lowell Biography (1911)
James Russell Lowell Biography
- Family history and childhood
- Early work and romance
- Literature, reform, and family life
- The Biglow Papers
- Family tragedies
- Teaching and traveling
- The Atlantic Monthly
- Work abroad
- End of life
- Overview of writings and influence
American author and diplomatist James Russell Lowell (1819-1891),was born at Elmwood, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the 22nd of February 1819, the son of Charles Lowell (1782-1861) [see entry under Lowell, John]. On his mother’s side he was descended from the Spences and Traills, who made their home in the Orkney Islands, his great-grandfather, Robert Traill, returning to England on the breaking out of hostilities in 1775.
He was brought up in a neighbourhood bordering on the open country, and from his earliest years he found a companion in nature; he was also early initiated into the reading of poetry and romance, hearing Spenser and Scott in childhood, and introduced to old ballads by his mother. He had for schoolmaster an Englishman who held by the traditions of English schools, so that before he entered Harvard College he had a more familiar acquaintance with Latin verse than most of his fellows — a familiarity which showed itself later in his mock-pedantic accompaniment to The Biglow Papers and his macaronic poetry. He was a wide reader, but a somewhat indifferent student, graduating at Harvard without special honours in 1838. During his college course he wrote a number of trivial pieces for a college magazine, and shortly after graduating printed for private circulation the poem which his class asked him to write for their graduation festivities.
He was uncertain at first what vocation to choose, and vacillated between business, the ministry, medicine and law. He decided at last to practise law, and after a course at the Harvard law school, was admitted to the bar. While studying for his profession, however, he contributed poems and prose articles to various magazines. He cared little for the law, regarding it simply as a distasteful means of livelihood, yet his experiments in writing did not encourage him to trust to this for support.
An unhappy adventure in love deepened his sense of failure, but he became betrothed to Maria White in the autumn of 1840, and the next twelve years of his life were deeply affected by her influence. She was a poet of delicate power, but also possessed a lofty enthusiasm, a high conception of purity and justice, and a practical temper which led her to concern herself in the movements directed against the evils of intemperance and slavery. Lowell was already looked upon by his companions as a man marked by wit and poetic sentiment; Miss White was admired for her beauty, her character and her intellectual gifts, and the two became thus the hero and heroine among a group of ardent young men and women.
The first-fruits of this passion was a volume of poems, published in 1841, entitled A Year’s Life, which was inscribed by Lowell in a veiled dedication to his future wife, and was a record of his new emotions with a backward glance at the preceding period of depression and irresolution. The betrothal, moreover, stimulated Lowell to new efforts towards self-support, and though nominally maintaining his law office, he threw his energy into the establishment, in company with a friend, Robert Carter, of a literary journal, to which the young men gave the name of The Pioneer. It was to open the way to new ideals in literature and art, and the writers to whom Lowell turned for assistance — Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier, Poe, Story, and Parsons, none of them yet possessed of a wide reputation — indicate the acumen of the editor. Lowell himself had already turned his studies in dramatic and early poetic literature to account in another magazine, and continued the series in The Pioneer, besides contributing poems; but after the issue of three monthly numbers, beginning in January 1843, the magazine came to an end, partly because of a sudden disaster which befell Lowell’s eyes, partly through the inexperience of the conductors and unfortunate business connexions.
Literature, reform, and family life
The venture confirmed Lowell in his bent towards literature. At the close of 1843 he published a collection of his poems, and a year later he gathered up certain material which he had printed, sifted and added to it, and produced Conversations on some of the Old Poets. The dialogue form was used merely to secure an undress manner of approach to his subject [i.e., to approach the subject informally (“Undress”)]; there was no attempt at the dramatic. The book reflects curiously Lowell’s mind at this time, for the conversations relate only partly to the poets and dramatists of the Elizabethan period; a slight suggestion sends the interlocutors off on the discussion of current reforms in church and state and society. Literature and reform were dividing the author’s mind, and continued to do so for the next decade.
Just as this book appeared Lowell and Miss White were married, and spent the winter and early spring of 1845 in Philadelphia. Here, besides continuing his literary contributions to magazines, Lowell had a regular engagement as an editorial writer on The Pennsylvania Freeman, a fortnightly journal devoted to the Anti-Slavery cause. In the spring of 1845 the Lowells returned to Cambridge and made their home at Elmwood. On the last day of the year their first child, Blanche, was born, but she lived only fifteen months. A second daughter, Mabel, was born six months after Blanche’s death, and lived to survive her father; a third, Rose, died an infant. Lowell’s mother meanwhile was living, sometimes at home, sometimes at a neighbouring hospital, with clouded mind, and his wife was in frail health. These troubles and a narrow income conspired to make Lowell almost a recluse in these days, but from the retirement of Elmwood he sent forth writings which show how large an interest he took in affairs.
He contributed poems to the daily press, called out by the Slavery question; he was, early in 1846, a correspondent of the London Daily News, and in the spring of 1848 he formed a connexion with the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, by which he agreed to furnish weekly either a poem or a prose article. The poems were most frequently works of art, occasionally they were tracts; but the prose was almost exclusively concerned with the public men and questions of the day, and forms a series of incisive, witty and sometimes prophetic diatribes. It was a period with him of great mental activity, and is represented by four of his books which stand as admirable witnesses to the Lowell of 1848, namely, the second series of Poems, containing among others “Columbus,” “An Indian Summer Reverie,” “To the Dandelion,” “The Changeling”; A Fable for Critics, in which, after the manner of Leigh Hunt’s The Feast of the Poets, he characterizes in witty verse and with good-natured satire American contemporary writers, and in which, the publication being anonymous, he included himself; The Vision of Sir Launfal, a romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends — one of his most popular poems; and finally The Biglow Papers.
Lowell had acquired a reputation among men of letters and a cultivated class of readers, but this satire at once brought him a wider fame. The book was not premeditated; a single poem, called out by the recruiting for the abhorred Mexican war, couched in rustic phrase and sent to the Boston Courier, had the inspiriting dash and electrifying rat-tat-tat of this new recruiting sergeant in the little army of Anti-Slavery reformers. Lowell himself discovered what he had done at the same time that the public did, and he followed the poem with eight others either in the Courier or the Anti-Slavery Standard.
He developed four well-defined characters in the process — a country farmer, Ezekiel Biglow, and his son Hosea; the Rev. Homer Wilbur, a shrewd old-fashioned country minister; and Birdofredum Sawin, a Northern renegade who enters the army, together with one or two subordinate characters; and his stinging satire and sly humour are so set forth in the vernacular of New England as to give at once a historic dignity to this form of speech. (Later he wrote an elaborate paper to show the survival in New England of the English of the early 17th century.)
He embroidered his verse with an entertaining apparatus of notes and mock criticism. Even his index was spiced with wit. The book, a caustic arraignment of the course taken in connexion with the annexation of Texas and the war with Mexico, made a strong impression, and the political philosophy secreted in its lines became a part of household literature. It is curious to observe how repeatedly this arsenal was drawn upon in the discussions in America about the “Imperialistic” developments of 1900.
The death of Lowell’s mother, and the fragility of his wife’s health, led Lowell, with his wife, their daughter Mabel and their infant son Walter, to go to Europe in 1851, and they went direct to Italy. The early months of their stay were saddened by the death of Walter in Rome, and by the news of the illness of Lowell’s father, who had a slight shock of paralysis. They returned in November 1852, and Lowell published some recollections of his journey in the magazines, collecting the sketches later in a prose volume, Fireside Travels. He took some part also in the editing of an American edition of the British Poets, but the low state of his wife’s health kept him in an uneasy condition, and when her death (27th October 1853) released him from the strain of anxiety, there came with the grief a readjustment of his nature and a new intellectual activity.
At the invitation of his cousin, he delivered a course of lectures on English poets before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1855. This first formal appearance as a critic and historian of literature at once gave him a new standing in the community, and was the occasion of his election to the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages in Harvard College, then vacant by the retirement of Longfellow. Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad.
He spent his time mainly in Germany, visiting Italy, and increasing his acquaintance with the French, German, Italian and Spanish tongues. He returned to America in the summer of 1856, and entered upon his college duties, retaining his position for twenty years. As a teacher he proved himself a quickener of thought amongst students, rather than a close and special instructor. His power lay in the interpretation of literature rather than in linguistic study, and his influence over his pupils was exercised by his own fireside as well as in the relation, always friendly and familiar, which he held to them in the classroom. In 1856 he married Miss Frances Dunlap, a lady who had since his wife’s death had charge of his daughter Mabel.
In the autumn of 1857 The Atlantic Monthly was established, and Lowell was its first editor. He at once gave the magazine the stamp of high literature and of bold speech on public affairs. He held this position only till the spring of 1861, but he continued to make the magazine the vehicle of his poetry and of some prose for the rest of his life; his prose, however, was more abundantly presented in the pages of The North American Review during the years 1862-1872, when he was associated with Mr Charles Eliot Norton in its conduct. This magazine especially gave him the opportunity of expression of political views during the eventful years of the War of the Union.
It was in The Atlantic during the same period that he published a second series of The Biglow Papers. Both his collegiate and editorial duties stimulated his critical powers, and the publication in the two magazines, followed by republication in book form, of a series of studies of great authors, gave him an important place as a critic. Shakespeare, Dryden, Lessing, Rousseau, Dante, Spenser, Wordsworth, Milton, Keats, Carlyle, Thoreau, Swinburne, Chaucer, Emerson, Pope, Gray — these are the principal subjects of his prose, and the range of topics indicates the catholicity of his taste. He wrote also a number of essays, such as “My Garden Acquaintance,” “A Good Word for Winter,” “On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners,” which were incursions into the field of nature and society. Although the great bulk of his writing was now in prose, he made after this date some of his most notable ventures in poetry. In 1868 he issued the next collection in Under the Willows and other Poems, but in 1865 he had delivered his “Ode recited at the Harvard Commemoration,” and the successive centennial historical anniversaries drew from him a series of stately odes.
In 1877 Lowell, who had mingled so little in party politics that the sole public office he had held was the nominal one of elector in the Presidential election of 1876, was appointed by President Hayes minister resident at the court of Spain. He had a good knowledge of Spanish language and literature, and his long-continued studies in history and his quick judgment enabled him speedily to adjust himself to these new relations. Some of his despatches to the home government were published in a posthumous volume — Impressions of Spain.
In 1880 he was transferred to London as American minister, and remained there till the close of President Arthur’s administration in the spring of 1885. As a man of letters he was already well known in England, and he was in much demand as an orator on public occasions, especially of a literary nature; but he also proved himself a sagacious publicist, and made himself a wise interpreter of each country to the other. Shortly after his retirement from public life he published Democracy and other Addresses, all of which had been delivered in England. The title address was an epigrammatic confession of political faith as hopeful as it was wise and keen.
The close of his stay in England was saddened by the death of his second wife in 1885. After his return to America he made several visits to England. His public life had made him more of a figure in the world; he was decorated with the highest honours Harvard could pay officially, and with degrees of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Bologna. He issued another collection of his poems, Heartsease and Rue, in 1888, and occupied himself with revising and rearranging his works, which were published in ten volumes in 1890.
The last months of his life were attended by illness, and he died at Elmwood on the 12th of August 1891. After his death his literary executor, Charles Eliot Norton, published a brief collection of his poems, and two volumes of added prose, besides editing his letters.
Overview of writings and influence
The spontaneity of Lowell’s nature is delightfully disclosed in his personal letters. They are often brilliant, and sometimes very penetrating in their judgment of men and books; but the most constant element is a pervasive humour, and this humour, by turns playful and sentimental, is largely characteristic of his poetry, which sprang from a genial temper, quick in its sympathy with nature and humanity. The literary refinement which marks his essays in prose is not conspicuous in his verse, which is of a more simple character. There was an apparent conflict in him of the critic and the creator, but the conflict was superficial.
The man behind both critical and creative work was so genuine, that through his writings and speech and action he impressed himself deeply upon his generation in America, especially upon the thoughtful and scholarly class who looked upon him as especially their representative. This is not to say that he was a man of narrow sympathies. On the contrary, he was democratic in his thought, and outspoken in his rebuke of whatever seemed to him antagonistic to the highest freedom. Thus, without taking a very active part in political life, he was recognized as one of the leaders of independent political thought. He found expression in so many ways, and was apparently so inexhaustible in his resources, that his very versatility and the ease with which he gave expression to his thought sometimes stood in the way of a recognition of his large, simple political ideality and the singleness of his moral sight.
Resources [as listed in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica]
Writings. — The Works of James Russell Lowell, in ten volumes (Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890); édition de luxe, 61 vols. (1904); Latest Literary Essays and Addresses (1891); The Old English Dramatists (1892); Conversations on some of the Old Poets (Philadelphia, David M‘Kay; reprint of the volume published in 1843 and subsequently abandoned by its author, 1893); The Power of Sound: a Rhymed Lecture (New York, privately printed, 1896); Lectures on English Poets (Cleveland, The Rowfant Club, 1899).
Memoirs. — Letters of James Russell Lowell, edited by Charles Eliot Norton, in two volumes (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1899); Life of James Russell Lowell (2 vols.), by Horace E. Scudder (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1901); James Russell Lowell and his Friends (Boston, 1899), by Edward Everett Hale.
This biography was adapted from an article by Horace Elisha Scudder (1838-1902) in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 17, from the Wikisource 1911 encyclopedia project.
“ˈUndress | unˈdress, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2013. Web. 17 February 2014.
Read Lowell’s famous poem “A Fable for Critics”—and don’t miss the part where he mocks himself!
When will you read James Russell Lowell’s writing in Excellence in Literature?
You will study Lowell in EIL Unit 3 (American Literature)