Study Guide

The Biglow Papers

by James Russell Lowell

The Biglow Papers Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Biglow Papers is political satire and, as such, cannot be understood or appreciated until the reader is acquainted, first, with the policies and ideas being satirized and, second, with the conditions of publication. In short, like all satire, it must be seen in historical perspective before it can be evaluated.

There are two series of The Biglow Papers. The first is an attack, from the Whig-Abolitionist point of view, on the Mexican War and the policies of President James Polk and the proslavery forces that authorized it; the second—all but the last paper—is an attack, from the Northern Republican point of view, on the rebellious, slaveholding South, the Democrats, and the interventionist policies of England during the first years of the American Civil War; the last paper is a condemnation of the “retrograde movement” of President Andrew Johnson.

The history of the papers is rather complex. In one sense, it dates back to 1840 and the beginning of James Russell Lowell’s relationship with Maria White, who became his wife in 1844, for it was this visionary and forceful young woman who first converted him to the abolitionist cause. In any case, by the time of the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Lowell had identified himself with the movement by contributions to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, which he edited for a short time. Such a radical position was more in keeping with the spirit of the Emersonians than with that of the aloof Brahmins with whom Lowell was allied by birth, and the strong influence of his wife’s personality and ideals may be inferred from the fact that Lowell grew more and more conservative in the years following her death. By the time of his own death he was once more a conservative, but, in the 1840’s, his radical leanings brought him into the camp of those idealistic New Englanders who preached freedom vociferously (and at times effectively) and those shrewd and stubborn rural Yankees who supported them for more practical reasons. The first series of The Biglow Papers arose from the interaction of these two elements. Abolitionist idealism gave it motivation; Yankee shrewdness gave it form.

The first Biglow paper appeared as a letter to the editor of the Boston Courier, a weekly Whig newspaper, in June of 1846. The letter was signed by one Ezekiel Biglow of Jaalam, Massachusetts, and its ostensible purpose was to introduce a poem by Mr. Biglow’s son, Hosea. The important thing here was the poem, an attack, in the Yankee dialect, on the recruiting of the Massachusetts regiment for service in a war which the abolitionists and their sympathizers claimed was being fought only to extend the borders of slavery.

The response to this first letter prompted Lowell to continue the poetic exertions of young Mr. Biglow. “The success of my experiment,” wrote Lowell later in the introduction to the second series, “soon began not only to astonish me, but to make me feel the responsibility of knowing I had in my hand a weapon instead of the mere fencing stick I had supposed.” Lowell, clad in the rustic armor of Hosea Biglow, entered the fray with this newfound weapon eight more times in the following two years. Five of these dialect poems are direct political attacks on the war party group and their sympathizers, the Democrats and the Cotton-Whigs (as opposed to the Conscience-Whigs, who favored the war and were more or less tolerant of slavery), particularly those to be found in Biglow’s—and Lowell’s—own Bay State. The other three provide a...

(The entire section is 1461 words.)

The Biglow Papers Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Arms, George. The Fields Were Green: A New View of Bryant, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow, with a Selection of Their Poems. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1948. Places Lowell and his production in the context of the best popular poetry of the times. Downgrades The Biglow Papers in comparison to Lowell’s other poetry.

Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Lowell and other writers living in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century shared a belief that an American writer should be moral, educated, appreciative of fine art and literature, and conduct himself with genteel bearing and good manners. Broaddus discusses the life and work of these writers and describes how this vision of gentility was altered by the reality of the abolitionist movement and the Civil War.

Butler, Leslie. Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Recounts how Lowell and three of his friends—writers George William Curtis, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Charles Eliot Norton—worked with British intellectuals to promote progressive and cosmopolitan reform in the decades between the 1850’s and...

(The entire section is 452 words.)