Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
James Russell Lowell’s A Fable for Critics appeared in 1848, three years after Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and three years before Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Born the same year as Melville and Walt Whitman, Lowell was twenty-nine years old and had already gained something of a reputation as poet and antislavery essayist.
Writing in the age of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lowell believed that native American literature had come of age. He argues this in a section of A Fable for Critics, echoing Emerson’s “The American Scholar” address of eleven years earlier and looking ahead to Whitman’s famous preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. “Forget Europe wholly,” he advised the American writer.
Eventually, A Fable for Critics has come to be read—though rarely all the way through—for its satire. The author flippantly exhibits his contemporaries: Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Henry Dana, Sr., and many lesser-known writers. With his young man’s irreverence and capacity for industry, Lowell produced in this 2,100-line poem a number of choice verbal thrusts that have always delighted readers: “There comes Poe, with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge,/ Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge.” Of James Fenimore Cooper he wrote, “the women he draws from one model don’t vary,/ All sappy as maples and...
(The entire section is 1599 words.)
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