Lowell, James Russell
James Russell Lowell 1819-1891
American poet, critic, essayist, and editor. The following entry presents recent criticism of Lowell. For further discussion of Lowell's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 2.
Lowell is considered one of the most erudite and versatile American authors of the nineteenth century. In his earnest, formal verse, he sought to advance liberal causes and establish an American aesthetic. While such poems as Ode Recited at the Commemoration of the Living and Dead Soldiers of Harvard University, July 21, 1865 (commonly referred to as the Commemoration Ode), and The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848) were widely admired in his day, Lowell's poetry is now considered diffuse and dated and is seldom read. Modern critics generally agree that his outstanding literary contributions were in the areas of satire and criticism in such works as A Fable for Critics: A Glance at a Few of Our Literary Progenies (1848) and The Biglow Papers (1848).
Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to a wealthy and influential Boston family. His privileged ancestry and Harvard education provided Lowell with access to the New England literati, and as a young man he became acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A natural conservative, Lowell turned increasingly toward liberal humanitarianism after his marriage to Maria White, a poet and abolitionist who encouraged her husband to contribute poetry to the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the Pennsylvania Freeman. In 1848, Lowell achieved national acclaim with the publication of three of his best-known works: Poems: Second Series, A Fable for Critics, and The Biglow Papers. After his wife's death in 1853, Lowell concerned himself more with editing, scholarship, and criticism than with poetry. In 1855, he succeeded Longfellow as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, a post which allowed him to travel abroad and study European languages and literature. Two years later, Lowell assumed additional responsibilities as first editor of the Atlantic Monthly and later joined Charles Eliot Norton as coeditor of the North American Review. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Lowell minister to Spain. James Garfield, in 1880, transferred Lowell to England where the diplomat made himself known among London literary society. Lowell died in Cambridge in 1891.
Representative of his early poetry, A Year's Life (1841) demonstrates numerous technical flaws and a didactic tone that was to mar much of Lowell's later lyrical work. In contrast, many of the selections in his Poems: Second Series are political in nature, and represent Lowell's strengths as a public poet. A Fable for Critics, a witty diatribe written in lively though sometimes careless verse, is remarkable for its numerous critical appraisals of American literary figures which have endured through time and changing styles. An ingenious combination of humor, poetry, and trenchant satire written in a brisk Yankee dialect, the first volume of The Biglow Papers records the sardonic observations of Hosea Biglow, a New England farmer, and his neighbors as the United States enters the Mexican War. Lowell's popular verse fantasy The Vision of Sir Launfal follows an Arthurian knight in his search for the Holy Grail. Melancholy in tone, The Cathedral (1870) meditates on the subject of faith and was prompted by Lowell's visit to Chartres. His 1865 Commemoration Ode is considered among Lowell's most significant works of public poetry, and speaks to the enduring qualities of the American mind.
During his lifetime, Lowell earned wide esteem as an arbiter of American literary tastes. Since his death, however, his reputation as a poet has declined significantly, though many continue to view his critical work favorably. Modern scholars have generally regarded the satirical Biglow Papers as Lowell's masterpiece. Additionally, the astuteness and scope of Lowell's criticism, despite some charges that it is merely impressionistic, has moved literary historians to consider him a major nineteenth-century American critic on a par with Edgar Allan Poe. He has been praised as well for his general prose pieces, personal essays that exhibit a wryness absent from his verse. Critics have also recently begun to focus on Lowell's relationship to the New England Transcendentalists, specifically Emerson and Thoreau. Overall, while acknowledging Lowell's numerous shortcomings as a poet, commentators have maintained a steady interest in his importance and contribution to nineteenth-century American literature as a satirist, journalist, and critic.
A Year's Life (poetry) 1841
Poems (poetry) 1844
Conversations on Some of the Old Poets (criticism) 1845
The Biglow Papers (poetry) 1848
A Fable for Critics: A Glance at a Few of Our Literary Progenies (verse criticism) 1848
Poems: Second Series (poetry) 1848
The Vision of Sir Launfal (poetry) 1848
Fireside Travels (essays) 1864
Ode Recited at the Commemoration of the Living and Dead Soldiers of Harvard University, July 21, 1865 (poetry) 1865
The Biglow Papers: Second Series (poetry) 1867
Under the Willows and Other Poems (poetry) 1868
Among My Books (criticism) 1870
The Cathedral (poetry) 1870
My Study Windows (criticism) 1871
Among My Books: Second Series (criticism) 1876
Democracy and Other Addresses (essays) 1886
The Old English Dramatists (criticism) 1892
Letters (letters) 1893
Last Poems (poetry) 1895
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SOURCE: “James Russell Lowell,” in Fifteen American Authors Before 1900: Bibliographic Essays on Research and Criticism, edited by Robert A. Rees and Earl N. Harbert, University of Wisconsin Press, 1971, pp. 285-305.
[In the following excerpt, Rees surveys biographical and critical assessments of Lowell, noting “that the definitive study of Lowell has not yet been written.”]
Though Lowell is extensively discussed in literary histories and critical works and though he is mentioned in biographies of other great men of his time, there are relatively few biographies of Lowell. Of these only two qualify as full-scale historical biographies: Horace Scudder's James Russell Lowell: A Biography and Martin Duberman's James Russell Lowell.
Scudder's book was preceded by such works as Francis H. Underwood's The Poet and the Man: Recollections and Appreciations of James Russell Lowell (Boston, 1892) and Edward Everett Hale, Jr.'s James Russell Lowell and His Friends (Boston, 1899). Written shortly after his death by those who saw him as the dominant literary figure of America, these books have little to recommend them to the modern scholar. Both authors are more interested in praising than in portraying and evaluating Lowell. An anonymous reviewer lamented particularly the superficiality of Hale's biography since Hale was...
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SOURCE: “The Creative Life,” in James Russell Lowell: Portrait of a Many-Sided Man, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 104-26.
[In the following essay, Wagenknecht analyzes Lowell's literary aesthetic.]
Be sure and don’t leave anything out because it seems trifling, for it is out of these trifles only that it is possible to reconstruct character.
JRL, to James T. Fields, 1871
Though Lowell never confined his activities to writing poetry, he still thought of himself as essentially a poet. He chose this goal for himself early in life, even while his father still regarded it as a species of vagabondage, and he planned a course of study in the laws of English verse preparatory to it. In his law office days he wrote,
They tell me I must study law, They say I have dreamed, and dreamed too long; That I must rouse and seek for fame and gold; That I must scorn this idle gift of song, And mingle with the vain and proud and cold. Is, then, this petty strife The end and aim of life, All that is worth the living for below? O God! then call me hence, for I would gladly go!
And George William Curtis quotes him at twenty-seven:
If I have any...
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SOURCE: “Thoreau and Lowell on ‘Vacation’: The Maine Woods and ‘A Moosehead Journal’,” in Thoreau Journal Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 3, July, 1978, pp. 14-24.
[In the following essay, Mott examines Lowell's satirical estimation of Henry David Thoreau in “A Moosehead Journal.”]
To a man of wholesome constitution the wilderness is well enough for a mood or a vacation, but not for a habit of life.
James Russell Lowell,“Thoreau,” 1865.
The antagonism between Henry David Thoreau and James Russell Lowell is an integral part of the Thoreau legend. It was Lowell's notorious essay “Thoreau,” published in the North American Review (October 1865) over three years after Thoreau's death, that reputedly set back for decades a just appreciation of Thoreau's writings both in America and in Europe.1 The sources of the Lowell-Thoreau antipathy have been amply documented and several theories have been advanced to explain the personal aspect of Lowell's criticism.2 But what has not been fully understood is the role of the State of Maine in shaping the philosophies, literary careers, and, ultimately, personal relationships of the two men. Both wrote accounts of their trips to Maine: Thoreau's “Chesuncook” brought him into direct conflict with the editor Lowell; and...
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SOURCE: “The Empty Cathedral: Lowell and Adams,” in The Markham Review, Vol. 9, Winter, 1980, pp. 29-32.
[In the following essay, Attebery views Lowell's The Cathedral as a significant transitional work thematically linked to the writings of Henry Adams and T. S. Eliot.]
James Russell Lowell dismissed himself in A Fable for Critics as a poet “who’s striving Parnassus to climb / With a whole bale of isms together with rhyme … / The top of the hill he will ne’re come nigh reaching / Till he learns the distinction ‘twixt singing and preaching.”1 Lowell's self-criticism is accurate enough to have become the common critical view: excepting only the Fable and a few of the dialect poems, his work is passed over as amateurish, didactic, and dated. Yet one other important exception—“The Cathedral”—should be added to the list of Lowell's lasting poetic contributions. It deserves to be re-examined by the sympathetic twentieth-century reader for two reasons. First, it presents with imagination and insight many of the themes that typify twentieth-century literature. Second, it is linked historically with at least one of the great writers of the opening of the century, Henry Adams, and through him to others, notably T. S. Eliot.
Lowell's influence on late nineteenth-century American letters has been largely ignored. But, as a friend of...
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SOURCE: “The Humanitarian,” in American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980, 71-90.
[In the following essay, Heymann details Lowell's life and writings of the 1840s, particularly his works of 1848: Poems, A Fable for Critics, The Biglow Papers, and The Vision of Sir Launfal.]
James Russell Lowell's divergent path from “the clan's straight and well-paved highway” was … partially the result of his parents' influence. His father, although not an avid abolitionist, placed the emphasis of his spiritual teaching directly upon the mind-broadening straits of humanitarianism—or in James Russell Lowell's words, upon the need for “a wider and wiser humanity.” In place of the Puritans' “vertical” love of man for God, “a stress on perfecting one's higher self,” the pleasant, cautious minister directed his congregation toward the “horizontal” division of man's love for man. His influence in such worldly concerns can be traced to the moral philosophizing of his former teacher Dugald Stewart and to the Reverend's reading of the works of Benjamin Franklin, whose Deism as stipulated in writing proclaimed that “the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man.” The Reverend maintained for Franklin the same high degree of admiration that James Russell Lowell reserved for his father. Writing to C. F....
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SOURCE: “James Russell Lowell,” in The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Joel Myerson, The Modern Language Association of America, 1984, pp. 336-42.
[In the following essay, Wortham considers Lowell's writings concerning the New England Transcendentalists.]
Time and place made James Russell Lowell in many respects one with the Transcendentalists: intellectual temperament—he called it a “Toryism of the nerves”—kept him apart, but the personal associations still weighed heavily. Lowell's respect and admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular increased over the years until his praise in “Emerson the Lecturer” took on messianic dimensions: “Emerson awakened us,” Lowell wrote in 1868; he “saved us from the body of this death.” Several years later, out of a sense of irreparable debt, Lowell dedicated to Emerson his most distinguished and enduring collection of literary essays, Among My Books: Second Series (1876). None of the other men and women associated with the Transcendentalist movement fared nearly so well in Lowell's estimation, but he knew them all, both professionally and sometimes even as friends. Personal affection could, in Lowell's judgment, redeem the intellectual excesses of his Harvard friend and original Transcendentalist, Charles Stearns Wheeler, just as later it would in his friendly relations with George William Curtis and...
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SOURCE: “‘The Only True Folk Songs We Have in English’: James Russell Lowell and the Politics of the Nation,” in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 108, No. 428, Spring, 1995, pp. 131-55.
[In the following essay, Bell studies Lowell's ballad lectures as they outline a Romantic perception of American nationalism.]
I am going on with my work in an easy way. I can’t say that I care so much about it without J. R. L., who has done so much for me. He would have been so much pleased to have it all nicely finished up. He could talk the fine points in a ballad. They seem stale. I go back to the fine ones at times and sing them and cry over them like the old world.
—Francis James Child1
Consider the puzzle offered by these words. Had James Russell Lowell lived to eulogize Francis James Child in this fashion, it might have made better sense. Close friends and colleagues for 50 years, Lowell would have appreciated Child's great service to literary studies in bringing the wealth of English and Scottish popular ballads into a single collection. And given Child's scholarly brilliance, Lowell would have been perfectly justified in feeling that Child's death made the ballads less enjoyable. But for Lowell's death to diminish Child's “care” for the ballads seems inexplicable. Who was Lowell to Child that his passing would...
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Brodie, Edward H., Jr. “Lowell's Biglow Papers: No. 1.” The Explicator 42, No. 4 (Summer 1984): 21-23.
Attempts to rectify a common misinterpretation of the opening poem of Lowell's Biglow Papers.
Gozzi, Raymond D. “Lowell's The Cathedral and Frost's ‘Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length.’” The Explicator 45, No. 3 (Spring 1987): 28-30.
Considers the possible influence of Lowell's The Cathedral on Robert Frost's poem.
Russo, John Paul. “Isle of the Dead: Italy and the Uncanny in Arnold Böcklin, Sheridan Le Fanu, and James Russell Lowell.” Romance Languages Annual I (1989): 202-209.
Discusses the image of Italy as a “land of death” in Lowell's travelogues.
Tucker, Edward L. “James Russell Lowell and Robert Carter: The Pioneer and Fifty Letters from Lowell to Carter.” Studies in the American Renaissance (1987): 187-246.
Details the collaboration of Lowell and Robert Carter on the short-lived literary periodical, the Pioneer.
Wortham, Thomas. “William Cullen Bryant and the Fireside Poets.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott, pp. 278-88. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
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