James Russell Lowell was born into an important New England family that had been playing a prominent role in Massachusetts history ever since a wealthy merchant from Bristol, Percival Lowell, had helped to found the town of Newbury. Lowell’s grandfather was a lawyer, a leading member of the Continental Congress. The poet’s uncle, Francis Cabot Lowell, was one of the leading industrialists of the age, having given the family name to a factory town on the banks of the Merrimac River. His cousin was founder of Boston’s Lowell Institute, and descendants of these Lowells, the poets Amy and Robert, kept the family name before readers well into the twentieth century. To be born into such a family meant that Lowell was outfitted for success from birth. His parents had him reading before he was four, translating French before he was ten, studying Latin and Greek in the small classical school run by William Wells, and gaining admission to Harvard by the time he was fifteen.
The youngest of six children, Lowell never quite outgrew the advantages his family so willingly bestowed on him. As it turned out, he lived and died in the same familial mansion, Elmwood, in which he was born. His father helped to subsidize his first three volumes of poetry. In 1854, his cousin helped to launch his academic career by paying him to deliver a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute. The lectures turned out well enough to convince a close family friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to campaign to have him appointed to a professorship at Harvard the following year. Another cousin, James Elliot Cabot, as well as Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, recommended him for the editorship of the newly established Atlantic Monthly in 1867. The Lowell name and fortune, together with the conservative political commentary that he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review, proved to be influential enough to launch him eventually on a diplomatic career. By 1877, his support of President Hayes had netted him an appointment as the American ambassador to Spain. By 1880, he had moved up to become the country’s ambassador to England.
From the start, Lowell abetted these advantages with his own hard work, his serious commitment to the craft of writing, and his enviable record for accomplishing nearly everything he set out to do. The Lowell name may have opened for him many a door, but his own steady performance guaranteed that he would be offered positions of increasing importance and influence. Yet the same hard work and the responsiveness to the traditions and duties of his family kept him from finding the real James Russell Lowell. From the time when his Harvard classmates elected him to write and read their class poem during the 1839 commencement to the posthumous publication of Last Poems of James Russell Lowell in 1895, Lowell could be counted on to write what was expected of him rather than what he expected of himself. To gain the approval of his fellow graduates, Lowell could satirize the militancy and zeal of the abolitionist movement. To gain the approval, five years later, of his fiancé—Maria White was a protégé of social reformer Margaret Fuller and a militant abolitionist—he could turn his talents to editing the same abolitionist journals he had poked fun at in his commencement poem. When she died in 1853, Lowell lost either his interest in or sense of duty toward the abolitionist movement. Yet another family commitment, a contract to deliver thirteen lectures on the English poets for his cousin’s Lowell Institute, moved him from his bent toward satire, his involvement in reform, and his formal lyric poetry to a career as a literary critic.
Lowell spent nearly fifty years as an apologist for institutional America, articulating clearly and sometimes passionately the principal social, aesthetic, and political beliefs of the educated upper class of America’s Atlantic seaboard. It was a community of readers for whom his family, his...
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