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.