James Russell Lowell Lowell, James Russell - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

Robert A. Rees (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 “perhaps the one surviving man best acquainted with Lowell and his career from the brilliant start to the honored close.” He saw Hale's book as “a series of gossipy reminiscences” which were “interesting … but also disappointing” (“Littérateur, Ambassador, Patriot, Cosmopolite,” Academy, 29 July, 1899).

Two noteworthy views by Lowell's later contemporaries are those of Henry James and William Dean Howells, both of whom had long and intimate associations with Lowell. In his “Studies of Lowell” (a reprint of an essay in the September 1900 issue of Scribner's) in Literary Friends and Acquaintance (New York, 1900), Howells warmly recalls many visits with Lowell, especially at Elmwood. He concludes, “I believe neither in heroes nor in saints; but I believe in great and good men, and among such men Lowell was the richest nature I have known. His nature was not always serene and pellucid; it was sometimes roiled by the currents that counter and cross in all of us; but it was without the least alloy of insincerity, and it was never darkened by the shadow of a selfish fear. His genius was an instrument that responded in affluent harmony to the power that made him a humorist and that made him a poet, and appointed him rarely to be quite either alone.”

Henry James recalled his long friendship with Lowell in two Atlantic Monthly essays (Jan. 1892 and Jan. 1897; the first was reprinted in Essays in London and Elsewhere, New York, 1893). James, who certainly was not blind to Lowell's shortcomings, considered him “completely representative.” After rereading Lowell, James says, “He looms, in such a renewed impression, very large and ripe and sane, and if he was an admirable man of letters there should be no want of emphasis on the first term of the title.” He concludes, “He was strong without narrowness; he was wise without bitterness and bright without folly. That appears for the most part the clearest ideal of those who handle the English form, and he was altogether in the straight tradition. This tradition will surely not forfeit its great part in the world so long as we continue occasionally to know it by what is so solid in performance and so stainless in character.”

Scudder's two-volume study is a surprisingly competent work for its time. Scudder was the first scholar to use letters and manuscripts in telling the story of Lowell's life, and he is the first to suggest the complexities of the man. While Scudder, like Norton, is cautious and conservative when it comes to the proprieties of biography, one must credit him at least with an attempt at objectivity. It is a tribute to Scudder that subsequent biographers have been indebted to him and that his work was the standard biography for over sixty years.

Ferris Greenslet, James Russell Lowell: His Life and Work (Boston, 1905), proposed to write “a biography of the mind,” but Greenslet, like others before him in the nineteenth century, set limitations which precluded any presentation of a viable image of the mind or the man. In his introduction Greenslet says, “In this narrative … there will be little occasion to adduce any piece of ‘bare truth’ that the man himself in his essays, his poems, and his letters has not made a part of the record.” In spite of these limitations, and in spite of the fact that his work is derivative, Greenslet is at times accurate and perceptive about some aspects of Lowell's life. His chapter on Lowell's poetry is especially penetrating. Greenslet's later study, The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds (Boston, 1946), which is devoted to the Lowell family, adds little to his picture of Lowell. Perhaps the best brief biography of Lowell was that written for the Dictionary of American Biography (1933) by M. A. de Wolfe Howe, who makes a masterful summary of Lowell's life and an estimate of his place in American literature.

Only two major biographical studies of Lowell appeared between Greenslet's work and Duberman's: Richmond Croom Beatty's James Russell Lowell (Nashville, Tenn., 1942) and Leon Howard's Victorian Knight-Errant: A Study of the Early Literary Career of James Russell Lowell. Both studies are limited. In his preface Beatty admits to a bias (“almost everybody appears to have one”) and then proceeds to manifest that bias on almost every page. As a southerner, Beatty seems incapable of forgiving Lowell for being a northerner and an abolitionist. He says Lowell “never understood history,… never comprehended politics.… Moreover, Harvard scholar though he was, he never made any effort worth mentioning to understand the civilization of the South. He proved himself, from his undergraduate days, a dupe of the most irresponsible propaganda his age afforded.” Nor does Beatty give Lowell much credit as a thinker and a critic: “For the central facts about [Lowell's] mind were its discursiveness, its self-conscious irrelevance, and inner certainty, the compulsion of which was always present to disperse his meditations. … The evidence is unmistakable that any basic coherence in his thinking about literature appears to have come to him only at intervals, and by happy though sadly infrequent accidents.” At times Beatty shows enough insight into Lowell to suggest he might have written a far better book.

Beatty's view on Lowell and the South does not jibe with that of Howells, who said of Lowell, in his reminiscence mentioned above (Scribner's, Sept. 1900): “He had a great tenderness for the broken and ruined South, whose sins he felt that he had had his share in visiting upon her, and he was willing to do what he could to ease her sorrows in the case of any particular Southerner.” Howells's view is supported by Max L. Griffin's “Lowell and the South” (Tulane Studies in English, 1950). Griffin feels that Lowell's abolitionism was moral and philosophical rather than political and sectional, and that it did not affect his personal friendships with southerners.

Leon Howard's study is limited by design. Howard did not intend to write a full or a conventional biography; instead he wanted “to discover the extent to which a meticulous examination of an individual's entire literary output, within the human context of its origin, could improve one's understanding of the individual himself and of the age in which he lived.” Howard's book is an interesting study in literary research; it is also the most comprehensive view we have of Lowell's life and times through his literature. Howard may give more information than some readers would wish, but he draws extensively and intelligently upon the canon of Lowell's creative work to provide us with many new biographical insights. One should not quibble with the limits stipulated by Howard, but one cannot help but wish he had carried his study past the year 1857 when, for him, Lowell reached a state of arrested development; the success of Howard's approach to the early Lowell makes us want to see all of Lowell in such a context.

Although written earlier than Howard's book, H. H. Clark's biographical introduction to James Russell Lowell: Representative Selections presents an interesting view that differs from Howard's premise. For Clark, Lowell's life underwent progressive change from beginning to end. Clark traces the development of Lowell's life and career through three major stages—the Humanitarian (to 1850), the Nationalist (1850 to 1867), and the Natural Aristocrat (1867 to 1891)—and makes a convincing argument that the evolution from one to the other was organic. This argument is based on Clark's earlier study, “Lowell—Humanitarian, Nationalist, or Humanist?” (Studies in Philology, July 1930), in which he argued that Lowell's life was “an essentially progressive and symmetrical expansion from a center, a steady widening of circles.”

Duberman's intended scope was all-inclusive, and he had access to practically every manuscript relevant to Lowell's life. He made good use of those materials in filling in the gaps and fleshing out the details of Lowell's life and in correcting errors that have accumulated over the years. Duberman states that his purpose in writing the book was not “to restore Lowell's stature as a Renaissance figure or a literary giant” (he feels that Lowell was neither), but “to restore him as a man.” Duberman is interested in Lowell as a virtuous man, as a man of character, and not as a man of letters. One has the feeling that part of the real Lowell is still missing and that Duberman's easy dismissal of Lowell as an artist (“There are many moments in his poetry, long sections in his essays, which deserve respect, … but they remain incidental; rather than high-lighting a consolidated achievement, they call attention to its absence.”) suggests that he does not fully understand Lowell. But Duberman's study is likely to be the best that we will have for some time. Perhaps it need disappoint only those who still consider Lowell primarily as a litterateur, as a man who gave American letters a dignity that it has seldom had in our history.

A biographical study of Lowell which has appeared since Duberman's, Claire McGlinchee's Twayne's United States Authors Series James Russell Lowell (New York, 1967), is hardly worthy of mention. A glib and superficial study, it contributes nothing to our understanding of Lowell.

One of the difficulties that have faced his biographers and one of the reasons why the essential Lowell has in one way or another eluded all of his biographers, is that he was so diverse and so versatile. If comparison often places him second in some category of literary or other endeavors, rarely has one man demonstrated excellence in so many facets. He was: poet, essayist, humorist, letter-writer, linguist, critic. He was also: abolitionist, journalist, crusader for political and other reform, diplomat, teacher of modern foreign languages and literatures, public lecturer, after-dinner speaker, and editor (The Pioneer, The Atlantic Monthly, and The North American Review). As Frank R. Stockton said in a “Personal Tribute to Lowell” written at the time of Lowell's death, “Without occupying the highest rank in any of his vocations, he stood in front of his fellow citizens because he held so high a rank in so many of them” (The Writer, Sept. 1891).

There are areas of Lowell's life which need further attention. Though a great deal is known of Lowell and Lowell's thinking from the time of his youth, his letters are revelatory on some matters and carefully silent on others. These areas of reverberating silence involve his relationships with his family and his feeling about his mother's insanity. The silence is entirely in keeping with nineteenth-century reticence; it indicates no scandal, but it cuts off a means of insight into Lowell as a creative artist. That he had a morbid streak far deeper than his contemporaries realized or reported can be deduced from many passim remarks. And no one has satisfactorily come to terms with Lowell's mysticism, an aspect of his life on which there is a good deal of divided opinion. Psychoanalysis, applied through the veil of over a century and based on fragmentary evidence, would be foolish and dangerous, but some new attempt to evaluate and to interpret all of Lowell's character and personality is needed.

Another area that needs further exploration is the influence of Lowell's wives upon his moral and intellectual patterns. There is speculation that Maria was more devoted to abolition than he was and that she was more creative. There are also indications that Frances did not like Lowell's dialect poetry; since moderns consider this one of his strongest areas, did she inhibit him from developing further along this line?

Perhaps there are parts of the Lowell puzzle which we will never find, but until we understand more about the complexities of his personality we will never completely understand him as a creative artist. Perhaps the key to the puzzle lies in the works themselves. And until a biographer comes along who has a greater interest in Lowell's total creative output—bad as well as good—we are not likely to get the story of Lowell's life which we need and which he deserves.


James Russell Lowell's critical reputation has never been very secure. In almost every decade since he started writing, he has been praised by some critics and damned by others—sometimes for the same thing. One could generalize, however, that before his death Lowell was praised for things that were not true of him and after his death damned for things that were.

Lowell's critics seem always to lament that he was not something other than he was: a more disciplined poet, less a dilettante, more patriotic, less a Puritan, more a scholar, less an Anglophile, more an abolitionist, and so on. Critics wishing that Lowell were not himself seem to reflect Poe's sentiment on first meeting Lowell: “He is not half the noble looking person I expected to see.”

While a good deal of nineteenth-century criticism is essentially effusive and of little critical worth to modern readers, there have been from the beginning a few critics who have tried to be objective about Lowell. Of Lowell's early contemporaries, perhaps the views of Edgar Allan Poe and Margaret Fuller are most significant. Poe felt that Lowell was the best poet in America with the exception of Longfellow and “perhaps one other” (presumably Poe himself), essentially because of the vigor of Lowell's imagination. Poe, however, felt that Lowell's ear for rhythm was imperfect and his artistic ability of second rank. Poe was less than enthusiastic about A Fable for Critics, which he found “essentially ‘loose’—ill conceived and feebly executed as well in detail as in general” and lacking polish (Southern Literary Messenger, Mar. 1849). Poe's estimate may have been colored by Lowell's finding him “two-fifths sheer fudge” in the Fable.

Margaret Fuller was more sharply critical of Lowell and, in her estimate of his reputation, almost prophetic. Speaking of Longfellow, she says, “Though imitative, his [poetry] is not mechanical. We cannot say as much for Lowell, who, we must declare it, though to the grief of some friends, and the disgust of more, is absolutely wanting in the true spirit and tone of poesy. His interest in the moral questions of the day has supplied the want of vitality in himself; his great facility at versification has enabled him to fill the ear with a copious stream of pleasant sound. But his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him.” In retaliation, Lowell painted a most unflattering portrait of Miss Fuller in the Fable and refused to remove or soften it in later editions.

Lowell's death in 1891 stimulated some of the most vigorous criticism of him in the nineteenth century. Thomas Wentworth Higginson is perhaps representative of those who were extravagant in their evaluations of Lowell. Higginson (Nation, 13 August 1891) called the Commemoration Ode “the finest single poem yet produced in this country”; and Lowell himself “our foremost critic.” If Higginson is close to the mark in these estimates, he was clearly off the mark in stating that “no American author, unless it be...

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Edward Wagenknecht (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Wesley Mott (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brian Attebery (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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C. David Heymann (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas Wortham (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael J. Bell (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 215 words.)