James Russell Lowell Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Besides thirteen volumes of poetry, during his lifetime, James Russell Lowell published ten collections of essays, most of which had already been printed in periodicals. The ten collections centered on literary criticism, arising from his scholarly duties as professor of modern languages and literature at Harvard University (1855-1886), and political theory, arising from his contact with the Republican Party and his role as American ambassador to Spain (1877-1880) and England (1880-1887). The criticism—Conversations on Some of the Old Poets (1845), Among My Books (1870), My Study Windows (1871), Among My Books: Second Series (1876), The English Poets: Lessing, Rousseau (1888), Latest Literary Essays and Addresses (1891), and The Old English Dramatists (1892)—shows a fluid, informal style grounded on few theoretical principles. The early works tend toward a vaguely Romantic approach, emphasizing the authors whom Lowell found inspirational. The later volumes are more conservative, based on more formal aesthetic principles. The same movement can be detected in Lowell’s political theory. In Fireside Travels (1864) Lowell collected informal, chatty essays on Italy, Maine, and Cambridge. His Democracy and Other Addresses (1887) and Political Essays (1888) display a much more systematic approach to cultural commentary.

Since most of the thirteen volumes of poetry and ten volumes of prose were first printed in magazines and newspapers, Lowell’s primary audience was found among periodical readers and editors. He helped to shape many of the major American magazines of the nineteenth century. He was a contributing editor to short-lived literary magazines such as The Pioneer and The Dial, to abolitionist magazines such as the Pennsylvania Freeman and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and to major publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review. Much of the work that he did for these publications was reprinted in Early Prose Writings of James Russell Lowell (1902) and The Anti-Slavery Papers of James Russell Lowell (1902). Lowell saved some of his best prose for his personal friends, and the two-volume edition of his Letters of James Russell Lowell (1894; Charles Eliot Norton, editor) deserves to be more widely read.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

For James Russell Lowell, writing poetry was but one of several careers that he managed to sustain successfully and simultaneously. His first volume of poetry was composed during 1840 and 1841 while he was also trying to open his own law practice. His second was written while he was helping to launch a new magazine, Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Journal. After the magazine failed in 1843, Lowell threw himself into writing propaganda for the antislavery movement, accepting the post of editorial writer for Philadelphia’s The Freeman and Anti-Slavery Standard simultaneously. From 1845 to 1848 he was also supplementing his meager income by writing literary criticism for Graham’s Magazine. Despite the demands and prestige of the three assignments, he also found time to write three of his longest and best poems—A Fable for Critics, The Biglow Papers, and The Vision of Sir Launfal—all by 1848.

Lowell sustained such division of energy and interest throughout his career. In the 1850’s, he mixed the publication of scholarly criticism, teaching at Harvard, and editing the newly founded Atlantic Monthly with his poetry. For good measure, he also started a novel. In the 1860’s, he tried to edit the North American Review, keep his post at Harvard, issue collections of his prose works, and still write poetry. In the 1870’s, he added a political career to his publishing,...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Beatty, Richmond Croom. James Russell Lowell. 1942. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969. Beatty’s study is based on a thorough examination of Lowell’s manuscripts and heavily criticizes the poet’s political judgments at times. Includes bibliographical references.

Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. An analysis of the use of rhetoric by several authors, including Lowell. Broaddus delves into the creation of high culture, character, and war. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Duberman, Martin B. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. This well-researched biography is based mainly on manuscript materials and refers to the poetry and criticism of Lowell throughout. It provides a historian’s evaluation of Lowell’s political writings and activities. Includes thorough notes, bibliographies, and index.

Hudson, William Henry. Lowell and His Poetry. 1914. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1972. Focuses on the poetry, not the life. In the course of Hudson’s discussion, he quotes the full text of nine poems, which are listed in the beginning of the book. This brief study includes “The Changeling,” “The First Snowfall,” “After the Burial,” and Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865.

McGlinchee, Claire. James Russell Lowell. New York: Twayne, 1967. The first chapter looks at Lowell in the context of nineteenth century American literature, and the second and third chapters offer a chronological account of Lowell’s life through 1860. The following six chapters are devoted to his early poems, his criticism, details on his careers as professor, diplomat, and editor, his political verse (The Biglow Papers), and his later poetry (The Cathedral and the odes). Contains notes, annotated bibliography, and index.

Wagenknecht, Edward. James Russell Lowell: Portrait of a Many-Sided Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. This book supplements Martin B. Duberman’s more definitive biography by providing a less formal character portrait. Wagenknecht’s facts are, however, authentic. Discussions of the poetic influences on Lowell and his approach to poetry make up two chapters, “Storing the Well” and “The Creative Life.” Includes notes, selective bibliography, and index.