Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Lowell, James Russell
LOWELL, James Russell, poet and essayist, b. in Cambridge, Mass., 22 Feb., 1819; d. in Cambridge, Mass., 12 Aug., 1891. Lowell in genius and character is the hereditary representative of the heart and brains that founded New England. He was the youngest of five children. From both parents were transmitted high intelligence, sound principles, and right ideals, but the poetic and imaginative faculty came from the mother. His birthplace was the old Tory mansion now called “Elmwood,” a large, three-story, square, wooden house in the early colonial style, situated in spacious grounds, surrounded by magnificent elms and pines planted by his father, with an outlook on Charles river. (See view on page 40.) Lowell was fitted for college by William Wells (who was the senior of the firm to whom we owe the series of Wells and Lilly classics), entered Harvard in his sixteenth year, and was graduated in 1838. His first-published literary production, unless possibly some poems for “Harvardiana,” which he edited in 1837-'8, was his notable class poem, composed under peculiar circumstances. At the time of writing it the collegiate senior was undergoing a brief period of rustication at Concord, in consequence of inattention to his text-books. His forced sojourn in this Arcadia of scholarship and reform brought him into relationship with the transcendentalists, who at that day were in the habit of gathering at the home of Emerson, with whom then began that friendship which, despite the playful sallies of the younger poet in his earlier writings, only terminated with the death of the elder. The young satirist saw the humorous side of the social movements of the day, and the class-poem, scintillating with wit, attacked the abolitionists, Carlyle, Emerson, and the transcendentalists. In the law-school of Harvard, Lowell received the degree of LL. B., and was admitted to the bar in 1840. The only record of the practice of his profession is found in a story entitled “My First Client,” published in the “Boston Miscellany.” Henceforth he gave himself entirely to literature. In 1841 a volume of poems, written under the influence of affection for a woman of genius who became his wife, was published under the title of “A Year's Life.” The key-note of the poems, buoyant with youth and love, is in the closing lines:
The poet now his guide hath found,
The volume was never re-published, and of the seventy poems only a small part have been deemed worthy of re-printing by the author. His marriage to the woman who inspired these poems took place in 1844. Maria White was an ardent abolitionist, and no doubt her influence assisted in turning his thoughts to the serious side of that cause to which he rendered immortal service. To understand Lowell's career, it is necessary to remember that he was not only a poet, a scholar, and a humorist, but always a conservative and a critic. No man was more thoroughly imbued than he with the fundamental principles of American democracy — a democracy without demagogism — no man more jealous than he of the untarnished reputation of America in politics and literature, no man more quick to see any departure from the high ideal of the republic, and his flaming pen was turned to attack whatever assailed this ideal &mdash at one time slavery, at another time vicious political methods threatening the purity of democratic society. His radicalism was always conservative, his criticism always constructive. Lowell and his wife were regular contributors to the “Liberty Bell,” and his name appears in 1848 in “The Anti-Slavery Standard” as corresponding editor. In this paper, from 1843 to 1846, his poems during that period mostly appeared. Later the “Boston Courier” was the vehicle of his productions, and in its columns the first series of the “Biglow Papers” was given to the public, beginning in the issue for June, 1846, and ending in 1848. This satire was an event of the first importance in the history of the world's literature. In wit, scholarship, and penetrating knowledge of human nature, it took the place, which it has ever since maintained, of a masterpiece. Age has only increased its reputation, and it is a recognized classic both in England and America. The test of its power and universality is the constant quotation from it on both sides of the Atlantic. Locally its effect was amazing. It consisted of a series of poems in the Yankee dialect, ostensibly by Mr. Hosea Biglow, and edited, with an introduction, notes, glossary, index, and “notices of an independent press,” by “Homer Wilbur, A. M., pastor of the first church in Jaalam, and prospective member of many literary, learned, and scientific societies.” In the main it was a satire on slavery and the Mexican war, but there was scarcely any cant, hypocrisy, or meanness in politics, the pulpit, and the press that was not hit by it. The hitherto despised abolitionists, the subject of gibes and satire, found a champion who turned the batteries of the scholar, in unequalled wit, merriment, and ridicule, upon their enemies and the enemies of the free republic, exposing to the laughter of the world the sneaking attitude of compromising politicians and of those who wore the livery of heaven in the cause of human slavery. Thereafter the fight took on a very different character; it was respectable to be on the side of freedom. The “Biglow Papers” will no doubt preserve the Yankee dialect, and cause it to be studied ages hence in order to the comprehension of the effect upon our national life of one of the most opportune allies that freedom ever had.
His interest in the anti-slavery contest did not prevent Lowell from purely literary labors. In 1843 he undertook the editing of “The Pioneer, a Literary and Critical Magazine,” in joint editorship with Robert Carter (q. v.); and Poe, Hawthorne, Neal, Dwight, Jones Very, Parsons, Elizabeth Barrett (Mrs. Browning), Whittier, and William W. Story were contributors. Only three numbers were published, the venture failing through financial disaster to the publishers. In this magazine was begun a series of essays on the poets and dramatists, which afterward formed the material for “Conversations with Some of the Old Poets” (Cambridge, 1845). In 1844 came a volume of verse, containing “A Legend of Brittany,” with thirty-three miscellaneous poems and thirty-seven sonnets (among them sonnets to Wendell Phillips and Joshua R. Giddings), written in a vein that foreshadowed and even announced the poet's position in the great anti-slavery revolution. These were followed in 1845 by “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” one of the most exquisite productions of his genius, a poem founded on the legend of the Holy Grail, which is said to have been composed in a sort of frenzy in about forty-eight hours, during which the poet scarcely ate or slept. The “Conversations on the Poets” was Lowell's first work in literary criticism, and was the basis of his lectures before the Lowell institute, 1854-'5, and of his lectures in Harvard university during his professorship of modern languages and belles-lettres. A third volume of poems, containing many new anti-slavery pieces was published in 1848, and the same year was brought out anonymously the “Fable for Critics,” a youthfully daring but amusing and racy skit at the American poets, in which the laughing author did not spare himself. In 1849 a collected edition of his poems in two volumes was published, the “Biglow Papers” and “A Year's Life” being omitted. In the mean time Lowell had been a contributor to the “Dial,” the “Democratic Review,” the “Massachusetts Quarterly Review,” in which he reviewed Thoreau's first volume in 1849, and to “Putnam's Monthly” in 1853 and several years later. In 1851 the poet and his wife travelled in Europe, visiting England, France, and Switzerland, and residing for some time in Italy. The chief fruits of this journey were the essays on Italian art and literature and his eminence as a student and interpreter of Dante. In the autumn of 1852 he was again in America, and in October, 1853, he sustained the greatest sorrow of his life in the death of his wife, who had long been an invalid. In January, 1855, on Mr. Longfellow's resignation, Lowell was appointed his successor as professor of modern languages and belles-lettres in Harvard university, and after two years' study abroad, during which time he greatly extended his knowledge of Italian, French, and Spanish, and became one of the first authorities in old French and Provencal poetry, he assumed the duties of his professorship. From 1857 till 1862 he wrote many essays, not since re-published, for the “Atlantic Monthly,” and in 1863 he became, with Prof. Charles Eliot Norton, joint editor of the “North American Review,” a connection which he maintained till 1872. The “Atlantic Monthly,” founded in 1857, of which Lowell was the first editor, was set on foot by Holmes, Longfellow, Emerson, and Lowoll, and Emerson's study was the scene of the gathering of the great literary lights of Boston, when the enterprise was discussed and the character of the magazine settled upon.
The Kansas struggle, 1856-'8, enlisted Lowell's sympathies; he was in accord with the leading anti-slavery men, and at one time, says Frank B. Sanborn, contemplated transferring his Hosea Biglow to Kansas to report in the vernacular the doings there, but “the flighty purpose never was o'ertook.” The outbreak of the civil war caused a revival of the dramatis personæ of the “Biglow Papers,” in which the disunionists at home and their sympathizers in England were equally brought under the lash of his stinging satire. It went straight to the American heart. This second series of “Biglow Papers” first appeared in the “Atlantic,” and was published in a volume in 1867. The “Fireside Travels,” containing the pleasant gossip about “Cambridge Thirty Years Ago,” the delightful “Moosehead Journal,” and notes of travel on the Mediterranean and in Italy, had appeared in the mean time. The “Atlantic” for January, 1867, contained “Fitz Adam's Story,” a poem intended to form part of a longer one, “The Nooning,” which has been announced as about to be published as far back as 1851, but has never been completed. It was omitted from “Under the Willows, and other Poems” (Boston, 1869), with the following explanation: “ ‘Fitz Adam's Story,’ which some good friends will miss, is also left to stand over, because it belongs to a connected series, which it is hoped may be completed if the days should be propitious.” The volumes of prose, “Among my Books” and “My Study Windows,” issued in 1870, comprising the choicest of Lowell's literary essays, seemed to mark the close of his greatest literary activity; but the appearance recently of such a paper as that on the poet Grey shows that only opportunity is needed for the gathering of the maturest fruits of his critical genius. In 1872 he made another visit to Europe, and on his return the “Centennial” period called out his efforts in the production of three patriotic odes, the first at Concord, 19 April, 1875, the second under the Washington elm, 3 July of the same year, and the third for 4 July, 1876. He was a presidential elector in 1876.
In 1877 Mr. Lowell was appointed by President Hayes to the Spanish mission, from which he was transferred in 1880 to the court of St. James. His diplomatic career closed with his recall by President Cleveland in 1885. In Madrid, in an atmosphere congenial to him as a student, he sustained the honor of the American name, and received the confidence and admiration that had been formerly extended to Washington Irving. His residence in London, although clouded and saddened by the long illness and by the death in February, 1885, of his second wife, Miss Frances Dunlap, of Portland, Me., whom he had married in September, 1857, was as honorable to him as to the country he represented, an unbroken series of successes in the world of society and the world of letters. Called upon to settle no serious international differences, he bore himself with the tact and dignity that was to be desired in our representative to a great and friendly power, mindful always that his mission was to maintain cordial amity instead of seeking causes of alienation. And no man in our generation has done more than Lowell to raise American institutions and American character in the estimation of our English kin. His graceful and natural oratory was in demand on scores of public occasions. The most noteworthy of his public addresses was that on Coleridge, delivered at the unveiling of the bust of the poet in Westminster Abbey in May, 1885. The volume entitled “Democracy and other Addresses” (Boston, 1887) includes the foreign speeches, and those spoken at the dedication of the public library of Chelsea and at the Harvard anniversary. Mr. Lowell's political life is confined within the eight years of his terms of office at Madrid and London. His recall brought out expressions of deep regret in the English press, and he returned to the United States to receive the plaudits of his countrymen. Temporary political criticisms there were, but they were such as a man can afford to leave to the judgment of time, which will not fail to compare his own ideal of what the republic should be with the notions of his critics. Since his return to private life Mr. Lowell's home has been with his only child, the wife of Edward Burnett, at Southboro, Mass. He resumed his lectures at Cambridge, and in the winter of 1887 gave a course on the English dramatists before the Lowell institute. The same winter he read a paper before the Union league club of Chicago on the authorship of Richard III. In the summer of 1887 he again visited England, receiving everywhere the highest honors that could be paid to a private citizen. The degree of D. C. L. was conferred upon him by the University of Oxford in 1873, and that of LL. D. by the University of Cambridge, England, in 1874. During his residence in England as minister he was elected rector of the University of St. Andrews.
The following is a list of his works and their various editions: “Class Poem” (Boston, 1838); “A Year's Life” (1841); “Poems” (Cambridge, 1844); “The Vision of Sir Launfal” (Boston, 1845; 2d ed., 1848, and included in “Vest-Pocket Series”); “Conversations on Some of the Old Poets” (1845); “Poems” (1848); “The Biglow Papers” (1848); “A Fable for Critics” (1848); “Poems” (2 vols., 1849); “Life of Keats,” prefacing an edition of his works (1854); “Poems” (2 vols., 1854); “Poetical Works” (2 vols., 1858); “Mason and Slidell, a Yankee Idyl” (1862); “Fireside Travels” (1864); “The President's Policy” (1864); “Ode recited at the Commemoration of the Living and Dead Soldiers of Harvard University,” 21 July, 1865; “The Biglow Papers,” 2d series (1867); “Under the Willows, and other Poems” (1869); “Among my Books” (1870); “The Courtin’ ” (1874); “Three Memorial Poems” (1876); “Among my Books,” 2d series (1876); and “Democracy, and other Addresses” (1887). “The Literary World” (Boston) of 27 June, 1885, is a Lowell number, containing estimates of Mr. Lowell's literary and personal qualities, with testimonies from prominent writers, and a bibliography. Francis H. Underwood published in 1882 a biographical sketch; and Stedman's “American Poets,” a volume called “Homes and Haunts of our Elder Poets,” and Haweis's “American Humorists,” contain essays upon Mr. Lowell. — James Russell's wife, Maria White, poet, b. in Watertown, Mass., 8 July, 1821; d. in Cambridge, Mass., 27 Oct., 1853, married Mr. Lowell in 1844. She possessed great beauty of person and character, and was an accomplished linguist. Her death, which took place the same night that one of Mr. Longfellow's children was born, called forth from Longfellow his poem beginning,
Two angels, one of life and one of death,
A volume of her poems, which are characterized by tenderness and delicacy of feeling, was printed privately after her death (Cambridge, 1855). The best known of them are “The Alpine Shepherd” and “The Morning-Glory.”