Reference Entry

Lowell, James Russell

Wylene J. Rholetter

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Lowell, James Russell

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James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into a family that traced its ancestry to the first Lowell to arrive in Massachusetts in the mid-seventeenth century. The son of Dr. Charles Lowell, who served as the pastor of West Church in Boston for fifty-six years, and Harriet Spence, who gave her son a love of poetry and tales, Lowell would prove to be the most versatile of the Fireside Poets, the group of Massachusetts poets so-named because the popularity of their poems made them standard hearth-side reading in homes across the country. (In addition to Lowell, the group included William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Greenleaf Whittier.) After receiving his bachelor's degree from Harvard, Lowell briefly considered the ministry and business before entering Harvard's Dane Law School, where he received his degree in 1840. More significant to his life than law, however, would be Maria White, the sister of a Harvard classmate. White shared Lowell's intellectual and literary interests, and the couple became engaged within a year of their meeting late in 1839. It was White who encouraged Lowell to publish A Year's Life (1841). Reception was remarkably favorable for a first effort, and his second volume of verse garnered even more praise; Poems (1844) also introduced the antislavery theme that would dominate Lowell's work for the next twenty years. There, too, White's influence was evident: an ardent abolitionist herself, she inspired Lowell to join the cause. His antislavery pieces soon began appearing in abolitionist publications, including Frederick Douglass's North Star. From 1846 to 1852 he wrote more than forty articles on various antislavery issues for the National Anti-Slavery Standard alone. By 1848 selections from Poems, Second Series, such as “The Present Crisis,” had become renowned among abolitionist orators. The qualities that made “The Present Crisis” a favorite characterized the collection as a whole; emphases on individual responsibility, compassion for the downtrodden, and high moral grounds could hardly fail to please Lowell's readers. That year A Fable for Critics, a satire of America's literary lights, bright and dim, brought Lowell to the attention of a larger audience and primed that audience for The Biglow Papers, in which the Yankee farmer Hosea Biglow expresses in witty, commonsense terms his contempt for slavery, politicians, and the Mexican-American War. Therein Lowell combines humor and conviction to produce an original, clear-eyed view of contemporary events. At the end of 1848 The Vision of Sir Launfal was published; Lowell was not yet thirty, but the remarkable achievements of that single year established his reputation as a significant literary figure. Yet Lowell, who had even dared call the Constitution and churches to account for sanctioning slavery, became an increasingly rare voice, as the period after 1848 was filled with loss. Within five years Lowell's mother, an infant son, an infant daughter, and his wife, Maria, all died. More than a decade passed between his wife's death and the publication of his next book—which would mark a shift in focus from social to literary criticism. Indeed, in the years after his wife's death Lowell enjoyed the friendship of those whose ambitions were more literary than political, although they had their differences in opinion. The Town and Country Club, organized by Ralph Waldo Emerson, included in its membership Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; to this group Lowell made the radical proposition that Frederick Douglass be added to their number. Douglass's nomination was opposed—for which Lowell held Emerson responsible. Indignant, Lowell declared himself an improper companion for those who deemed themselves superior to Douglass. Douglass's own reaction to the incident is unknown, but it is clear that he admired Lowell's poetry. In an 1855 speech Douglass included Lowell in a list of poets whose contributions to the antislavery movement merited praise. As late as the 1880s Douglass was still quoting “The Present Crisis” in his speeches. Despite Douglass's esteem, many abolitionists questioned Lowell's allegiance to the cause when his active participation in the movement ended with Maria's death. Many critics accused him of returning to the elitism of his class—a view that gained momentum when Lowell returned to Harvard, where in 1857 he succeeded Longfellow as Smith Professor, a post he would hold until 1876. Also in 1857 Lowell became the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In this position he published work by Emerson, Whittier, and Holmes as well as young writers such as William Dean Howells. His joint editorship of the North American Review (1864–1872) increased his influence as a literary critic. Lowell's loyalty to the Republican Party was rewarded with diplomatic appointments to Spain (1877–1880) and England (1880–1885). Lowell ably represented his country and increased European respect for American letters. His last years were quiet ones, surrounded by family and old friends. He died at Elmwood, the house in which he had been born. Although Lowell lacked the power and originality of greatness, his achievements were substantial. Despite the didacticism that led to a decline in his reputation early in the twentieth century, his role as a minor figure in American literary history seems secure. See also Antislavery Movement; Douglass, Frederick; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Literature; Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth; Mexican-American War; North Star; Religion and Slavery; Republican Party; Slavery and the U.S. Constitution; and Whittier, John Greenleaf.

Reference Entry.  1010 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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