Beacon Street Wit

Since the death of Holmes in 1894, his reputation has shrunk and dwindled with that of his group. With the rise of other literary schools, New England standards have been submitted to a somewhat rude overhauling, and Brahmin ideals are no longer reckoned so authoritative as they were once believed to be, nor the supremacy of Boston genius so indisputable. Concord has risen as Cambridge and Beacon Street have declined, and in the shadow of Emerson and Thoreau, the wit of Back Bay is in danger of being obscured. Unsupported by his physical presence, his writings seem far less vital than they did when the echoes of his clever talk were still sounding through them. Certain intellectual shortcomings are more obvious when his works are brought together in a library edition: in the mass his prose seems far more discursive and his verse thinner and more jingly than when the several bits appeared singly, personally sponsored by the author in whose cleverness everybody delighted. Read with sprightly vivacity to a group of sympathetic listeners at the mellowest hour of the dinner, his occasional verse must have sparkled brightly and have gone off with such a crackle of laughter as to convince the Back Bay that the asthmatic little gentleman with bubbling spirits was a veritable poet, on the same friendly footing with the muse that he was with Beacon Street. So frequently on pleasant occasions did Holmes appear before his classmates and friends copy in hand, so often and so happily did he respond to the invitation to write something, that it would have been ungenerous of Boston - and Boston meant the Back Bay, the Saturday Club and Harvard College - not to have crowned him with a wreath of her own ivy.

For upwards of half a century, throughout the prime and on past the Indian Summer of the New England renaissance, Holmes was Boston's own wit, inexhaustible in clever sayings, bubbling over with satire and sentiment, the autocrat of her social gatherings, the acknowledged head of her mutual admiration society. Not since Robert Treat Paine had there been such a master of Yankee small talk. If he monopolized the conversation he dealt generously with his listeners. The stream was copious and the waters were never bitter or astringent, but with just enough effervescence to suit the Boston palate. As a young man the wit sparkled more brightly; as an old man the humor exuded more gently. At twenty-five he described William IV of England with republican irreverence: "The King blew his nose twice, and wiped the royal perspiration repeatedly from a face which is probably the largest uncivilized spot in England"; late in life he commented on his obvious fondness of praise: "I was always patient with those who thought well of me, and accepted all their tributes with something more than resignation." Taste had changed with the times in Boston. Wit was yielding place to humor; eighteenth-century frankness had given way to nineteenth-century refinement; Victorianism was in full and vigorous bloom in the Beacon Street of 1850, and so Holmes became a Yankee Victorian. The morals of an impeccable society required no castigation, and he was under no obligation to satirize vice. Audacious sallies would have been reckoned in bad taste. If the old-fashioned masculine wit of Robert Treat Paine, with its echoes of Charles Churchill, had presumed to intrude itself into the teacup society of Back Bay drawing-rooms, the indignant Doctor would have shown it the door, and the small talk would have flowed again, decorous and clean and amiable, far more refined than the wit that had delighted their fathers.

And yet, though a full-blown Victorian in manners and tastes, Holmes was something of a child of the eighteenth century at heart. The situation in which he found himself might have proved disconcerting if he had chosen to speculate upon it. By nature a thoroughgoing rationalist, he lived in a romantic age. A gentleman of "parts and learning," with a quick and lively fancy that blossomed in the pat phrase and neat couplet, he loved wit and hated dullness with true Augustan zeal. The great days of Queen Anne were a perennial inspiration to him. He clung to the heroic couplet through all the changes of romantic styles. He moralized in rime with the fluency if not the finish of Pope.1 He satirized Calvinism with an honest wrath that he might have learned of Swift. He commented in his table-talk on the manners of the times with the chatty discursiveness of Addison. Like the earlier wits, he discovered a deep sympathy for the maturity and ripe wisdom of the classics. Writing to his friend John O. Sargent, he remarked:

I wish I had become as familiar with some classic author as you are with Horace. There is nothing like one of those perennial old fellows for good old gentlemanly reading; and for wit and wisdom, what is there to compare with the writings of Horace? You make me envious, - I vow I shall have to get up Juvenal or Catullus, naughty but nice, or somebody that nobody else knows. . . . I get so tired of the damp sheets of all sorts of literati (worse than the "screeching women of Marblehead") and clamorous essayists, that I want something always by me, calm, settled beyond cavilling criticism, - a cool, clear draught of Falernian that has been somewhere near two thousand years in the cellar. (Morse, Life and Letters, Vol. II, p. 311.)

But unhappily what could he do? He was the most sociable of persons, and he lived and moved in an atmosphere surcharged with various and sundry romanticisms. How could he preserve the spirit of quiet rationalism, or assure himself gentlemanly leisure, with a host of "isms" clamoring in his ears? He was amongst them even if he was not of them. He strove to keep himself aloof, unfuddled by heady idealisms and untroubled by strident reforms, but he could not shut his study door against the infection. He could not deny his generation, and inevitably he suffered his thought to be streaked and pied with the current romanticism. He gave Lyceum lectures on Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley, and their influence seeped into his verse. The Longfellow fame was all about him, and he fell to composing ballads and idyls and tales, quite as if he did not know better. Romantic garments fitted him ill, yet he persisted in trying them on. He even got to like them, and came finally to prefer The Chambered Nautilus above his other poems - a strange perversion of taste for a rationalist. The One-Hoss Shay is worth a volume of such pretty moralizing. Parson Turell's Legacy and The Moral Bully are in better vein - witty, lucid, critical-than any half-hearted ventures in romanticism. The eighteenth-century wit does appear to advantage patched with Victorian sentiment, and he should have been rationalist enough to know it.

As a Beacon Street Victorian Holmes was as full of virtuous prejudices as an egg is full of meat; but as a rationalist, with a modest scientific equipment that came from his professional training, he kept the windows of his mind open to the winds of scientific inquiry that were blowing briskly to the concern of orthodox souls. Many a barnacled craft was foundering in those gales, and Holmes watched their going-down with visible satisfaction. He was perhaps the most militant Unitarian amongst Boston laymen. Hatred of Calvinistic dogma was an obsession with him; it dominated his thought and colored much of his work, Elsie Fenner and his table-talk as frankly as The One-Ross Shay. The criticism to which he subjected the old-school dogmas was always vehement, often vindictive. Long after the battle had been won he kept annoying the retreating enemy. His father, Abiel Holmes, was a rigorous follower of the Edwardean school, who after nearly forty years' service lost his pulpit for refusing to compromise with Unitarian liberalism that had gained the fortress of the near-by College Yard; and the stalwart among his congregation, having to yield the building, the endowment and the communion plate, were forced to establish themselves anew. In this unhappy schism that came about the time Oliver Wendell Holmes was graduating from Harvard in 1829, the latter went with the liberals. He had broken with the Calvinism of his father, and in the reaction he went further than most along the path of Unitarian rationalism-not the path of Charming that led to French romanticism and transcendentalism, but the path of Andrews Norton that led to a harder-headed rationalism. The reasons for this shift are sufficiently evident in his writings. At his father's table he had watched too many "whey-faced" brethren to like the breed-men with "a weedy flux of ill-conditioned hair,

"whose acrid words Turn the sweet milk of kindness into curds, Or with grim logic prove, beyond debate, That all we love is worthiest of hate, As the scarred ruffian of the pirate's deck, When his long swivel rakes the staggering wreck! (The Moral Bully.)

The words are bitter, but they reveal the length of his reaction from the Calvinism on which he had been over-fed at home and at Phillips Andover Academy; and they suggest also why, next to Theodore Parker, Holmes came to be the best hated of Boston Unitarians amongst the orthodox. On this one subject he was militantly radical, never shirking debate, but whetting the edge of his satire and impaling his victim neatly with his logic. He took sardonic delight in turning Calvinism against itself, in the clever reductio ad absurdum of the Edwardean argument. Perhaps this major intellectual interest appears most adequately in his picture of the Master, the autobiographical rationalist whom he introduces into The Poet of the Breakfast Table. A dabbler in the law, theology and medicine, a philosophic contemplator of the Order of Things, who refused to permit "the territory of a man's mind" to be "fenced in," who agreed with the Poet in thinking somewhat ill of the specialist who dedicated his life to the study of beetles, preferring to range widely through time and eternity, who followed Darwin and was deep in bacteriology, trying "curious experiments in spontaneous generation" - this was Holmes on the intellectual side, a genial disseminator of the latest scientific speculations, a tolerant amateur of the things of the mind, a friendly dabbler in absolute moralities, who hoped "to do some sound thinking in heaven" if he ever got there, but who was too pleasantly engaged with Beacon Street to settle things now.

In his own special way, then, as a Brahmin of the Brahmins, Holmes was a rebel, a puller-down of worm-eaten structures, a freethinker rejoicing when free thought tossed a cargo of obsolete dogma into Boston Bay, or drew out a linchpin of some respectable social coach. He loved Boston the more because he believed that Boston was the home of free thought and free speech, the capital of American brains, the intellectual rebel of the continent. He did not agree with Emerson's strictures, or Parker's. He would not concede hat Boston was the "home of the Hunkers." It was provincial; it had crooked little streets; but

I tell you Boston has opened, and kept open, more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought and free speech and free deeds than any other city of live men or dead men - I don't care how broad their streets are, nor how high their steeples. (The Professor at the Breakfast Table, p. 4.)

When he contemplated the future of America, with Boston as its intellectual leader, he was carried on the crest of an exuberant optimism:

A new nursery, Sir, with Lake Superior and Huron and all the rest of 'em for washbasins! A new race, and a whole new world for the new-born human soul to work in! And Boston is the brain of it, and has been any time these hundred years! That's all I claim for Boston - that it is the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet. (Ibid., p. 104.)

If the mind is free other things will take care of themselves - this pretty much sums up Holmes's social philosophy. Only, he would add, when the mind is used to its freedom, it will create a culture that is well-mannered, that does not run to extravagant agitation, that considers time, place, and outward circumstance in effecting needful changes-the quiet decency of Channing rather than the noisier way of Parker. The Brahmin way, after all, was the better way, Holmes believed; and Charming was a Brahmin:

Parson Channing put a little oil on one linchpin, and slipped it out so softly, the first thing they knew about it was the wheel of that side was down. T'other fellow's at work now; but he makes more noise about it. When the linchpin comes out on his side, there'll be a jerk, I tell you! Some think it will spoil the old cart, and they pretend to say that there are valuable things in it which may get hurt. Hope not -hope not. But this is the great macadamizing place-always cracking up something. (Ibid., p. 19.)

Certainly not on the intellectual side could Holmes be set down as a conservative. He did not relish any such imputation and defended himself with vigor:

If to be a conservative is to let all the drains of thought choke up and keep the soul's windows down - to shut out the sun from the east and the wind from the west - to let the rats run free in the cellar, and the moths feed their fill in the chambers, and the spiders weave their lace before the mirrors, till the soul's typhus is bred out of our neglect, and we begin to snore in its coma or rave in its delirium - I, Sir, am a bonnet-rouge, a redcap of the barricades, my friends, rather than a conservative. (Ibid., p. 18.)

It was this spirit of rationalism that made him - at some risk of unpopularity - an unsparing critic of romantic equalitarianism. Here again is an echo of the older century. Neither the Jacksonian nor the transcendental version of the new gospel found favor in his eyes; both seemed to run counter to the open facts of history. As a realist he discovered justification for John Adams's doctrine of economic determinism: all society, he was convinced, tends to stratify in lines of wealth distribution, in America as well as in Europe, and no dogmas can prevent it. He went further and insisted that the possession of wealth makes possible comfort, ease, leisure, culture; that those lacking wealth are necessarily unfree and their lives in consequence are meaner and narrower. Much of his criticism of Yankee villagers and countrymen - and except Cooper, he was perhaps the most critical commentator on Yankee provincialisms of speech and manners - springs from the conviction that a niggardly economics had created a niggardly society. He desired more wealth to the end of more culture. He was too completely Brahmin to set material well-being as the ultimate goal of the competitive struggle; that seemed to him the object of State Street and of the plutocracy he frankly detested. In The Poet at the Breakfast Table he apologizes for calling one of his characters a capitalist, on the ground that "the word seems to be equivalent to highway robbery in the new gospel of Saint Petroleum." Wealth as a means to power he would have none of; but wealth as a means to leisure, and leisure as a means to cultivated living, he was fond of extolling. The machinery of Brahmin life must be well oiled, but the life is more than the machinery. Always he returned to the intellectual as the hallmark of every society that may be accounted excellent, and his instinctive dislike of the middle class was founded on its intellectual sterility. It lived opulently but meanly; its rich dinners wanted the spice of wit, its ostentatious display lacked the salt of manners. It was vulgar at heart, and Holmes hated vulgarity even more than he hated John Calvin's dogmas.

Unfortunately his Brahminism sealed pretty tightly certain windows of his mind that might better have been kept open. A radical in the field of theology where personal concern brought him to serious grappling with the problem, a tolerant rationalist in the realm of the intellect, he remained a cheerfully contented conservative in other fields. He was unconsciously insulated against the currents of social and political thought flowing all about him. Economic inequality he accepted rather too complacently. His daily life ran so easy and comfortable a course as never to prod him into questioning how other lives might be running. By instinct and training he was an aristocrat, and he was never at pains to conceal his preference for the well born and well mannered. He professed a philanthropic sympathy for the cause of the slave, but he shared the Beacon Street dislike of agitation-it was not well bred and it might bring down more things than he cared to have brought down. The most completely class-conscious of the Boston writers, he deprecated all proletarian appeals. They were not, in his opinion, "wholesome moral entertainment for the dangerous classes. Boys must not touch off their squibs and crackers too near the powder-magazine." The less said about the wrongs of labor, the better - at least publicly. Social strata being determined by economics, the agitator is little better than a firebrand.

You can't keep a dead level long, if you burn everything down flat to make it. Why, bless your soul, if all the cities of the world were reduced to ashes, you'd have a new set of millionaires in a couple of years or so, out of the trade in potash. In the meantime, what is the use of setting the man with the silver watch against the man with the gold watch, and the man without any against them both? . . . Here we are travelling through the desert together like the children of Israel. Some pick up more manna and catch more quails than others, and ought to help their hungry neighbors more than they do; . . . but we don't want the incendiary's pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us in the march to civilization, and we don't want a Moses who will smite the rock, not to bring out water for our thirst, but petroleum to burn us all up with. (The Poet at the Breakfast Table, pp. 5-6.)

In his attitude toward the present comfortable arrangement of society, Holmes was no rebel. He was not callous to the evils of society, but he was willing to take a longer time in the march towards civilization than more exigent souls wished; it was a pleasant march on the whole, and why quarrel over the difference in packs? If his attitude was not the indifferentism of the well-to-do, it was near kin to it. He reflected the negative qualities of Unitarianism, rather than the positive, the free mind rather than the tender conscience. His social bias is sufficiently revealed in the tributes of praise he bestowed so generously. Among those whom he delighted to honor, the names of Garrison, Phillips, Parker, Thoreau, Greeley, John Brown, do not appear; instead he offered his praises to Everett, Webster, Bryant, Whittier, Agassiz, Parkman, Wilkie Collins, the Grand Duke Alexis, and a host of lesser celebrities known to the Back Bay. His heroes were respectable souls rather than militant. As a critic his vision seems to have been blurred by certain astigmatisms, and he discovered heroic qualities more readily in the militant dead than in the militant living. He delighted in the Boston of '76, but it is reasonably certain that if he had lived then he would have walked the streets of that older Boston as a genial Tory, and would have suffered the fate of other gentlemen who found it desirable to withdraw with Gage's Redcoats-unless, indeed, his love of the place had held him despite his politics.

In his literary work Holmes was always the talker rather than the writer. The charm of the vivid and racy colloquial marks every page. A clever aphorism or telling pun is the objective of every paragraph, and it explodes with a brilliant shower of sparks. But like every talker his discursiveness is inveterate; he wanders far in pursuit of his point and sometimes returns empty-handed. He was always an amateur; life was too agreeable for him to take the trouble to become an artist. The essay was his most congenial form - his novels are to be taken no more seriously than his occasional verse. Elsie Fenner wraps up the familiar problem of moral determinism in pleasantly discursive chat of Yankee bumpkinism in contrast with Yankee Brahminism, and he returns his impeccable hero to Beacon Street, after his sojourn in the provinces, to reward him with the Brahmin rewards-a munificent practice, a charming wife, and an exalted social position. What richer reward could be desired by one who had tasted to the full the mellow flavor of that society? Staid, delightful, self-satisfied, righteous little Beacon Street! Last refuge and citadel of the old Brahmin respectability; basking in the afternoon sunshine of its culture, not realizing that its sun is already well past the meridian; in love with its own virtues and unaware that the morrow will see the invasion of the Huns and Vandals of plutocracy, to whose plethoric bank books Brahmin culture must eventually bow - who would not have liked it? It was something after all to have been its favorite wit, its ready oracle, its clever poet, who in praising his fellow Brahmins was well aware that he discreetly praised his own admirable qualities. Kindly, delightful, fortunate Dr. Holmes! chief citizen of the Hub of the Universe! He was born and lived with a silver spoon in his mouth, and if a grudging posterity inclines to rate him and his little world somewhat lower than he rated them, what difference can that make to him? Tolerant himself, we should perhaps emulate his example, and not insist too rudely that he is only a minor figure in American literature.



Cambridge Brahmin

Whatever the critics may eventually come to say about Lowell, he was certainly the ablest and most distinguished of the old Cambridge breed, in the days when the Brahmin caste was disintegrating and Brahmin ideals losing their hold on New England - a man of fine native abilities in whom Harvard culture did its best to strike fire and light and understanding to serve as a beacon to the rest of America. He was not of the Concord line of transcendental individualists, nor of the militant strain of reforming enthusiasts; but of the true Brahmin line of Josiah Quincy and Edward Everett and Oliver Wendell Holmes -men of sound culture who could serve God valiantly in the social station in which He had placed them, without wanting to pull down the old church to build a new. Like Charles Eliot Norton - clarum et venerabile nomen - he had no plans of a new building in his pocket, but was content to enlarge and embellish the old. He would serve culture rather than causes. His gifts were Brahmin gifts, his prejudices were Brahmin prejudices; and so in spite of a "certain sprightliness of brain" that tempted him to rebel at the aridity of the scholastic commons on which he fed, and in spite of certain youthful vagaries and incursions into indiscreet places, he remained at bottom a Harvard conservative, content with his birthright, hopeful that his ways were God's ways. This suffices to explain the extraordinary reputation of Lowell in Cambridge circles, and the difficulty with which it made headway elsewhere. Though he traveled much in his library - as Thoreau would say - his prejudices remained narrowly local. To the last he remained extraordinarily parochial.

Yet the culture he served so faithfully never fruited in wisdom. He was never quite certain of himself, of what he really believed. He was fond of standing off and studying himself quizzically, to learn what sort of person he was; yet he was swayed by so many impulses he was never quite sure what sort of legs were under him. He was hopelessly bewildered by his own vast disorder. His mind was as cluttered as a garret, filled with an endless miscellany of odds and ends. Life puzzled him, as it puzzles every serious mind; but he allowed himself to be too easily discouraged by his inveterate unwillingness to think. He never speculated widely or analyzed critically. Ideas, systems of thought, intellectual and social movements, he had no interest in; he was content to remain a bookish amateur in letters, loitering over old volumes for the pleasure of finding apt phrases and verbal curiosities. With all his reading, history remained a blank to him; and science he would have none of. "I hate it," he confessed late in life; "I hate it as a savage hates writing, because I fear it will hurt me somehow." A good many things hurt him in those later years, and it was characteristic of him to say, "I continue to shut my eyes resolutely in certain speculative directions." He defined culture as "intelligent purpose"; yet of such intelligent purpose his intellectual life revealed little. Naturally he did not relish the theological unsettlement that came with the advance of scientific inquiry. Leslie Stephen's rationalism troubled him, and after reading the former's English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, he wrote, "I am very much in the state of mind of the Bretons who revolted against the Revolutionary Government and wrote upon their banners, `Give us back our God!'" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 168.) Neither did he relish the economic unsettlement the industrial revolution was bringing to Cambridge and America, but he looked back longingly to the quiet days "before our individuality had been trampled out of us by the Irish mob." Standing -between the older America and the new, with the foundations disintegrating under his feet, he confused the disorder in his own mind with the disorder in the external world of society, and desperately sought to cling to his ancient hopes. A pathetic yearning for orderliness in an age that has grown heedless of it was natural enough in a mind that had come to expect little of life; but surely orderliness, like charity, should begin at home.

It was, perhaps, not altogether his fault. His impulses were liberal and his mind generous, but he was never strong enough to overcome the handicap of the Lowell ancestry and training. When he spoke of himself half whimsically as a natural Tory, he was putting his finger on the Brahmin strain. The sanctity of the Lowell blood is a commonplace in New England; but that it was Tory blood is less frequently remarked. His grandfather, John Lowell, to be sure, was visited by certain humanitarian compunctions, and in 1772 convinced himself that at Common Law slavery could not stand, and was eager to put it to the test in Massachusetts. But John Lowell was high in the councils of the Federalist party, and a judge, and it is a safe guess that his radicalism did not go deep. Certainly, the next generation was stalwartly conservative. The three brothers represented the three major professions of law, theology, and business, that constituted the New England hierarchy. His father, Charles Lowell, after traveling abroad, was settled as pastor of the West Church, Boston - Jonathan Mayhew's church-a post he held for fifty-six years. He was a stout Federalist, a good hater of Jefferson,2 a pleasant, cautious gentleman who refused to be drawn into the bitter Unitarian-Trinitarian controversy of the day-as unlike the militant Mayhew as a conventional soul could well be His uncle, John Lowell, was a capable lawyer-politician, one of the directing minds of the Federalist machine, earnestly engaged in defending Massachusetts against the wicked Republicans. Another uncle, Francis Cabot Lowell, was an enterprising capitalist, founder of the city of Lowell, whose multiplying spindles, it was hoped, would turn the wives and daughters of Yankee farmers, and the poverty-stricken Irish immigrants, into efficient revenue-producers for State Street securities.

From this pleasant background of Brahmin conservatisms, Lowell went forth into a world given over to momentous changes, contemptuous of all Brahmin standards, to find his way as he might. An original mind would have marked out its own path, as Emerson did; a conventional mind would have gone with the better sort, as Josiah Quincy did; but Lowell was neither Emerson nor Quincy. Sensitive to change, he was rarely self-reliant; generous in sympathies, he was timid in convictions. He was no Come-outer to stand alone against the world, but unconsciously he took color from his environment and was always glad to find a staff to lean on. It was fortunate for his peace of mind that he never realized how frequently he was no more than an echo of other minds; yet the confusions and contradictions that mark off the several periods of his life can be explained in no other way. From Brahminism he drifted to radicalism, and from radicalism back to a modified Brahminism; and these changes resulted from no native intellectual unfolding, but from certain dominant personalities who drew him aside from his natural orbit. He quitted college as a pleasant young Tory, who paused in his Commencement Poem to address some pointed remarks at Abner Kneeland - the last man imprisoned in Massachusetts for religious opinion - upon the wickedness of an atheism that denied the faith of Charles Lowell. But the ferment of the times was already working in him, and when he was nineteen he wrote with youthful fervor, "I am fast becoming ultra-democratic. . . . Liberty is now no longer a cant word in the mouths of knaves and fools" (Letters, Vol. I, p. 33). Within a year he had met Maria White, whose influence till her death in 1853 was the determining factor in his intellectual life. She was an ardent Abolitionist and reformer, and under her pleasant tutelage Lowell was indoctrinated in the current philosophy of radicalism. He spoke at Abolition meetings, and contributed to the Abolition press. More important, he conceived that he had come upon his true mission in letters. In an ode beginning "In the old days of awe and keen-eyed wonder," he put into verse his new creed, a prose statement of which he elaborated in a letter explaining his Prometheus in 1843, a year before his marriage to Miss White:

Although such great names as Goethe, Byron, and Shelley have all handled the subject in modern times, you will find that I have looked at it from a somewhat new point of view. I have made it radical, and I believe that no poet in this age can write much that is good unless he give himself up to this tendency. For radicalism has now for the first time taken a distinctive and acknowledged shape of its own. So much of its spirit as poets in former ages have attained (and from their purer organization they could not fail of some) was by instinct rather than by reason. It has never till now been seen to be one of the two great wings that upbear the universe. . . . The proof of poetry is, in my mind, that it reduces to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy which is floating in all men's minds, and so renders it portable and useful and ready to the hand. (Letters, Vol. I, p. 73.)

Six years later he asserted confidently, "I am the first poet who has endeavored to express the American Idea, and I shall be popular by and by." Yet within a few months he found the vein nearing exhaustion. In a survey of his course up to 1850 he remarked that he had served love and freedom hitherto, and he now proposed to serve beauty, adding the significant comment, "I find that Reform cannot take up the whole of me, and I am quite sure that eyes were given us to look about us sometimes, and not to be always looking forward. . . . I am tired of controversy" (ibid.,Vol. I, p. 173). Between these several confessions lies the bulk of Lowell's contribution to the "causes" of the times, and how adequately he served them is revealed in the successive poems that came from his pen.4 Their equal as a whole is not to be found in the work of other contemporary radicals. The better work is solidly vigorous, with competent iambs that often rise to the dignity of such lines as "Slowly the Bible of the race is writ." The eager rhetoric of The Present Crisis was the highwater mark of Abolition argument in verse; but its serviceableness for quotation cannot make it so good a poem as Prometheus with its muscular blank verse, or as I Glance behind the Curtain with its portrait of Cromwell, strong in his faith, ready for all needful iconoclasms.

I have no dread of what Is called for by the instinct of mankind; Nor think I that God's world will fall apart Because we tear a parchment more or less."

This is frank transcendental radicalism, yet the truer Lowell of those days of youthful enthusiasm is found in the Biglow Papers, first written with spontaneous gusto out of his hatred of the imperialism of the Mexican war, and later carefully embedded in the heavy machinery of the prose setting. The native clutter of Lowell's mind is there laid bare - the grotesque mixture of homely satire, moral aphorisms, Yankee linguistics, literary criticism - an unwieldy mass that he could neither simplify nor reduce to order. The machinery spoils the propaganda and weighs down the satire; yet the verse has survived because for once Lowell let himself go and hit such heads as he had a mind to.

Lowell saw fit to retain most of his radical verse in the definitive edition of his works, but his radical prose he disowned, and it was left for pious hands to gather together long after his death. It was perhaps as well for his reputation that the ambassador at the Court of St. James's should not be plagued by his youthful indiscretions. In those prose writings were combustible materials. He went with the Abolitionists in their brisk assaults on law, order, and the Constitution. Whatever revolution was stirring anywhere found him sympathetic. He was strong for the workingman's revolution of 1848 in France; it was social injustice that was to blame for mob violence, and the fetish of laissez faire was a sorry enough god to worship.

The great problem of the over-supply of labor is not to be settled by a decimation of the laboring class, whether by gunpower or starvation. . . . The giant Labor did not merely turn from one side to the other for an easier position. Rather he rose up, "Like blind Orion hungry for the morn." . . . They had learned by bitter experience that it was on the body of old King Log Laissez-faire that King Stork perched to devour them. Let-alone is good policy after you have once got your perfect system established to let alone. (Quoted in Scudder, James Russell Lowell, Vol. I, pp. 205-206.)

In common with the Abolitionists, Lowell appealed to the Declaration of Independence against the Constitution. He took delight in satirizing his Federalist forebears, who, he asserts, beginning to fear the light of freedom, ingeniously constructed a "Sacred Parasol" for the new Goddess of Liberty, "to prevent her from being tanned":

A stout machine of parchment was accordingly constructed, and, under the respectable name of a Constitution, was interposed wherever there seemed to be danger from the hostile incursions of light. Whenever this is spread, a dim twilight, more perplexing than absolute darkness, reigns everywhere beneath its shadow. . . . This contrivance of ours, though the work of our own hands, has acquired a superstitious potency in our eyes. (Ibid., Vol. I, p. 210.)

No wonder Lowell later disowned such apostasies, for after Maria White's death in 1853 came the dun professorial period of his life, when Harvard laid hands on him and came near to reducing him to its own ways. It revived the old Brahmin instincts that had lain dormant during the years of his Abolitionism, without reviving the old sanctions. Left without a cause, half ashamed of his youthful indiscretions yet ill content to drift, he turned bookman and for twenty-one years wandered with Norton and Longfellow and Child in the Sahara of medieval scholarship. It was not a happy time with him. There is plenty of evidence of his restlessness and dissatisfaction that occasionally prompted the wish to turn wholly scholar and keep his note-books in order; that prodded him to salvage the mass of his accumulation by turning his lecture-notes into literary essays; and that in other moods induced him to turn half savagely upon his dead enthusiasms and find solace in clever satire. His vigorous salvagings were scarcely worth the trouble. He had nothing important to say about Dante or Pope or Wordsworth, and he said it with a good deal of needless verbal exertion. The essay on Thoreau, written in 1865, was a different matter. Here he was brought face to face with a past which it still hurt him to remember; and the ill nature that colors his comment is sufficient testimony to the painfulness of his memories. Certainly he did not understand Thoreau, was incapable of understanding him; yet might not his dislike have been prodded by the consciousness that Thoreau had refused to make terms with Harvard culture as he had done? An intelligent reading of Thoreau must have been an unpleasant experience in Lowell's mood, keenly aware of certain backslidings of his own; and the essay is suggestive for the light it throws on Lowell, not on Thoreau.

To this period belong most of the essays on which rests Lowell's reputation as a critic of letters and politics. Bright as that reputation long was, it is beginning to show tarnish. Subjected to the scrutiny of eyes unblinded by the congenialities of the Cambridge coterie, it appears that Lowell's brilliancy covered over certain grave shortcomings that unfitted him for serious critical judgment.5 He had no standards other than ethical, only likes and dislikes; no interest in ideas, only a pottering concern for the text; no historical backgrounds, only isolated figures dwelling in a vacuum. He was puzzled over new schools and unfamiliar technic, and was at ease only in praising established reputations and confirming approved judgments. He scoffed at Taine instead of going to school to him, and made merry over Masson's Life of Milton; yet he was wholly incapable of dealing with men from whose fruitful minds came ideas that summoned throngs of followers. In almost the last year of his life he spent weeks rereading Rousseau, and was satisfied to dismiss him with the comment, "a monstrous liar, but always the first dupe of his own lie" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 424). Leaves of Grass he dismissed as affected, not original. He was shocked at Swinburne's "Adamite" heresy -"When a man begins to lust after the Muse instead of loving her, he may be sure that it is never the Muse that he embraces" (ibid., Vol. I, p. 377). He admired Howell's prose style and loved the man, but he could not bring himself to approve his literary and social theories.

During those sterile professorial years he was closing one door after another. Scarcely an important movement of contemporary thought awakened his interest. The hypothesis of evolution he rejected somewhat flabbily. "I think the evolutionists will have to make a fetish of their protoplasm before long," he said in 1879. "Such a mush seems to me a poor substitute for the Rock of Ages - by which I understand a certain set of higher instincts which mankind have found solid under their feet in all weathers" (ibid., Vol. II, p. 245). And as late as 1886 he wrote, "I am a conservative (warranted to wash) and keep on the safe side-with God as against evolution." Naturally so provocative a doctrine as economic determinism never showed its face in his study; Karl Marx was not one of his intellectual companions. Even the homebred knight-errant, Henry George, did not greatly interest him. "Why, who in the world buys such a book as that," he exclaimed of Progress and Poverty; and learning that a friend had subscribed for a thousand copies, he remarked, "He must be getting eccentric."6

The political principles that he discovered in the smoke of his professor's pipe were equally naive. He took himself seriously as a guide and mentor in matters political. He was fond of talking about the "noble science of politics"; yet he never took the trouble to ground himself in the elements of the subject. He had scarcely read the primer of political theory. Burke was probably the only political writer who ever made any impression on his mind. Of American constitutional history he was as ignorant as a politician, and when in Civil War days he began to scratch the field of politics, he only uncovered certain old Federalist prejudices that lay hidden under his later accumulations. The extreme parochialism of the Brahmin mind is revealed in Lowell's incapacity to understand the South. The comment on Sibley's Harvard Graduates -"I do not know when the provincialism of New England has been thrust upon me with so ineradicable a barb" - should be turned upon Lowell's dogmatic essays in American politics. He had not the slightest comprehension of Calhoun's doctrine of majorities; yet he dismissed it contemptuously, after attributing it to one of Calhoun's followers.7 He speaks of the "weak and wicked element" of states rights - which he supposes the South owed to "the unhappy ingenuity of Mr. Jefferson" - as an unhistorical repudiation of the principle of coercive sovereignty established by the fathers, quite overlooking the Hartford Convention. His treatment of Jefferson Davis and Andrew Johnson is marked by the dogmatisms of one who is defending God's will against the devil's sophistries. He will have no other interpretation of history than an ethical interpretation, in which good and evil are eternally at combat; and he closes his volume of political essays with a comment that embodies for him the sum of all political wisdom:

We have only to be unswervingly faithful to what is the true America of our hope and belief, and whatever is American will rise from one end of the country to the other instinctively to our side, with more than ample means of present succour and of final triumph. It is only by being loyal and helpful to Truth that men learn at last how loyal and helpful she can be to them. (Ibid., Vol. V, p. 326.)

Into the stagnant atmosphere of the Elmwood study came on a happy day in the middle sixties the vibrant personality of Edwin Lawrence Godkin, and under the stimulus of his crisp thinking there began for Lowell what may perhaps be reckoned an intellectual renaissance. Godkin was a moderate English liberal, a man of complete self-assurance, whose tart comment on politics and economics was pointed by a conviction of the finality of his own conclusions. Under such teaching Lowell made rapid progress in the new school of criticism fathered by The Nation. The delight with which he read Godkin's comment and the eager faith with which he greeted his ideas suggest that his own ethical interpretation of politics was giving way under the strain of post-war experience. From Godkin he got some casual instruction in laissez faire, and certain of its teachings snuggled down comfortably in his mind beside the principles of coercive sovereignty and a centralizing state, without awakening any suspicion of their incompatibility of temperament. He never went over wholly to laissez faire; he was too strongly Brahmin Federalist for that; but his leanings often carried him into the English camp. It was a tonic to his native conservatism that was troubled about the new theories of collectivism, and it awakened strong doubts about the experiment in democracy. The reaction against the radicalism of his Abolition days became sharp and final. "We have got to work back from a democracy to our original institution as a republic again," he wrote Leslie Stephen in 1879 (Letters, Vol. II, p. 161); and in 1888 he asserted that the republic would endure only "so long as the ideas of the men who founded it continue dominant" (The Independent in Politics, Vol. VI, p. 207). He warned Thomas Hughes against the extension of suffrage in England,8 and he was more and more inclined to think that democracy meant a slough of mediocrity underlain with the mud of corruption-that it might prove to be "a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 159).

From the vigorous movements of protest of the seventies and eighties, the agrarian uprising of the Middle Border and the proletarian organization in the industrial centers, he drew added confirmation of his fears. In his attitude towards both he was little more than an echo of Godkin, who was laying about him briskly, hitting both farmer and workingman with fine impartiality. He shared the latter's contempt for all agrarian programs, without quite understanding them. He knew little of America. The continent was scarcely more than a hinterland to Cambridge, a hinterland that he explored with some bewilderment on a trip that carried him as far as Cincinnati. Equally ignorant of economics and of the Middle Border, he had no basis for any opinion; a juster man would have put the agrarian question aside as beyond his competency; at least he would have been careful to clear his mind of prejudice. But Lowell was as much a victim of capitalistic prejudice as Thomas Bailey Aldrich and other Boston pseudo-intellectuals. The old Brahminism was close to the surface in those later years, and a scratch would reveal it. In the matter of the "Haymarket Riot" he wrote Howells that "he thought those Chicago ruffians well hanged" - a comment that recalls the Abner Kneeland episode of fifty years before. Physically Lowell was in close proximity to the labor problem, but intellectually he was worlds removed. He looked upon the labor unions with heavy misgivings. He frankly feared the power of the proletariat and was bitter in denunciation of social legislation. In 1869 he wrote Godkin,

"Pray give Henry Wilson a broadside for dipping his flag to that piratical craft of the eight-hour men. . . . I have a thorough contempt for a man who pretends to believe that eight is equal to ten" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 31). And somewhat later he wrote Norton: I sometimes feel a little blue over the outlook here, with our pennypaper universal education and our workingmen's parties, with their tremendous lever of suffrage, decrying brains. . . . But the more I learn, the more am I impressed with the wonderful system of checks and balances which history reveals (our Constitution is a baby-house to it!) and the more my confidence in the general commonsense and honest intention of mankind increases. . . . I take great comfort in God. I think He is considerably amused with us sometimes, but that He likes us, on the whole, and would not let us get at the match-box so carelessly, as He does, unless He knew that the frame of His Universe was fire-proof. How many times have I not seen the fire-engines of Church and State clanging and lumbering along to put out-a false alarm! And when the heavens are cloudy what a glare can be cast by a burning shanty! (Ibid., Vol. II, p. 51.)

The ways of the Gilded Age were a rude shock to Lowell's ill-grounded idealism. The crude post-war exploitation and the political corruption that marked the buccaneer stage of the rising plutocracy filled him with anxiety. As an honest man he was angered by the common scoundrelism of the politicians and the press and troubled at the apathy of the public, but his dislike for economics did him a grave disservice. In seeking out the guilty he went wide of the mark. To trace the source of the virus that was poisoning the public life to an exploiting economics, would have brought him close home. He chose to think it was spread rather by western agrarians and city ringsters, than by respectable New Englanders; yet after passing through the Crédit Mobilier scandal he was visited by unpleasant suspicions. "I suspect," he wrote after his return from the Cincinnati Convention in 1876, "that few of our Boston men who have had to do with Western railways have been more scrupulous [than the western Grangers.] I rather think they set the example of tempting legislators with the hope of questionable gains" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 170). With the open facts of a Congressional investigation before him, Lowell got no deeper than that. Yet his indignation must find outlet and he contributed two poems to The Nation - "The World's Fair, 1876," and "Tempora Mutantur" - in one of which he wrote:

Show 'em your Civil Service, and explain How all men's loss is everybody's gain; . . . Show your short cut to cure financial ills By making paper-collars current bills; Show your new bleaching-process, cheap and brief, To wit: a jury chosen by the thief; Show your State legislatures; show your Rings; And challenge Europe to produce such things As high officials sitting half in sight To share the plunder and to fix things right; If that don't fetch her, why, you only need Your latest style in Martyrs-Tweed: She'll find it hard to hide her spiteful tears At such advance in one poor hundred years. (Letters, Vol. II, p. 155.)

This is Godkin translated into the Lowell vernacular, and what issued from his indignation was Godkin also - an apostolic ardor for civil service reform. He had learned at least, that democracy had not been achieved in America; that, indeed, such spontaneous liberalism as had been bred by free land was in danger of being destroyed by evils that issued from the loins of this same heedless frontier order.9 In 1876 he wrote, "Let us all work together (and the task will need us all) to make Democracy possible. It certainly is no invention to go of itself any more than the perpetual motion" (Letters, Vol. II, p. 159). Yet in spite of his zeal, one may be permitted to doubt that Lowell really desired any other than a Brahmin democracy. In those later years his conception of an ideal society was unconsciously colored by memories of Cambridge fifty years before - a simple, patriarchal world, amenable to the rule of the better sort. In such a world democracy seemed possible; but in the rising proletarian-plutocratic order, what reasonable hope was there?

From his growing perplexities Lowell found a happy relief in his mission abroad. The experience was a godsend to a mind that was growing torpid. In 1869 he had written, "I fancy if I were suddenly snatched away to London, my brain would prickle all over, as a foot that has been asleep when the blood starts in it again. Books are good dry forage; we can keep alive on them; but, after all, men are the only fresh pasture" (ibid., Vol. II, p. 24). London, in this mellow autumn of his life, ripened Lowell. He slipped into the congenial environment as easily as Irving had done a generation before, and found English society as delightful. He loved England with unaffected heartiness, and under the stimulating experience he expanded into a kindly English Liberal. The extreme Liberals - men like Mill and Arnold and John Morley - he found less sympathetic; and radical thinkers like William Morris he seems not to have known of. But English Liberalism of the Gladstone type was own cousin to Cambridge Brahminism; it united dignity and conscience; it seemed to him the ideal type of government - the rule of God - fearing gentlemen who strove to be faithful to their trusteeship, and who ruled because they were best fitted to rule. Into such a world no other American of the times could have entered more appreciatively than Lowell. If congeniality to the host be a prime requisite in an ambassador, President Hayes made no mistake in sending him to the Court of St. James's. He was a distinguished representative of Brahmin culture; but whether he was a representative of the solid realities of America is not so certain.

1 See A Rhymed Lesson.
2 See Letters, Vol. I, p. 82.
3 See Hale, James Russell Lowell and His Friends, p. 10.
4 The more significant titles are: Prometheus and A Glance behind the Curtain, 1843; Columbus and The Present Crisis, 1844; On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves near Washington, 1845; Biglow Papers, begun in 1846; The Pioneer, 1847; Bibliolatres, 1849; Anti-Apis, 1851.
5 See C. Hartley Grattan, "Lowell," in The American Mercury, Vol. II, pp. 63-69.
6 Five years later he was more sympathetic, but hopelessly confused. See Democracy, Vol. VI, p. 35.
7 See "The Rebellion," in Prose Works, Vol. V, p. 134.
8 See Letters, Vol. II, p. 175.
9 See The Independent in Politics, Vol. VI, pp


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