James Russell Lowell

Lowell's achievements are impressive from many points of view. Though his lyrical verse was overrated in his own time, his merits as a critic, a satirist, an essayist, an educator, a diplomat, a journalist, and a letter writer continue to be acknowledged by discriminating and knowledgeable critics. The most versatile of the New Englanders at mid-century, Lowell, both in his life and his work, is a vital force in the history of American literature and thought during the nineteenth century. Hailed by such dissimilar groups as pacifists and New Humanists, Lowell's final importance has been hard to measure but impossible to ignore. His range and penetration in literary criticism were unequalled in nineteenth century America. He did more than anyone before Mark Twain in elevating the vernacular to a medium of serious artistic expression, and The Biglow Papers ranks among the first of political satires in American literature. His public odes expressed a mind and an outlook that drew the praise of Henry Adams, William James, and William Dean Howells. His personal charm made Lowell both an effective diplomat during the period of America's emergence as a world power and one of his country's finest letter writers.

Although familiar with the life and literature of the great world, Lowell remained, from first to last, a native of Cambridge in Massachusetts. The New England legacy he inherited there was rich by American standards, and it accounts significantly for the vast difference which separates Lowell from his exact contemporaries, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. Ministers, judges, business and political leaders were his ancestry, and being a Lowell was both a privilege and a responsibility. Lowell's task in his creative life was in working out solutions to the problem not only of self, but also of place and name.

Educated in Cambridge and Boston, Lowell graduated from Harvard College in 1838. Two years later he was awarded the bachelor of laws degree by Harvard's Law School, but his energies were already dedicated to the profession of letters, and he soon abandoned a legal career. He wanted to be a poet.

Throughout his life Lowell attempted to master a poetic voice, but his efforts were largely unsuccessful, especially in the lyrical mode. The deficiencies which characterized his work in his first volume, A Year's Life (1841), are never entirely absent from his more mature performances: technical infelicities and irregularities, didacticism, obscurity, and excessive literosity. Emerson's complaint that Lowell in one of his poems had had to pump too hard describes well the forced quality in most of his poetry. Lowell was probably as much aware of his limitations as were his critics, and he frequently expressed to friends his misgivings. His reference to the volume of poems, Under the Willows (1869), as "Under the Billows or dredgings from the Atlantic" is not only a masterful pun (many of the poems had first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly) but very close to the truth.

But as a public poet--either in his Pindaric odes or in his satiric verse--Lowell has no equal in American literature. Drawn into the anti-slavery movement in the early 1840s, Lowell wrote during that decade scores of articles and poems in defense of abolition and other reform causes. His shrewdness and wit found their natural expression in satire, and while his times greatly praised such poems as "The Present Crisis" (1845) and "On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves near Washington" (1845), it has been The Biglow Papers (1848) that has endured. The book purports to be the collected verses of Hosea Biglow, a Yankee farmer who is vehemently opposed to the Mexican War, and the prose commentaries of the Reverend Homer Wilbur, the quintessence of what Oliver Wendell Holmes would later call the Brahmin caste of New England. Both for its satirical portraiture and its sustained irony, The Biglow Papers ranks among the masterpieces of American literature.

Though Lowell never abandoned the cause of reform, he did withdraw from active participation, especially after the death of his first wife in 1853. In 1855 he succeeded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as professor of modern languages at Harvard, and during the next two decades Lowell produced his finest critical work. While his literary criticism lacks the theoretical or philosophical bent which characterizes the work of his European contemporaries, Matthew Arnold and Hippolyte Taine, it confronts the literary text with unusual success, perhaps because Lowell's approach was largely free of prior purpose. His best essays--"Dryden" (1868), "Shakespeare Once More" (1868), "Chaucer" (1870), "Dante" (1872), "Spenser" (1875), and "Gray" (1886)--are distinguished by their common sense, their vigor of expression, their extensive knowledge, their certainty of taste, and a humorous outlook that will not be overawed by the work of man. While Lowell wrote only occasional pieces on American literature, his editorship of the Atlantic Monthly (founded in 1857) during its formative years contributed much to the growing realities of an American literature. Though Lowell was not sympathetic to the romantic "egotism" of Thoreau (when Lowell deleted without permission a sentence in one of Thoreau's essays that was printed in the Atlantic , Thoreau, in a frenzied outburst, withdrew his support from the new venture) or the poetic experimentations of Whitman, few other writers of significance at the time failed to find their place in the magazine.

Following the Civil War, Lowell lived increasingly in the public eye. In "The Cathedral" (1870), "Agassiz" (1874), and the famed "Commemoration Ode" (1865), there spoke nobly and effectively an American mind that should be considered with Whitman of Democratic Vistas and "Respondez!" and, a little later, Henry Adams of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education. It was altogether natural in the pattern of nineteenth-century American life that Lowell should spend his last years as a representative of his government and culture abroad, first as United States minister to the Spanish court (1877-1880), and afterwards to the Court of St. James in England (1880-1885). Even after his official duties ended, Lowell continued to spend much of his time abroad, either in London or at Whitby in rural Yorkshire, whose simplicity reminded him of the lost American world of his youth. It was during these "diplomatic" years that Lowell made his two finest utterances on the role of the individual in the life of the community, a role he had learned by experience and success: "Democracy" (1884) and "The Place of the Independent in Politics" (1888). This was the Lowell that Henry James knew and recalled in his memorial of Lowell: "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."

Lowell's reputation at the time of his death in 1891 was, to use William C. Brownell's term, a superstition. His fame as a man of letters was international, but he was not in any respect a popular writer. Except for a few school-room pieces like "The Vision of Sir Launfal," Lowell's poetry was considered too difficult by most readers; his literary essays, though they enjoyed a larger audience than such do today, nevertheless appealed to a relatively small class of readers; and his early reform writings meant little to a people notorious for their lack of an historical consciousness. His political addresses were widely reported in the press, often quoted at great length in leading newspapers, but compared to such figures as Carl Schurz or even E. L. Godkin, Lowell can hardly be said to have been a popular political writer. It is safe to say that during the last decade of the nineteenth century, readers read more about Lowell than by him.

Increasingly since, readers have read little in either category. Lowell's reputation was so much a matter of received opinion that the attack on it made during the early decades of the twentieth century met with little resistance. Unlike Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Lowell has had few advocates, and since World War II, only a handful of significant items have been published about him and his work.

Lowell's decline in the literary market place is both an index to changing literary tastes and values, and the result of critical conflicts and misfortunes. His merits as a writer were not those valued by the New Critics, though, ironically, it was in Lowell that academic criticism had its first significant manifestation in America. His biography has been another battleground for the continuing war between the North and the South, with Horace E. Scudder, Ferris Greenslet, and others praising him largely in terms of New England culture, and Richmond Croom Beatty and Leon Howard damning him on the same grounds. More recently, Martin Duberman, first attracted to Lowell because of Lowell's abolitionist activities, afterwards was disenchanted by Lowell's moderation and eventual suspicion of organized reform movements. While those associated with New Humanism such as Norman Foerster and Harry Hayden Clark rightly viewed Lowell as a precursor to their intellectual outlook, their opponents attacked Lowell, labelling him "Victorian," "genteel," "conservative," and "academic," the same terms they applied to the New Humanists. Finally, the cosmopolitan point of view which characterized Lowell's later life and much of his best work found few admirers during the "national period" of American literary criticism of the 1930s and the 1940s, though Walter Blair, Jennette Tandy, and H. L. Mencken pointed out that Lowell in The Biglow Papers contributed greatly to "native" American literature.

The critical silence of the present time should not be taken as an indication that Lowell has been or will be forgotten. Very appropriately did Robert E. Rees conclude his useful survey of writings about Lowell: "No one as richly versatile and influential as Lowell will forever remain unattractive or unrewarding to scholars."