Tuesday, September 4, 2007
James Russell Lowell (b. 22 February 1819, Cambridge, Massachusetts – d. 12 August 1891, Cambridge, Massachusetts) was an American Romantic poet, critic, satirist, writer, diplomat, and abolitionist.
Lowell's mother was in poor mental health, and his wife was physically frail. These troubles combined with a lack of money conspired to make Lowell almost a recluse, but he continued to produce writings which show the interest he took in affairs. He contributed poems to the daily press, prompted by the slavery question; early in 1846, he was a correspondent of the London Daily News, and in the spring of 1848 he formed a connection with the National Anti-Slavery Standard of New York, agreeing to contribute weekly either a poem or a prose article. The prose articles form a series of incisive, witty and sometimes prophetic diatribes.
It was a period of great mental activity, and four books which stand as witnesses to the Lowell of 1848, namely, the second series of Poems, containing among others Columbus, An Indian Summer Reverie, To the Dandelion, The Changeling, A Fable for Critics, in which, after the manner of Leigh Hunt's The Feast of the Poets, he characterizes in witty verse and with good-natured satire American contemporary writers, and in which, the publication being anonymous, he included himself; The Vision of Sir Launfal, a romantic story suggested by the Arthurian legends — one of his most popular poems; and finally The Biglow Papers.
Lowell had already acquired a reputation, but this satire brought him wider fame. The book was not premeditated; a single poem, inspired by the recruiting for the abhorred Mexican-American War, couched in rustic phrase and sent to the Boston Courier, made him a leader of the little army of Anti-Slavery reformers. Lowell discovered what he had done at the same time that the public did, and he followed the poem with eight others, either in the Courier or the Anti-Slavery Standard.
He developed four well-defined characters in the process: a country farmer, Ezekiel Biglow, and his son Hosea; the Rev. Homer Wilbur, a shrewd old-fashioned country minister; and Birdofredum Sawin, a Northern renegade who enters the army, together with one or two subordinate characters; and his stinging satire and sly humor are so set forth in the vernacular of New England as to give at once a historic dignity to this form of speech (Later he wrote an elaborate paper to show the survival in New England of the English of the early 17th century). He embroidered his verse with an entertaining apparatus of notes and mock criticism; even his index was spiced with wit. The book was a caustic arraignment of the course taken in connexion with the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War.
The death of Lowell's mother, and the fragility of his wife's health, led Lowell, his wife, their daughter Mabel and their infant son Walter, to go to Europe in 1851, and they went direct to Italy. Walter died suddenly in Rome, and they received news of the illness of Lowell's father. They returned in November 1852, and Lowell published some recollections of his journey in the magazines, collecting the sketches later in a prose volume, Fireside Travels. He took part in the editing of an American edition of the British Poets, but the state of his wife's health preoccupied him, and only her death (27 October 1853) released him from the strain of anxiety, the grief accompanied by a readjustment of his nature and a new intellectual activity.
At the invitation of his cousin, he delivered a course of lectures on English poets at the Lowell Institute in Boston in the winter of 1855. This first formal appearance as a critic and historian of literature at once gave him a new standing in the community, and he was elected to the Smith Professorship of Modern Languages in Harvard College, made vacant by the retirement of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Lowell accepted the appointment, with the proviso that he should have a year of study abroad. He spent it mainly in Germany, visiting Italy, and increasing his acquaintance with the French, German, Italian and Spanish languages.
He returned to America in the summer of 1856, and began his college duties, retaining his position for twenty years. As a teacher he proved a quickener of thought amongst students, rather than a close instructor. His power lay in the interpretation of literature rather than in linguistic study, and his influence over his pupils was exercised by his own fireside as well as in the relation, always friendly and familiar, which he held to them in the classroom. In 1856 he married Frances Dunlap, who was in charge of his daughter Mabel.
The war years
In 1877 Lowell, who had mingled so little in party politics that the sole public office he had held was the nominal one of elector in the Presidential election of 1876, was appointed by President Hayes as the minister to the court of Spain. He had a good knowledge of Spanish language and literature, and his long-continued studies in history and his quick judgment enabled him speedily to adjust himself to these new relations. Some of his despatches to the home government were published in a posthumous volume Impressions of Spain.
In 1880 he was transferred to London as American minister, and remained there until the close of President Arthur's administration in the spring of 1885. As a man of letters he was already well known in England, and he was in much demand as an orator on public occasions, especially of a literary nature; but he also proved himself a sagacious publicist, and made himself a wise interpreter of each country to the other.
Shortly after his retirement from public life he published Democracy and Other Addresses, all of which had been delivered in England. The title address was an epigrammatic confession of political faith as hopeful as it was wise and keen. The close of his stay in England was saddened by the death of his second wife in 1885. After his return to America he made several visits to England.
His public life had made him more of a figure in the world; he was decorated with the highest honors Harvard could pay officially, and with highest honors from Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Bologna. He issued another collection of his poems, Heartsease and Rue, in 1888, and occupied himself with revising and rearranging his works, which were published in ten volumes in 1890.
The last months of his life were attended by illness, and he died at Elmwood on the 12 August 1891. After his death his literary executor, Norton, published a brief collection of his poems, and two volumes of added prose, besides editing his letters.
The Union Grammar School in San Francisco was renamed Lowell High School in 1894 in his honor. The James Russell Lowell Elementary School in Watertown, MA, Lowell Elementary School in Brainerd, MN, and Lowell Elementary School in Philadelphia, PA were named also in his honor.
Posted by so2374 at 9:03 AM