Last reviewed: June 2018
American poet, satirist, critic, and diplomat.
February 22, 1819
August 12, 1891
James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819. A life-long leader of the Cambridge group of nineteenth century literary New Englanders, he managed to crowd a number of careers into his seventy-two years of life. He was a poet, a radical political writer, a conservative political writer, a satirist, an editor, a critic, a diplomat, and a teacher. In all these efforts he won the praise of his contemporaries. Today his reputation as poet and as critic has considerably diminished, indicating perhaps that much of the greatness attributed to him during his lifetime was attributable to the force of his personal qualities as a speaker and public figure and to his urbanity and wit. Even though modern re-evaluation has diminished his stature as an artist, he is still one of the most active and most versatile figures in American literature. James Russell Lowell.
James Russell Lowell.
This versatility was demonstrated as early as his college days. As an upper-class New Englander, Lowell naturally attended Harvard University, and there he read widely but studied indifferently. He began his career as a poet with contributions to the college magazine, Harvardiana, which he edited during his final year. He was elected class poet but was unable to deliver the class poem for the graduation exercises.
Lowell graduated from Harvard in 1838 and devoted the next two years to the study of law. Although he received his law degree in 1840 and set up practice for a time, his primary interest was in literature, and to that he soon completely turned, publishing his first volume of poetry, A Year’s Life, in 1841 and making his first professional venture as an editor with the founding of the short-lived Pioneer in 1843.
It was in this period following his graduation from law school that Lowell's political and social radicalism came to the fore. In 1844 he married Maria White, and it has been suggested that his stands as an extreme abolitionist with Transcendental leanings were influenced more by her strong beliefs than by his own natural inclinations. The fact that, after her death in 1853, Lowell retreated to more and more conservative positions certainly lends weight to the validity of the suggestion. However much his wife influenced Lowell in these matters, the first few years of their marriage were by far the most poetically productive of his life. Of these years, 1848 was undoubtedly the greatest, for in that year he published the three works on which his diminished reputation now rests: The Vision of Sir Launfal, The Biglow Papers, and A Fable for Critics.
This period marked the height of Lowell’s career as a poet, for his production decreased as his critical and academic interests grew. He wielded his satirical pen once again during the Civil War with a second series of Biglow Papers, but these did not have the wit or the spontaneity of the originals.
The decline of his work as a poet did not mean inactivity but rather an increase of his other work. In 1855 he gave the Lowell lectures at Harvard and then succeeded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow there as Smith Professor of Modern Languages, becoming head of the Department of French, Spanish, and Belles-Lettres in 1856. He became the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly in 1857, held that post for two years, and then resigned to become editor of the North American Review. During this period he also found time to travel extensively in Europe and to marry Frances Dunlap, his daughter’s governess, three years after the death of his first wife.
Following the Civil War and his brief resurgence as a poet, he resigned as editor of the North American Review and turned his attention to problems of government and politics. A thorough conservative by that time, he espoused the Republican cause and was rewarded for his party services with the ambassadorship to England in 1880. He remained at the Court of St. James until 1885, when he was recalled by President Grover Cleveland. Lowell’s final years were spent in lecturing and in the writing of literary and social criticism, though one last volume of poetry, Heartsease and Rue, appeared in 1888, the same year as the publication of his Political Essays. Three years later, he died at Elmwood, the house of his birth.