Authors: James Russell Lowell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet, satirist, critic, and diplomat.

February 22, 1819

Cambridge, Massachusetts

August 12, 1891

Cambridge, Massachusetts


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.

By John Angel James Wilcox, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Author Works Poetry: A Year’s Life, 1841 Poems, 1844 Poems: Second Series, 1848 A Fable for Critics, 1848 The Biglow Papers, 1848 The Vision of Sir Launfal, 1848 Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865, 1865 The Biglow Papers: Second Series, 1867 Under the Willows, and Other Poems, 1869 The Cathedral, 1870 Three Memorial Poems, 1877 Early Poems, 1887 Heartsease and Rue, 1888 Last Poems of James Russell Lowell, 1895 The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, 1896 The Uncollected Poetry of James Russell Lowell, 1950 Nonfiction: Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, 1845 Fireside Travels, 1865 Among My Books, 1870 My Study Windows, 1871 Among My Books: Second Series, 1876 Democracy, and Other Addresses, 1887 Political Essays, 1888 The English Poets: Lessing, Rousseau, 1888 Latest Literary Essays and Addresses, 1891 The Old English Dramatists, 1892 Letters of James Russell Lowell, 1894 (Charles Eliot Norton, editor) Early Prose Writings of James Russell Lowell, 1902 The Anti-Slavery Papers of James Russell Lowell, 1902 Miscellaneous: The Complete Writings of James Russell Lowell, 1904 (16 volumes) Bibliography Beatty, Richmond Croom. James Russell Lowell. 1942. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1969. Beatty’s study is based on a thorough examination of Lowell’s manuscripts and heavily criticizes the poet’s political judgments at times. Includes bibliographical references. Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. An analysis of the use of rhetoric by several authors, including Lowell. Broaddus delves into the creation of high culture, character, and war. Includes bibliographical references and index. Duberman, Martin B. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. This well-researched biography is based mainly on manuscript materials and refers to the poetry and criticism of Lowell throughout. It provides a historian’s evaluation of Lowell’s political writings and activities. Includes thorough notes, bibliographies, and index. Hudson, William Henry. Lowell and His Poetry. 1914. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1972. Focuses on the poetry, not the life. In the course of Hudson’s discussion, he quotes the full text of nine poems, which are listed in the beginning of the book. This brief study includes "The Changeling," "The First Snowfall," "After the Burial," and Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865. McGlinchee, Claire. James Russell Lowell. New York: Twayne, 1967. The first chapter looks at Lowell in the context of nineteenth century American literature, and the second and third chapters offer a chronological account of Lowell’s life through 1860. The following six chapters are devoted to his early poems, his criticism, details on his careers as professor, diplomat, and editor, his political verse (The Biglow Papers), and his later poetry (The Cathedral and the odes). Contains notes, annotated bibliography, and index. Wagenknecht, Edward. James Russell Lowell: Portrait of a Many-Sided Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. This book supplements Martin B. Duberman’s more definitive biography by providing a less formal character portrait. Wagenknecht’s facts are, however, authentic. Discussions of the poetic influences on Lowell and his approach to poetry make up two chapters, "Storing the Well" and "The Creative Life." Includes notes, selective bibliography, and index.

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