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James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell

The versatility of American poet, editor, and diplomat James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) made him an influential figure in 19th-century America.

James Russell Lowell was born in Cambridge, Mass., on Feb. 22, 1819, of a well-established New England family. Following family tradition, he attended Harvard, graduating in 1838 and taking a law degree there in 1840. Soon after the publication of his first volume of poems, A Year's Life (1841), he gave up law to devote himself to literature.

Encouraged by the success of his second volume, Poems (1844), Lowell married Maria White, a poet and abolitionist whose zeal for attacking social injustices Lowell soon absorbed. For a year he was an editorial writer for the abolitionist journal the Pennsylvania Freeman.

Lowell's reputation as a social critic was soundly established with the publication of the Biglow Papers (first series, 1848). Speaking in dialect through the homespun Yankee character Hosea Biglow, Lowell attacked the war with Mexico as an attempt to extend slave territory. He revived Biglow in 1862 in support of the Union cause against the Confederacy (second series, 1867). The year 1848 also saw the publication of The Vision of Sir Launfal, Poems: Second Series, and A Fable for Critics, humorous (and often barbed) verse which offered Lowell's estimation of a number of contemporary writers—himself included.

A trip abroad in 1851-1852 was followed by the death of Lowell's wife. He married Frances Dunlap in 1857. In 1855 Lowell began his career as a teacher by succeeding Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as professor of modern languages at Harvard, a position he held with distinction until 1876, when he retired. During this period he also served as editor of the newly founded Atlantic Monthly (1857-1861) and the North American Review (1864-1872), wrote books, and took an active interest in politics. In the final phase of his career Lowell served ably as ambassador to Spain (1877-1880) and England (1880-1885).

In addition to the Biglow Papers and A Fable for Critics, Lowell's best-known works include the Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration (1865), The Cathedral (1870), and the collections of essays Fireside Travels (1864), Among My Books (first series, 1870; second series, 1876), My Study Windows (1871), and Democracy and Other Addresses (1887). He died in Cambridge on Aug. 12, 1891.

Further Reading

Lowell's Complete Writings, edited by Charles Eliot Norton (16 vols., 1904), includes a valuable early biography by Horace E. Scudder. The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell, edited by Scudder (1897), is the best one-volume edition. Martin Duberman's biography James Russell Lowell (1966) is excellent, as is Leon Howard, Victorian Knight-Errant: A Study of the Early Literary Career of James Russell Lowell (1952). See also Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell and His Friends (1899), and Richmond Croom Beatty, James Russell Lowell (1942).

Additional Sources

Hale, Edward Everett, James Russell Lowell and his friends, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Heymann, C. David (Clemens David), American aristocracy: the lives and times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1980.

Hudson, William Henry, Lowell & his poetry, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Scudder, Horace Elisha, James Russell Lowell; a biography, New York, AMS Press, 1974. □

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Lowell, James Russell

James Russell Lowell, 1819–91, American poet, critic, and editor, b. Cambridge, Mass. He was influential in revitalizing the intellectual life of New England in the mid-19th cent. Educated at Harvard (B.A., 1838; LL.B., 1840), he abandoned law for literature. In 1843 he started a literary magazine, the Pioneer, which failed after two issues. The next year Lowell married Maria White, an ardent abolitionist and liberal, who encouraged him in his work. Lowell's Poems (1844, 1846), A Fable for Critics (1848), The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), and The Bigelow Papers (1848; 2d series, 1867) brought him considerable notice as a poet and critic. The best remembered of these are The Bigelow Papers, political and social lampoons written in Yankee dialect, which established his reputation as a satirist and a wit. The first of these two series of verses expressed opposition to the Mexican War, and the second supported the cause of the North in the Civil War. In 1855, Lowell became professor of modern languages at Harvard, a position he held until 1876. In addition to teaching, he served as first editor (1857–61) of the Atlantic Monthly and later (1864–72) of the North American Review. In his later writings he turned to scholarship and criticism. Collections of his essays and literary studies appeared as Fireside Travels (1864), Among My Books (1870; 2d series, 1876), and My Study Windows (1871). In 1877 he was appointed minister to London, where he remained until 1885. While abroad Lowell did much to increase the respect of foreigners for American letters and American institutions; his speeches in England, published as Democracy and Other Addresses (1887), are among his best work. Lowell's letters (ed. by C. E. Norton, 2 vol., 1893) and New Letters (ed. by M. A. De Wolfe Howe, 1932) remain valuable for their shrewd and lively comments on public affairs and the literary activities of his generation.

See his collected works (12 vol., 1890–92); biographies by H. E. Scudder (2 vol., 1901, repr. 1969) and M. B. Duberman (1966); studies by L. Howard (1952, repr. 1971) and E. C. Wagenknecht (1971).

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"Lowell, James Russell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Lowell, James Russell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lowell-james-russell