James Russell Lowell the American Writer

James Russell Lowell was born, in New England, USA on February 22, 1819.

He is described as “a poet, essayist, publicist, humorist, scholar and diplomatist” (Cyclopaedia of English Literature, Volume 3, page 799). DP notes: None of the books consulted tell me whether he professed to be a Christian – or not!

His father was a Unitarian clergyman in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and young James received a thorough education in Cambridge and Boston, graduating from Harvard College in 1838. But during his last year a spurned love led him to drastic action. “There was no measure to Lowell’s bitterness and rage. We have his miserable confession that he put a loaded pistol to his head but was too cowardly to fire.” (ibid, page 800). Later he married Maria White, and after her death nine years later (in 1853) he remarried.

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Two years after graduating from Harvard he was awarded the Bachelor of Laws degree by Harvard’s Law School. With a keen interest in literary pursuits he abandoned his legal career and sought to be a poet.

Lowell is associated with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, being in that group of authors sometimes called the Fireside Poets or the Schoolroom Poets. These poets displayed a conservative approach to verse and strong moral values.

His attempts at poetry show that, while quite capable, he was less naturally talented than he may have wished. His works are accused of being at times ‘forced’, in his efforts to express poetic qualities. Despite that criticism he succeeded as a poetic voice to the people of America. His sentiments at times piqued the hearts and minds of fellow Americans and spoke clearly to them even if not at the literary standard purists might aspire to.

As part of his literary pursuits he was appointed Professor of Modern Language at Harvard, succeeding Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Numerous books and articles flowed from his brilliant pen – one of them being a protest at the United States war with Mexico in 1845. It was a poem of 90 lines called, “The Present Crisis”. Garret Horder converted this poem into a hymn (about 1896), by piecing together 16 of Lowell’s lines. And the result is still found in many church hymnals –

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Through each choice God, speaking to us,
Offers each the bloom or blight,
Then the man or nation chooses
For that darkness or that light…

Another significant work from Lowell is his 1848 “The Vision of Sir Launfal”, about one of King Arthur’s knights who went in quest of the Holy Grail, and in which Lowell teaches that true charity is greater than the casual gifts of the well-to-do. The book was extremely popular and used as a school text for many years, as it taught selflessness as a key to the success people seek. It was reprinted annually for more than half a century.

Lowell happily used vernacular language in his works, helping to elevate common speech as a worthy tool of artistic expression. Lowell’s The Biglow Papers ranks among the first American political satire. His public odes were praised by such as Henry Adams, William James, and William Dean Howells. Lowell was an effective diplomat during the period of America’s emergence as a world power, due to his personal charm, and he was one of America’s finest letter writers.

Following the Civil War Lowell became an increasingly public figure. His ambassadorial roles were to Spain from 1877-1880 and to the Court of St. James in England from 1880-1885. Following those appointments Lowell lived much of his time in England and wrote some of his most admired works.

Henry James said of Lowell, “He was strong without narrowness; he was wise without bitterness and bright without folly.”

James Russell Lowell died on 12 August, 1891. Since then his life and works have been generally discarded, despite the many worthy contributions he made in his own generation.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com