Sunday, August 12, 2012

Deathday: James Russell Lowell 1891 Poet & Editor

James Russell Lowell (February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891) was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets. These poets usually used conventional forms and meters in their poetry, making them suitable for families entertaining at their fireside.

Lowell graduated from Harvard College in 1838, despite his reputation as a troublemaker, and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School. He published his first collection of poetry in 1841 and married Maria White in 1844. He and his wife had several children, though only one survived past childhood. The couple soon became involved in the movement to abolish slavery, with Lowell using poetry to express his anti-slavery views and taking a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the editor of an abolitionist newspaper. After moving back to Cambridge, Lowell was one of the founders of a journal called The Pioneer, which lasted only three issues. He gained notoriety in 1848 with the publication of A Fable for Critics, a book-length poem satirizing contemporary critics and poets. The same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which increased his fame. He would publish several other poetry collections and essay collections throughout his literary career.

Maria White died in 1853, and Lowell accepted a professorship of languages at Harvard in 1854. He traveled to Europe before officially assuming his role in 1856; he continued to teach there for twenty years. He married his second wife, Frances Dunlap, shortly thereafter in 1857. That year Lowell also became editor of The Atlantic Monthly. It was not until 20 years later that Lowell received his first political appointment: the ambassadorship to Spain and, later, to England. He spent his last years in Cambridge, in the same estate where he was born, where he also died in 1891.

Lowell believed that the poet played an important role as a prophet and critic of society. He used poetry for reform, particularly in abolitionism. However, Lowell's commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years, as did his opinion on African-Americans. Lowell attempted to emulate the true Yankee accent in the dialogue of his characters, particularly in The Biglow Papers. This depiction of the dialect, as well as Lowell's many satires, were an inspiration to writers like Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken.

Literary career

Lowell's earliest poems were published without pay in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1840. Lowell was inspired to new efforts towards self-support and joined with his friend Robert Carter in founding a literary journal, The Pioneer. The periodical was characterized by most of its content being new rather than previously published elsewhere and by having very serious criticism which covered not only literature but also art and music. Lowell wrote that it would "furnish the intelligent and reflecting portion of the Reading Public with a rational substitute for the enormous quantity of thrice-diluted trash, in the shape of namby-pamby love tales and sketches, which is monthly poured out to them by many of our popular Magazines." William Wetmore Story noted the journal's higher taste, writing that, "it took some stand and; appealled to a higher intellectual Standard than our puerile milk o watery namby-pamby Mags with which we are overrun." The first issue of the journal included the first appearance of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. Lowell, shortly after the first issue, was treated for an eye disease in New York and, in his absence, Carter did a poor job managing the journal. After three monthly numbers, beginning in January 1843, the magazine ceased publication, leaving Lowell $1,800 in debt. Poe mourned the journal's demise, calling it "a most severe blow to the cause—the cause of a Pure Taste."

A Fable for Critics, one of Lowell's most popular works, was published in 1848. A satire, it was published anonymously; in it, Lowell took good-natured jabs at his contemporary poets and critics. It proved popular, and the first three thousand copies sold out quickly. Not all the subjects included were pleased, however. Edgar Allan Poe, who had been referred to as part genius and "two-fifths sheer fudge," reviewed the work in the Southern Literary Messenger and called it "'loose'—ill-conceived and feebly executed, as well in detail as in general... we confess some surprise at his putting forth so unpolished a performance." Lowell offered the profits from the book's success, which proved relatively small, to his New York friend Charles Frederick Briggs, despite his own financial needs.

Later years and death

In the last few months of his life, Lowell struggled with gout, sciatica in his left leg, and chronic nausea; by the summer of 1891, doctors believed that Lowell had cancer in his kidneys, liver, and lungs. His last few months, he was administered opium for the pain and was rarely fully conscious. He died on August 12, 1891, at Elmwood. After services in the Appleton Chapel, he was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

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