Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 408

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 408


This is the grave of James Russell Lowell.

Born in 1819 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lowell graduated from Harvard in 1838 and then got a law degree from the same institution in 1842. He was an atrocity as a student, basically setting records for missing classes, but managed to squeeze by, even as he was banned from graduation because he was suspended for missing class again. He was struggling to find anything to do; an aimless youth who liked writing, the law was just a way to kill some time and he was never committed to it. He and his first wife, Maria White, got involved in abolitionism around the same time. She was more committed than he and while he had shown some interest before he met Maria, she pushed him harder to do something about it. Lowell became the editor of an anti-slavery newspaper in Philadelphia. He only stayed there a brief time before coming back to Cambridge, where he became famous for his writing, both his poetry and his satire, not to mention publishing a paper that survived all of three issues, but which happened to include Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart” in one of them, ensuring its fame. Both he and his wife proved to be excellent poets, though hers remained unpublished until he put them out after her death. He published his first book of poetry, A Year’s Life, in 1841. In 1848, he published an anonymous work called A Fable for Critics that was a satire of basically every popular writer in America at that time, which really pissed some people off, including Poe. The same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which was a work of fiction that both attacked the Mexican War, but also pioneering the use of dialect in American writing to parrot speech from different parts of the country. This was a very influential best seller, though because Lowell was personally fronting the production costs, he pretty much just broke even. His personal life was rough. He had depression issues, three of his four children died in infancy, and then Maria died young, in 1853, all of which led him close to suicide on a couple of occasions.

Lowell took a job at Harvard in 1854, making him financially secure, as he stayed there for the next 20 years, despite the fact that he himself admitted he was a bad teacher. He remarried in 1857 and became the editor of a new journal called the Atlantic Monthly, which is of course still around, albeit in much diminished form, today. He stayed with that for four years, publishing his prose primarily in the North American Review after that, but some of his poetry with The Atlantic.

Unfortunately, as time went on, Lowell’s commitment to abolitionism began to waver and his post-Civil War commitment to civil rights for blacks was pretty much nil. He had long predicted that the only way out of the slavery crisis was war and lost a bunch of family members in that war. But he also stated, “We believe the white race, by their intellectual and traditional superiority, will retain sufficient ascendancy to prevent any serious mischief from the new order of things” and called freed slaves “dirty, lazy, & lying.” This was all too typical of how even abolitionists responded to the poverty of freed slaves and real anti-racist commitment for true emancipation that extended to economics was extremely limited, even among committed activists. His abolitionist friends blamed Harvard for his weakening on the issue, which by 1868 made him openly sympathetic with the South during Reconstruction. The Harvard and Boston Brahmin culture was politically conservative and elite, with lots of ties to the aristocratic South. He also moved from prohibition to drunkenness at more or less the same time. It’s entirely possible that the real factor in all of this was the death of his first wife, who was much more committed to many reform movements than he.

In 1877, Lowell, a well-connected Republican if nothing else, got the position of the ambassadorship to Spain and then to the UK. That happened after he became an active supporter of Rutherford Hayes at the Republican convention. Hayes then contacted William Dean Howells to offered Lowell either Austria or Russia, but he wasn’t interested in that. Somehow, I think we have lost the tradition of writers being major political players. However, since he liked Spanish literature, they worked that one out. Glad to see the qualifications of ambassadors to major nations has always been as hacky as it is today. And hey, compared to Jets owner Woody Johnson, our current ambassador to London who publicly states he is raising his sons to be like Donald Trump, Lowell seems pretty qualified for his shift there in 1880. In fact, Lowell wasn’t even told he was nominated for post, but was glad to accept it. He was very popular in London and stayed there until 1885, near the end of Arthur’s term. He even became Virginia Woolf’s godfather.

Lowell moved back to Massachusetts in 1885, living with his daughter and son-in-law. In declining health and again suffering depression after the death of his second wife, he plodded along, gave some speeches, and published a last couple of essay collections. He died in 1891 in the house where he grew up, though he had sold off most of the land over the years to fund his lavish lifestyle.

James Russell Lowell is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to cover more 19th century writers in Lowell’s circle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Richard Henry Dana is actually buried in Rome, so you should send me there! More likely, John Greenleaf Whittier is in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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