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Essays: English and American. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

James Russell Lowell

Introductory Note

JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL, poet, essayist, diplomatist, and scholar, was born at Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1819, the son of a Unitarian minister. Educated at Harvard College, he tried the law, but soon gave it up for literature. His poem on “The Present Crisis,” written in 1844, was his first really notable production, and one that made a deep impression on the public mind. In the twenty years of troubled politics that followed, one finds it constantly quoted. The year 1848 saw four volumes from Lowell’s pen—a book of “Poems,” the “Fable for Critics,” “The Biglow Papers,” and the “Vision of Sir Launfal.” The second of these exhibited the author as wit and critic, the third as political reformer, the fourth as poet and mystic; and these various sides of his personality continue to appear with varying prominence throughout his career.

On the retirement of Longfellow from the chair of belles-lettres at Harvard in 1854, Lowell was elected to succeed him, and by way of preparation spent the next two years in Europe studying modern languages and literatures. In 1857 he became the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and after 1864 he collaborated with Charles Eliot Norton in the editorship of the North American Review. Throughout the period of the war Lowell wrote much both in prose and verse on behalf of the Union; his work on the North American was largely literary criticism.

In 1877 Lowell went to Spain as American Minister, and in 1880 to London, where for five years he represented the United States with great distinction, and did much to improve the relations of the two countries. Six years after his return, on August 12, 1891, he died in Elmwood, the house in Cambridge where he was born.

Lowell’s literary gifts were so various that it is difficult to say on which of them his final reputation will rest. But it is certain that he will long be esteemed for the grace, vivacity, and eloquence of the prose in which he placed before the world his views on such great American principles and personalities as are dealt with in the following essay on “Abraham Lincoln”.