The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.


§ 2. Main Facts of his Life

The briefest summary of the events of his life will indicate the variety of his interests and occupations. Born in 1819 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the colonial house where he was to spend most of his life, he went to Harvard College, studied law—and abandoned it for a career of letters. He contributed verses and sketches to the magazines, edited a few numbers of an unsuccessful literary journal, The Pioneer, brought out his first volume of poems, A Year’s Life, in 1841, a second volume in 1843, and a collection of essays, Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, in 1844.

In December of this year he was married to the poetess Maria White. The nine years of their married life until her death in 1853 mark a distinct period in Lowell’s literary work. He contributed constantly both prose and verse to various journals, at first largely for those of the anti-slavery propaganda; and the Mexican War gave the opportunity for The Biglow Papers, the first of which appeared in The Boston Courier of 17 June, 1846. In 1848 appeared a second collection of poems, the completed Biglow Papers, and The Fable for Critics. Lowell had won, in both popular and critical regard, an assured place in what was already an important national literature. The fifteen months which the family spent in Europe in 1851–52 seem to have increased his desire to widen the range of his poetry, but the ambitions that thronged with the return to America were interrupted by the death of his wife. A period of uncertainty followed his bereavement, and circumstances gave him a new occupation.

In 1855 he delivered in Boston a course of twelve lectures (unpublished) on English poetry, and as a result of their success was appointed to succeed Longfellow as Smith Professor of the French and Spanish Languages and Literatures and Professor of Belles Lettres in Harvard College. A few months were spent in Dresden in preparation for a course on German literature, and in the fall of 1856 he began twenty years work as a teacher. In the following year he was married to Frances Dunlap and resumed life in Elmwood. His professorship turned his mind to criticism and scholarship, but did not hasten that stronger poetic flight for which he had felt himself preparing. A brief-lived literary magazine, Putnam’s Monthly, in 1853–54 had given place to one or two of his best known essays, and a new literary enterprise, The Atlantic Monthly, in 1857 gave further opportunity for his prose. Lowell was editor of the new magazine for two years and a regular contributor of reviews and articles until 1863, when he joined with Charles Eliot Norton in editing The North American Review. For the next dozen years his essays both political and literary appeared mainly in this review.

During the Civil War, Lowell’s chief contributions to poetry were the new series of Biglow Papers which began in the Atlantic in 1861. It was not until the war was over that the great themes of national triumph through sacrifice called forth the four memorial odes. Miscellaneous verse of the preceding twenty years was collected in Under the Willows (1868); but the odes and longer poems, as The Cathedral (1870), Agassiz (1874), best represent both the emotional impulses that followed the war and the maturity of Lowell’s art.

The political interests which had engaged much of his prose writing before and during the war had not interrupted his increasing devotion to the study and criticism of literature. He had been directing his attention less to contemporary letters and more to the masters of English and to a few of the masters of foreign literature, notably Dante. The result of these studies was a long succession of essays which make up the volumes Among My Books (1870), My Study Windows (1871), and Among My Books, Second Series (1876). It is these books which are his main contributions to literary criticism.

Lowell and his wife spent two years (1872–74) in Europe, and after a brief resumption of his professorship he was appointed minister to Spain in 1877, and in 1880 was transferred to England. After his retirement in 1885 he spent a considerable part of his time in England until his death in 1891. The mission was a recognition of his distinction not merely as a man of letters but as a representative of the best American culture, and this distinction Lowell maintained in a number of addresses on both literary and political themes, represented by the volume Democracy and Other Addresses (1886). Although his poetry became infrequent there was enough for a final volume, Heartsease and Rue, in 1880.

To all these varied activities as poet, essayist, humorist, editor, teacher, scholar, and diplomat, must be added that of letter writer. For Lowell’s letters, in addition to their annals of his personal experiences and friendships, contribute something to literature and history which perhaps has ceased with the day of the typewriter—a record of the intimate association of the high-minded. His work as a man of letters may be considered most readily by the main divisions of verse and prose; but the separation is not always significant. The poetry is mostly bounded by the years 1840 and 1870, and the best of the essays by 1860 and 1890; but there is hardly a year of his half century which did not see both prose and verse. Nor can the subject matter be divided by the two forms, for both require attention from the historian of either the literary or the political progress of the half-century. Both respond to the changing events of his own life, and to the greater changes that transformed the nation of 1840 into that of 1890.

Lowell’s youth was spent among books. Before he left college he had become a wide if desultory reader, and the study of law failed to detach him from what was to become a life-long devotion to the easy chair and the library. To the inheritance of English blood, law, language, and religion that bound New England to the mother country, he added an enthusiastic appreciation for English literature. Naturally this appreciation was directed by the Romanticism which had reached its full flower in English letters, by its leaders, Wordsworth, Keats, Lamb, or by the gods of its idolatry, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Dante. His feeling was like that which Keats had experienced twenty years before, when English poetry had opened out a new world inviting to fresh beauty and new enterprise. And this world of British letters had added since then the clarion voice of Carlyle and the exquisite art of Keats himself and of Tennyson. It is easy to trace in Lowell’s early verse imitation and reminiscence of the English poets of the preceding half-century; but even more important was his acceptance of their faith in poetry. With Wordsworth he believed that it was to be the moral guide and spiritual inspirer, with Keats he saw it opening new doors to the abode of beauty. He shared the assurance of Sartor Resartus that literature was to supply the new priesthood that was to direct the new age.

There were also new ideas and impulses astir in the New England of Lowell’s youth. The narrow Puritanism had given way to Unitarianism and Transcendentalism and literature. During the first twenty years of Lowell’s life, American literature had taken a bulk and character which might risk comparison with the literature of any European nation during that period. In his teens he was reading Emerson, Longfellow, Holmes, Whittier, Hawthorne, and Prescott, and most of these men were his neighbours and ready to welcome and direct his first attempts at letters. There is a sense of an intellectual and imaginative dawn to be found in Lowell’s essays and verse, a dawn that is to gladden the granite and pines of his native land. With a loving admiration for the old literature, there is a loyal national pride in the new; or, rather, there is a sectional pride; for the patriotism is mainly a sectional patriotism, a fervour for the New England hills and men. Boston was then a long way from New York and Philadelphia—although Lowell’s literary adventures carried him to both cities—and the rest of the nation was separated by barriers of manners and habit. He was patriotically American because his beloved and awakened New England was expected to lead the nation.