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.


§ 9. Later Doctrines

Wit becomes less exuberant and sagacity is the leading spirit in Lowell’s later writing. Village society is disappearing, Cambridge is becoming a large city and Harvard a university, and Lowell is in Europe. Both as a poet and an essayist, he had appeared in part as a mediator or ambassador between the culture of the old world and the new, between the ideals of England and of the United States. In continuing this function as a foreign minister, he did not escape some censure that he was losing his faith in American democracy. To the reader today of his later addresses, that criticism must seem groundless. To be sure, his long residence abroad increased his liking for England and Englishmen; and the course of American politics was a rather dismal sequel to the Gettysburg Address and the Commemoration Ode. After vanquishing slavery, the nation found itself facing still more dangerous evils, and was somewhat loth to gird its loins for the struggle. Lowell had greeted the dawn that was brightening the New England of his youth, and had seen the noonday of heroic effort in the Civil War. Now, as his own days were lengthening, he could be excused if he saw only a dubious twilight in the America of the eighties.

As a matter of fact there is little doubt and no indifference in these later writings. The maturing years had widened Lowell’s perspective without vanquishing the idealism of his youth. He could look back on the course of the industrial revolution which had transformed his New England as well as older lands; and he could foresee the impending revolution that science had already begun in men’s standards and processes. The effect of these movements on his own thought are manifest in his poetry and essays mainly by implication and suggestion; but in the utterances of the last decade of his life he often looks upon both his own career and the American purpose directly from this more modern point of view.

In his address at Manchester, in 1884, on Democracy, he declared:

  • By temperament and education of a conservative turn, I saw the last years of that quaint Arcadia which French travellers saw with delighted amazement a century ago, and have watched the change (to me a sad one) from an agricultural to a proletary population.
  • Nevertheless, though opposing the single tax and State Socialism, he could see with hopefulness the portents in the air and even believe that democracy was to be the fulcrum for a Socialism possessing “the secret of an orderly and benign construction.” He is willing to rebuild his house and believes that it can be builded better. The forward call is to be found in those speeches as well as in the ardent verse of youth, the call of “the radiant image of something better and nobler and more enduring than we are.”

    This moral earnestness, this desire for perfection, this zeal to reform a changing but evil world, characterizes English literature of the years 1830–1880, and American literature of the same epoch. Literature in those years has preached many creeds and many reforms, and it has lost something in simplicity and certainty because it has been so much in earnest. So Lowell’s writing loses in certainty of art and unity of effect from its very responsiveness to the shifting opportunities for usefulness. But its contribution to civilization is not lessened, for it has done its best to teach a new people to guide their steps by the great men and great ideas of the past.

    In the address on Democracy, Lowell held forth as arguments in favour of our national institutions two of their products, Lincoln and Emerson. We surely need not despair of our democracy so long as it can produce men of letters like Lowell and utilize them in the service of the common weal.