Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Lowell, James Russell (1819–1891)
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Poet, editor, educator, and diplomat, Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard University (1838, LL.B. 1840, M.A. 1841). He was editor of The Pioneer (1843), the Atlantic Monthly (1857–1861), coeditor with Charles Eliot Norton of the North American Review (1864–1872), Smith Professor of Modern Languages, Harvard (1855–1886), U.S. minister to Spain (1877–1880) and to England (1880–1885). Lowell's literary works include A Year's Life (1841), The Biglow Papers (1848, 1867), The Vision of Sir Launfal (1848), A Fable for Critics (1848), and "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration" (1865). Walt Whitman told his biographer, Horace Traubel, that James Russell Lowell was his bitterest enemy: "'Lowell never even tolerated me as a man: he not only objected to my book: he objected to me'" (With Walt Whitman 4:74).

Lowell's letters and reported conversations suggest that he helped to block Whitman's acceptance by the New England literary establishment. Although Norton admired the first Leaves of Grass in 1855, Lowell disapproved of it: "When a man aims at originality he acknowledges himself consciously unoriginal" (Letters 1:242). In 1863 Lowell pronounced Leaves "a solemn humbug" and promised to "keep it out of the way of the students" (New Letters 115–116). Lowell was also among those who persuaded Ralph Waldo Emerson not to invite Whitman to Boston's Saturday Club in 1860, and, in later years, Lowell may have discouraged foreign guests from visiting Whitman in Camden. On the other hand, Lowell published an edited version of Whitman's "Bardic Symbols" in the Atlantic in April 1860, and he insisted on contributing to a Whitman benefit at the Madison Square Theater in 1887. At the end of Whitman's performance at this benefit Lowell is said to have exclaimed, "This has been one of the most impressive hours of my life!" (Johnston 157).

A Brahmin, a maker of rhymed verse, a professor, a politician—Lowell seemed the antithesis of everything Whitman claimed to represent: "Lowell is one kind: I'm another," he said (With Walt Whitman 4:74). They were also nearly exact contemporaries, and Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" rivaled Lowell's "Commemoration Ode" as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln. This often caused their juxtapositioning in literary histories, anthologies, and college courses. Efforts to commemorate one competed with efforts to commemorate the other. In 1892 Traubel presented Lowell as a foil for Whitman: "One man contributes preservation; another movement. One is conservative; another dynamic" ("Lowell—Whitman" 22). Despite Lowell's complexities, subsequent comparisons have often promoted Whitman as a neglected genius struggling against the genteel conservatism Lowell came to embody.

Bibliography

Duberman, Martin. James Russell Lowell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Johnston, J.H. "In Re Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend. Ed. Charles N. Elliot. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915. 147–174.

Lowell, James Russell. Letters of James Russell Lowell. Ed. Charles Eliot Norton. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1894.

———. New Letters of James Russell Lowell. Ed. M.A. De Wolfe Howe. New York: Harper, 1932.

———. The Writings of James Russell Lowell. 10 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.

Traubel, Horace. "Lowell—Whitman: A Contrast." Poet-Lore 4 (1892): 22–31.

———. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Vol. 4. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953.


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