James Russell Lowell

(February 22, 1819 – August 12, 1891)


“Democracy is the form of government that gives every man the right to be his own oppressor”.

James Russell Lowell was an American poet and diplomat.  He was associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of American poets who were first to rival the popularity of the British poets.  They were named such because of the conventional form and meters in their poetry which made their work entertaining for families to read by the fireside.

He was born on February 22, 1819 to Reverend Charles Russell Lowell and his wife Harriet Brackett Lowell, the youngest of six children.  The family lived in a big estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was Lowell’s mother who inspired in him a love for literature at an early age, especially poetry and ballads.

When he was fifteen, he attended Harvard College, though he often noted he wasn’t a good student and spoke of his disinterest in the day-to-day of academia life.  However, in his senior year he became one of the editors of Harvardiana, a literary magazine to which he contributed prose and poetry.  Not knowing what vocation to choose after graduating, he finally decided to practice law, enrolling in Harvard Law School in 1849. Two years later,  he was admitted to the bar.  While studying law, he continued writing his poems and prose and submitted them to various magazines for publication.

Lowell published his first collection of poetry in 1841 and married Maria White in 1844.   The couple soon became involved in the movement to abolish slavery, with Lowell using poetry to express his anti-slavery views, which led to accepting a job in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the editor of an abolitionist newspaper. He gained notoriety in 1848 with the publication of A Fable for Critics, a book-length poem satirizing contemporary critics and poets. The same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which increased his fame. He would publish several other poetry collections and essay collections throughout his literary career.

Maria White died in 1853; the following year, Lowell accepted a professorship of languages at Harvard, where — after traveling to Europe before officially assuming his role in 1856 — he taught for twenty years. He married his second wife, Frances Dunlap, shortly thereafter in 1857. That year Lowell also became editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Lowell believed that the poet played an important role as a prophet and critic of society. He used poetry for reform, particularly in abolitionism. However, Lowell’s commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years, as did his opinion on African-Americans. He tried to give a true Yankee accent in the dialogue of his characters in his writings about slavery, and this in addition to his satires, inspired other famous American writers like Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken.

After being diagnosed with liver cancer in early 1891, Lowell  died on August 12 of that same year. There were several collections of his poems and essays published after his death.

— Luanne Jacobs

About the Author: Luanne Jacobs holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology and received her counseling license in 1997. She’s done internships in the Criminal Justice System and worked for the state of Texas for seven years as a Substance Abuse Treatment Coordinator, heading up the department. After a downsizing in 2003, Luanne returned to school to earn her teaching certificate for Middle School Reading and English. She’s been certified for three years, during which time she also became active in politics, working on campaigns for Appellate Court Judges, State Representatives and local candidates.

Additionally, Luanne has been an administrator on several Facebook pages and a frequent contributor to conservative talk radio programs. She has also channeled her writing talent into several essays about historical figures who helped to form the foundation for the United States of America, the greatest country on earth. Connect with her on Facebook.