James Russell Lowell

James Lowell
  • Born:

    Elmwood, Cambridge, Massachusetts 22 February 1819

  • Died:

    Elmwood, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1891

  • Father:

    Charles Lowell

  • Mother:

    Harriet Spence

  • Married:

    1. Maria White 2. Frances Dunlap

  • Children:

    Mabel, 3 others who predeceased him

James Russell Lowell was a very well-connected American. He was Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard; with his friends Henry Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes he began a literary periodical, the Atlantic Monthly, which is still published today and he was American ambassador in Madrid and London. His uncle Francis Cabot Lowell introduced cotton manufacturing to America and his great-grand-uncle, General William Whipple, was one of the New Hampshire signatories of the Declaration of Independence. However, his uncle's name, Robert Traill Spence, gives a clue to another part of his ancestry.

His great-grandfather, Robert Traill, son of William Traill and Barbara Fea in Rousay, emigrated from Orkney and became Comptroller of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1748 he married General Whipple's sister Mary.

Robert was a loyalist during the American War of Independence and returned to Britain when hostilities began. Afterwards he was a collector of taxes in the Bermudas.

Robert and Mary had a daughter Mary who married another Orcadian, Keith Spence from Kirkwall, who had become a merchant in Portsmouth and then purser on USS Philadelphia. They had a son Robert Traill Spence, who became a naval hero and friend of Stephen Decataur, and a daughter Harriet.

The Lowells were one of the most important families in Boston, of whom it was said, "The Lowells speak only to Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God". Charles Lowell, minister of the West Church in Boston, showed this wasn't always true by marrying Harriet in 1806.

Their son James Russell Lowell became one of the Fireside Poets, a group which included Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Greenleaf Whittier. His best known work was The Bigelow Papers, lampoons that expressed opposition to the Mexican War and supported the North in the Civil War. He was a prominent opponent of slavery, described by Edgar Allan Poe as, "one of the most rabid of the Abolition fanatics".

In 1855 he succeeded his friend Longfellow as Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, a position he held until 1876. Coincidentally, Longfellow's house used to be the home of Andrew Craigie, America's first Apothecary General, whose Orcadian father had been shipwrecked in Nantucket. The professorship clearly didn't occupy all his time, as it was in 1857 that he helped found the Atlantic Monthly, which he then edited for four years. This magazine was one of the first to publish short stories instead of serialized novels and published early work by Mark Twain, Henry James, Edgar Alan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In 1877 Lowell became ambassador to Spain and then ambassador to Britain from 1880 to 1885. He was a very successful ambassador and a literary occasion doesn't seem to have been complete without him. Gladstone described him as one of London's best talkers and his circle included Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Tennyson and Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's schooldays.

Lowell was a pall-bearer at Charles Darwin's funeral at Westminster Abbey. He himself has a memorial window in the chapter-house, largely at the instigation of his friend Leslie Stephen, to whose daughter, later Virginia Woolf, he was godfather.

He returned to his home, Elmwood, Cambridge in 1877 and died there in 1891. His two wives, Maria White and Frances Dunlap and three of his four children had pre-deceased him but his surviving daughter Mabel married Edward Burnett and raised five children, James, Joseph, Francis, Esther and Lois not too far away, in Southborough, Massachussets.

James Lowell's nephew, Charles Russell Lowell was made a Brigadier General in the Union Army the day before he was killed in 1864 and his great-grandnephew, Robert Traill Spence Lowell, was also a well-known American poet and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1947 and 1974. The family home of Elmwood is now the residence of the Presidents of Harvard.

Although now largely forgotten, James Russell Lowell was clearly an important literary figure in his day and very widely liked and respected. He made an unlikely reappearance in 2004, as one of the main protagonists in an American best-selling whodunit, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl.