This Day in History… August 12, 1891

Death of James Russell Lowell 

U.S. #866 – From the 1940 American Poets issue.

Poet, critic, and diplomat James R. Lowell died on August 12, 1891.

James Russell Lowell was born on February 22, 1819, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The youngest of six children, Lowell developed an early appreciation for literature from his mother.

Lowell began attending Harvard College at age 15 in 1834. For much of his college career he was a poor student, missing classes and getting into trouble. Then during his senior year he was made an editor of the Harvardiana literary magazine. Several of Lowell’s stories and poems were published in the magazine, though he later admitted they weren’t very good.

U.S. #866 FDC pictures Lowell’s Cambridge home, “Elmwood.”

In 1838 Lowell was elected class poet, which included reciting an original poem on Class Day, the day before commencement. However, he’d been suspended and not allowed to participate, so his poem was printed and distributed instead. While he was away from school for his suspension, Lowell met Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalist poets.

Following his graduation, Lowell attended Harvard Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1842. While he attended, some of his earliest poems were published in the Southern Literary Messenger.

U.S. #986 was issued for the 100th anniversary of Poe’s death.

In 1843 Lowell co-founded the literary journal, The Pioneer. Unlike most journals of the day, it featured new works and serious criticism. As Lowell stated it would, “furnish the intelligent and reflecting portion of the Reading Public with a rational substitute for the enormous quantity of thrice-diluted trash, in the shape of namby-pamby love tales and sketches, which is monthly poured out to them by many of our popular Magazines.” The Pioneer’s first issue included the first appearance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Unfortunately, Lowell had to take leave for health reasons, during which time his partner poorly managed the journal, leading to its closure.

Though Lowell had long been against slavery, his first wife encouraged him to become an active abolitionist. To this end, he published Miscellaneous Poems, a collection of anti-slavery beliefs, in 1843. It sold well – about 1,500 copies. His abolitionist work was published in several journals and newspapers in the coming years.

In 1848, Lowell published one of his most popular works, A Fable for Critics. The satirical book-length poem made good-natured jokes about his contemporaries. That same year, he published The Biglow Papers, which sold out within a week. He wrote dialogue for his characters using American dialects. This technique was not common at the time and had an influence on future writers like Mark Twain.

Item #81921 – Commemorative cover marking Lowell’s 170th birthday.

In 1855, Lowell was invited to lecture at the Lowell Institute. Though he’d never given a public speech before, he was praised for his presentations and invited to take on a professorship at Harvard (though he’d never applied). He held that position for 20 years, though he and the school’s president admitted that he had “no natural inclination” to teach.

In 1857, Lowell became the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, establishing it as a magazine of high quality. He held that position until 1861. He then went on to work for the the North American Review where he often used his position to defend President Lincoln’s efforts to maintain the Union during the Civil War. Although not usually in favor of war, his opposition to slavery was stronger than his distaste for fighting. Also during the war, he wrote a second series of The Biglow Papers that expressed his views of the conflict as well as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

After the war, Lowell was among several writers (including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) that were invited to share poems in honor of fallen Harvard graduates at his alma mater. Emerson praised Lowell’s poem for its “high thought and sentiment,” though Lowell felt he had failed in comparison to his contemporaries.

U.S. #563 is considered the first U.S. stamp to have a “First Day of Issue” ceremony.

After taking a trip to Europe where he received honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Lowell resigned from his Harvard professorship in 1874. Two years later he joined politics as a delegate to the Republican National Convention, speaking on behalf of Rutherford B. Hayes. The following year, Hayes sent Lowell a handwritten note offering him the ambassadorship of Austria or Russia. Lowell declined, but mentioned his interest in Spanish literature. He was then offered the position of Minister to the court of Spain, which he accepted. Early in his appointment, Lowell had trouble socializing, so he spent his spare time sending humorous notes to his bosses in the U.S. These were later collected and published as Impressions of Spain. In 1878, he was elected to the Spanish Academy and helped create their new dictionary.

In 1880, Lowell was appointed Minister to England. Among his duties there was addressing the import of reportedly diseased cattle and making recommendations. Queen Victoria said she had never seen an ambassador who “created so much interest and won so much regard as Mr. Lowell.”

U.S. #865 – John G. Whittier called Lowell “one of the strongest and manliest of our writers – a republican poet who dares to speak brave words of unpopular truth.”

Lowell returned to America in 1885 and spent his last years giving speeches and collecting his works in volumes. In 1889 he gave a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. Also during that year, the Boston Critic published a special issue honoring Lowell’s 70th birthday, including stories from his friends: Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Alfred Tennyson, and Francis Parkman.

Lowell suffered from a number of health issues before his death on August 12, 1891.

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