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Absent Friends: In Primordial Seas, They Glide

Great trawling sharks lurk in the neglected stacks of our libraries, and few patrons ever guess it. The odd stiff-backed volume will sit neglected on bargain bookstore carts or flea market tables, their thundering contents unguessed, while thrice-thumbed legal thrillers get bought and re-bought. Safely, securely, such readers as remain in the world ignore these musty old beasts and surf Wikipedia for factoids hopefully uploaded by mouth-breathing virginal Warcraft gamers. But all the while, in the stacks and on the bargain tables, these sharks are laughing – or rather, not laughing, since that would be youthfully indisciplinate, but rather smiling, gently smiling with the serenity given only to those who’ve searched to the basement of the Muses’ temple and come back into daylight knowing things about work and reward that the multi-tasking members of the click-it generation cannot know, or are unwilling to learn.

They look so vulnerable, those old sharks, so ripe for relinquishing. They call the 19th century their home, an awkward era that’s too much like the present to be completely ignored but too different from it to be completely embraced. These men possess a commonality of learning that looks so prodigious to 21st century eyes as too seem somehow ludicrous, or else inbred. Their Italian, French, and German flows effortlessly; their Greek and Latin are smooth enough to escort them safely along the streets of Periclean Athens or the Rome of the Gracchi. They bear three names, these sharks – John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Henry Dana (two of them), Charles Elliot Norton, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Moses Dresser Phillips, John Jay Chapman, Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell – and the angels on their family mausoleums weep when it rains. They could scarcely look less relevant to so informal an age as this one. And so they have their silent smiles, and the present is gently mocked by the past.

They knew what they were doing, and they worked with stone-breaking effort to be worthy of their charge. That charge, though most of them would have steadfastly denied it, was explicitly nationalistic: they meant to give America a scholarly footing equal to that of England and Germany. In this task they (for they were all addicted travelers, and knew first-hand what London or Berlin could boast) worked, revised, and published in such American venues as then existed – and more, because they made them where they didn’t find them. These old sharks dug deep into the treasures of the past, and when they were ready to write, they wrote in lightning.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was one such Olympian, one of the old sharks the present world ignores. His many works are out of print so resoundingly they practically echo when you find them by chance – and it’s always, always by chance you’ll find them. No reprint house shall ever alight on creatures like Edward Everett Hale or John Jay Chapman or yet James Russell Lowell – how could they? These were serious men, writing for an audience vastly better educated than the book-buying public of today. What’s the point of reprinting a long essay on the works of Massinger when nobody in your audience has ever heard of him and he’s as thoroughly out of print as his essayist?

  There is a point, of course. It’s sad, weary thing to say, but it has to be said, every time, in every age that’s prone to forget all previous ages. It has to be said because those great trawling sharks are magnificent creatures who certainly worked hard enough to warrant their immortalities, despite their funny names and the pigeons on their statues in the Boston Public Gardens.

 

The point is that in the writing about, say, Massinger, Lowell is wonderful, full not only of scrupulous acumen and easy cross-discipline confidence but of the highly personal warmth of humanism at its best. And like all the other sharks of his time, Lowell never published anything until he’d shaped to within a hair of perfection.

He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the dawn of the 19th century and lived until the decade of its end. His life was full of friends, full of a very comfortable bustle, and marked by a steady stream of public advancements. He helped edit The Pioneer, managing a contributor list that included such names as Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Edgar Allen Poe.

The young country’s intemperate war with Mexico in 1846 prompted him to write his scathing satirical poem The Bigelow Papers, and a flood of further poetry and prose came from his pen in the 1840s, including his insightful series of American author-portraits, A Fable for Critics. In 1855 he was appointed Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Harvard University, and two years later he became editor of the fledgling Atlantic Monthly. From 1863 to 1867 he joined Charles Eliot Norton in editing The North American Review, the whole time crafting both poems that broadened the scope of the genre in America and the literary essays that lurk in so many overlooked volumes in the modern era.

His engagement with the American Civil War, through a second edition of the political jeremiads of The Bigelow Papers, was a mannered, literary one. But his involvement was far more than only poetic: like so many others in the convulsed nation, he paid a price in blood. Four glowing boys, happy, laughing fixtures at Lowell’s home of Elmwood, went off to war and did not return. Robert Gould Shaw, William Lowell Putnam, Charles Russell Lowell, and James Jackson Lowell – Lowell had loved them all, perhaps none moreso than his nephew Charles, a handsome, commanding young man who had in abundance the gift of public charisma Lowell himself did not possess (another who did have it, George Armstrong Custer, wept openly at the news of the young man’s death). Charles Russell Lowell was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek, just days after having been made Brigadier-General of volunteers. Had he lived, no job in the country would have suited him better than that of President, and it was this burning twist of lost potential that doubled the pain of his loss.

Lowell lived with a great many such pains. As he progressed in his gentle, smiling way through a very gregarious life, he acquired a wide array of good friends at home and abroad (in his later years, during his mission as US Minister to the Court of St. James, his guest books read like a catalogue of every prominent British man of letters then living). But he was gifted with long life in an age when that was still no foregone conclusion, and in addition to outliving his two wives, Lowell managed to outlive all but a handful of his friends as well. In 1877 he was made US Minister to Spain, and his transfer to England happened in 1880 and lasted five years. Lowell once remarked, “Surely an intellect that is still pliable at seventy is a phenomenon as interesting as it is rare,” and he lived to embody this phenomenon himself.

In his own lifetime, Lowell was revered more for his poetical output than anything else, and this is a further door closed against him in the 21st century, which has little use for poetry at all and even less for the openly sentimental lyricism Lowell uniformly exhibits. He once wrote, “Two things, perhaps, retain their freshness more perdurably than the rest – the return of spring, and the more poignant utterances of the poets,” but this is only true of the strongest of an era’s poets, not the rest, whose work slowly begins to yellow with age. “If poems die, it is because there was never true life in them,” Lowell once said, and no doubt when he said it he was personally sure his own verses possessed this true life. But always he was a better critic than creator, and it’s in his criticism that the great shark appears, fin splitting the water, ready to devour all but the fittest of his potential victims. His overriding philosophy is dauntingly inclusive; he approaches all the giants of literature with a scholar’s air of equality, and he reserves his rare flashes of anger for those critics who’re prone to genuflection:

The first duty of the Muse is to be delightful, and it is an injury done to all of us when we are put in the wrong by a kind of statutory affirmation on the part of the critics of something to which our judgment will not consent, and from which our taste revolts.

Armed with this terrier defiance and his own formidable gifts, Lowell surveys all of Western literature in his masterful essays, and authors long couched in reverence are suddenly called on to defend themselves. This had scarcely ever been done before in American letters, and the gentle rumble of it still has the power to arrest:

We have Gascoigne, Surrey, Wyatt, stiff, pedantic, artificial, systematic as a country cemetery, and, worst of all, the whole time desperately in love. Every verse is as flat, thin, and regular as a lath, and their poems are nothing more than bundles of such tied trimly together. They are said to have refined our language. Let us devoutly hope they did, for it would be pleasant to be grateful to them for something.

(There is an irony in the fact that most 21st century readers might very well use such terms to describe the verses of Lowell and his contemporaries; such readers would doubtless equally apply Lowell’s description of the Elizabethans to his own Boston crowd:

We wonder at the length of face and general atrabilious look that mark the portraits of the men of that generation, but it is no marvel when even their relaxations were such downright work. Fathers when their day on earth was up must have folded down the leaf and left the task to be finished by their sons – a dreary inheritance.)

Greater names than Surrey come in for a drubbing, even in a long piece that generally praises. And again, there is an irony that makes it possible to turn the verdict gently back on the judge, as in this passage on John Dryden:

In his prose you come upon passages that persuade you he is a poet, in spite of his verses so often turning state’s evidence against him as to convince you he is none.

His own mighty contemporaries are also not exempt, and indeed they wouldn’t have wanted to be; the growing American intellectual community of the 19th century prided itself on quality and permanence of its endeavors…no punches were pulled, and again, the sheer elevation of the discourse seems daunting to the present era. In a footnote on Dante, Lowell makes a digression as rarefied as it is kindly:

We should prefer here,
‘Nor inspirations won by prayer availed’
as better expressing Ne’ l’impetrare spirazion. Mr. Longfellow’s translation is so admirable for its exactness as well as its beauty that it may be thankful for the minutest of criticism, such only being possible.

Occasionally Lowell lets slip exactly the kind of comment 21st century readers would stereotypically attribute to him and all of his contemporaries, to the exclusion of all else. These are almost always the products of a stern Yankee schooling, precepts more honored in the breach, as this caution against undirected reading:

Desultory reading, except as a conscious pastime, hebetates the brain and slackens the bow-string of Will. It communicates as little intelligence as the messages that run along the telegraph wire to the birds that perch on it.

But this kind of reactionism is so rare as to be harmless in Lowell’s essays. What’s present, shining from every page, is a ready, limber-legged, gloriously happy engagement with the whole arc of art and literature. He takes the whole armamenture of his scholarly powers and dives with wide-eyed joy into the primordial seas of the written word, and even now, a century later, in an age that has forgotten him, the open arms of his enthusiasm is bracing:

For, as all roads lead to Rome, so do they likewise lead away from it, and you will find that, in order to understand perfectly and weigh exactly any vital piece of literature, you will be gradually and pleasantly persuaded to excursions and explorations of which you little dreamed when you began, and will find yourselves scholars before you are aware.

Lowell’s health declined in the final two years of his life, and he retired to Elmwood and gradually first his pen and then his life were stilled. He was buried in Boston’s Mount Auburn cemetery, and his large corpus of work remained in print for a decade or so, then one title after another faded into obscurity. They are all gone today, and the average reader will most likely encounter Lowell and his sharky brethren only by accident. The uniform bindings of the volumes will be faded with sunlight and redolent of dust, and readers attuned to more colorful fare may hurry by unheeding, thinking they’re ignoring something that deserves to be ignored. This grave mistake is to be avoided by anybody with a heart alive to literature: instead, dive in. Get bitten.


Steve Donoghue received a surprise inheritance as a young man that enabled him to spend much of his life travelling the world with packs of dogs and reading anything that could be read. These days he has been partially domesticated in South Boston and he hosts the literature blogStevereads.