Wednesday, August 12, 2009

In memoriam: James Russell Lowell

I have written about James Russell Lowell many times on this blog. He weaves in and out of the story of Poe so much, it's hard to separate the two. It's even harder, however, to distinctly categorize their relationship.

The December 1841 issue of Graham's Magazine printed Poe's first acknowledgment of Lowell, ten years his junior. In this edition of Poe's "Chapter on Autography," he wrote: "Mr. J. R. LOWELL, of Massachusetts, is entitled, in our opinion, to at least the second or third place among the poets of America. We say this on account of the vigor of his imagination — a faculty to be first considered in all criticism upon poetry." We know that Lowell was aware of the quick mention (though, for the series, Lowell's was a long entry) because he was given a heads-up by Charles J. Peterson in late October 1841.

When Poe read Lowell's "Rosaline" early the next year, Peterson reported that Poe was pleased and said "that no American poem equals it in the higher elements of song" and noted "Poe wishes to be remembered to you." In fact, it seems that it was through Peterson that Poe and Lowell first interacted and for quite some time. In a letter dated February 17, 1842, Peterson notes "Poe laughed heartily when I told him you thought that he had a pique against Wakondah & its author" (e.g. Cornelius Mathews). And, in the same letter, "Poe sends his respects & says that he never allows personal love or hate to warp his criticisms." Why didn't the two just write directly to each other?

In fact, it seems the earliest extant direct correspondence is not until November 16, 1842, when Poe writes to Lowell offering to contribute to his new magazine, Pioneer ("The Tell-Tale Heart" will debut in its third issue). Poe praised the journal when it came out, noting it was edited "by a man whose genius and originality is at once the praise and wonder of his countrymen." Lowell later helped Poe correspond with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who Lowell convinced to be a contributor to the magazine Poe was founding, The Stylus.

Though they were cordial during this period and, in some cases, they praised one another, it's hard to call Poe and Lowell "friends." Certainly, by the mid 1840s, it would be even harder to do so. When Poe began his public attacks on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lowell took the side of his friend and neighbor in Cambridge rather than Poe's. When Poe became one-third owner of the Broadway Journal and, later, sole owner, its founder Charles Frederick Briggs maligned Poe in private letters to his close friend James Russell Lowell — odd, considering Lowell helped secure Poe's partnership with his close friend Briggs (in fact, Lowell's A Fable for Critics was initially printed to raise money to help Briggs; in that poem, Lowell famously described Poe: "three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge"). Though Lowell had once referred to Poe's "genius," by 1845 he wrote to Briggs that "Poe, I am afraid, is wholly lacking in that element of manhood which, for want of a better name, we call character." Ouch.

Both sides are guilty for building enmity, and both were too proud and too stubborn to stop it from happening. I find it disappointing, as the two men could have been friends. Both were struggling writers interested in producing deep, important poetry. Both took serious care in writing their literary reviews (though each was also quite sensitive to being criticized). Each had a high appreciation of his own ability as a poet to the point of arrogance, mixed with an odd feeling of self-loathing when times got tough. Both had financial difficulties for much of their respective lives and ambitiously attempted to found a literary journal that would nudge American writing forward. Lowell's association with the abolitionists aside, this could have been a solid partnership.

Lowell died on August 12, 1891. Rest in peace, James Russell Lowell.


Anonymous said...

OT: I saw this on Twitter: LitBirthdaysRT @blogofinnocence - 8 totally awesome natural phenomena you probably didn’t know about and the first thing they said was that Poe coined the term maelstrom. Did you know that?

Rob Velella said...

Wow, that doesn't seem likely at all. Even dates it to 1550-1560, specifically in reference to a whirlpool in Norway (which inspired Poe's story).

Matthew Pearl said...

Lowell's relationship with Poe was indeed interesting. I originally had a scene with Lowell in my novel, then cut it out. But it's preserved, with changes, in my "secret chapters" section, in case anyone is curious--Lowell speaking of Poe after his death. (it's Part II of Series 1)

Rob Velella said...

Matthew: Thanks for sharing! Although the subplot was (probably rightfully) cut, the scene with Lowell was very well-done, chock full of great references to Lowell's actual words regarding Poe (and, of course, Lowell was my favorite character from The Dante Club). It would have been nice to have a stronger connection to the first novel, but The Poe Shadow stands very well on its own anyway.