James Russell Lowell, a scion of the prominent New England Lowell family, was as great an ass at Harvard ‘as ever brayed and thought it singing.’ So he said.
It was a woman who straightened him out after years of floundering: his first wife, Maria White.
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell was born Feb. 22, 1819 at Elmwood, the Lowell estate in Cambridge. He was the son of the Rev. Charles Russell Lowell and Harriett Brackett Spence Lowell.
At 15, he entered Harvard, where he read travelogues, romances, plays and poems – everything but the textbooks prescribed by the Harvard faculty.
As a sophomore he skipped class 56 times and chapel 14 times. As a senior, he said, “During freshman year, I did nothing, during sophomore year I did nothing, during junior year I did nothing, and during senior year I have thus far done nothing in the way of college studies.”
He did graduate, though, and enrolled in Harvard Law School. Two years later, he was admitted to the bar. He said he so hated being a lawyer he once pointed a cocked pistol at his own head. He didn’t pull the trigger, though.
Throughout his academic and legal career, Lowell wrote poetry. And when he met another poet, Maria White, in 1839, everything changed. He became a renowned poet, diplomat, Harvard professor and editor of The Atlantic Monthly.
The Better Poet
He called her ‘half of earth and more than of Heaven.’ Amy Lowell, a later Lowell family poet, wrote Maria White was a better poet than James: “That is poetry! It is better than anything her husband ever wrote, and he always said that she was a better poet than he.”
She died 12 years into their marriage. He soldiered on.
James Russell Lowell died Aug. 12, 1891 at Elmwood. Today, Elmwood is a National Historic Landmark in the midst of the National Historic Landmark District in Cambridge, Mass. Since the 1970s, it has been the home of Harvard’s presidents.
Photo: Detail from ‘James Russell Lowell, 1844,’ by an unknown photographer. Digital Commonwealth. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Detail from ‘Maria White,’ by Frederick Langenheim and William Langenheim. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Elmwood By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5578063. This story was updated in 2021.