Friday, August 2, 2013
August 2, 2013: American Families: The Lowells
[As we head into a month of AmericanStudier birthdays—my own, my Dad’s, my sister’s—a series on interesting, multi-generational American families. Add your family histories and stories, public and personal, please!]
On the interconnections and variations within one family, and the compelling poems that depict them.
Across multiple generations, in multiple arenas, the Lowell family fought to end the system of slavery. James Russell Lowell and his wife Maria White worked closely with abolitionists throughout the 1840s, with James editing the Pennsylvania Freeman (an abolitionist newspaper in Philadelphia) and publishing The Biglow Papers (1848), a collection of the most overtly anti-slavery poems published before the Civil War. When that war began, Lowell’s nephew Charles Russell Lowell left his successful job as the head of Maryland ironworks to serve as a captain in the Union Army; before his tragic death at the Battle of Cedar Creek he managed both to distinguish himself on numerous occasions and to marry the sister of fellow officer and ardent abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw.
Half a century later, as American society and literature shifted into new 20th century forms, the Lowell family would produce two unique and talented poets. Amy Lowell, whose impressive generation included brothers Percival (a noteworthy astronomer) and Abbott (a Harvard president), published collections of imagist poems throughout the 1910s and 20s that rival those of contemporary proto-modernists Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and H.D. In the next generation, Amy’s distant cousin Robert Lowell would befriend Ford Madox Ford, Randall Jarrell, John Crowe Ransom, and many other young writers, serve prison time as a World War II conscientious objector, teach at a half dozen significant writing programs, and publish many volumes of postwar poetry, including the classics Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964).
As both of those books’ titles suggest, Robert Lowell’s poems were intensely biographical and historical, and so offer compelling depictions of precisely these family histories. In the sonnet “Charles Russell Lowell: 1835-1864” (included in the collection Notebook 1967-1968 ), for example, Lowell examines both that impressive ancestor and (as he does throughout Union Dead) the meaning of such histories for present-day Massachusetts and America (an America involved in a far more controversial war, one that Lowell would actively and famously protest). In that poem, as in most of his works, Lowell reminds us that being part of an American family is about more than genetics or bloodlines—it’s a set of histories and stories that become part of our own evolving identity and perspective, and of what we pass on, in our writing and lives, to those who follow us.
Special family post this weekend,
BenPS. What do you think? Family histories or stories you’d highlight, American or yours?