How many of you have attended two schools named in honor of the same person? More specifically, how many have sat in the desks of two schools named after James Russell Lowell? Shall we count ourselves? Well, I am a party of one answering “yea” to the last question, at least at this point in time … for this blog. Perhaps I will hear from others who have had such a remarkable experience. I only recently put two and two together: one Lowell elementary school and one Lowell high school. Here’s when and how the realization hit me.
Compelling full-moon brightness awakened me. I lay in bed, contemplating whether it might be time to start the day. No, the clock promised several more hours of sleep. My groggy brain was on hold, in and out of reality when, without rhyme or reason, a thought popped up about Lowell High School in San Francisco … my high school. Quickly, in close succession, came the dusty memory of another public school in San Jose, California … Lowell Elementary, where I was a shy first grader, 70+ years ago. Why these two somewhat related moon-bolts had never hit me before I cannot fathom. They chose to link themselves during my midnight meandering through distant recollections. Two Lowells. Was I lucky, or what?
The next day, I searched for schools named for James Russell Lowell. In addition to my schools in San Francisco and San Jose, there are schools in Boise ID, Brainerd MN, Brightwood IN, Chicago IL, Colorado Springs CO, Long Beach CA, Louisville KY, Milwaukee WI, Missoula MT, Philadelphia PA, Salt Lake City UT, San Antonio TX, San Diego CA, Seattle WA, Sioux Falls SD , Tacoma WA, Teaneck NJ, Watertown MA, Waukesha WI, and I’ve not found them all. Then there are the towns, cities, streets, campus buildings, as well as other edifices and locations named for James Russell Lowell. The number must be astounding.
My next discovery was that I knew zilch about the man who was reputed to be an American icon of his time (1819 – 1891) … poet, professor, diplomat, editor, husband, father.
Thus began my inquiry into the doings of James Russell Lowell. Specifically I wanted to know how he contributed to the way we get along with each other … little things he may have done to further our humanity, one with another. As a way of conveying what I’ve learned about Mr. Lowell, please wander with me, back in time, to the years I attended each of my Lowell schools.
Lowell Elementary School in San Jose was my first school and my first Lowell. I was a wide-eyed five-year old, itching to go to “real” school so the year was 1942. Pearl Harbor had exploded upon our nation, followed by the US involvement in a raging WW II. San Jose was still a relatively small fruit-picking and fruit-canning town. It was safe for a little girl to walk a mile to school, ALONE, through cannery yards, across railroad tracks. Well, actually, I was being closely followed by my older brother … much older brother who was my protector and my hero. Even though I attended Lowell Elementary through 4th grade, I only remember a few things about it. I remember my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Breeden, who in 1945, upon the death of Theodore Roosevelt, asked who knew what the S stood for in Harry S Truman. I could not believe that I raised my hand. Our family had discussed the “S” and I knew it was just the letter “S” and did not stand for a name. My classmates stared in disbelief. Quiet little Joan knew that trivia? However, my miniscule knowledge of Truman apparently did not spur me on to find out some facts about James Russell Lowell. As I say, I knew nothing about Lowell until this day.
I now know that Lowell was not a politician like Roosevelt and Truman, but he was a distinguished diplomat who served as US Ambassador to Spain, 1877 – 1880 and Ambassador to Great Britain, 1880 – 1885. No doubt, these accomplishments helped our country on the international front.
But I am more interested in Lowell’s earlier life as a poet and family man. After graduating from Harvard Law in 1838, Lowell published his first collection of poems in 1841. He was one of an exclusive group of five poets called “The Fireside Poets” which included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Lowell. Their poetry was suitable for families to read out loud around the fire. This fact made a huge impression on me. Let me ask you, how many of us read poetry around the fire these days? How much literature published today is suitable for family recitation around the fire or around anything else? I just finished reading (silently, by myself) an excellent historical novel about early America, but the author’s choice to include four explicit sex scenes made the book inappropriate for my 12 and 13 year old grandsons. Otherwise, the boys could have learned a huge amount of valuable history about our frontier. I suppose we could read the story aloud around the table and omit those four scenes. Were the scenes necessary for the story’s accuracy? I doubt it. C’es la vie. Apparently, Lowell’s verses were rated G for all to enjoy … at the fireside.
My second Lowell school was Lowell High School in San Francisco. Again, I knew nothing about James Russell Lowell at the time of my attendance from 1950-1954. I do remember taking a stiff course in English grammar which was designed specifically to prepare us for the Subject A examination upon entrance to the University of California at Berkeley. One of the exercises in the grammar class was to read articles assigned from the magazine Atlantic Monthly and diagram certain sentences in the article. The difficulty of this assignment caused me to remember the pain of it to this day.
Now I have learned that James Russell Lowell was the very first editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the year 1857, and you will note that my Lowell High School was founded in 1856! I wonder if Mr. Lowell ever diagrammed any of the sentences during his time at the helm of the magazine. I doubt it. He was known as a Romantic Poet, perhaps more of a free spirit than a diagrammer! I’m not complaining about diagramming sentences. In fact, I passed the Subject A test and did not have to take remedial English at Cal. Lowell High School teachers, in my time, were strict, smart, and dedicated to the teaching/learning process. I feel that Mr. Lowell would have been proud of the education process at Lowell High.
Finally, James Russell Lowell was a family man. He married Maria White in 1844 and he was so in love with her that he told someone she was composed from half of the earth and more than half of heaven. Can you tell he was a romantic poet? Maria and James had four children: Blanche, Mabel, Rose, and Walter. The only surviving child was Mabel. All others died in babyhood/childhood. Lowell grieved over each of their deaths. His poem The First Snowfall was written after the death of Blanche. In the poem, Lowell is speaking to his only surviving child, Mabel. The sweet words touch our hearts, even today, for they are the words of a grieving father who loved his family.
The First Snowfall
by James Russell Lowell
The snow had begun in the gloaming, And busily all the night Had been heaping field and highway With a silence deep and white.
Every pine and fir and hemlock
Wore ermine too dear for an earl,
And the poorest twig on the elm-tree
Was ridged inch deep with pearl.
From sheds new-roofed with Carrara
Came Chanticleer’s muffled crow,
The stiff rails were softened to swan’s-down,
And still fluttered down the snow.
I stood and watched by the window
The noiseless work of the sky,
And the sudden flurries of snow-birds,
Like brown leaves whirling by.
I thought of a mound in sweet Auburn
Where a little headstone stood;
How the flakes were folding it gently,
As did robins the babes in the wood.
Up spoke our own little Mabel,
Saying, “Father, who makes it snow?”
And I told of the good All-father
Who cares for us here below.
Again I looked at the snow-fall,
And thought of the leaden sky
That arched o’er our first great sorrow,
When that mound was heaped so high.
I remembered the gradual patience
That fell from that cloud-like snow,
Flake by flake, healing and hiding
The scar of our deep-plunged woe.
And again to the child I whispered,
“The snow that husheth all,
Darling, the merciful Father
Alone can make it fall!”
Then, with eyes that saw not, I kissed her;
And she, kissing back, could not know
That my kiss was given to her sister,
Folded close under deepening snow.
Lowell lost his first wife, Maria to illness. He eventually married Frances Dunlap who had served as governess to Lowell’s daughter, Mabel.
James Russell Lowell was a romantic poet, editor, orator, diplomat, professor, and most of all a loving family man who knew the importance of bringing people together, to talk, to learn, to reminisce. The founders of my Lowell Elementary School and my Lowell High School paid tribute to him and became part of his legacy. As a graduate of my two Lowell schools, I feel like I am also part of the legacy of James Russell Lowell.