In the prelude to Nina Sankovitch’s compelling group biography, “The Lowells of Massachusetts,” the poet Amy Lowell has just died and her lover Ada Dwyer Russell builds a bonfire to burn Amy’s letters. Winky the cat follows Ada down a graveled path, beyond the barn, past the pony carts, past old apple, pear and peach trees and watches Ada gather fuel for the fire. While it burns, Winky chases dragonflies and Ada waits until she is satisfied that she has fulfilled Amy’s final request.
Fortunately, Ada failed. Letters survived. Not just Amy’s, but the letters of other Lowells, despite the family’s penchant for conflagrations such as this one. Even more fortunately, Sankovitch has searched out these letters to write the powerful story of one of America’s most extraordinary families, a family that helped shape the course of American history in dramatic and decisive ways.
Among the most vexing problems Sankovitch faces is the question of historical context. How much is too much? How much too little? Does the reader need to be reminded of Dred Scott or the ins and outs of the Stamp Act? What about a quick review of the War of 1812 or the intricacies of Prohibition? How, in other words, does one keep the Lowells alive and not lose them in the historical thicket?
But Sankovitch handles this challenge with dexterity. She travels briskly through three centuries, from the Lowells’ arrival in Puritan New England, through the War of Independence, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, the suffragettes and the advent of modern American poetry. She captures the historical backdrop with fascinating details at the same time that she presents a startling array of Lowells, remarkable for their grit, intelligence and dedication to this country.
For the Lowells, it turns out, are a fascinating bunch: spinsters, ministers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, factory builders, poets, college presidents and soldiers. One is even an astronomer. They cultivate fruit trees, write in their diaries and raise their children. They build mill towns and fight slavery. They fall in love, go mad, lose their babies, travel to Europe, design beautiful homes and alter the course of American history through public service and the letters, poems and sermons they write.
Sankovitch, a veteran scholar of letters and letter writers, reveals historical viewpoints that even those well versed in the period might not know. For instance, Thomas Jefferson, when seen through the eyes of John Lowell Jr., a.k.a. John the Rebel, is a “demagogue . . . in cahoots with the South and France to make the northern states suffer.”
Sankovitch also highlights the achievements of the most famous Lowells, including John the Rebel’s brother, Francis Cabot Lowell, who stole secrets from the English to establish the first integrated spinning and weaving factory, in Waltham, Mass. His nephew, John Amory Lowell, built more mills and founded a new town, Lowell, Mass. And, of course, Amy, the final Lowell in Sankovitch’s book, who was not only a distinguished poet and a lesbian, but smoked cigars and championed other modernist writers, including H.D. and Robert Frost.
By depicting history through the eyes of these notable individuals, Sankovitch provides the reader with fresh viewpoints on familiar events. The tragic consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act are made vivid by the Rev. Charles Lowell’s horror at the suffering of James Hamlet, a free man who was captured and sold back into slavery. Lowell could not hear “the closing of the heavy wooden door” of his church without thinking of “the shutting of the worm-eaten door of Hamlet’s cell, four hundred miles to the south.” In his sermons, he railed against slavery, terming it a “monstrous injustice.”
His son, the poet James Russell Lowell, also inveighed against slavery, fearlessly promoting the abolitionist cause while also undergoing disastrous personal losses. A devoted father, as were most Lowells, James hoped to raise his daughter Blanche to be, as he wrote, “as independent as possible . . . a great strong, vulgar, mud pudding-baking, tree-climbing little wench.”
Unfortunately, Blanche never became a pudding-baking wench. She died before she was 2 years old, leaving her parents heartbroken. After losing two more children in infancy, and later, his wife, Lowell turned his attention to his sole remaining daughter, Mabel, and his beloved nephews. Mabel survived. But the nephews gave their lives for the cause of the North. In some of the most moving passages of the book, Sankovitch recounts their bravery and their heartbreaking deaths. Three days before he was killed in the Battle of Cedar Creek, Charles wrote to his mother: “We are in a glorious country, with fine air to breathe and fine views to enjoy; we are kept very active, and have done a good deal of work. I have done my share, I think — but there’s nothing to make a letter of. . . . I only write this to make you write to me. Isn’t it lucky that I keep always well and hearty?”
By the final pages of this volume, one feels deeply attached to the individual Lowells, while also exhilarated at having experienced this grand sweep of American history.
The book ends in Mount Auburn Cemetery. The lilacs are in bloom; the Lowells, at rest.
Charlotte Gordon’s latest book is “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley.” She is a professor of humanities at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.
By Nina Sankovitch
St. Martin’s. 382 pp. $27.99