The Lowells and Their Seven Worlds

Farris Greenslet
ABOUT midway in the book — about midway in the Lowells —Ferris Greenslet has this to say of John Amory Lowell’s senior year at Harvard: “He applied himself seriously to his studies from whatever motive, and secured, he says in his diary, ’At the minor exhibition a French oration, at the second major a mathematical part, at the third a forensic with Whitman, and at the Commencement, August 30, 1815, a forensic with Chandler.’ . . . The subject of the final disputation was ‘Whether prosperity and the increase of wealth have a favorable effect on the manners and morals of the people.’ The decision was for the affirmative.”
When the ultimate nightmare of tabloid monthlies condenses the 400-odd pages of The Lowells and, Their Seven Worlds into the required single paragraph, that statement can stand as pure essence. The book spans from Percival, who came from Bristol, England, to Newbury, Massachusetts, in 1639, to Lawrence, who died in 1943, ten years after resigning as president of Harvard College. The sum of this country’s history is contained therein; seven worlds indeed, and a Lowell to expand, to consolidate, to triumph, in each. The wonder, as we read about them, is not so much that every one rose, but that no one fell. A persistent, arrogant, gifted line of people, deciding always for the affirmative.
You cannot warm to all of them. Yet they cannot fail to have some importance for you, kindled as they are by Mr. Greenslet’s skill. Lowell genealogy aside, the book is swift history of New England, even of the Cnited States. The Lowells are the book’s backbone — and what backbones they did have! — but the flesh, the color and light, and anecdote are Greenslet. You feel that he loves best Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., the “beau sabreur.” This reader inclines to Pereival, the astronomer, in spite of his Sakkara patine. But for the banker there are bankers; for the lawyer, lawyers; for the literary, littérateurs: a great many Lowells, and none idle.
The book succeeds where many biographies fail, because over and above the research, the documentation, the check and double check, New England’s history is the air the author breathes. He doesn’t need to guess what the Newbury marshes looked like in 1700. He knows. He need not wonder what the drawing room at Sevenels looked like. He was there. This is probably why we can read here, for the first time, the details of the strange and pathetic Fairbanks murder trial in Dedham, where, in the summer of 1801, John Lowell (of the Higginson line) and his partner, Harrison Gray Otis, were council for the defense. Here the citizens of Lowell, Massachusetts, can discover that their town is the unexpected outcome of one of those formidable Lowell “breakdowns.”
In the autumn of 1810 Francis C. Lowell, in need of change and rest, took a little tour to England with his wife and brought back from it (in his head, because the spinners’ mechanical secrets were jealously guarded) the technique of the manufacture of cotton cloth. And thus, says the author, did “more perhaps than any other man to swell the pocketbook of New England and shape its economic future.” His wife’s comment on their return from this momentous trip was that Boston harbor was “more beautiful than anything I had seen in my absence.” The Lowell ladies seem not to have been very articulate until Amy articulated for a hundred.
It was, I think, Lady Russell in Persuasion who was “prejudiced on the side of ancestry.” Even though you may not share her amiable weakness, you are bound to enjoy the Lowells, who did.