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  • From Brahmin to Biglow (and Back Again):James Russell Lowell as Temporary Satirist
  • Todd N. Thompson (bio)

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Colored illustration by George Cruikshank. From The Biglow Papers, by James Russell Lowell, 2nd English ed. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861), facing 126. [End Page 154]

Twenty-one years after writing his first poem in the persona of the anti-war farmer-poet Hosea Biglow, James Russell Lowell contrasted the public's reception of his other work to that of the Biglow poems. "Very far from being a popular author under my own name," Lowell wrote in 1867, "so far, indeed, as to be almost unread, I found the verses of my pseudonym copied everywhere ; I saw them pinned up in workshops ; I heard them quoted and their authorship debated."1 Lowell's recollection evinces a keen awareness of his temporary transformation from an American romantic poet—an idealist aesthete who was "almost unread"—to a popular satirist writing in dialect poetry for a newspaper audience. Lowell's use of a character who speaks in a rustic regional vernacular is itself a political gesture that refigures the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer as a political provocateur. But, just as important, the Biglow poems' dialogic structure placed Lowell's characters and critiques in conversation not only with each other and their real-world referents but also with the media in which they were presented. In this way the poems reflected the cacophony of voices commenting on the U.S.-Mexican War in the popular press while contesting mass media's romanticized accounts of the war. A historicized reading of the formal qualities of the Biglow poems also accounts for why Lowell's career as a popular satirist effectively [End Page 155] ended in 1848, even though he attempted to resuscitate Hosea Biglow to comment on the secession crisis and the Civil War over a decade later.

The real politics of the Biglow poems lie not in Lowell's personal antislavery commitments nor in the subjects he treats or the public figures he takes to task, but in the poems' dialogism: that is, their use of competing voices to perform, question and counter jingoistic accounts of the U.S.-Mexican War in the mass media. The Biglow poems are dialogic in their overlaying of multiple speakers engaging in multiple, often overlapping modes of public-sphere discourse—political, editorial, and military—mediated by Hosea Biglow's versification of these voices in Yankee dialect. This structure offers its own political commentary that is at least as important as what these characters reveal, how they act, and what they mock. Mikhail Bakhtin has, of course, done the most among modern scholars to articulate the significance of dialogic thought. "The dialogic means of seeking truth," he writes, "is counterposed to official monologism, which pretends to possess a ready-made truth, and it is also counterposed to the naive self-confidence of those people who think that they know something, that is, who think that they possess certain truths."2 Unlike Lowell's abolitionist prose essays, which, as we will see, assume and assert "truth" with absolute moral certitude, his satiric poems challenge the "naive self-confidence" of prevailing narratives—both pro-war and anti-war—of the U.S.-Mexican War. Lowell's approach—which, though influenced by the dialect verse of Robert Burns and the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, was radically new in its layering and mutually mediating translations of disparate voices spoken in equally diverse genres (such as letters from the front, political speech, jingoistic newspaper rhetoric)—both mimics and challenges the ascendancy of the penny press, which promised democratic mass communication and delivered visionary delusions of national grandeur. His narrator Hosea Biglow's dialect verse parodies popular mediations of the war experience while mirroring the multitude of voices brought to a news-hungry American public through those mediations. Lowell's polyphonic poems coincided with the rise of the penny press, which coincided with the war itself.3 [End Page 156]

The poems exhibit the dangers of bullying political domination by senators, editors, and generals, but they also model dissent by interrupting (in the press) that domination (of the press) and...


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pp. 154-184
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