James Russell Lowell, Early Rapper
The other day on Instagram, I shared four anti-war lines from James Russell Lowell’s serial poem, The Biglow Papers. Tricia Tierney, friend and writer, pointed out the similarity of the lines to the rhythms of rap. I had to gasp — she was absolutely right.
Wut’s the use of meeting’-goin’,
Every Sabbath, wet or dry,
Ef it’s right to go amowin’
Feller Men like oats and rye?
Supply a beat and not only the rhythm but the narrative of the poem fits in the mold of rap music. Lowell wrote his poem to protest against what he saw as the political and social threats of his time, including warmongering, slavery, and materialism. And like some of the best rap lyrics, Lowell chose to use the dialects and nuances of those he defined as his people — old Yankee souls — to present his arguments.
The Biglow Papers was written over a period of months, a project begun after the death of Lowell’s first child, a baby girl named Blanche. Jamie and his wife Maria were devastated by her sudden death, which had been brought on by a bout of teething — or, more likely, by the doctor’s treatment for it, bloodletting and purging. Channeling his despair into work, Lowell began to write the poem in his third-floor aerie at Elmwood, the house where he lived with his father, wife, and sister. He hung over his desk Blanche’s tiny shoes, the tied laces hanging from a nail; they would remain there for the rest of his life.
The year was 1847 and the United States was at war with Mexico, a war brought on by U.S. annexation of Texas. Many Northerners, including members of the Lowell family, saw the war as a strategy by the Southern states to increase slave-holding territory and by extension, the power of slaveholding interests in the political and economic life of the United States.
Jamie took pen to paper to protest the war and the machinations of the southern interests. As a tool in expressing what he thought of as Yankee wit and wisdom — which he saw as a corrective against materialistic, despotic, and inhumane slaveholding interests — he used the old dialects of New England in his poem. The country needed saving, Jamie reckoned, and there were none who could show the way better than the three characters he brought to life in his poem: the faithful Parson; the simple Yankee farmer Biglow; and the immoral rascal Sawin.
The three fellows observed, opined and condemned (or celebrated, in the case of Sawin, a southern sympathizer and war monger) all the issues of the time: the folly and dangers of Manifest Destiny; the degradations of slavery, not only for the enslaved but the slaveholders; the hypocrisy of politicians; the prevalence of greed; and the brutal realities of War. As Biglow himself put it:
Ez fer war, I call it murder, -
There you hev it plain an’ flat….
you take a sword an’ dror it,
An’ go stick a feller thru,
Guv’mint an’t to answer for it,
send the bill to you.
The Biglow Papers was a huge success, popular with critics and readers alike. Lowell had used humor, satire, and grim reality to portray his country as he saw it and the country in return (at least in the North) lapped it up. He became the most read and recited poet in the United States — and perhaps the country’s earliest political rapper.
Find out more about James Russell Lowell and other Lowells at The Lowells of Massachusetts. The book, The Lowells of Massachusetts: An American Family will be released April 11, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press and is available for preorder.