James Russell Lowell by Daniel Chester French
It was very late last Saturday night, in fact around three or four o’clock Sunday morning, when four or five men put their muscle to dislodging the bronze bust of James Russell Lowell from its pedestal in the Lowell House courtyard. What they thought they were doing is beyond my imagining. The bust is heavy, weighing perhaps 500 pounds. It could not have been easy to pry it up from its base. Indeed, the groove at the top of the pedestal seems to have been made by a crowbar, hammered into the base. The bolts that held the piece in place were four or five inches long and came out of the base with the bronze bust when it was toppled to the ground. At that point at least four strong men must have dragged the bust behind the yew trees to a huge garbage can with wheels into which they perhaps thought they could slide the bust, then tip it up and wheel it away. . .somewhere. Alas, this was probably beyond their strength, or perhaps it dawned on them that there was nowhere to go wheeling a huge and heavy trashcan. Or perhaps they had a sighting of the Securitas officer. In any case, James Russell Lowell lay with his head in an overturned trashcan as the snow fell that night.
James Russell Lowell, Class of 1838, was born at Elmwood, the Lowell family estate in Cambridge, now the residence of the president of Harvard University. He was a poet, an abolitionist, and ambassador to Spain and later to the Court of St. James. The artist Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) grew up in Concord and briefly attended MIT before undertaking an apprenticeship as a sculptor. His first work was in his native Concord when, at the age of 24, he cast the bronze image of the Minuteman that stands on Concord Green. At Harvard, his best-known work is the statue of John Harvard (1884), and nationwide it is the marble statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (1920). The bronze bust of Lowell was commissioned by the Harvard Class of 1883 to be placed in Massachusetts Hall. It was moved to Lowell House soon after the House was built in 1930.
Being a House Master at Harvard is a many-sided job, which is why I consider it a joy. On a week like this one, it involves not only teaching a full load of classes, but also pouring a hundred cups of tea on Thursday, attending a Master’s Dinner with government professor Beth A. Simmons, listening to two five-minute Lowell House speeches each night, delivered by our students in the Dining Hall, interviewing talented graduate students applying to be resident tutors, encouraging our Dining Hall staff when the Lowerator breaks yet again and they have to scrape and stack all the dirty dishes, and hosting a cocktail party for the support of the Lowell House Opera.
Being a House Master also includes taking responsibility as a curator for the portraits, sculptures, and furnishings of the House, most of which are the property of the Harvard Art Museums. Last summer, I spent a month creating a booklet, “Hanging Around Lowell House,” documenting and describing for students and visitors the portraits of the men and women, mostly men, who live with us in the Dining Hall, the Common Rooms, the Courtyard, and the Masters’ Residence. Of course, there were a lot of Lowells, and none more beloved in 19th century Harvard than James Russell Lowell. It was not a joy to find him snow-covered in a trashcan on Sunday.
It took five men from the University Art Museums to lift the bronze bust, to slide it onto a sled to be wrapped, secured, and wheeled away. The Fogg staff present assured us that this could not possibly have been an attempted art theft, calculated to get a Daniel Chester French bronze into the market. It was surely, as we all might have imagined, a misguided, alcohol-soaked caper linked, perhaps, to inter-house rivalry or to the theft that same night of the Lowell House banner that has hung in the Dining Hall each night for the past month as a backdrop to the podium where our students deliver their speeches.
It is my hope that those who toppled this bronze bust will come forward to amend this act and offer compensation to have the bust restored to its place. I hope they do so for their sake and for the good of a community in which theft and vandalism have no place in community spirit. But whatever happens, I hope this act will have a sobering effect on those involved when they think about what they have done. And I am quite certain that when they take their families to pose at the John Harvard statue or take their children to the Lincoln Memorial, they will remember this late-night incident with deep regret.
Diana L. Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and co-House Master of Lowell House.