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A first in Newfoundland literature


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



The name Robert Traill Spence Lowell is most recognizable to students of literature as that of a 20th century American poet who lived from 1917-1977. He had no direct connection with Newfoundland. His great-grandfather, who bore the same name, did. Robert Traill Spence Lowell was born in Boston, Mass., on Oct. 8, 1816, the son of Harriet Brackett Spence and Charles Lowell. He was educated at Round Hill School in nearby Northhampton, after which he attended Harvard University, graduating in 1833.

After attempts at both medicine and business, Lowell decided on the ministry as his career path. He entered into study with the Rev. Alonzo Potter of the Protestant Episcopal Church - the name under which the Church of England operated in the United States after the War of Independence - in Schenectady, N.Y.

Before his ordination, Lowell completed a master's degree at Harvard, where in the fall of 1842 he met Aubrey Spencer, Church of England Bishop of Newfoundland and Bermuda. Spencer took a liking to Lowell and secured his transferral to Spencer's ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Lowell was ordained to the priesthood by Spencer in March 1843, following which he was sent, at his own request, to St. Matthew's parish in Bay Roberts.

Clergy performed more than clerical and liturgical functions in 19th-century Newfoundland. They were advocates for the social welfare of their parishioners, and as such were often at odds with government officials over the most effective means to meet the needs of these people, especially in time of hardship.

Lowell encountered such hardship first-hand three years after his arrival. During the summer and early fall of 1846 a poor fishery, blight in the potato crop and a severe gale resulted in utter destitution for many people, who were left without shelter or food and no money to see them through the winter.

As relief commissioner, it was Lowell's responsibility to administer the meagre amount of money and foodstuffs provided by the government to assist those in need.

In attempting to do his job in a manner he thought fair to all, he ran afoul of the greed of local merchants and the partisan spoils system that governed local politics.

It was a harrowing learning experience for a young man from a well-to-do New England family.

In many ways it broke his spirit, and the following summer he left Bay Roberts.

He spent the remainder of ministerial service in parishes in the eastern United States, and finished his career as a professor of Latin at Union College in Schenectady.

His departure from Newfoundland did not mean that Lowell forgot the people he had ministered to in Bay Roberts.

Soon after his arrival back in the United States he embarked upon a vigorous and highly successful campaign to raise funds for those who were still suffering the effects of the previous year's troubles.

Lowell was an astute and perceptive observer of the people with whom he came into contact. He had an eye for landscape and an ear for dialogue. Eleven years after leaving Newfoundland, he published New Priest in Conception Bay, a novel set in the imaginary community of Peterview, a thinly disguised Bay Roberts. It was the first attempt to capture the people of Newfoundland and their way of life on a literary canvas.

The novel is the first to present a local Newfoundland dialect in print, and Lowell succeeds admirably in his task. While some of the main characters are somewhat dull and overdrawn, the minor characters provide a true-to-life account of the people who populated rural Newfoundland in the mid-19th century.

He recreated several incidents with which he was either familiar or had learned about during his stay in the community, and they add local charm and colour, drama and tragedy to the narrative.

The novel suffers from an obvious sectarian bias, with Protestant heroes versus Catholic villains, and evangelical proselytising.

The book was received with great critical acclaim in the United States; a second edition was printed in 1864 and a revised edition was published in 1889.

But then it went out of favour, known only to bibliographers and literary historians.

It was revived in 1974 with its re-publication by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. as part of the New Canadian Library series, with an introduction by Newfoundland literary historian Patrick O'Flaherty.

Lowell also wrote a short story and several poems based on Newfoundland themes and experiences.

His literary accomplishments have been overshadowed by those of his brother, the poet James Russell Lowell, and his great-grandson, both of whom secured a place in the American literary canon.

There is one other link between Lowell and Newfoundland. During the fall of 1845 he returned to the United States. While there, on Oct. 28, he married Mary Anne Duane of Duanesberg, N.Y. She eventually joined him in Bay Roberts, and on Jan. 13, 1847, gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Harriet Brackett Spence. Two other daughters and four sons completed the family in the years to follow.

Robert Traill Spence Lowell died in Schenectady on Sept. 12, 1891.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (September 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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