James Thomas Fields was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of a sea captain who died when James was an infant. He and his brother were raised by his mother, aunt and uncle. After some local schooling, at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a publishing company in Boston. He started to write poetry and came to attention with his anniversary poem entitled Commerce to the Boston Mercantile Library Association.
In 1839 he joined the publishing and bookselling firm known after 1845 as Ticknor and Fields. Ticknor looked after the Business side and he the literary. The firm rapidly became one of America’s leading publishers, with authors such as De Quincey, Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Twain and Whittier among their titles. Nathaniel Hawthorne maintained that he owed his success to this firm. He actually met Charles Dickens in 1842 during Dickens’s tour of the United States and was mightily impressed with him.
In 1844 he got engaged to Mary Willard but she died the following year of tuberculosis before the marriage. Five years later he married her eighteen year-old sister but she was also to die a year later of the same illness. Grief-stricken, he travelled to Europe where he met Thomas de Quincey. In 1854 he marrie Annie Adams, An author and cousin of his first wife. Together they held literary salons in their Boston home which were attended by the leading American writer, many of whose works his firm had published. In 1959 he made a trip to England where he visited Dickens at his home in Kent and also met Wilkie Collins.
In 1859 Ticknor and Fields purchased the Atlantic Monthly and Fields took over as its editor two years later. In 1864 Ticknor died and four years later the firm became Fields, Osgood and Company. He retired from the business in 1871 and thereafter devoted himself to writing and lecturing. In 1879 he suffered a brain haemorrhage and died two years later. His wife was devastated and wrote his biography, Memoirs of James T Fields, by His Wife. She later formed a very strong friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett, which may not have been purely platonic.
James Fields did not write a great deal of poetry but what he did write was witty and well crafted, his best known poems being the Owl-Critic and The Ballad of the Tempest, the tale of a providential escape from a potential shipwreck. He only published two collections of poetry, Poems in 1849 and Ballads and Verses in 1881. He also wrote an autobiography, Yesterday with Authors and a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was a highly successful and shrewd book promoter and well respected by the authors he dealt with. After his death Longfellow wrote the poem Auf Wiedersehen, dedicated to him.