Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823 – May 9, 1911) was an American author, abolitionist, and soldier.
Higginson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was a descendant of Francis Higginson, a Puritan minister and emigrant to the colony of Massachusetts Bay. He was a grandson of Stephen Higginson, a member of the Continental Congress, and a cousin of Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He graduated from Harvard in 1841, and was a schoolmaster for two years. He then studied theology at the Harvard Divinity School, becoming pastor first of the First Religious Society (Unitarian) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and then of the Free Church at Worcester in 1852–58.
Politics and action
Higginson was a Free Soil candidate for Congress in 1850, but was defeated. He was indicted along with Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker for his participation in the attempt to rescue the fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, from jail in Boston, in 1854. He was later engaged in the effort to make Kansas a free state after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, and traveled there in behalf of the New England Emigration Aid Society. He was a member of the Secret Six that supported abolitionist John Brown in his efforts to arm former slaves.
During the Civil War Higginson was a captain in the 51st Massachusetts Volunteers. From November 1862 to October 1864, when he was retired because of a wound received in the preceding August, he was colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first regiment recruited from former slaves for the Federal service. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton required that black regiments be commanded by white officers. Higgingson described his Civil War experiences in Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870). He also contributed to the preservation of Negro Spirituals by copying dialect verses and music he heard sung around the regiment's campfires.
In politics Higginson was successively a Republican, an Independent and a Democrat. His writings show a deep love of nature, art and humanity, and are marked by vigour of thought, sincerity of feeling, and grace and finish of style. In his Common Sense About Women (1881) and his Women and Men (1888) he advocated equality of opportunity and equality of rights for the two sexes.
Higginson is also remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to Emily Dickinson.
In April 1862, Higginson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled "Letter to a Young Contributor," in which he advised budding young writers. Emily Dickinson, a 32-year-old woman from Amherst, Massachusetts sent a letter to Higginson, enclosing four poems and asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" (Letter 261) He was not — his reply included gentle "surgery" (that is, criticism) of Dickinson's raw, odd verse, questions about Dickinson's personal and literary background, and a request for more poems.
Higginson's next reply contained high praise, causing Dickinson to reply that it "gave no drunkenness" only because she had "tasted rum before"; she still, though, had "few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue" (Letter 265). But in the same letter, Higginson warned her against publishing her poetry because of its defiant form and unconventional style.
Gradually, Higginson became Dickinson's mentor and "preceptor," though he himself almost felt out of Dickinson's league. "The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me," he wrote, and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy." ("Emily Dickinson's Letters," Atlantic Monthly October 1891) After Dickinson died, Higginson collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd in publishing volumes of her poetry — heavily edited in favor of conventional punctuation, diction, and rhyme. But Higginson's intellectual prominence helped Dickinson's altered but still startling and strange poetry gain favor, becoming quick bestsellers and lasting classics.
Among his numerous books are:
- Outdoor Papers (1863)
- Malbone: an Oldport Romance (1869)
- Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (in American Men of Letters series, 1884)
- A Larger History of the United Stales of America to the Close of President Jackson's Administration (1885)
- The Monarch of Dreams (1886)
- Travellers and Outlaws (1889)
- The Afternoon Landscape (1889), poems and translations
- Life of Francis Higginson (in Makers of America, 1891)
- Concerning All of Us (1892)
- The Procession of the Flowers and Kindred Papers (1897)
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (in American Men of Letters series, 1902)
- John Greenleaf Whittier (in English Men of Letters series, 1902)
- A Readers History of American Literature (1903), the Lowell Institute lectures for 1903, edited by Henry W Boynton
- Life and Times of Stephen Higginson (1907)
Higginson published several memoirs, Cheerful Yesterdays (1898), Old Cambridge (1899), Contemporaries (1899), and Part of a Man's Life (1905). His collected works were published in seven volumes in 1900.
- The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), edited by Howard N. Meyer, Da Capo Press, 2000, 6000 pp.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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