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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

He is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as Emily Dickinson’s well-meaning but short-sighted “preceptor,” who in co-editing the first collection of her poetry smoothed away the vivid irregularity of her genius. By profession he was a Protestant clergyman; yet he organized and commanded the first regiment of black troops in the Civil War. By heritage, he was a Boston Brahmin; yet in 1854 he led a vigilante assault to free a fugitive slave from a federal courthouse, in the course of which a marshal was shot to death. He was one of nineteenth-century America’s best-known essayists and speakers; yet it was political activism on behalf of abolition, women’s rights, and the demands of working people that gave joy to much of his life. His long career may seem to our later eyes filled with paradoxes if not outright contradictions, yet to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, it was a life which, in looking back, he could describe as Cheerful Yesterdays.

The Higginsons, Stephen and Louisa Storrow, were descended from old Massachusetts and New Hampshire families. Wentworth, as he came to be called, was their tenth and last child, born December 22, 1823, in their home on “Professor’s Row” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The extensive Higginson library, the intellectual community of Cambridge, and later, the broad education provided by Harvard College, which Higginson entered in 1837 when he was 13, helped prepare him for life as an intellectual in what was then America’s intellectual capital. He credited to his mother the development of the “leading motives” of his life: “the love of personal liberty, of religious freedom, and of the equality of the sexes.” But like many of his friends, Higginson was deeply influenced by the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Margaret Fuller. Whatever its specific doctrines, the movement seemed to sweep away the constraints of tradition and to offer to a new generation the opportunity for carrying out “numberless projects of social reform.”

After graduating with the class of 1841, Higginson vacillated between the life of a poet and that of a preacher. He found little to interest him in Christian doctrine and was rather put off by church ritual. Still, the ministry did seem to provide opportunities for pursuing his passion for liberal reform, and especially the abolitionism to which he had become increasingly committed. “Preaching alone I should love,” he wrote, “but I feel inwardly that something more will be sought of me—An aesthetic life—how beautiful—but the life of a Reformer, a People’s Guide ‘battling for the right’—glorious, but, oh how hard!” This question of a vocation—or even an appropriate subject—would haunt Higginson throughout his life and perhaps explains why, despite his many talents and vigorous style, he never emerged as one of the outstanding writers of the century.

In 1847, Higginson was chosen by the First Religious Society of Newburyport as its pastor; the essentially conservative parishioners came to regard him and his new bride, Mary Channing, “as if we were handsome spotted panthers, good to look at and roaring finely—something to be proud of, perhaps—but not to be approached incautiously, or too near.” His ministry would last only a year—he later served six years at the decidedly unorthodox Free Church of Worcester—but Higginson quickly became involved with the concerns that would shape his life. He preached effectively against drink, and played an active role in the state Temperance Convention, as he later would in national temperance organizations. He opened an evening school for working people, and urged labor reforms, like the ten-hour day. He became active on behalf of women, in 1850 signing the call for the first national women’s rights convention; later, after breaking with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony over the issue of the Fifteenth Amendment, Higginson became a founder of the American Women’s Suffrage Association and was for fourteen years co-editor of its periodical, Women’s Journal.

But his primary commitment before the Civil War was to the abolition of slavery. While minister at Newburyport, he accepted John Greenleaf Whittier’s nomination to run for Congress as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil party—an action which essentially ended that ministry. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, he again ran for Congress, urging Newburyport voters to disobey the Act. In May of 1854 he was one of the main planners, and as events transpired a primary actor, in an attack on the Boston Court House designed, unsuccessfully, to free the fugitive Anthony Burns from the slave power. Later, Higginson would travel and preach on behalf of the anti-slavery forces in “Bloody Kansas,” and he would become one of the “Secret Six” who raised money and support for John Brown’s raid. Late in the 1850s he wrote a series of essays on black rebellions, which would not be published in the Atlantic until after the war had broken out—part of one of these, on Nat Turner, is printed here. But his major contribution to the work of Emancipation was to undertake the training and command of the First South Carolina Volunteers. Higginson’s account of his command—and his education—is contained in Army Life in a Black Regiment, one of the most fascinating books to come out of the Civil War.

In the 46 years he lived after the war, Higginson remained active in a variety of causes, though he devoted himself increasingly to the pen and the lectern. He wrote volumes of history for adults and children, biographies of Margaret Fuller, Longfellow, and Whittier, an unsuccessful novel, Malbone (1870), interesting regional sketches, Oldport Days (1869), one of the few sensible books on women by a man, Common Sense About Women (1881), and a flow of essays about writing and writers.

One of these, a “Letter to a Young Contributer” published in the Atlantic just as he was leaving to take up his army command, brought a flood of responses, among them an enigmatic note from a young woman named Emily Dickinson, who wrote asking “if my verse is alive.” Thus began an irregular correspondence of twenty-five years, during which Dickinson played the role of pupil and Higginson that of “a preceptorship which,” he wrote, “it is almost needless to say did not exist.” His account of their only extended meeting is included in the book, as are a number of her letters to him. Higginson’s advice to delay publication until she had “mastered” poetic orthodoxy has been accused of being the cause of Dickinson’s failure to print her poems during her lifetime—rather an insubstantial notion, given Dickinson’s own ideas about publication and how she chose to share her poems. Undoubtedly, Higginson did not fully appreciate her work and he certainly took objectionable liberties in “regularizing” and titling her poems when he co-edited the first volume of her verse after her death. That is, he shared many of the critical limits of his time—including a distaste for Whitman. But he did recognize in Dickinson a “wholly new and original poetic genius” and he played a significant role in bringing her into print.

But history is nothing, if not ironic. Perhaps Higginson would have smiled to know that his long life had narrowed in literary history to a footnote in the tale of Emily Dickinson. And, perhaps, he would smile again to find his own work restored to a little of its independent value.
Paul Lauter
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
from Nat Turner's Insurrection (1861)
Letter to Mrs. Higginson on Emily Dickinson (1921) [n.b., First publication in Letters and Journals 1846-1906]

Other Works

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson
A photograph of Higginson.

Emily Dickinson's Letters, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Dickinson's letters to Higginson and Higginson's interspersed description of them.

Introduction to Todd and Higginson editions
Description of Higginison's collection of Dickinson poetry and links to 4 Dickinson poems.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Negro Spirituals"
A "Hypertext Edition" provided by the UVA American Hypertext Workshop.

Where Liberty Is Not, There Is My Country
An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Secondary Sources

Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1968

Howard N. Meyer, Colonel of the Black Regiment: The Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1967

James W. Tuttleton, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1978

Anna Mary Wells, Dear Preceptor: The Life and Times of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1963