Article abstract: Higginson wrote prolifically but is best known in the literary world as the discoverer of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. He is notable for commanding a regiment of black enlisted men in the Civil War and for laboring in social causes such as the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
Although the large family into which Thomas Wentworth Storrow Higginson was born in 1823 as the youngest child was not as wealthy as they had once been, there was never any doubt that he would be educated at Harvard. In 1823 Stephen Higginson, then serving as Harvard University steward, had retained a library of one thousand books from more prosperous days, and by the age of four Thomas was rummaging among them. The boy’s grandfather and great-grandfather had been merchants and shipowners, and the former continued to live in style despite hard times. Thomas’ mother, Louise, was descended from Appletons and Wentworths, both colonial New England families of note, but she had been orphaned early and had lodged with relatives.
Thus the young Thomas Higginson knew early that he came from a privileged family with concomitant civic and social responsibilities but one forced to come to terms with the limitations and impediments of relative poverty. These lessons would later help guide him in his multifaceted career. Because his bright sister Louisa numbered the brilliant Margaret Fuller among her friends, Higginson, the future champion of women’s rights, also became aware that girls could not expect the Harvard education that young men of good families in his area could virtually take for granted. After five years in a “Dame School,” the nine-year-old Higginson began to study the obligatory Latin grammar in a private school, where one of his friends was the future poet James Russell Lowell. The next year Higginson’s father, who had been dismissed from his Harvard post several years earlier, died; in 1837, the thirteen-year-old boy entered Harvard as its youngest freshman.
His next decade began and ended there, with several short-lived jobs sandwiched between. As an undergraduate, Higginson absorbed Harvard’s liberal intellectual atmosphere and took up one of its more extreme liberal positions: abolition. In the 1840’s he began to write poetry and grew a beard, then a symbol of defiance of the established order. At length he settled on a career as a minister, earned an impressive record at the Divinity School, and graduated in 1847.
In 1847, after a long engagement, Higginson, buoyed by the prospect of a pastorate in Newburyport, Massachusetts, married Mary Channing. He also met and came to admire Lucy Stone, one of the pillars of the movement for women’s rights, but his own advocacy of women and black Americans won him few friends among the prominent white males in his congregation, and after two years he was asked to leave.
Shaken by the rejection, Higginson did not seek another pastorate but for the next three years worked for various liberal causes. In 1852, however, he accepted an appointment as the first pastor of the newly organized Free Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, and found there a congregation receptive to his abolitionist views. Increasingly, he preferred action to sermonizing on behalf of his causes, and his activities turned disruptive and even violent. He accompanied Stone and Worcester reformer Abby Kelley Foster to the World’s Temperance Convention in New York in 1853, and when the efforts of Higginson, Stone, and Susan B. Anthony to instill women’s rights issues into the convention split the delegations, they formed their own “Half World’s Convention.” The following year, Higginson spearheaded an abortive rescue of a captured fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, in the course of which a policeman was killed. Those arrested and indicted for promoting a riot included Higginson, although he was never brought to trial. In the fall of 1856, he left his congregation to an assistant pastor and joined a group of Free-Soil activists in Kansas. Although he does not seem to have participated directly in violence there, this adventure acquainted him with the militant activities of John Brown, whom Higginson championed thereafter. One of Higginson’s more peaceful efforts of the 1850’s was performing the marriage ceremony of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, brother of Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation’s first female physician.
Higginson also wrote industriously during these years, including a considerable body of largely unsuccessful poetry and, more important, a series of essays on various topics in The Atlantic Monthly. The essay with the most far-reaching effects did not appear until early in 1862. Titled “A Letter to a...
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