Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
“MY literary life, such as it has been,” writes Colonel Higginson, “affords no lesson greatly worth recording, unless it be the facility with which a taste for books may be transmitted and accumulated from one generation to another, and then developed into a lifelong pursuit by a literary environment. To go no further back, my paternal ancestors in America were Puritan clergymen, who wrote many books, a few of which are still quoted…. My father wrote several pamphlets, and my mother some children’s books, in one or two of which I figured; my eldest brother wrote a little book against slavery. All this must surely have been enough to guarantee a little infusion of printer’s ink into my blood. Then as to externals: my father, having lost a moderate fortune by Jefferson’s embargo, came to Cambridge [Massachusetts] and became steward—or, as it is now called, bursar—of Harvard College. He built a house, in which I was born, at the head of a street then called Professors’ Row, because so many professors lived on it….  1
  “I was thus born and cradled within the college atmosphere, and amid a world of books and bookish men, the list of these last including many since famous who were familiar visitors at our house…. My first nurse, if not a poet, was the theme of poetry, being one Rowena Pratt, the wife of Longfellow’s ‘Village Blacksmith’; and no doubt her singing made the heart of her young charge rejoice, as when she sang in that Paradise to which the poet has raised her. Later I ‘tumbled about in a library,’ as Holmes recommends, and in the self-same library where he practiced the like gymnastics…. At home the process could be repeated in a comfortable library of Queen Anne literature in delightful little old-fashioned editions, in which I began to browse as soon as the period of ‘Sandford and Merton’ and Miss Edgeworth’s ‘Frank’ had passed.  2
  “It passed early, for it was the custom in those days to teach children to read, and sometimes to write, before they were four years old—a practice now happily discontinued. Another more desirable custom prevailed in the household, for my mother read aloud a great deal in the evening; and I thus became familiar with Scott’s novels, as I sat gazing in the fire or lay stretched in delicious indolence upon the hearth-rug…. Lowell and Story were my schoolmates, though five years older; and when to all this early circle of literary persons was added the unconscious weight of academic influence behind, with all the quaint bookish characteristics of that earlier Cambridge, it will be seen that merely to have lived in such a milieu was the beginning of a literary training. This must be my justification for dwelling on items which would otherwise be without interest to any one but myself: they indicate the class of influences which not only made a writer out of me, but accomplished a similar result for Hedge, Holmes, Margaret Fuller, Lowell, and Norton….  3
  “My father’s financial losses secured for me a valuable combination of circumstances—the tradition of social refinement united with the practice of economy. This last point was further emphasized by his death when I was ten years old; and I, as the youngest of a large family, was left to be brought up mainly by women, and fortunately by those whom I was accustomed to seeing treated with intellectual respect by prominent men. Their influence happily counteracted a part of that received from an exceedingly rough school to which I was sent at eight years old….  4
  “At thirteen I entered Harvard College, being already very tall for my age and of mature appearance, with some precocity of intellect and a corresponding immaturity of character…. I graduated at about the time when young men now enter college—seventeen and a half years; and spent two years in teaching before I came back for post-graduate studies to Cambridge. Those two years were perhaps the most important in my life. Most of them were passed in the family of a cousin…. All my experience of college instructors had given me no such personal influence as that of my cousin, and it so fell in with the tendencies of that seething period—the epoch of Brook Farm, of receding Transcendentalism, of dawning Fourierism—that it simply developed more methodically what would probably have come at any rate…. When I came to him I had begun the study of the law, and all my ambition lay that way; but his unconscious attrition, combined with the prevailing tendencies of the time, turned me from that pursuit and from all ‘bread studies,’ as they used to be called, toward literature and humanitarian interests….  5
  “I came back to Cambridge expecting to fit myself for some professorship in philology, or metaphysics, or natural science. Not knowing exactly what the result would be, I devoted two happy years to an immense diversity of reading, in which German literature on the whole predominated…. Circumstances and influences drew me at last aside to the liberal ministry; a thing which I have never regretted, though it occupied me only temporarily, and I gravitated back to literature at last.”  6
  These fragments of a sketch which Colonel Higginson wrote for the Forum in 1886 clearly forecast the general character of his life; but they do not adequately indicate the humanity and the benevolent sympathy with the oppressed which have given that life its crowning grace. After leaving the theological school in 1847, he was settled over the first religious society of Newburyport. He became not long after—in 1850—a candidate for Congress on the Free Soil ticket. After his defeat, his antislavery principles having become distasteful to his parish, he resigned his charge and undertook the ministry of the Free Church at Worcester. The year following this settlement,—that is, in 1853,—he was at the head of the body of men who attacked the Boston court-house for the rescue of Anthony Burns the fugitive slave. He played a manful part throughout the political imbroglio which preceded the Civil War, and in 1856 assisted in forming Free State emigrant parties for Kansas. Journeying to the very heart of the turbulent district, he served as a soldier with the free settlers against the pro-slavery invaders from Missouri. In 1858 he retired from the ministry and devoted himself to literature. ‘Thalatta,’ a collection of verse relating to the sea, to which he contributed and which he in part edited, was published in 1853.  7
  Immediately following the outbreak of the Civil War, Mr. Higginson recruited several companies of Massachusetts volunteers, and in 1862 organized the regiment of South Carolina volunteers, the first regiment of blacks mustered into the Federal service. With such crude soldiery he made raids into the interior, at one time penetrating so far south as Florida, and capturing Jacksonville. In 1864 he retired from service on account of general debility caused by a wound. Some years later he removed from Newport to his birthplace, Cambridge, where he established a permanent home. In 1880–81 he was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and in 1889 was made State military and naval historian.  8
  Higginson’s identification with nearly every movement of his time looking to the amelioration of human life has been complete, and he has never been backward in declaring his adherence during the unpopular phases of the questions; such, for instance, as concern slavery, and the right of women to make the most of themselves always and everywhere. His sympathies with the questions involved in the latter issue, in fact,—the justice of giving to women higher education, equal opportunities with men in the business world, and political enfranchisement,—have given rise to many of his happiest and most popular essays. It is as an essayist that he is best known. The elegance of his style, the precision and finish of his diction, and his high obedience to art, are not unfair evidence that Addison and his Spectator had a permanent influence over the youthful mind, in the comfortable library of Queen Anne literature of which he speaks in the fragments quoted above. His amenity of manner, grace of feeling, and gleaming humor, belong wholly to our own half of the nineteenth century; and the very essence of Queen Anne’s age of wigs—an artificiality that covered and concealed nature—is replaced in him by a sane and simple naturalness.  9
  Colonel Higginson’s published volumes are numerous; but nearly all are collections of essays, in which literature, outdoor life, history, and heroic philanthropy in a wide sense, furnish the chief themes. ‘Army Life in a Black Regiment’ may be regarded as a chapter of autobiography, or as a memorable leaf in the story of the great Civil War. His romance ‘Malbone’ is largely a transcript from actual life, the chief character being drawn from the same friend of Higginson who figures as Densdeth in Winthrop’s ‘Cecil Dreeme.’ The ‘Life of Margaret Fuller,’ again, was a labor of love, a tribute of loyalty to a woman who had most vitally influenced his early years. His translation of Epictetus may be explained in a somewhat similar fashion. The volume of his verse is small, and includes no ambitious creative work. He is lyric in quality, and has a tenderness, purity, and simplicity which endear his verse to some readers for whom his exquisitely elaborated prose is less effective.  10
  In the Atlantic Monthly for 1897 Colonel Higginson publishes his memoirs, under the happily characteristic title, ‘Cheerful Yesterdays.’ He died May 9, 1911.  11

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