December 22, 2012

Guest post: Birth of Higginson

American literary history doesn’t feature too many significant villains, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson would certainly seem to qualify. Higginson, who was born on December 22, 1823, has come to be known principally for two destructive roles in relationship to Emily Dickinson: his editorial critiques of her poetry in her lifetime (which, the accounts often go, discouraged her even further from seeking publication or audience); and his editorial revisions of her poetry after her death (which led to the standardized versions of her works that first gained national prominence in the late 19th century and were only challenged many decades later).

While Higginson did contribute to some of those posthumous revisions (such as insisting that each poem have a title), it seems clear that most were due instead to Mabel Loomis Todd; Higginson himself expressed strong reservations about what was being lost in the process. Moreover, and to my mind even more importantly, Higginson's evolving editorial relationship to Dickinson while she was alive was far more complex, and more meaningful to the poet, than the standard narrative suggests. Higginson wrote with sensitivity and candor about the stages, limits, and possibilities of that relationship, through the specific lens of Dickinson's challenging and compelling letters to him (which constitute, as do all of her letters, poems in their own right), in an 1891 essay for the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Emily Dickinson's Letters."

If the standard narratives of Higginson's roles and relationship with Dickinson are thus frustratingly simplistic and inaccurate on their own terms, the focus on them also obscures his hugely meaningful contributions to American literature, culture, and society throughout the second half of the 19th century. Perhaps one reason why Higginson and Dickinson could not quite understand each other was that for Higginson, the social and political realms were apparently entirely inseparable from the literary; virtually all of his published works engage directly with his activist and progressive goals and efforts. A dedicated abolitionist and the Colonel of the first authorized regiment of U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War (the First South Carolina Volunteers), Higginson later wrote Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870) about those experiences. A lifelong advocate for women’s rights, he published readable arguments for those ideas in works such as Common Sense about Women (1881) and Women and Men (1888). And when he turned in his final decade to biographies and anthologies of American literature, such as the lectures collected in A Readers History of American Literature (1903), he not only helped define our literary tradition for a new century, but illustrated his own prominent place in that tradition.

For all those reasons, we would do well to afford Higginson that place as we continue to redefine our literary and cultural heritage.

*Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He has previously served as President of the New England American Studies Association and currently maintains the AmericanStudies blog. His most recent book, Redefining American Identity, was published by Macmillan in March 2011.

9 comments:

  1. Don't forget the Margaret Fuller biography.

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  2. I don't think this article was meant to be a complete bibliography, Peter. An earlier post about TWH's work on Fuller, however, is here.

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  3. Thanks for the addition, Peter! Definitely a work that combines Higginson's support for women's rights (and writing) with his help in redefining our literary tradition.

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  4. This is such a marvelous post. One of the more powerful images. It stirs my heart.

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  5. Higginson is a fascinating guy and a particular interest of mine. I have collected many of his books in their original published form as well as most of the published biographies of him. In a long life of writing, T.W. Higginson wrote essays, histories, biographies, poems, social commentaries, nature studies and science fiction. He was one of the Secret Six that contributed to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and the only one that never denied it.

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  6. Emily Dickinson's letters to Higginson are also reprinted in a collection called "Carlyle's Laugh".

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  7. Thanks for the comment, Bill! Lots more reasons to add Higginson to our collective memory/tradition than I was able to highlight, and I appreciate your sharing more of 'em.

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  8. Thomas Wentworth Higginson commanded the first regiment of freed slaves 1st South Carolina Volunteers later 33 USCT and wrote Army Life In A Black Regiment, one of the best Civil War memoirs. He also preserved black spirituals that would otherwise have been lost. Anybody who calls him a villain is an _____________________ . Fill in the blank with something that would cause this to be deleted LOL

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  9. Peter, I hope you read this article before you made the comment (even though you already read and commented on it when it was first published in 2012). Dr. Railton was not calling Higginson a villain, but defending him from those who did. The other information you wrote was equally represented in the article.

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