June 26, 2010

Higginson: Something to have lived for

From the diary of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 26, 1898:

Received degree of LL.D. somewhat tardily, but glad of delay for the sake of the roar of applause from the audience (beginning with the young men) which greeted it. It was wholly a surprise to me and was something to have lived for.

The honorary doctorate was from Harvard, his alma mater, where he was elected to Phi Theta Kappa at age 16. Colonel Higginson was accomplished as an officer in the Civil War, as an editor, and as a writer. His "better late than never" attitude might have been a reference to his having already received an honorary degree two years earlier from Case Western Reserve University, while his own alma mater was just catching up.

Earlier in 1898, Higginson also published Cheerful Yesterdays, an autobiographical memoir with a title inspired by William Wordsworth's Excursion. In his second chapter, titled "A Child of the College," Higginson praises Harvard:

I come back to Cambridge every autumn, when the leaves are falling from the trees, and the old university, like the weird witch-hazel in the groves, puts out fresh blossoms at the season when all else grows sere.

Higginson goes on to describe his reaction to seeing the newest-matriculated class of freshmen, "boys... full of the zest of their own being, taking the whole world as having been made for them, which indeed it was." Higginson himself was a freshman at Harvard at age 13. It's not hard to imagine him as one of the "kings of to-morrow" when he was a student.

Even so, biographer Brenda Wineapple suggests that these later works of Higginson's, including Cheerful Yesterdays, watered-down his radical past as an abolitionist, military man, feminist, etc. This was partly his own fault for writing his "cheerful" reminiscences. He also purposely disassociated himself; in 1896, he was working on an essay titled "The Recollections of a Radical" — but changed the title for being too combative.

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