Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 9. Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Varied Interests

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIII. Later Essayists

§ 9. Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Varied Interests

One of our earlier essayists, Henry T. Tuckerman,in his Defense of Enthusiasm attacked the New England philosophy of life because of its too preponderant insistence on mental capacity and moral tendencies, and wrote: “It seems as if the great art of human culture consists chiefly in preserving the glow and freshness of the heart.” Had Tuckerman lived in the later decades of the last century, he might, indeed, have felt out of sympathy with Norton, but not with many of our other essayists. The Civil War brought New England emotionally into the full flow of that larger national life for which Emerson and his school had prepared it, and while the later American essayists have abstained from chauvinism, and have written with the scholar’s appreciation of what foreign culture has to offer, theirs is a consistent and hopeful interpretation of American ideals. Consider, for instance, Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911). At the age of twenty-seven he gave up his pastorate at Newburyport because he ran counter to the sentiments of his congregation, believing that his foremost duty was to preach a word for mankind in attacking the institution of slavery. With Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips he became one of the leaders of the leaders of the Abolition movement, daring, in aiding the fugitive slaves, to obey a law higher for him than that of Congress. In the dangers of the battle-field he shared, when, as colonel of the first regiment of free coloured soldiers, he served in the inevitable conflict. His writings, beginning in 1853 and continuing almost incessantly for well over threescore years, carried him into fields of history, literature, education, and politics, and reveal him as sympathetically familiar with the culture of the ancients as with the creative thought of modern democracy. In his translation of Epictetus, in his delightful essay on Sappho, he was the scholar of catholic tastes, whose shelves in his simple Cambridge home gave equally gracious welcome to the message of the Stoics and the appealing human lyricism of Heine; yet who wrote in the fly-leaf of a copy of his own volume of essays entitled Old Cambridge, wherein he discusses the literary epochs of his native town and writes at length on Holmes, Longfellow, and Lowell: “This book is one of my favourites among my too numerous productions because it reproduces so fully the men and traditions which surrounded my early youth.” These traditions, whose finest essence his own life emphasizes, connoted for him those duties of citizenship that made him a militant intellectual leader to the end of his long life; perhaps not the least of his services being his espousal of the cause of woman suffrage, whereto his admiration for Margaret Fuller, whose life he wrote, contributed a quota of immediately personal enthusiasm. Yet so varied was Higginson’s culture, so easy flowing his style, so wide the fund of quotations on which he loved to draw, and so pleasant his wit, that his essays, even when propagandist, are literature. And through them all runs a stream of optimism which, let it be admitted, is to a great degree a matter of temperament yet no less constructive an element on that account. But for this optimism, this American faith in moulding the living material of his own day into the finer forms inherent in his country’s institutions, Emerson, the most influential of our essayists, would have had a lesser hold on the minds of his fellow citizens; and the value of Higginson comes largely from a similar happy endowment.