Thomas Wentworth Higginson - Crusader and Writer

Dublin, NH has been a center for intellectual and artistic endeavor for almost 150 years. This is one in a series of articles exploring this heritage.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson came to Dublin sometime in the 1880’s, later building a summer estate “Glimpsewood” in 1890.  Although largely forgotten today, Higginson was considered one of the great intellects of his time.  Among forty candidates in a public poll conducted by the Literary Life magazine, Higginson ranked fourth in importance by then living Americans behind only Thomas Edison, Mark Twain (who he shared a summer in Dublin with), and Andrew Carnegie. He was one of the leading advocates for change on a range of social issues. As a Unitarian minister, editor, and writer, he spoke or wrote about slavery, war, women's suffrage and rights, temperance, civil service reform, reconstruction, and countless other issues of the day.  His advocacy did not end in intellectual endeavors however.

A committed abolitionist, he supported John Brown by carrying rifles and ammunition to Kansas free staters who opposed Kansas becoming a slave state and twice participated in plans to rescue captured slaves who were in jail awaiting return to their masters in the South. When Brown was arrested after the failure of his attempted raid on Harper's Ferry, Higginson was part of a small group (the “Secret Six”) that planned an aborted attempt to break him out of jail.  

In 1862, he became the Colonel and commanding officer of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Black regiment in the Civil War.  His regiment fought alongside the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the attempted capture of Fort Wagner (the story of which is chronicled in the movie “Glory”). He continued to serve until wounds or disease forced his release from the war.

Higginson played a similarly important leadership role in the women's movement. He published frequently on women's rights comparing the status of women without a vote to that of Blacks without a voice in the political process. With feminist Lucy Stone and others, he helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association and was co-editor of the organization's Woman's Journal. He frequently advocated for equal pay for similar work, especially for teachers, and for the right of women to vote and to have access to education. He was associated with other feminist leaders including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

After the Civil War, he became less directly politically active and increasingly devoted his time to literature. His poetry appeared in several journals and he contributed regularly to the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe, the Nation, and Woman’s Journal. Higginson published more than 500 essays and 35 books. He wrote for over 50 years, producing memoirs, novels, political tracts, and biographies.

While a prolific and well recognized author in his time, Higginson is best known in literary circles today as the friend, mentor and editor of Emily Dickinson.  Dickinson sent Higginson some of her poems after she read his 1862 Atlantic Monthly essay, "Letter to a Young Contributor," which offered generic advice to writers submitting their first manuscripts.  Despite his war service, he began a long correspondence with Dickinson advising her on her work. The two met for the first time in 1870 and maintained frequent correspondence until Dickinson’s death in 1886. The reclusive Dickinson sent Higginson over 100 poems throughout their 25-year correspondence.  It was Higginson who edited Dickinson’s first volumes of poetry which were published posthumously in 1890 and 1891.  In his introduction, he declared her a “wholly new and original poetic genius.”

As a summer resident of Dublin, Higginson was at the center of the intellectual life of Dublin until his death in 1911.  His renown led many other writers and thinkers to take up summer residences in Dublin as the town became, first, a center of intellectual thought, and, later, an arts community.

Various articles written by Higginson for The Atlantic, including "Letter to a Young Contributor" and "Emily Dickinson's Letters" are available online at The Atlantic.  

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