Chapter 1: Cambridge and Newburyport
From Divinity Hall Wentworth wrote his mother about the graduation exercises:
In 1847 Higginson made sundry visits at Newburyport preparatory to settling there as pastor of the Unitarian Church. In letters to his mother he introduces some of his future parishioners.
One of the first families visited was named Tracy.
About his neighbor, Whittier, he wrote again in the same year:
You will be interested to hear of a visit I made Whittier the other day. . . . He had taken up the vague notion of annexing all Mexico and seemed to Lord it in a very loose way too; even said more war would be better than making peace and getting slave territory, though I could n't make out how that was to help the matter. He was n't great on that tack, anyway — on  literary matters better. ... He had plenty of humor and talks very freely, making us feel very easy; gave a rich account of a come-outer who came in to their “First day meeting.”And later in 1849:
The Whittiers were very cordial to us, and I feel sure we shall know more of them. He is, perhaps, the most attractive poet I have known. Mr. Longfellow's polished gentlemanliness can be spared; and though he has not James Lowell's easy brilliancy, he yet makes himself very agreeable, and has the cordiality and affectionateness which J. R. L. wants. The difficulty with the latter is that, however kind and familiar, he never appears the least dependent on any one, or to care to hear the opinion or feeling of another — never to go beyond the sphere of his own thoughts and those of his wife — to hold the world off at arm's length as it were; which, however agreeable to himself, is no way pleasant to others. Now Whittier is willing to put others on a level with himself and make himself very entertaining too — a lovable person decidedly, I should think.These notes are taken from a journal of the same date:
Talk with Whittier... Among other talk was mentioned Wright's attack on Garrison in the “Chronotype.” . . . “It is essentially true what he says of garrison,” said he. “I know him thoroughly, and know that he is a despot. . . . Garrison identifies the  movement absolutely with himself. He is a Robespierre with the same perfect self-consecration and the same absolute incapacity of tolerating those who differ from himself; his course has been from the beginning that of Robespierre, stopping short of bloodshed.” “It may be partially so,” said I; “but he has been placed in a trying position. At the beginning he stood with remarkable prominence as undisputed sole head of the movement, and he has retained up to this time precisely that position.” ... “He has been so,” said he, “because he would be so.” “Not wholly that,” replied I, “for the place has been conceded to him by persons in all external advantages his superior — Wendell Phillips, Mrs. Chapman, E. Quincy.” “From Phillips,” said Whittier, “that deference is something, but not from Mrs. Chapman. She has been Garrison's evil genius and acted through him her own plans.” I protested against this and spoke strongly of her power, her magnetic influence, her appearance, etc. “Ah,” said he, very earnestly, and sighing also, “she once had that power over me, but she lost it forever long since. She has great power, no doubt of that. But I have seen that face of hers look as I never saw another woman look, and such that I never wish to see it again. It was in those trying times, and she had just written me a letter, expressing the strongest regard and confidence in me — stronger than there was any  need of expressing. We afterwards met and conversed, and after she had spoken in the strongest terms of denunciation of others . . . sparing no term of opprobrium,--liars and thieves, for instance,--I turned upon her and said, “Thee has heaped all this reproach upon my friends — how do I know that thee will not go to some one else and use the same language of me? Thee has written me a letter expressing more confidence than I ask for, and thee treats me accordingly now;--when I have just seen a letter from thee to--(W. did not say the name) in which thee says of me, “As to Whittier, he is either a fool or a knave.” And thee cannot deny it!” I never saw a face,” said Whittier, “that looked as hers did then; the beauty had all vanished, and she looked more like a demon than a woman. And I have never wished to see her face again.” “ And all,” said he, “because I would not join them in a crusade against those men. I could not do it. . . I never could or would be a member of any clique.” “ Ah,” said he, after a pause, “I have long ceased to expect that because men are reformers, they will therefore be better than other people. They are just the same.” I have written this conversation down as nearly as possible as it passed, from my perfect confidence in Whittier. . . . I am sorry to hear it, but it may not be necessarily inconsistent with the grand qualities which I have admired in Mrs. Chapman. He afterwards added, “I told her also that to make use of private letters, as she did, in public controversy,  was something I would never be guilty of in any cause.” I remember [hearing] long ago that Mrs. Chapman and Whittier were not on speaking terms; but I never heard him mention her before. Long afterward I adverted to this subject with Wendell Phillips (December, 1851). He said: “We never accused Whittier of any dishonorable conduct — he showed only timidity. He was identified with us and had much weight; he knew the whole case, knew that right was on one side and wrong on the other; he agreed with Mr. Garrison in the opinions for which he was cast off, he had no right to stand aloof and call it neutrality.”Higginson alluded to these dissensions in his life of Whittier and said, “It is needless to explore these little divergences of the saints.” An early letter speaks of the newly married Lowells.
The next reference to the Lowells was made in 1846:
Ere long Maria came up and glided gently in at the door. James looked round with his face so radiant, put his arms around her and seated her in the big chair he had been in. Then sat down close to her and gazed in her lovely face, and as we talked put his hand gently on hers and called her “dearest” and “darling,” and seemed perfectly to idealize her, and I felt that their relation in poetry was cold and barren compared to that in their daily life and I was happy to be with such lovely beings. But alas! Maria has a sad cough. Oh, what a misfortune it would be for the world if she were to pass away.... Maria talked more than I ever heard her before and I should never wish her to stop. She apologized for the aspect of James's room, but said it was much worse before he was married, at any rate. Whereupon James averred that she was like Admiral Van Tromp who carried a broom at his masthead.
Sundry letters to an old friend of the Divinity School days, Sam Johnson, were written from Newburyport.
To his mother, the young minister wrote weekly chronicles of his experiences.
Mr. Higginson's outspoken views on slavery finally led to his resignation.
The following spring he wrote, still in love with “the Mills” :
. .. That subterranean fire in Nature of which Thoreau speaks seems very near the surface; the buds and catkins are unusually large; we bring in alder blooms, in their winter dress, stiff and black, nearly an inch long, and the water soon brings them out, till they droop to long yellow tresses and then let fall their powdery seeds. We have tried the birch catkins also, but their time is later and they have not yet come out. Meanwhile even outdoors the little muddy lichen-cups rise under the snow, and overhead the oaks and beeches have still a perpetual summer in their withered leaves. There are no pines very near us, but the groves on the point across the river show now in their native greenness, now white with snow, now green with mist.  About his friend, Levi Thaxter, Higginson wrote his mother: Levi popped in, on his way to the Shoals. He and Mr. Leighton have bought the most beautiful of the islands; are going to bring it under cultivation, have a boarding-house for invalids and aesthetic visitors, and do something to civilize the inhabitants of the other islands. It is really quite the “Locksley Hall” idea “to burst all links of habit,” etc. He is in high spirits with the plan.Again he wrote in 1849:
We had last week a visit from Levi: . . he lives in a house by himself with his man John, a native, inseparable from him — like Robinson Crusoe precisely and very happy. You should have heard his accounts of his cooking and other experiences and our shouts of laughter. He had been down to Watertown to help fit out Jonas [Thaxter] for California! What a nice place for disposing of all odd sticks that is!--all except Levi, perhaps.Later the Higginsons spent several days at the Shoals, where Unitarian clergymen were congregating and where the Reverend John Weiss and his host were making things lively.
Meantime little Weiss is uttering all sorts of maledictions; he declares Sam [Longfellow] and I depressed him merely because we preached on Sunday; but I wonder what you would think of his depression. Never  a schoolboy in vacation was so full of glee, and his wild pranks with Levi are perpetually startling us, day and night. At night they have fireworks and get up at midnight blazing explosions on the staircase, with a mock alarm of fire, extinguished by themselves, with immense shouting and triumph, “with real water.” By day, the sudden shrieking of a child is heard from Weiss's room. We are astounded, while Levi rushing up reappears with the little man in his arms, his wonderful face contorted into an entirely infantile wretchedness. And so they go on. Weiss has the most beautifully expressive face I have ever seen; in fact his whole body is so small that the expression crowded into every part is more intense than any common person's utmost power; his shoulders say more than most people's mouths, and his glee and drollery are infinite; he takes the most enthusiastic delight in Maria Fay's and Mr. Angier's nightly singings, and his magnificent face is as good a part as any. I think I never knew anybody who made such an impression of genius; and this intense fun and diablerie, which is somewhat repressed among parishioners, works itself all out with Levi of whom he is very fond. We stay at Levi's. ... At the hotel are other clerical gentlemen. ... Celia Leighton looks twenty, though barely fifteen; she has entirely lost her affectation and her beauty and become a plain modest girl: she is thought highly of by her school-mistress and others, but shows no positive traits.
A little more than a year later, Higginson wrote to his mother of Levi Thaxter's marriage to Celia Leighton, in 1851.
. . You do not fully appreciate this strange and impracticable, but chivalrous and noble person whose immediate future it is hard and even sad to predict; whose past has been wayward and perhaps useless, but aspiring and stainless. ... Levi writes a funny account of the quiet little Kittery Point minister, Reverend Seth Somebody, his survival of the voyage more easily than of Jonas's witticisms, Jonas [Thaxter] the joker, on whose every wink and word the Reverend Seth hung in ecstasy; then his palpitations at the explosion of champagne corks and the feats of his moustached colleague (little Weiss). There were present all the Appledore Islanders, including Captain Fabius Becker from Smutty Nose; all the Weisses (the baby's cradle being kept in the room adjoining), and Jonas and Lucy Thaxter. “We had a merry time,”  closes Levi in his letter, “and then I took my dear wife home in the beautiful night, bright and clear with stars and a growing moon.”A letter about the Thaxters was written much later to Mrs. J. T. Fields:
Another friend of that period was William Henry Hurlbut, a fellow student at the Divinity School. In letters to his mother, Mr. Higginson reported some of Hurlbut's experiences abroad:
He not only was blessed by the Pope, but by the society of the Countess Ossoli [Margaret Fuller] whom he admires very much. Why she wedded her “undeveloped and uninteresting Italian” does not appear; Hurlbut says, however, “she probably married him as a representative of an imagined possibility in the Italian character which I have not yet been able to  believe in.” He [Count Ossolil is very handsome, of Spanish rather than Italian aspect. He speaks no English, sits at home in the evening in a military frock, and when her visitors come in, goes to a cafe. He will no doubt be thoroughly miserable in America, whither they go in a few months. . . . But above all he describes a visit to the Brownings, to whom Madame Ossoli introduced him. They live in the most charming way, in a large old palace with a great parlor in which they sit in the evening; on the one side a large fireplace with an open fire, close to which sits Mrs. Browning, almost lost in a large armchair; on the opposite side sits her husband, and between them is a third chair for a guest, as they rarely have more than one at a time. On the opposite side of the room are ranged her bookshelves full of well-thumbed books including many Greek ones in rare editions, which H. describes with gusto. The ends of the room are filled with pictures, quaint furniture, statuettes, and all kinds of things picked up by Browning in his all-observant rambles. For he is perfectly what Landor describes him in a sonnet which I had written in the beginning of H.'s Browning:After Hurlbut's return, the chronicle was thus continued:Since Chaucer was alive and haleH. describes meeting him walking in the street, looking so firm, condensed, and animated, with bright eyes peering about in every direction: and this seems to be his impression of him everywhere — perfect health and  freshness, with no fine frenzy, but universal animation and activity. Such, I fancy, Shakespeare might have been, and I quite like to fancy Browning such. She seems frail, but well, for her, “the bold one” having won fire to transform her to health. I should have added that this great hall they live in is hung with its fine old antique tapestry and they wave round the little lady till she looks as shadowy as any of the knights and ladies there portrayed.
No man hath walked along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse.
Hurlbut ... was as agreeable as only he can be. . . . Mary considered him occasionally nonsensical, but he entertained me excessively, gave me more information on all subjects than anybody else has (if I could only remember it), and told inimitable stories, which may do for future occasions to repeat to my mama.... Hurlbut, moreover, declares a year at Rome in the very gayest society to be far less perilous to a young damsel's or youth's sobriety and humility than a week in Philadelphia society or a day in Washington — so let fears be laid aside. [He] told us, as usual, many interesting things. He saw a good deal of the Hunt family, of Brattleboroa--Mrs. H. described to him her house-painting experiences. He thought highly of William Hunt [the artist] and told us something worth repeating. W. H. came to Florence in wretched health, dispirited, indolent and self-indulgent, in danger of sinking into a mere dilettante, though in Paris he had been something more.  Hurlbut had an interleaved copy of Jameson's “Italian painters,” with notes by Margaret Fuller. ... In this volume there was an account of Correggio, describing his earnestness of purpose in becoming not merely a self-indulgent dabbler in art, but a regenerator of it, and the author added a complaint of the rarity of such characters, opposite which M. F. had written a note--“And yet all might be such.” This book Hurlbut lent to Hunt. Shortly after a new life seemed to spring up in him and he was wholly transformed; he became earnest, laborious, and invigorated, nor did Hurlbut understand the change till, long afterwards, Hunt referred to this book and said that slight note of M. F.'s struck a chord in him that made the moment an era in his life. This is one of the many fruits of her chance seeds. He told us about Tennyson's marriage which you will like to hear. It seems that twenty years ago, at the time of his early volumes of poems, he wooed and won a fair maiden; won her heart, but not her head or conscience, for she was very strait in her theology and he very lax in comparison, and with all her efforts she could not bring herself to link their destinies, and so, alas, they parted. Yet she was true to him, and refused other fine offers; and so ten years passed away. Then the poet wrote to her again to ask if any change had come in their fates, and still the stern lady wrote back No. So passed ten years more, and both remained true, in their absence and silence. Then came “In Memoriam” with its inspiration and its faith, and in one week after its appearance there arrived a letter  from the lady, avowing her conscience set at rest at last by that wonderful book, and hinting that all barriers were now thrown down! A month more saw them united, and their first pilgrimage was to Arthur Henry Hallam's tomb. Truly it will be a romantic story which writes the records of this generation of English poets; and this graver wooing of Tennyson's goes well by the graceful tale of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning! Hurlbut is quite sure that he saw Tennyson, though not knowing it at the time. That is, he saw at Cheltenham a very remarkable looking man walking with a lady, whose expression seemed entirely unlike anything he had seen in England, in its ideality and intensity, and whose whole aspect corresponded entirely to the account he afterwards heard of Alfred, who also, it appeared, was at Cheltenham at that precise time!This note to Emerson explains itself:
In 1850 Mr. Higginson wrote from Artichoke Mills to his mother:
Don't let me forget to say that at South Hingham . . I did see one of the Betseys, and not only see but stay with, and not only a Betsey but a Betsey Cushing -but only a Mrs. B. C. I will candidly confess, not the renowned Missis. “No, ma'am,” said I, as I warmed my feet in a leisurely way at the air-tight. “I have never been in Hingham, but my mother lived here for a time.” “Why, mercy's sake, who was your mother?” was the reply. “Louisa Storrow, ma'am,” said her son with dignity. “Wha-a-t” exclaimed the excellent lady promptly, pausing halfway out of the closet with a sugar-bowl in her hand. “Why, be you Louisa Storer's son?” “Undoubtedly, ma'am,” said I modestly; “did you know her?” “Know her!” said she. “Why, she married General Lincoln's son!” Transfixed with horror, you may conceive how I disclaimed the imputation that my mother had ever demeaned herself so unutterably, though I never heard of General Lincoln except as the steamboat in which we went to Hull. I mentally paralyzed the good lady and perplexed her so utterly that she could only emerge from the closet at last where she had still grasped the sugar-bowl, and setting it down she at last amicably observed, “Well, guess I'd better get your supper first  and then we'll see about it.” Again and again during my visit did she renew the charge, and at last, wearied out, abandoned the theory, but only to hurt it with a final suggestion as we sat at breakfast Monday morning--“Well, it must have been your grandma.” This she regarded as a compromise which she could admit, and I left her leaning on that. But she consented to refer the matter to some mysterious aunt of her husband's, who has ere now settled the matter and explained the difference between Storer and Storrow. In other respects the Widow Cushing was a lively elderly lady with an intelligent come-outer nephew.A letter dated February, 1850, describes the impression made on the writer by Mrs. Kemble:
I had never even seen her before, and the tones of that unequalled voice .. . and the myriad expressions of that unequalled face — perhaps I should rather say those myriad voices and faces condensed into one were all new to me. . . . The play was the “Midsummer night's dream.” . . . How shall I describe the immense animal spirits, the utter transformation of voice, face, and gesture, with which this extraordinary woman threw herself into the comedy. .... “Here, Peter Quince,” from a throat whose pinched meagreness the most starved day of Oliver Twist's life never could have equalled — and this on as portly a form as the country can produce, a woman whose arm could floor Mr. Tilden. And the voice matched the throat — from starvation up to the.  most burly and deep-chested tone, nothing escaped her. . . . Shut your eyes, and you would wonder what theatre could command such a variety of talent, down to the least performers; open them, and the illusion was not destroyed, for her face became a different face for every person and the stage might have been covered with men and women and yet added nothing. A stout gentleman sat before me, wiping his forehead and then looking up in the gallery to find Lysander, to whom Hermia so passionately called; I smiled at him, but doubtless did the same thing. ... My pen fails, as I think of Bottom and Titania. The first interview summed it all up — nothing more could carry farther the delicious absurdity — absurdity? No, the wonder and the genius. The great oaf will not show that he is frightened, so walks up and down (you see the illusion in my using this phrase) singing his hoarse, silly song, to show that he is not afraid. Not a ray of anything but a heavy conceit in his round, staring face, not a tinge of a tune in his dull voice, he sings in a sort of hand-organ way aboutA letter written in May, 1850, was from Brattleboroa, Vermont, where a water-cure once flourished.The ouzel-locks, so black of huewhen-Titania wakes and with a sweet, bewildered, enraptured face, upturned to heaven with all the soul in it, and a voice of accordant tenderness- “ What angel wakes me from my flowery bed? ” How shall I convey any impression of it? Earth and sky are not farther apart than these two parts as she gave them, and yet throughout, her delicate tact,  like the atmosphere, softly and gracefully united the two. Perhaps the glory of the play lay mainly in this part of the plot. I cannot believe that it was ever given before — for on the stage the palpable grotesqueness of the asses' ears, nay, of the fairy form even, would spoil it all--'t is too airy for anything but the voice and her voice. So perfect was it from beginning to end that though I laughed to tears I have a different sensation now. As Lamb says of one of his great actors in Malvolio, there was an element of pathos in it withal, which comes up to the memory. It is folly and madness, to be sure, when we think of Bottom's sensations, but who would not be foolish or mad in the love of such a creature as Titania. ... Convulsed with laughter as those moments were, I yet look back upon them as if I had heard a requiem; and henceforth Bottom is to my mind as much a creature of pathos as Ophelia.
This sheet ... is written in the pride of a half-hour before breakfast, by which you are not to infer that it is possible for breakfast to be late, but for me to be early; in my mother's household nothing is irregular but the sons ... I am looking out between my words upon a view darker blue than my Merrimack one ever is; but the mist hangs over the top of the mountain and takes off half its natural height; this is wrong; it should come  down and disperse below to give us good weather; but the only rule of this rainy month is that the sun always comes out when you don't expect it, and the rain when you expect the sun; so my fingers at this moment cast a shadow on the paper. .... Under these circumstances we thought it best to take all the moisture together and so we had a party of Hydropaths. Some came in tubs, others paddled in punts, and the most desperate invalids came in douches through the ceiling. We had large pails of water for supper. There was Miss Gibbs and Mrs. Greene and the very Reverend Mr. Berteau with a sharp nose, and Lieutenant Greene, of the navy, and Lieutenant Ehninger (think of that ) of the army, who was in the Mexican War (think of that!) and was wounded and left on the field for dead and afterwards made Lieutenant instead (think of that 11), and is a commonplace and uninteresting mortal, after all. .. . Hydropaths keep early hours, and even this broke up soon after ten. Thus we find resources indoors and sometimes run out between the drops. In the evening Louisa plays us songs without words and spirit waltzes and Erlkings and other things tender and terrible.
These jottings are from the journal of 1852 and refer to Mr. Higginson's interest in the temperance movement. Marshal Tukey was a picturesque figure in those days, being a dashing, audacious, and most efficient police official, a terror to offenders.
Also from the journal: