I: Inheritance

Thomas Wentworth Higginson came from a race of large-minded, free-handed men. Beginning with the Reverend Francis Higginson, of Puritan fame, and coming down through the line of his descendants, we see a striking repetition of certain traits and habits. Confining ourselves, for instance, to the successive Stephen Higginsons, born in Salem,— Wentworth Higginson's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,—we find them all upright and fearless, actively interested in the general welfare, leaders in public affairs, and extending a ready and never empty hand to the unfortunate. They were bred to mercantile life, and two of the three met with various reverses in fortune, which never embittered their lives or made them less philanthropic.

Stephen, the grandfather, having married at the age of twenty, and finding his income not sufficient for family needs, embarked upon the seas, commanding one of his father's ships at twenty-one. He continued ‘a bold and successful shipmaster’ until the [2] breaking-out of the Revolution, and later was a member of the Continental Congress and high in councils of state. He anticipated the literary skill of his grandson Wentworth, for he wrote for the public press, wielding a vigorous pen in defence of his political opinions. He was dimly remembered by his grandson as a dignified and benignant figure in smallclothes. His son, Stephen Higginson, Jr., Wentworth's father, was a successful Boston merchant until Jefferson's embargo deprived him of wealth. He was called the ‘Man of Ross’ from his great philanthropy, this name having been given to a benevolent English worthy celebrated by Pope. He was prominent in civic affairs and was one of the original trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital. His grave is in the old burying-ground on Boston Common, marked by the inscription, ‘In works of Love he found his happiness.’

These family traits were bequeathed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and were in no way weakened by the transmission. Combined with these was an ardent love of adventure, which may be traced in a degree to his sailor grandfather, but more directly to the grandparents on his mother's side. The career of his maternal grandfather, Captain Thomas Storrow of the British army, and his American wife, [3] reads like a thrilling romance. The ‘Grenadier,’ as he has been nicknamed in the family, seems to have been a ‘gay, reckless’ fellow who managed to make away with his worldly possessions in early youth, partly by generously endowing his brother and sisters. He was on his way to England from Jamaica in 1777 in a vessel which was captured by a Massachusetts privateer; and the young officer of twenty-two was landed as prisoner-of-war at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Here in ‘Tory circles,’ says the chronicle, he fell in love with the beautiful Anne Appleton, great-granddaughter of John Wentworth, first royal governor of New Hampshire. Captain Storrow was presently exchanged, and in spite of the bitter opposition of both families married this lovely girl of seventeen and carried her off to England to his ‘cold and stately’ mother. That disappointed dame, having planned a match for her improvident son with an heiress whose estate ‘marched with’ her own, had no fancy for a penniless American bride. The chilly atmosphere of this English home soon drove forth the pleasureloving captain, and the homesick child-wife beguiled her solitary hours, both here and in other lonely places in which she was stranded in later years, by reading and study. Life for this wandering couple was a constant kaleidoscope. At one time, Mrs. [4] Storrow was the centre of attraction in the gay and corrupt society of Halifax where her cousin, Sir John Wentworth, was high in power; and again she was undergoing great suffering and hardship imposed by the fortunes of war. That she was a spirited lady we may judge from a letter to her sister, in which she speaks thus of a certain arbitrary brother in whose house she had been staying: ‘I had rather live with a Hottentot just escaped from the Caffres coast!’

Another instance of this quality occurred after the couple had made their home on the island of Campobello in the Bay of Fundy, which ‘the Grenadier’ and his brother-in-law had purchased. It happened that Mrs. Storrow was once left alone with her little children, when a notice was suddenly served on her that she must leave the island immediately, as it had been sold to them under a false title. She was at once ejected from her house. ‘The Grenadier's’ wife then rose up in her wrath and expressed her indignation in such forcible terms that her persecutors succumbed to her eloquence—restored her cattle, and allowed her to remain temporarily in the house. Her husband, to do him justice, was always her ardent lover, and his dying words were, ‘Nancy, you are an angel!’

The first son born to the Storrows was Thomas [5] Wentworth, for whom the subject of this memoir was named. The second daughter, Louisa, mother of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, inherited the strong character and sound common sense with the grace and charm of Anne Appleton. Left an orphan at an early age, she was received as an adopted daughter into the family of Stephen Higginson. She wrote in 1832, recalling her early life:

When I was fourteen years of age, he [Mr. Higginson] returned from Europe, and I shall never forget the first meeting I had with him—he was then about thirty—in the prime of his beauty, which was then exceeding—full of youthful ardor and flushed with success—he. . . had been eminently successful in his commercial Speculations and he returned from England laden with the comforts and luxuries of that land of ease—he introduced a degree of elegance into his own establishment which was then unknown and abounded in all that could adorn or embellish life.

At nineteen, this young girl became his second wife, and stepmother to his two children. Ten children were born of this marriage, of whom Wentworth was the youngest.

An all-important factor in this household was Mrs. Higginson's older sister, Anne, who was universally beloved and respected in the community, being commonly known as Aunt Nancy. Wentworth [6] Higginson always spoke of her affectionately as ‘the aunt who brought me up.’ On her seventieth birthday, he wrote her, ‘You seem to me no older than when I used to play with blocks upon the floor of our common chamber, or when you assisted me to insert myself for the first time in nankeen inexpressibles.’

Professor Charles Eliot Norton, in a letter to Colonel Higginson in 1904, says of these sisters: ‘They [your friendly words] bring to mind my Mother's affection for your Mother, and for Aunt Nancy, who was as dear an Aunt to us children at Shady Hill as she was to you and your brothers and sisters. What dear and admirable women! What simple, happy lives they led!’

In their days of prosperity, the Higginsons exercised a lavish hospitality. Mrs. Higginson adapted herself readily, however, to changed fortunes, and in the companionship of her children, a large circle of friends, and many books, she passed a serene and contented life. She was a deeply religious woman and bore with fortitude the sorrows that came to her, the most bitter of which was the fate of her son Thacher. This youth, whom Wentworth Higginson called his ‘gayest and most frolicsome’ brother, went on a voyage to South America and the ship was never heard from. It was the mother's custom to retreat every evening about sunset to a certain [7] window to write in her daily journal for her absent son. Not for many years did she give up all hope of his return, nor cease burning a nightly beacon.

It would seem that those days must have been longer than ours when we read of Mrs. Higginson's daily doings. Not only did she care for a large household, entertain a great variety of visitors, walk from Cambridge to Boston to make calls or do errands, but withal she accomplished a vast amount of valuable reading. Of his mother, Colonel Higginson always spoke with the most tender and reverent affection. In an article of his called ‘The Woman Who Most Influenced Me’ he says:—

In all the vicissitudes of a reformer's career, I cannot recall anything but encouragement on her part. . . . I have thus traced to my mother's direct influence three leading motives of her youngest son's life—the love of personal liberty, of religious freedom, and of the equality of the sexes. . . . Life brought her many cares and sorrows; but it never brought the saddest of all its griefs, disenchantment.

Unfortunately, Wentworth's recollections of his father were vague. He notes in his college journal at the end of his freshman year, among other ‘Reminiscences of Life’: ‘My excellent father died Feb'y 20th, 1834. I was unfortunately too young at that time to feel my loss much.’ But he took great pride [8] in his father's useful life and especially in his close connection with the university; for not long after his financial misfortunes, Stephen Higginson was called from Bolton, where he had temporarily removed his family, to Cambridge to become the steward or bursar of Harvard College. He was deeply interested in Unitarianism and organized the Harvard Divinity School. His personal interest in the Harvard undergraduates of his day is shown by letters written to him by those who had gone to Germany to continue their studies, one of these being Edward Everett. In a poem read before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, June, 1904, Colonel Higginson thus spoke of his father:—

He planned a path to each professor's door
And placed a gate at every footpath's end;
Above each gate he hung a lantern o'er
To which each pair of learned feet might tend.

He planted elms, but then there came a frown,
And stern economy soon cast a blight.
The frugal college took the lanterns down,
But left the trees to flourish as they might.

It was probably during the family's stay in Bolton that their acquaintance was made with Wentworth's future nurse, Rowena Houghton, who left the Higginson service to become the wife of Dexter Pratt, Longfellow's village blacksmith. From the Bolton farmhouse came the old leather fire-bucket which [9] Colonel Higginson purchased and hung in his Cambridge home. It had been painted white, but the removal of the paint brought to light the name ‘Stephen Higginson, Jr.,’ and near the top of the bucket the phrase, ‘In suis non fallitur. 1841.’

The house which the college built for Stephen Higginson on Kirkland Street, Cambridge, then called ‘Professors' Row,’ still stands; and here, on one of the shortest days of the year, Thomas Wentworth Storrow Higginson began his eventful life. To use his own words, ‘I was born on the 22nd of December, 1823, and had my proud birthright wrested from me when the change of dates landed the Pilgrims on December 23.’

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