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XVI: the crowning years

In 1889, Colonel Higginson began what proved to be a four years task of editing, with Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd of Amherst, Emily Dickinson's poems and letters. Of this work he wrote Mrs. Todd:—

I can't tell you how much I am enjoying the poems. There are many new to me which take my breath away.

A year later he wrote to her:—

You are the only person who can feel as I do about this extraordinary thing we have done in recording this rare genius. I feel as if we had climbed to a cloud, pulled it away, and revealed a new star behind it . . . . Such things as I find in her letters! “The Madonnas I see are those that pass the House to their work, carrying Saviours with them.” Is not that one of the take-your-breath-away thoughts?

There is much that I never could print, as where she writes, “Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life.” What a unique existence was hers!

Four years later, he wrote:—

I feel half sorry to hear that the book is so nearly ready; it will be the last, I suppose, and will not only [369] yield the final news of Emily Dickinson, but take from me a living companionship I shall miss.

After the volume of letters was published, of which Mrs. Todd was the principal editor, Colonel Higginson wrote to her November 29, 1894:—

Emily has arrived. They sent her to Sever's book store where I rarely go and where she might have hid forever in a cupboard . . . . It is extraordinary how the mystic and bizarre Emily is born at once between two pages . . . as Thoreau says summer passes to autumn in an instant. All after that is the E. D. I knew. But how is it possible to reconcile her accounts of early book reading . . . with the yarns (O! irreverence) she told me about their first books, concealed from her father in the great bush at the door or under the piano cover? Well! what an encyclopaedia of strange gifts she was.

During these years of fascinating though strenuous editorial labor, Colonel Higginson was also engaged on various pieces of original work. He wrote in July, 1890:—

I am now to correct proof of three books– Epictetus, American Sonnets and Emily Dickinson's poems.

And in November:—

I was about writing the determination never again to have three books on hand at same time, going through the press, when I found myself entrapped [370] into a promise to give the Centennial Oration of Massachusetts Historical Society, having also to prepare an address for 19th Century Club, and the life of Francis Higginson besides my regular work. Too much again.

Yet one day when proofs of several different articles came to him, he said, ‘I am naturally a glutton of such work and rather enjoy it.’

In the spring of that year he visited the battlefield of Gettysburg in connection with his Military History and wrote home:—

At Gettysburg I rose at 6 A. M. and soon after seven set off with fifty people and two buglers in a series of omnibuses and barouches to drive about, over twenty miles of Union and Confederate lines of battle. At certain places we stopped, were called together by the buglers while Colonel Batchelder who is a sort of professor of Gettysburg battle knowledge told us just what happened, and as we had with us a number of persons who had been in the battle at different points, they often added their reminiscences. One of these was a western physician who had lost his hearing in the battle by the noise of cannon and whenever we stopped and gathered round the speaker, he would run up to the front and stick his long ear trumpet up to Colonel B. and drink it all in with beaming eyes . . . . Squirrels played where once guns had thundered and I saw a great Luna moth quietly reposing against a tree. After all the brightness and beauty, it was a haunting place and day, [371] and I understood a great battle as I never did before.

To Margaret he wrote:—

The blackbirds and meadow larks were all singing on the farms at Gettysburg and as we drove along our bugler would sometimes make a great noise (toot-toot-toot) with his bugle, and the birds would go flying away. He was a little fat man with a great blue overcoat and his cheeks looked as if he had puffed so much at the bugle that they were all round and swelled and he could not get them back again.

When we went away from Baltimore to Gettysburg there was a great good-natured old woman, jet black, who bade us all good-bye at the station. She had a large round face and no teeth and a common towel, very clean, pinned round her head and under her chin; and when we came back there she was, all ready to receive us, and saying, “Got back all safe? Bress de Lord!” And when we got into our carriages again, a lot of little black boys and girls ran along beside us, shouting whenever the bugler played.

After this visit he noted in the journal: ‘Began anew on history with fresh interest for visiting localities.’

The summer of 1890 was spent in Dublin, New Hampshire, which became henceforth a permanent summer home. The little daughter wrote her aunt in Brattleboro:—

Papa wishes you to know that the castle in the [372] air has a place on earth. He has just bought an acre of ground beautifully situated above the lake. We begin building this autumn.

These bits of Dublin life are from the diaries:—

June 12, 1891. Began thoroughly to enjoy the primitive forest feeling. Felt that conscious happiness which Thoreau describes—every little pine needle seeming to stretch toward me. There was a feeling as of late summer in the air and the crickets' incessant chirp seemed saturated with happiness. It was enough simply to live and look round on the trees I love.

Her father always bore an active part in Margaret's birthday celebrations, whether they took the form of climbing the mountain, perhaps getting drenched in the mountain brook on the way, or a picnic in the woods. Later, on her seventeenth birthday, he joined in the Virginia Reel.

About an earlier celebration, he wrote to his sister that the children

played and swung and then came the two young Smiths [Joseph Lindon and his brother] clad in brilliant Japanese costumes who made great fun as they always do. We had tea on a large flat boulder above the road shaded by pines, and this was very merry . . . .

It is very pretty to see her and Rob [an Irish setter] dancing about together with the butterflies. The birds come quite near her and do not seem afraid, and sometimes, when she whistles to them, they answer her from the forest . . . . [373]

S .. . calls me Thomas Ewart Higginson from my devotion to the Gladstonian axe; I am clearing away a good many of the little gray birches which obstruct more valuable trees . . . . I find endless joy in pottering about among trees and shrubs.

Aug. 7, With Margaret, watching birds, and she climbing trees.

Sept. 29, First gipsying with Margaret for flowers.

This referred to an autumnal habit of the ‘happy little couple,’ as the child called her father and herself, of plundering our friends' flower-beds after their owners had gone.

Oct. 10, Felt as I strolled about after breakfast that I should be willing to go to sleep for the winter and wake up to find myself here [Dublin] again. There is still woodchopping to be done and I hate to leave it.

Of our neighbors the Abbot Thayers, he said they ‘live outdoors, know all birds and butterflies, and rear the latter from the chrysalis till they flutter in and out of the great sitting-room as if it were their home.’

One summer we had Mark Twain for a neighbor:—

Called on Clemens. Found him in bed where he prefers to write, a strange picturesque object, in night clothes, with curly white hair standing up over his head. The bed was covered with written sheets which his daughter carried off at intervals, to be [374] copied by her on typewriter, his secretary only writing his correspondence. He often leaves off anything in the middle and begins on something else and goes back to it. He has always worked in this way and likes it.

In our early years at Dublin, the Smiths' outdoor theatre was dedicated and Colonel Higginson read these lines. They are given as a specimen of his gift at impromptu verse, which was often in demand on such occasions. Later he himself took part in a miracle play, ‘Theophile,’ written by our neighbor, Henry Copley Greene, for the Teatro Bambino, in which Higginson personated an aged abbot.

When the Goddess of Dulness would rule o'er this planet
     And bind all amusements, like Samson, with withes,
Fate conquered her scheme, ere she fairly began it,
     By producing one household—a household of Smiths.

Fate selected the seed of a Rhode Island Quaker
     Its wit and its wisdom, its mirth and its pith,
And brought all these gifts to a Point—one half acre—
     And gave to the product the surname of Smith.

Though Care killed a cat it cannot hush the Mewses
     Nor reduce all our joys to monotonous myth;
Some gleams of pure fun o'er the earth Fate diffuses,—
     So cheers, three times three, for the household of Smith!

In those first years of the Dublin life, when the shore of the lake was not wholly owned by summer residents and was still the scene of annual town picnics, Colonel Higginson took a cordial part in those [375] festivities, and usually made some address to the throng of young and old. He also spoke at meetings of the Farmers' Grange. Men who were then boys still remember their delight in these talks from a man who had ‘been in the war,’ who wrote books, and could tell no end of amusing stories. One of these youths, now a college professor, writes of Colonel Higginson:—

The traits that marked his summer life at Dublin specially appealed to me; his sincere recognition of genuine manhood and womanhood in the townsfolk and his detection of a poetic element in even the grim and seemingly sordid side of country life.

Literary work was continued at Dublin and the author's secretary imported for a time each summer, as this plea to his so-called pastor for the loan of a typewriter shows:—

Reverend Sir:—

A virtuous maid has arrived at this house, for whose spiritual welfare I am bound to concern myself. She is to do certain copying for Goodman Hart and myself on that carnal instrument called a typewriter, which I myself eschew, finding it to savor little of the great Scriptural Types which we are bidden to revere.

Now the only typewriting machine yet accessible here is that belonging to your neighbor Goodman Cooke, a species of lay preacher, who offers his [376] for the afternoon. Yet I ask myself, Is it meet that this maid, soberly nurtured . . . should perform the office of writing on a Unitarian typewriter and that only? Should she not be kept in the right path, during each morning, by a typewriter of sounder views —your own perchance? Pray consider, perpend and reply.

Your faithful Parishioner.

Written at the breakfast table—hence spots. But what are these, besides spots on the Faith?

The distinction of being Harvard's oldest graduate Colonel Higginson whimsically coveted. He wrote to his sister in 1890:—

‘I am renewing my efforts for the post of oldest living graduate of Harvard and have now only 236 ahead of me, not counting my classmates.’

‘One curious feeling,’ he meditated, ‘about Commencement in growing older is that you do not feel as if you were getting among the oldest, but as if the really old men had grown lazy and stayed away.’

The return to Cambridge in the autumn was always delightful to him on account of the tide of young life flowing in at the beginning of the college year. He took a perennial interest in the football games, going to Harvard Square to learn the results long after he was obliged to give up attending the contests. He wrote in his diary of 1901: ‘Nov. 22. Football game-very exciting. Harvard 22; O. [377] When a young man attempts to kick a goal in such a game as to-day's, he has 36,000 pairs of eyes fastened with interest upon him. Is there any other such opportunity in life?’

The students were often sent to Colonel Higginson by their instructors to glean information about the Anti-Slavery period, and he was often asked to talk to them in their own haunts. Many were the times when he was enabled by the generosity of his friends, who were always ready to respond to his calls for money, to give substantial aid to struggling youths and maidens. If these aspirants for an education happened to be colored, they enlisted from him all the more sympathy. Such entries as these in his diary were not uncommon, the second referring to a Radcliffe Commencement:—

Went with young——to further his application for Harvard scholarship.

Was anxious because I could not see my colored protege [a young girl whom he had helped through college] until actually called up. When she came and had more applause than any, I felt that I would rather give up my degree for to-morrow than that all her efforts and mine should fail.

For in 1898 Colonel Higginson was given by Harvard the degree of Ll.D., an honor already conferred upon him by Western Reserve University two years earlier. As he went forward to receive this honor, he [378] was greeted with a prolonged burst of enthusiasm which was almost overpowering. He wrote in his diary, June 26:—

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 secret of Colonel Higginson's popularity was the overflowing fountain of sympathy which pulsed in his veins. Lowell's lines might have been written about him:—

[He] doeth little kindnesses
Which most leave undone, or despise.

One of these was his invariable habit of writing to young authors whose work had pleased him. A typical instance of the little thoughtful deeds which always seemed to be second nature to him is given the writer by a Yale professor. When a lonely and homesick sophomore at Harvard, he was startled to receive a call from Colonel Higginson with an invitation to attend an interesting meeting in Boston, not open to the public. To this day he does not know how his unexpected visitor discovered him, but he says the incident brought the first real pleasure into his college life.

‘You know,’ one of his early friends, now a wellknown [379] author, wrote to him, ‘how fully you have my affection with that of so many others to whom you have opened great avenues of happiness.’ It was easier for him to emphasize a man's good points rather than his failings, and he was always ready to make excuses for one who was in any way criticized —a trait that his impetuous young daughter sometimes found trying. People who were almost strangers unburdened their souls to him as to a father confessor. As he once said, ‘It is my fortune or misfortune to have one of those temperaments which have since early youth drawn unexpected and sometimes perilous confidences from others.’

Applicants for assistance were never turned away, even if by helping them pecuniarily he inconvenienced himself. Mr. George Higginson (father of Henry Lee Higginson) once gave his cousin Wentworth an illustration of this family trait. Hailing an imaginary passer-by, he cried, ‘Do you want anything?’—at the same time thrusting his hand into his pocket and bringing it out full of silver. ‘Here, take this!’ So long as the silver lasted this form of philanthropy came easily; but the most injurious of the daily visitors were those who robbed the busy author of precious time. Expressing one day some doubt about the advantage of a future life, one of the family attempted to expostulate. ‘But I should [380] have to meet so many people who bore me!’ was his quick rejoinder.

A Cambridge young man who was a ‘checker’ at the polls in the fall of 1900 at the same booth where Colonel Higginson voted, received a lesson in citizenship at that time which impressed him deeply. The atmosphere of the booth in question he described as most repulsive; but the story can best be told in the youth's own words, as printed in a local newspaper:—

The writer, while not particularly finicky, by ten o'clock that morning was heartily sick of his job. At about ten o'clock, however, the door opened, and in stepped Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I shall never forget his appearance. He was very plainly dressed and had on a rather old looking ulster . . . . His figure, however, was full of dignity. With an air of utmost veneration and respect, such as I have never seen before or since, he removed his hat from his head and then stepped forward to get his ballot. During the whole time that he was casting his ballot he kept his hat in his hand and only put it on when he had stepped out of the door into the street. That is all he did—simply removed his hat—but I can never forget his manner in doing it. . . . No one knew better than he the real value of the privilege of voting and knowing it he treated it with the respect which is its due . . . . Since I saw Mr. Higginson cast his vote, I have never failed to take off my hat when casting mine.


In 1892, Colonel Higginson's devoted sister Anna died, and he wrote, ‘It was a touching thing thus to close the half century of our family's residence in Brattleboro, where they went in 1842.’ But the gradual disappearance of early friends never visibly depressed him. He lived in the present, and when disappointed in a contemporary wrote in his diary, ‘Thank God, there are always children!’

The lecture habit was assiduously pursued, and on the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of Columbus, 1892, he wrote, ‘I give a Columbus and musical address in New York on October 21, for which I am to be paid $250, twice the biggest fee I ever get for a speech.’ This celebration took the form of a concert, the handbill stating: ‘In the course of the proceedings an oration will be delivered by Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson.’

The author's seventieth birthday came in 1893. It was made an especially festive occasion by his friends, and the little red house was thronged. These celebrations were continued through successive birthdays when flowers, letters, telegrams, and personal greetings made the day a milestone. Although the different eras through which he had passed made him feel as if he had lived several lives, he seldom unless urged spoke of past events in which he had had a share. His athletic training served him well, and [382] until long after seventy he bounded upstairs like a boy, two or three steps at a time. In 1895 and again in 1901, he gave a course of lectures at Western Reserve University, and in one week he records speaking every day. Overwork finally brought its penalty, and in the autumn of 1895 he was sentenced to confinement in his room and a milk diet. This trying illness lasted for a year, during which he wrote his ‘Cheerful Yesterdays’ propped up with pillows. On Christmas Day he wrote to his friends at the Cambridge Public Library:—

I am moving slowly along and have now held out to me the munificent offer of a raw egg, which seems a whole Christmas dinner after eight weeks of milk-cure! . . . Some people think I write better than formerly, in my horizontal attitude!

On the cover of the diary for 1896, he wrote:—

“Now that I begin to know a little, I die.” St. Augustine.

And within the covers are these entries:—

Jan. 6. For 10 weeks to-morrow I have had absolutely no nourishment but milk. . . . I have done a great deal of reading and writing on this and some talking.

Jan. 13. Per contra, had to give up the hope of working on the history in bed. I cannot handle the wide sheets or heavy books. It is a great disappointment.

Feb. 6. Wedding Day celebrated, not unprosaically, by an Easter lily and a cup of mutton broth. Delicious! beyond my dreams! It is almost worth three months of milk alone to get the flavor of that first cup of broth.

Mar. 1. I still remain with my head in perfect condition, able to write ad libitum. I enjoy life and have adapted myself wonderfully to my recumbent condition.

Apr. 5. Beautiful Easter Sunday. Choir from church [First Parish] came and sang hymns—an entire surprise and delight.

Colonel Higginson's own physician was confident of his recovery, although most of the profession who knew of his condition thought it impossible that a man of his age could revive. The consulting physician wrote to him the following summer, ‘I am rejoiced to hear of your favorable progress, which I regard as due largely to a sound mind.’ In some anxiety as to how he should meet the expenses of this illness, he received what he called ‘bread upon the waters.’ Many years before, he had befriended a young man who was convicted of burglary and sentenced to prison, and had given substantial aid to establish him in business when he was released. His own account of this bit of good fortune is found in his diary:—

May 2. Received from Mrs. check for $500 [384] for two notes of her brother for $123 dated about 1859 . . . having long held them as worthless, this being with compound interest at perhaps 4 pr. ct. though the notes were without interest. . .Great surprise.

In June the invalid was transported to Dublin, and in July made the following note:—

July 30. Sent to printers first (new) instalment of narrative. [ “Cheerful Yesterdays.” ] . . . Collapse. . . . This involves putting back on milk diet and cessation of drives for a time. Giving up autumn journey part planned. Giving up (probably)winter lecturing. Giving up (probably) England next year. Very possibly semi-invalidism for the rest of my life. Still this to be quietly faced and recognized.

However, these anxieties proved needless, as the next year saw him sufficiently recovered to embark for Europe.

It pleased him to find that during the year in bed he had earned more by writing than in several previous years. In April of this year (1896) he made a list of books read in the previous six months—forty-two in all. He also noted that in seven years he had read four hundred and seventy-nine books. Giving away books was another source of pleasure, those given to different libraries during his life amounting to ten thousand volumes. He also gave to the Gray Herbarium of Harvard College his botanical notebooks [385] which were pronounced by the professor in charge ‘a careful chronicle of a vegetation which for this immediate region has largely disappeared forever.’ His correspondence with and concerning John Brown was given to the Boston Public Library; also collections of Margaret Fuller Ossoli's and Emily Dickinson's letters.

December 1st he recorded, ‘My office of Military and Naval Historian expired, much to my satisfaction, after seven years and four months.’ An extension of a year's time without compensation was however granted at Colonel Higginson's request, and the ‘History’ was satisfactorily completed.

These fragments from the diary after his recovery show the continued activity:—

Oct. 20, 1897.

Evening presided at Anthony Hope Hawkins's reading. Had him here afterwards.

Feb. 12, 1898.

Springfield. Spoke at Lincoln dinner after half hour's reception to 100 men.

March 9.

Spent morning at State House—outrageous bill against Sunday Concerts.

May 31, 1900.

Evening, Boer meeting and presided. Got through well, though voice not strong. The three Boer envoys unusually fine looking men.

This was a meeting at Faneuil Hall where envoys from the Boer Republic presented their side of the South African trouble with England. From a newspaper [386] account of a similar meeting in Worcester at which Colonel Higginson presided, this extract is taken:—

However much the audience sympathized with the Boers, they very much more disliked England, and when the presiding officer undertook to say a word in behalf of England's effort in behalf of humanity, in spite of her wrong attitude toward the Boers, he was greeted with a perfect hurricane of objurgations. The Colonel quietly waited until the riot had ceased when he went on calm and unruffled; and my admiration, always great, sensibly rose as I saw his wonderful command of himself.

‘Feb. 15, 1901. P. M. Lectured to Filene's workpeople on “People I have met.” ’

‘Mar. 6, 1902. Prince Henry of Prussia here. I spoke at the dinner at the Somerset.’

After the ‘Military History’ was off his hands he wrote, ‘Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic,’ ‘Book and Heart,’ and ‘Old Cambridge.’ In 1900, he began a ‘Life of Longfellow’ for the American Men of Letters series, and in 1902 wrote a biography of Whittier, recording in July, ‘Have worked for ten days on Whittier—averaging 1000 words daily.’

The French writer, Th. Bentzon (Mme. Blanc), after visiting this country in the nineties, wrote an account of Colonel Higginson which was translated [387] with the inapt title, ‘A Typical American.’ The 1902 diary says:—

Received proof of “A Typical American,” by Madame Blanc; a London translation into English sent me for revision.

I regard this as the greatest honor of my life, in a literary way—--to be treated so fully in the Revue des Deux Mondes by so able and so distinguished a woman and then to have it fully translated and published in London. Of course it gratified me, even if sometimes overstated and undeserved, gratified more than such pleasant personal tributes as those of Justin McCarthy, Tom Hughes, and others in their books of reminiscences.

In February of the same year, he writes:—

It was curious after my seven months absence [in Europe] when I wrote nothing for print, to come back and find the same continuous impulse of hard work in my study.

April 3, 1902.

Evening. E. E. Hale Festival— a fine meeting, thoroughly worked up and in a good cause; but I should not wish to have any injudicious friends try the same thing for me, even on a smaller scale, for my birthday. Such occasions are carnivals of flattery, no discrimination, no one venturing to say the exact truth. Should it ever be attempted for me, I wish to be painted as I am.

Aug. 4.

Early this morning I read over some of the opening chapters of my “Cheerful Yesterdays,” and it seemed like another world, though a deeply interesting [388] and picturesque one, and I wondered whether it might be permanently read by students as a living picture of that period. Without the slightest feeling of old age I am drifting, I suppose, toward another sphere of existence, even more strange and interesting, I dare say, than this one has been.

His admiration of the Shaw Monument by Saint-Gaudens, on Boston Common, led him often to revisit it; and on one of these occasions he wrote the following lines in his notebook:—

Ever before mine eyes the beautiful pageant is passing, Colonel and dusky braves, who are marching onward forever, But for some inches of space, one trivial turn of Fate's arrow, I had been riding there, foredoomed to Shaw's glory immortal.

Written beside the monument Jan. 25, 1902.

Several of Colonel Higginson's poems were set to music, ‘Sixty and Six,’ ‘Vestis Angelica,’ and ‘The Trumpeter,’ a poem he wrote after hearing the first two lines sung in a dream. ‘Waiting for the Bugle’ had two different settings. One of his most musical poems written for special occasions was the unpublished one read at a small dinner given in Boston to celebrate Josephine Preston Peabody's engagement to Lionel Marks, Professor of Engineering at Harvard College. He called it ‘ “The go-abroad” (Sequel to “The stay at home,” by [389] Josephine P. Peabody)’; and these are the first two stanzas:—

We have waited, we have longed—
     We have longed as none can know,
While this winter smiled with sun
     And the spring came in with snow,
Waiting till some hour serene,
     Bridegroom worthy should be seen,
For Josephine.

Softly has time glided on—
     Love, that wondrous engineer,
Who the hopes of youth and maid
     Brings together, far or near,
Drew these closer, till there fell
     Potent hands that bound her well
To Lionel.

In 1899-1900 Colonel Higginson gave a course of lectures before the Lowell Institute upon ‘American Orators and Oratory,’ and recorded the fact in his diary: ‘Nov. 15. My first Lowell lecture (of course, extempore) and enjoyed it much. Audience fine and cordial.’ In 1902-03, he gave a second course of Lowell Lectures on ‘American Literature in the Nineteenth Century’; and in the winter of 1905 he delivered a third course on ‘English Literature in the Last Half of the Nineteenth Century.’ At these lectures, he was always greeted with crowded houses.

Dec. 23, 1902. Much pleased to find that I could still speak without notes and without forgetfulness [390] or confusion. I had been a little anxious about this and have therefore written out my Lowell lectures in full.

Jan. 5, 1903. The lecture was considered a great success. All standing room occupied and almost everybody stayed through. I found reading to be far easier than speaking without notes (as I have done so long) and almost as effective; it seemed like beginning a new career and my voice served me well.

Of the third course, in 1905, he wrote:—

Feb. 28.

First Lowell lecture (Wordsworth-shire). A great success—an unexpectedly fine voice.

March 7.

Second Lowell lecture. Carlyle, Ruskin, Froude, Hunt.

March 28.

Fifth Lowell lecture. Dickens, Thackeray and reading Tennyson's poems.

April 4.

Last Lowell lecture. Considered very successful and was pronounced by John Lowell the best he ever heard in that hall.

In May, 1903, he spoke at the Concord Emerson celebration:—

Meeting good and my address successful. After it, Senator Hoar turned to me and said, grasping my hand, “What I have to say is pewter and tinsel compared to that.”

His position as chairman of the Harvard Visiting Committee on English Literature he resigned in 1903, having served on this and other Visiting Committees [391] for sixty-odd years. In the latter part of that year he wrote in the journal, ‘I always keep on my desk “Sunset and evening Star” [Tennyson's “ Crossing the Bar” ], and am ready for whatever comes.’ On the eve of his eightieth birthday, in 1903, a reception was given to him by the Boston Authors' Club, when Judge Robert Grant read his inspiring verses written for the occasion, and afterwards printed in the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ beginning:—
Preacher of a liberal creed,
Pioneer in Freedom's cause;
Ever prompt to take the lead
In behalf of saner laws,
Still your speech persuasive flows
As the brooks of Helicon.
You have earned a fair repose,
Thomas Wentworth Higginson!

This poem Colonel Higginson called ‘one of the greatest laurels I ever won.’ He thus alluded in his diary to the celebration:—

Dec. 21.

Evening — an unexpected and elaborate reception by the Authors' Club. There was a series of flattering speeches, of a more headturning description than anything I ever had addressed to me, but they left me happy and humble.

After one of the receptions given him by the Grand Army Post which bore his name, he wrote, ‘Reception by T. W. H. Post Sons of Veterans—much enthusiasm making me feel quite humble.’ [392]

These notes from the journals show the intellectual and physical activity of the remaining years:—

Old Colored Women's Home. A jolly spectacle, those old ladies at their tea-table; some of them with white fleecy hair, very becoming, and good features.

Feb. 23, 1904.

Evening reception from the colored people in Boston, with warm speeches and poetry, etc. It is long since I have been in so close relations with them and their hearts are as warm as ever.

Mar. 15, 1904.

Lecture South Boston (People I have Met) Church of the Redeemer . . . a remarkably interesting audience—mostly teachers, mechanics and children, very attentive and sympathetic; and greeting me with much personal ardor. It was in an Episcopal chapel hall, but included many Roman Catholics, which I like.

June 26, 1905.

Began work in earnest on life of my grandfather [Stephen Higginson] and enjoyed it.

June 28, 1905.

To Rochester, N. Y. to give a Phi Beta Kappa address and felt no harm from it.

July 6.

First proof from “Part of a man's Life.”

This was in a manner a continuation of ‘Cheerful Yesterdays,’ although more fragmentary.

In 1905, Margaret was married, with her father's cordial approval, to a young Boston physician. The ceremony took place in the village church at Dublin, and Dr. Robert Collyer officiated. Fortunately his [393] views about the ‘heathen obey’ coincided with those of the bride's father. This clergyman was wont to relate in his own amusing way the beginning of his friendship with Colonel Higginson. When living in Chicago, he heard Higginson speak on physical training and utter an impressive warning against the use of mince pie. Dr. Collyer's curiosity was excited, and after the lecture he invested in one of the condemned viands. The consequence was, he declared, that his larder was ever after stocked with mince pies. This reverend gentleman and Colonel Higginson were born in the same year, and the latter once wrote these humorous lines for the clergyman's birthday:—

I entered glad on life's wide fold,
     But soon my hopes grew colder;
How could I e'er seem wise or bold
     With him a fortnight older?

I never could be blithe as he
     Since he was always jollier:
So I'll his faithful collie be
     With him forever Collyer.

It is said that Higginson's opposition to church organization lessened in later life. He said himself, ‘I am not sure of any change of attitude, though doubtless old age makes one more equable in general attitude.’ At any rate he considered it his duty to attend church semi-occasionally, both summer and [394] winter. His family rallied him for sleeping through the sermon, but in such cases it always happened that he had remembered more of the discourse than any of those who criticized him.

The 1906 diary records:—

Feb. 12.

Evening at North End school—very turbulent—Italian boys, but I enjoyed talking to them, until I read from Army Life which was a mistake. Never read before children.

Mar. 12.

Boston before legislative committee at State House, with 8 old soldiers against me.

This meeting was to consider the erection of a statue to General Butler, which Colonel Higginson opposed.

Mar. 19.

At Binghamton, N. Y. P. M. Lecture and had good audience of perhaps 250 in hard storm.

June 28.

Phi Beta Kappa. At meeting, gave notice of amendment next year in regard to women's admission to dinner.

Two grandchildren came to cheer these later days, the first a boy named Wentworth born in 1906, of whom he wrote:—

The beautiful and happy baby makes my health or illness a secondary trifle—if I can only pass quietly away without those melancholy intermediate days or weeks when I may be only a burden.

And at Ipswich, two years later, he thus announced the arrival of a second little Margaret:— [395]

One of the happiest days of my life, in the birth of a beautiful girl baby with abundant black hair and fine health.

He wrote in November, 1906:—

I may be relied on to keep on working here to the last, for my own pleasure if for nothing else, but the silent and gradual withdrawal from the world in which I was once so active does not trouble me at all. Nor have I the slightest fear of death, whether it be that something or nothing lies beyond it. The former seems to me altogether the more probable.

These lines of Walt Whitman's were quoted by him with deep emotion, and he once said that he would like to have them engraved on his memorial stone:—

Joy, Shipmate, joy!
(Pleas'd to my soul at death I cry)
Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps,
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy, Shipmate, joy!

December 21, 1907, he wrote:—

December 21, 1907.

This being the last day of my 84 years, I laid out some pleasant work during the coming year. As I have succeeded so with my postponed volume of my grandfather's memoir, I decided to carry out another old project and one very good for elder years, viz.: to translate from the Greek the Birds of Aristophanes . . . I enjoy life, love and work but should hardly care to be a nonagenarian.


Dec. 22.

Beautiful day begun with much surprise at my own advanced years, as there is very little inward change and it is generally thought I carry them well externally.

In the summer of 1908, he was attracted by an article in the ‘Dial’ called the ‘Grandisonian Manner,’ and wrote this letter to the author:—

Dear sir or madam:—

You will pardon me for thus addressing you, when I tell you that I have just finished the whole series of Richardson's writings, including Diderot's commentary and all, having come upon them in one of the very best of the Massachusetts Public libraries in this attractive rural town [Ipswich]. All my life I have wished for time to renew Sir Charles, as I heard him read aloud by my mother in Cambridge in early boyhood; and as I am now fast approaching my 85th birthday it is a delight to find the book quite reviving the old affection and the old associations of humor. The sense of personal nobleness about Sir Charles is renewed and also the wonderful and quite unique creation . . . of Miss Grandison.

In 1908 and 1909, short newspaper and magazine articles kept him busy, and he began a record of the Higginson family. In the latter year the collection of papers called ‘Carlyle's Laugh’ was published. ‘Perhaps,’ he wrote, ‘my last book, when nearly eighty-six.’ In 1910, he finished the editorship of the ‘Higginson Genealogy,’ revised his ‘Young [397] Folks' History,’ and noted, May 13, ‘Work almost at an end, perhaps for life.’ Still his pen never rested. He had, as he laughingly declared, ‘got into the habit of living,’ and there were always thoughts to be uttered either about live issues or departed contemporaries. Various lectures and addresses were given during this year. The diaries again furnish the record:—

Feb. 18, 1909.

Evening—delightful and unexpected singing from a party of colored singers. They came unseen by me and sang on the stairs, “Marching throa Georgia!” They took me by entire surprise; also bringing flowers.

May 4, 1900.

To meeting of officers at American House. Drove in alone. Was treated with curious deferential attention and made a speech.

May 12.

Pleasant and successful memorial meeting for Margaret Fuller Ossoli, 100th birthday. It was held in the house of my birth, the parlors crowded. Perhaps it was my last public meeting.

May 17.

To Concord, Mass., to funeral of Judge Keyes [a classmate].

This excursion to Concord was violently opposed by his family, for he was obliged to go alone, his ‘natural guardian’ being absent; but he was inexorable; delighted to escape from feminine control; and came back triumphant.

May 26.

At the notice of an hour or so prepared a talk on Theo. Parker for F. R.A.


May 27.

To Boston for lunch of Free Religious Association at which I spoke for the last time. Afterwards at Mrs. Howe's birthday reception.

May 30.

[Decoration Day.] To exercises in morning, marched with G. A.R. to chapel.

June 10, 1910.

Closing the care and labor of nearly two years [Genealogy]—my last literary work properly so called. I am now the sixth on the list of Harvard graduates.

One of the reforms which interested Colonel Higginson in later years was Simplified Spelling. It must be confessed that he did not attempt to remodel his own way of writing, but he defined the movement as an effort to save the time of the busy world; and he believed that to simplify ‘our great chaotic language’ would make life easier for the stranger within our gates.

His attitude toward Socialism, that word of many meanings, is indicated in the diary of 1908. ‘Foolish and exaggerated paper on me in Boston Post, announcing me as a Socialist.’ To a friend, he wrote in the same year:—

I have for many years had some leaning toward Socialism, I suppose, but the thing for which I joined the College Association was because 1 thought it very undesirable that colleges should ignore the very word as they almost uniformly did then; Harvard being almost the only one which allowed it even to be mentioned. . . . As for the name “Socialist,” I [399] never either claimed or disclaimed it, regarding it as merely a feeler in the right direction and refusing any prominent place in the movement. I remember that Dr. Edward Hale and I both took this same position in a similar organization formed by Edward Bellamy in his time.

His social creed, as stated in a letter dated 1859, would have equally fitted the succeeding years:—

Every year makes me, at least, more democratic, with less reverence for the elect and more faith in the many.

During the winter of 1911, strength gradually failed, though interest in the affairs of life never flagged. In February, he read a paper on Dickens, with all his old spirit, before the Round Table, and in April, he attended a meeting of the Authors' Club in Milton. His last thoughts and directions were for others, and his last days painless and serene. On the evening of May 9, while soft spring airs lifted the curtains of his windows, his visible presence was quietly withdrawn.

The farewell service was held by his own wish in the First Parish Church in Cambridge which claimed his allegiance from early association and from his warm regard for the pastor, Dr. Samuel M. Crothers, whom he had named, many years before, ‘the youth with the radiant brow.’ [400]

The escort to the church was furnished by the Thomas Wentworth Higginson Post. The Loyal Legion conducted the military part of the service and the casket was borne up the aisle, to the sound of muffled drums, by young Negro soldiers. His verses, ‘Waiting for the Bugle,’ and his hymn, ‘To Thine Eternal Arms, O God,’ were sung, the large gathering of friends, which included all classes of the community, joining in the latter. Aldrich's ‘Monody on the Death of Wendell Phillips,’ beginning,—

One by one they go
Into the unknown dark,

was read, this being a poem for which Colonel Higginson had deeply cared. His ashes were deposited in the Cambridge Cemetery by the side of the little grave where he had strewn flowers on Decoration Day for thirty years. Of this spot, overlooking the Charles River Valley and commanding a view of the city of his birth, he had written:—
Shadows come and shadows go
     O'er the meadows wide;
Twice each day, to and fro,
     Steals the river-tide;
Each morn with sunrise-glow
     Gilds the green hillside.

On the bright May morning of 1911, when we stood there sorrowing, Dr. Crothers recalled a thought which had come to him in the church when [401] he heard the bugle sounding ‘Taps’ and the distant response. ‘I thought,’ he said, ‘of the passing of Mr. Valiant-for-truth in “Pilgrim's Progress.” “So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.” ’ [402]

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