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XIII: Oldport Days

The removal of his home to Newport, Rhode Island, was not altogether acceptable to Colonel Higginson, as he disliked leaving his native State. Soon after his arrival there he related in a letter to his sisters this curious incident:—

Nov. 30, 1864.
I have been received very cordially here but have encountered one delicious rebuff. Judge——wished to get off the [School] Committee, and proposed to another member of the committee that he himself should resign and I be appointed in his place. Upon this the man flew into a passion, began to swear and asked Judge——what he meant by the proposition. “Why,” said the Judge, “he would be a very useful man on the Board.” “Don't know anything about that,” said the astute individual, “but I am not going to sit on the same Committee with a black man.”

However, Newport virtually adopted the stranger, making him chairman of the school committee and inviting him to give the Fourth of July oration. After some hard work the new chairman succeeded in abolishing separate colored schools, and in consequence [254] was dropped from the committee. Six years later his course was justified, for he was reinstated upon the school committee, and, moreover, in this later service one of his fellow-members was a colored man. He also became instrumental in organizing a Library Corporation and was one of the directors.

The beloved mother, with whom Colonel Higginson had so faithfully kept in touch, died in 1864, aged seventy-eight. In an article called ‘The Future Life,’ written in 1909 for ‘Harper's Bazar,’ the loyal son wrote: ‘Of my own mother, I can say that I never saw her beautiful face so calm and so full of deferred utterance as when I sat alone beside it after death; it was of itself a lesson in immortality.’

A less frequent chronicle of daily events was henceforth sent to his sisters; for instance:—

I read a chapter in Alice in the looking Glass after breakfast to the boarders to begin the day well. It is very rich . . . .

Spring opens and business drives. We have alder blossoms and snowdrops and six manuscript stories from 3 different young ladies with affectionate requests to read and criticized. . . .

Mothers now heap their babies on me more than ever, but I can stand it if they can. . . . I have a new admirer, partially insane, like most of mine.


The Higginsons made their home in a boardinghouse kept by a gentle Quaker lady, and of their hostess Colonel Higginson wrote:—

Dear Mrs. Dame is as lovely as ever, and when she has young kittens to drown, warms the water to save their feelings.

And of the Newport Quakers in general:—

They seem like a kind of mild and virtuous machines from oldest to youngest, without passions or imaginations. Their stormiest impulses seem but mild predilections, extending at certain times toward the tea table, or a shade more forcibly towards dinner, or among those most emancipated towards a domestic game of croquet.

In order to give his now helpless wife an airing, Colonel Higginson procured a sort of cab and had one side removed so that Mrs. Higginson's chair could be wheeled directly into the vehicle, and in this curious equipage they drove up and down Newport's fashionable avenue with characteristic independence.

How the author spent each hour of the day is recorded in his journal. After his own breakfast, he sawed wood for half an hour; then sat with his wife during her breakfast. He then worked from ten until two at his desk which was in the room where Mrs. Higginson sat all day in her wheeled chair, with [256] an open book before her on a rest. Here she received her friends, and her husband's writing was often done in the midst of lively conversation. Over his desk hung a photograph of the equestrian statue of the Venetian Coleone, and from this picture of the invincible warrior Colonel Higginson felt that he derived strength. The remaining time was given to miscellaneous duties and pleasures.

His old interest in athletics revived, and led him to start a gymnasium which he daily frequented, and where he led a large class. He joyfully recorded that he could do all he ever did ‘despite lingering traces of my army ailment’; and added:—

I have felt that perhaps I should gradually recur to that blissful mood of life in Nature in which I lived at Worcester just before the War. In the Army I was constantly in the presence of nature, but the weight of responsibility submerged it altogether and I can now only look back on Nature as the setting or frame of my life. . . . Sat by Fort Greene after breakfast and thought how much lovelier autumn than summer and what a relief when one gets to it. It gives a sense of permanent enjoyment—no more hurry in the thought that each day is going.

Newport afforded great opportunities for the old recreations, and sailing, rowing, and swimming became once more daily delights. On a friend's boat Colonel Higginson rigged a red Venetian sail ‘to [257] light up the harbor,’ and children were often found to share his excursions. These sometimes took the form of fishing for mackerel. On one occasion he wrote:—

I got 5 children back with no injury or loss beyond a hat, a sack and a pair of india-rubbers. This I think was doing well.

Exercise was his panacea for all ills, and if he felt under a cloud ‘a longish walk’ was the remedy. After a walk of nine miles, he reported, ‘On leaving I was rather depressed, but came back satisfied with everything in the world.’ To vary these walks riding on horseback was again attempted, without much success. He wrote in May:—

First ride for season. . . . I have ridden only once or twice since the war-partly from surfeit (at first) partly economy, partly some uneasiness about my side where I was wounded.

But he learned to ride the old-fashioned velocipede, and found that his work at the gymnasium helped him, in body and mind. ‘It stops off all other thoughts for an hour—a day—which walking does not, besides the delightful glow in chest and arms.’

For evening amusement there was a chess club, and the dramatic talent which was so effective in Colonel Higginson's story-telling and conversation [258] was often called into play. He wrote to his sisters, February 20, 1866:—

I performed Mrs. Jarley and her waxwork show with immense éclat and ten people came to tell M. about it next day.

The famous watering-place attracted many celebrities and a current newspaper reported that nearly ‘the whole “Atlantic” force’ were permanent or summer residents of that place. The ‘Town and Country Club,’ with Mrs. Julia Ward Howe for president and Colonel Higginson for vice-president, drew together these congenial spirits, and Mrs. Howe's home was always an attractive resort. Describing a visit to this spot, he exclaimed,—‘delicious there in valley! The sight and smell of wild flowers refreshed my soul—they are so rare here.’

To Newport and to Mrs. Dame's table drifted in those days sundry bright women, whose sparkling conversation and witty repartees made meal-time a brilliant occasion. One of these gifted women was Helen Hunt, who became an intimate friend of the Higginsons. The Colonel was glad to be her literary adviser, reading in manuscript all the Saxe Holm stories, whose authorship Mrs. Hunt struggled to keep a profound secret. After she became Mrs. Jackson she wrote to him in 1877, ‘He [her husband] [259] knows how much I owe to you—all my success as a writer.’

One of the Newport residents whom Colonel Higginson especially enjoyed was La Farge, of whom he wrote:—

I ought not to complain of living in a place which has La Farge.. .. He is one of the few men to whom it is delightful to talk—almost the only one with whom I can imagine talking all night for instance as that is not my way. He is so original and cultivated at the same time, and so free from unworthy things. He seems like a foreigner too—it is getting the best part of France to talk with him. How unimportant is physical ugliness in a man! If I were a woman I should fall in love with him, delicate and feeble as he is physically.

Of a farewell dinner given for Wilkie Collins in 1874, Colonel Higginson wrote:—

There were only eight literary men there and I remember noticing how much brighter were Mr. Whittier's eyes than those of anybody else, though he looks old and thin and sick.

On this occasion he first saw Mark Twain who impressed him as ‘something of a buffoon, though with earnestness underneath; and when afterwards at his own house in Hartford, I heard him say grace at table, it was like asking a blessing over Ethiopian minstrels. But he had no wine at his table and that [260] seemed to make the grace a genuine thing.’ This hasty estimate of the popular humorist was a passing one, and the acquaintance developed into a cordial friendship.

Public men as well as authors and artists were drawn to Newport, and when President Hayes visited Rhode Island in 1877, the Colonel wrote to his sisters:—

He looks just like his pictures, and gives a great impression of manly equilibrium and quiet strength. I was pleased with the quiet way he said to me when the people were calling and I told him he would have to make a speech: “No:—there is nothing easier than to keep silence.” I shall never forget it; it was a key to the whole man. His nieces afterwards told me, “He never brings business to the dinner table” — the ‘business’ being the government of the nation! . . . On Friday they all came here and I saw Mrs. Hayes and liked her quite as much . . . .She has nature's good manners, making society manners quite superfluous—just such manners as a Republican presidentess should have. She clapped her hands like a girl when she saw the ocean (for the first time in her life) and repined a good deal in being carried off to tea in a fine house, saying that she could take tea at any time but might never see the ocean again.

He also records May 30:—

Talked with Admirals Farragut, Porter and Capt. Worden. . . . He [Farragut] is a good looking [261] well-knit man—P. less showy with black beard-W. coarser looking, with auburn beard and still burnt with powder.

Colonel Higginson had been more or less associated in Worcester with Dr. E. E. Hale, who was for a time the only clergyman in that city who was willing to exchange with the pastor of the Free Church.

‘I had such an amusing glimpse,’ he wrote, ‘of Edward Hale and his numerous offspring. I was at the Redwood library [Newport] and heard the tramp of many feet and supposed it an excursion party; then his cheery voice. . . . They had stopped on their way from Block Island to the Narragansett region where they live. I showed them a few things and presently they streamed out again, I bidding them farewell. Going toward the door I met the elder girl returning, and looking for something as if she had dropped a glove or a handkerchief. I said, “Are you looking for anything?” and she said, smiling shyly, “For a pair of twins!” It was even so. Hale, counting up his party on the sidewalk, missed nothing but a pair of twins and sent her back to find them in some corer; which being done, they proceeded to the steamboat.’

Various foreign notabilities often found their way to Newport.

‘To-day,’ wrote Colonel Higginson on June 18, 1876, ‘I have been to lunch with Dom Pedro of Brazil and the Empress at Bancroft's—the most [262] bourgeois and good natured of sovereigns, especially the latter, though she is . . . a Bourbon. He looks like a heavy professor of a country college and she like any little stout middle aged lady ..’

‘It is pleasant to think,’ he mused, ‘that summer visitors are always a source of pleasure, if not by their coming, then by their going.’

In the midst of this pleasant social life Colonel Higginson was still sending monthly articles to the ‘Atlantic,’ besides doing much miscellaneous writing. Some of these papers describing Newport life were later published in a volume entitled ‘Oldport Days.’ Meantime he kept himself informed of the whereabouts and welfare of the men of his old regiment, and in June after attending a military funeral, he reflected:—

How great the charm of military life; it makes me almost unhappy to see men form in line and think of the happy time when that was the daily occupation of my life . . . .

How like a dream it all seems. .. That I was in it myself seems the dreamiest thing of all; I cannot put my hand upon it in the least, and if some one convinced me, in five minutes some morning, that I never was there at all, it seems as if it would all drop quietly out of my life, and I should read my own letters and think they were some one's else. This is one thing that makes it hard for me to . . . write anything about those days, though sooner or later I shall do it all . . . . [263]

It seemed like a dream to go to Worcester and see how three years had restored my young recruits to their old places in shops &c., and swept away all traces of those stirring days. Yet the Old Guard of those elderly gentlemen were still parading the streets, and that made all the real soldiering seem more a dream than ever.

‘To keep up my interest in slavery,’ wrote Colonel Higginson to his old army surgeon,—‘I am translating Epictetus who is far superior to your dear Antoninus.’ Somewhat later another most congenial literary task was accomplished by the retired Colonel and he told Dr. Rogers:—

I have undertaken a job—to edit the memorial volumes containing lives of those Harvard boys who have died in the war—it will take me a year almost. I write editorially for the Independent too, as well as the Commonwealth and Atlantic-so you see I have enough on hand. . . .

I have been invited to be agent for New England of the Freedmen's Union with a salary of $2500.

This proposal Colonel Higginson was obliged to decline.

Public speaking had been promptly resumed when his military life ended, and was never again entirely given up. He spoke easily without notes until age made memory treacherous, and his enunciation was so clear that even when his voice grew weak in later [264] years he could still be easily heard. As a presiding officer he was always in demand, having a gift of lighting up a dull occasion by ready wit or anecdote, of tactfully suppressing long-winded speakers, and of gracefully preserving harmony between conflicting opinions. Invitations to lecture which involved a night's absence were usually declined while in Newport, on account of his wife's failing health, but this rule was sometimes broken; and on one of these occasions, he wrote from Washington, D. C.:—

Last night my lecture was a real success, they say, and I repeat it because I am prone to humility about speaking and put all my conceit into my writing. It seemed rather an ordeal to speak before Congressmen and Washington people, they have such a surfeit of it; and Gen. Grant had taken a special interest in the lecture and made his friends buy tickets.

Again from Ann Arbor, Michigan, he wrote:

To-day I have been in some of the classes—one most tumultuous class of 350 law students who were in ecstasies over a little speech I made—I thought they would carry me on their shoulders. Then I had to make a little speech to Prof. Tyler's class in English literature also (35 young men 6 young women) to whom he introduced me as the best living writer of the English language! Thus much for western zeal; but I am very glad to have been here, it is so well to get beyond one's accustomed circle.


In the winter of 1867 the lecturer arranged to break away from his moorings for a fortnight and thus describes some of his experiences:—

I have a great renewal of interest in the “Atlantic,” [Monthly] from my trip out West where it preceded me everywhere and I have realized what a clientele it gave. In two places people came 12 miles to hear me, because they had subscribed from the beginning. I heard of a little town in northern Iowa (Caspar) where there were 50 houses and (before the war) 25 copies ..

The remotest places I liked best; it was so strange to dip down on these little western towns and find an audience all ready and always readers of the “Atlantic” so glad to see me. One man, an original subscriber to the “Atlantic Monthly,” brought his family 20 miles to hear me. This was at Decorah near the Minnesota border and 10 miles from a railway.

He also met a young farmer who said:—

He and his father always looked for my articles in the “Atlantic” and cut those leaves first—the best compliment I ever had. . ..

My lecture is on American Society a modification of one on American Aristocracy which I gave at Brattleboro before the war. It goes very well and I get $100 a night and make about $450 by the trip—beside the interest and satisfaction of it, which pays for itself.


His lectures nearer home often gave him pleasant glimpses of the life of old friends.

‘At Amesbury,’ he wrote to his sisters, ‘I staid with Whittier who . . . seems brighter than I expected in his loneliness. . . . He has a singular companion—a wonderful parrot, 30 years old, an African parrot Quaker colored with a scarlet tail. The only sensible and intelligible parrot I ever saw, and we had much conversation.’

And when he lectured in Concord he wrote:—

I staid at Mr. Emerson's and it was very sweet to see him with his grandchildren . . . tending the baby of 7 months on his knee and calling him “a little philosopher.”

The Sons of Temperance claimed Colonel Higginson's aid, anti-slavery conventions were still in vogue, and he went several times to Washington and Cleveland to preside at Woman Suffrage Conventions. Mrs. Higginson's letters to the Brattleboro family always contained characteristic comments on her husband's doings.

Wentworth has been away two days this week,’ she wrote, ‘and going to-night to Washington to fight for women. I wish they had been fixed before we were born. . . . Lately he has been trying to find a father and Grandfather for some stray girl— I don't know who—but he has n't found them yet, but I suppose he will persevere—I should think one [267] would be enough—but he is naturally thorough you know.’

The Colonel explained in a postscript:—

The case of this girl is that she wants a pension because her father was a soldier and died in the rebel prison. . . . I have come upon only two obstacles to her wish:

1st that she is not the man's daughter.

2d that he is still alive.

Occasionally Colonel Higginson attended meetings of the Boston Radical Club, a society of advanced thinkers which met once a month at the hospitable house of Rev.Sargent and Mrs. J. T. Sargent. Here an essay on some philosophic or theological subject was read and discussed, often with great animation. A bomb was thrown into the camp one day in the shape of a clever anonymous poem, a parody on Poe's ‘Raven,’ taking off the members of the club. One verse introduced Higginson thus:—

Then a colonel, cold and smiling,
With a stately air beguiling,
Who punctuates his paragraphs
On Newport's shining shore.

At one of these meetings where Rev. Mr. Weiss repudiated a ‘peace-basis’ for either earth or heaven, Colonel Higginson labelled his theories ‘The Gospel of the Shindy.’ In spite of his own independent views, the latter always took the part of the [268] ‘under dog.’ On one of these occasions he answered certain caustic strictures on the Bible with such earnestness that a listener exclaimed, ‘How rich to hear Higginson standing up for the Orthodox ministers!’

In 1867 he was instrumental in forming the Free Religious Association of Boston, and according to the records of the society he ‘has been present at more of its councils, has presided over more of its festivals, and has delivered more addresses from its platform than any other person.’ He was one of the officers of the association from its beginning, serving either as president, vice-president, or on the board of directors. Of the convention in 1868, he wrote in his diary,—‘Very successful and Potter and I are well repaid for our hard work. Still my insatiate industry of temperament seems to give me no time to enjoy.’

He was sometimes asked to state his religious belief, and among his unpublished manuscripts was found this paper entitled ‘My Creed’:—

In the life of every thoughtful man, no matter how sunny his temperament, there are moments of care, sorrow, depression, perplexity when neither study nor action nor friends will clear the horizon. .. It is at such times that the thought of an Unseen Power comes to help him; by no tradition of the churches, with no apparatus of mythology; but [269] simply in the form that the mystics call “the flight of the Alone, to the Alone.” . . . It may be in a church; it may equally well be in a solitary room or on a mountain height. . . . The test of such an experience, call it prayer or reverie or what you please —is as substantial as anything that can come to us. I am not so sure of what I see with my eyes—not so sure that two and two make four—not so sure of any of the forms of the logical syllogism as I am of the genuineness and value of these occasional moments. . . . Far be it from me to claim that any such experience is essential to a moral life, or even to a self-devoted life; that would be a mistaken assumption, and indeed the very fact that one is without this source of refreshment and comfort may only make his self-abnegation more complete, his virtue more heroic, because accompanied with the renunciation of joy. But I am not one of those who believe that life should consist mainly of renunciation and self-abnegation, whether of the Roman Catholic or of the agnostic type; but that it should attain to peace and joy. We can all see that a great deal of brave work is done by heroic men in a spirit so grim and determined that if it does not fatigue the world for which it is applied, it wears out the man who applies it; and the experience of personal religion, in the old sense, but purified from all the repulsive associations of cant and hypocrisy—this surely supplies the oil that is needed, in order that there may be some relief to this terrible friction which wears out so many lives. All honor to the great scientific investigations which are to so many the only path [270] out of crushing opposition; but let us recognize also that science is not all, and that help and strength may still come from a region unexplored by science. Grant that its experiences and lights are as yet unsystematic, unmeasured, occasional; and that few lives can be kept always at their high level, yet it is something to know what that level is.

He was fond of quoting Emerson's saying, ‘Better that the book should not be quite so good, and the bookmaker abler and better and not himself often a ludicrous contrast to all that he has written.’

‘Perhaps no sentence,’ he wrote, ‘ever influenced my life so much as this since about 1844. It has made me willing to vary my life and work for personal development, rather than to concentrate it and sacrifice myself to a specific result. . . . The trouble with me is too great a range of tastes and interests. I love to do everything, to study everything, to contemplate and to write. I never was happier than when in the army entirely absorbed in active duties; yet I love literature next—indeed almost better; and I need either two lives or 48 hours in the day to do all. How plain that there must be other spheres!’

It was with amused surprise that he read one day a proposal of the Springfield Republican that he should be made president of Harvard University. ‘ It is a compliment,’ he told his sisters, ‘to be even talked about for this position. There is no possibility [271] of my being appointed. .. . Heard from Stephen [his brother] that he had urged me for President of Harvard College! . . . I might add that I am to be President of Harvard University because one zealous relative is pushing me. But I think I had better wait fifty or a hundred years ere announcing so extreme an impracticability as that.’

At one time he received an invitation to become chancellor of the State University of Nebraska. ‘Such things gratify me,’ he said, but ‘I should give up my literary life very unwillingly.’ He was also urged to apply for the collectorship of Newport, which he declined to do. Some of the attentions which he received caused the recipient much amusement. For instance, he wrote in 1877:—

I had such an odd letter from a New York pilot who has just built a fine vessel and wished to name it after T. W. Higginson as a Christian, philanthropist and a whole string of epithets which were quite intoxicating till they ended with “and one of the most eminent bankers in New England.” This not being my strong point I was convinced at last that he had jumbled George H. [the father of Henry Lee Higginson] and me hopelessly together, so I sent the letter to George H.—with the less reluctance as he [the pilot] delicately hinted at least that I should be expected to provide ‘the maiden suit of colors’ at $75 in return for the honor.


For the summer months the Higginsons were in the habit of moving to the ‘Point,’ which the Colonel once described as the most captivating place he ever lived in—‘amid birds and elm boughs and the lovely walk along the Bay, close by.’ Here they occupied the house in which the scene of ‘Malbone’ was laid, and where the winding secret staircase described in the novel actually existed.

‘We have just removed to new summer quarters,’ he wrote, ‘namely a very old and stately house by the bay, with grand mahogany stairways, several rooms panelled to the ceiling and as much carving as any Newburyport house. . . . We are wholly apart from the fashionable region here, and it seems like a fishing hamlet in the suburbs.’

A family of New York children who also summered at the ‘Point’ gave great delight to Colonel Higginson. He taught them to swim, took them sailing, and thus described one of them:—

My little Marie's charms are at present in a state of chaos, some other child having snipped off her hair, and nature having borrowed her two upper teeth; but her eyes are like great deep ocean caves, with such unconscious lashes!

When in the autumn he was obliged to part from these little companions he complained, ‘It is a heart-breaking business this setting one's affections on other people's children.’ Yet he tried to comfort [273] himself by thinking, ‘It never has been clear to me till lately that the great aim of this life is to show us what happiness might be—leaving it for other spheres to secure it.’

In one of his Decoration Day addresses, when an allusion was made to the growing amity between the North and the South, Colonel Higginson said, ‘I never can forget that my black soldiers, when decorating graves for our own army, forty years ago, proposed for themselves to put flowers also on the graves of those who fought bravely on the other side.’ It was after one of these occasions that the poem ‘ Decoration Day’ was written. This has probably been more widely read and copied than any of Colonel Higginson's verses, except the poem called ‘The Things I Miss.’ In a letter to a friend he explained the origin of the latter verses:—

Did I ever tell you the secret of that bit of confidence with Heaven? . . . I published the verses [in 1870] without initials and nobody knew who wrote them . . . but they have been twice as much praised by strangers as all I have written beside in verse.

This poem touched many hearts and, after the authorship was revealed, brought the writer so many letters of praise that he once said he thought it would be his ‘best bid for immortality.’ [274]

In reading these verses, it is well to remember that, whatever privations were known to Colonel Higginson, he had a marvellous faculty of forgetting personal troubles:—

There is one trait of mine which I almost regret, growing out of that elasticity of nature to which I owe so much. No matter what depression, anxiety or fear I may have had, the moment it is removed all trace of it vanishes. There is no ‘recoil of bliss’ to correspond to the discomfort; the latter simply drops off and is forgotten.

This period seemed to him to be the high tide of his intellectual activity, and he wrote:—

This feeling of fertility is a happy thing, it enriches all life and enables me to do without many things.

In analyzing his own style, the author noted in his journal:—

I have fineness and fire, but some want of copiousness and fertility which may give a tinge of thinness to what I write . . . . What an abundance, freshness and go there is about the Beechers, for instance. They are egotistic, crotchety and personally disagreeable, and they often “make fritters of English” but I wish I could, without sacrificing polish, write with that exuberant and hearty zeal . . . Shakespeare may have written as the birds sing, though I doubt it—but minor writers at least have to labor for form as the painter labors—the mere inspiration [275] of thought is not enough. . . . There must be a golden moment but also much labor within that moment. At least it is so with me, and I cannot help suspecting that it is even so with the Shakespeares.

On New Year's Day, 1866, the thought first came to Colonel Higginson, while reading Hawthorne's ‘Marble Faun,’ that he might write a romance, a project always before rejected. The thought rapidly took shape in his mind, too rapidly, he wrote in his diary, for his own comfort, being overworked as editor of the ‘Harvard Memorial Biographies.’ In March, he reports himself as still crushed under letters and memoirs, having himself written thirteen of the biographies for these volumes. But on his long solitary walks, he dreamed happily about the projected story. He wrote in his diary:—

A wild afternoon and I imagined a scene for my romance so vividly that it now seems real to me. . . . Walked to cliffs late in afternoon—it is astonishing how much dearer is one spot to me since I planned a scene there for my romance.

In 1866, he finished the ‘Memorial Biographies’ and wrote, ‘Liberty at last.’ A few days later his diary chronicles, ‘Offer from Fields to write 10 articles for “Atlantic” for $1000—from Jan. 1.’ Of one of these papers, ‘A Driftwood Fire,’ he wrote in his diary:— [276]

Jan. 24, 1867. When I print a thing like the Driftwood Fire—which seems to me to have a finer touch in it than anything I ever wrote—I feel as if it were thrown into the sea and as if nobody living cared for it. How can a man write who does not enjoy intensely the writing itself as I do? When I first read anything of mine in print, it is with perfect delight—then comes depression and the doubt whether anybody cares for such things and then I let it go, and get interested in something else.

His birthday meditations that year ran thus:—

Looking back . . . I feel renewed gratitude for that wonderful cheerfulness and healthiness of nature I inherited from my mother. This season always gives some feeling of loneliness to one of my temperament who is childless . . . and whose home is a hospital and who sees the only object of his care in tears of suffering daily . . . . And while literary sympathy or encouragement come slowly, I yet do surely feel an enriching of the mind this winter, more ideality, more constructive and creative faculty—such as I should think my Driftwood Fire would prove to all, if anybody cared for such things. For I am sometimes haunted with the feeling that it is too soon for any ideal treatment in America. Who reads Twice-told Tales?

In 1867, Colonel Higginson translated various sonnets from Petrarch, wrote essays and short stories for the ‘Atlantic,’ continued his army papers, and compiled a little book by request of Ticknor [277] and Fields, called ‘Child Pictures from Dickens,’ which was issued at the time of Dickens's second visit to this country.

The summary of a single day's occupation, jotted down in the diary, illustrates the truth of Mr. A. Bronson Alcott's description of Colonel Higginson as ‘a man of tasks.’ In one day he had revised a memoir for one of the numerous literary aspirants who continually sought his sympathetic aid, written a book notice and several letters, made the first draughts of two ‘Independent’ articles, aided in a written examination of the high school for one and a half hours in the afternoon, and spent two and a half hours examining school papers in the evening, besides his usual exercise.

In the summer of this year (1867), he embodied some of his translations of Petrarch's sonnets in a paper which he thus described in a letter to J. T. Fields, whom he called his poet-publisher:—

I am writing a species of rhapsody called Sunshine and Petrarch, supposed to be written outof-doors; a kind of plum pudding, Nature furnishing the pudding-Petrarch the plums, translated sonnets being inserted at proper intervals. It is charming to the writer which is dangerous, as the ratio of fascination is generally inverted ere reaching the public. As puddings should be thoroughly boiled, I shall keep this the rest of the week, probably.

[278] His diary records:—

For the first time took my Petrarch writing outdoor . . . sat at different points, chiefly at Myers House—yard full of spiraea, lilac, clover, grass in blossom, daisies—robin's nest oddly placed in birch tree far out on bough. A delicious time!

In 1903, a dainty volume of these sonnets was published and a copy sent through the American ambassador to Queen Marguerite of Italy who received it with gracious commendation. The book also received a flattering reception from an Italian society at Arezzo formed to honor Petrarch's memory.

The beginning of Colonel Higginson's work on ‘Malbone’ is thus noted:—

To-day I felt an intense longing to work on my imaginary novel . . . . The impulse was so strong I yielded to it and got a first chapter into shape that satisfied. This was enough and afterwards I could return to the essay.

January 1, 1868, he continued:—

I know that this Romance (Malbone) is in me like the statue in the marble, for every little while I catch glimpses of parts of it here and there. I have rather held back from it, but a power within steadily forces me on; the characters are forming themselves more and more, . . . and it is so attractive to me that were it to be my ruin in fame and fortune I should still wish to keep on.


On March 11, he wrote four pages for the story, and says, ‘I enjoy this extremely and am much encouraged, but cannot afford to reject the offer to write Margaret Fuller's life.’ This was an article for a volume by different writers called ‘Eminent Women of the Age,’ and for the same publication Mr. Higginson wrote a memoir of Lydia Maria Child. His biography of Margaret Fuller Ossoli was published sixteen years later in the ‘American Men of Letters Series.’

A few days later, he had accomplished—

5 pages Malbone—and letter to N. Y. Standard. I have now 50 pages of this novel. For the first time perhaps I have something to write which so interests me it is very hard to leave it even for necessary exercise. I hate to leave it a moment—and yet I have to write about Margaret Fuller.

A week later, he added:—

6 pages Ossoli. Like this very well, but grudge the time taken from Malbone, about which I was beginning to feel very happy.

I do not think that anything except putting on uniform and going into camp has ever given me such a sense of new strange fascinating life, as the thought that I can actually construct a novel. It is as if I had learned to fly.

In April he decided not to interrupt ‘Malbone’ [280] again, but to postpone ‘Army Life’ if necessary, and adds:—

Told Fields about Malbone—and he was very sympathetic and asked many questions and said must have it in “Atlantic.”

Before the book appeared, the author reflected:—

It is impossible for me to tell what will be thought of this book, whether it will be found too shallow or too grave, too tragic or too tame; I only know that I have enjoyed it more than anything I ever wrote (though writing under great disadvantages) and that the characters are like real men and women to me, though not one of them was, strictly speaking, imitated from life, as a whole.

Yet two of the characters in ‘ Malbone’ were suggested by real persons. Many of Aunt Jane's witty sayings had originated with Mrs. Higginson, and Philip Malbone was drawn from memories of Hurlbut, the author's early friend. On September 25, he had ended the story and sent it to Fields, and quoted in his diary a passage from Browning's ‘Paracelsus’:—

Are there not . . .
Two points in the adventure of a diver,
One—when, a beggar, he prepares to plunge,
One—when, a prince, he rises with his pearl?
Festus, I plunge!

In November he had finished working over the manuscript and says:— [281]

There is, with all my fussy revising and altering, always a point where a work seems to take itself into its own hands . . . and I can no more control it than an apple-tree its fallen apples.

The advent of ‘Malbone’ was announced to the writer's sisters with this comment:—

I expect dismay on your part, my dear sisters, before you see it and perhaps after—but I had to write it. I enjoyed it so much, so we must acquiesce.

After the book was actually published (1869), he wrote:—

As for my new literary venture, it is received with quiet approbation apparently though not with eagerness . . . . It seemed strange to me to hold my own novel in my hand, after all the thought and feeling I had put into it—and after thinking for so many years that I never could or would write one.

The announcement of an English reprint of ‘Malbone’ pleased the author, and when in after years he revisited the scene of the story, he wrote in his diary:—

Walked along the bay, beside the empty houses, and the dismantled house where I wrote Malbone. The fog bell tolled and the whole scene was full of ghosts; how long it seemed since those dreamy summers! That was the ideal epoch of my life: I have written nothing like that since and may not again.

[282] In January, 1869, he continued:—

I begin this year with a feeling of publicity and perhaps assured position such as never before. This is due to the reception of Malbone and my paper on the Greek Goddesses and also to lecturing more and to my participation in Woman's Suffrage Movement, Grand Army affairs and (prospectively) Free Religious Convention . . . I like it—and especially in view of the diminished society around me in Newport.

In April he felt ‘rather tired of writing,’ and held back from his ‘Army Life,’ adding, ‘Shall I compel myself to it?’ However, he was soon hard at work on this collection of army papers, and on September 22, wrote:—

“Army Life in a Black regiment” published today. It is amazing how indifferent I feel as to the reception of this book, compared with “Malbone,” which was so near my heart. It scarcely awakens the slightest emotion.

But a little later this feeling changed:—

After reading a graphic military novel turned to my “Army Life” and read it with surprise and interest; and with a sort of despair at the comparative emptiness of all other life after that.

Twenty years afterward, he wrote to Dr. Rogers:—

Those times are ever fresh and were perhaps the flower of our lives.


After the publication of ‘Malbone’ and ‘Army Life,’ Colonel Higginson was able to command a higher price for his writings.

‘This is a substantial gain from my increased reputation,’ he reflected.

But after all no amount for mere writing yields a large income only lecturing pays. . . . I have never in my life felt so easy as to money as in the 3 months past—nor sure of so large an audience—but I feel the intellectual solitude here more than formerly.

The year after ‘Malbone’ appeared, its author began ‘to have a great craving after another story —even if nobody cares for it but myself. . . . Sometimes I fancy that I am wasting my life in trying to be an architect of Alhambra for a people who demand plain brick and mortar. I see a dozen themes for tragedy just around me—the want is not of material but of demand. . . . So slowly has my small portion of reputation been acquired that it always rather surprises me if any one cares for anything I write.’

One of this busy author's amusements was planning for more literary work than he could possibly accomplish, making out lists of projected essays and stories. ‘Thinking of many books lately [to write],’ says the journal. ‘A little money would help me wonderfully about these.’ On a page of his 1872 diary is a [284] list of ten books which he had planned to write, the last of which was to be ‘The Intellectual History of Woman.’ Of this he wrote, ‘My magnum opus, if I can really ever get to it.’ For this contemplated work Colonel Higginson collected for many years all the books he could find bearing on the development of woman. The ‘magnum opus’ was never really attempted, but the collection of books numbering several hundred volumes in a variety of languages was finally given to the Boston Public Library and entitled the ‘Galatea Collection,’ the name being suggested by the old fable of Pygmalion and Galatea. Higginson took great interest in adding to this unique collection from time to time, being assisted in this rare pastime of buying books by an annual donation for the purpose from Mr. Carnegie. But his attention was soon turned to a different sort of history.

At this time there was great need of an attractive juvenile history of the United States, and Mr. George B. Emerson, a popular Boston educator, suggested to Colonel Higginson that he should furnish such a book. To make this plan practicable, Mr. Emerson advanced one thousand dollars to supply the means of livelihood while the task was under way. ‘I am trying to write a History of the United States for young people,’ reported the new historian [285] after a year's labor, ‘but don't know whether it will be readable after all.’ While collecting material for the book, he records writing one day ten postal cards in ‘10 languages—English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew.’

The first draught was considered by Mr. Emerson too juvenile, and it was therefore necessary to rewrite it. The work was finally completed in 1874 and the author wrote:—

It is a relief to me at last to have this work done, as it pressed on me a good deal, and especially this month. On the whole I have rather enjoyed it, though so long continued a work . . . . I should not have a doubt [as to its success] were it written by any one else. My luck may turn but I don't think I was born to be rich. I have had to economize unusually these last two years, for Mr. Emerson's $1000 has been far from compensating for the time I have given. And unless I clear something beyond that first $1000 which goes to him, I shall be out of pocket.

It will be pleasant to think, in any case, that I have done something to make American history clear and attractive.

This book inaugurated a new era in writing history for children, and Mr. Emerson assured the author that he had done the world a great service. After the history was in print, Higginson wrote:— [286]

What puzzles me about the Young Folks' history is that work which so often (certainly) dragged in the writing should be found so universally attractive in the reading . . . .

I was in Boston on Wednesday (a few weeks after the publication) and found the 9th thousand of the history then in press—about 6000 of these sold and ordered, and constant demand. They feel very confident of a continued sale, by all the signs. I am now making some farther alterations for a new edition. The publishers wish me to make a manual of Universal History now—pleasant offer!

I think I have now for the first time accepted the fact that I have achieved a worldly success at last and may really have those additional few hundred dollars a year that would seem wealth to me. Perhaps even this year I may. . . . It does not excite me, but I confess to agreeable sensations.

A month later the diary records:—

A memorable day. In the morning I had a note telling that Mr. Shepard expected to sell 40,000 of the Young Folks' History this year and 200,000 in all. . . . Then at evening came the kindest letter from Mr. Emerson saying that he was “sufficiently repaid” for the money advanced on the book, and should not take it back. This munificence gives me $1000 additional in August—probably $2000 in all. For the first time, I think, I begin really to believe that I am to have some money to spend—after fifty years of care and economy. This economy I have never really disliked, indeed have found a certain [287] amusement and satisfaction in. But I shall like the other still better, though it will be hard to adapt myself and even now I can hardly count on it.

These half-doubting anticipations received a check three months later in the financial failure of his publishers.

‘It is curious,’ he meditated,

to study the currents of life. For 3 months I have felt as if I really had some money—but now the great depression of business prevents Lee and Shepard from collecting or sending and I have been obliged to be more careful than ever, this month . . . . How suddenly my supposed increase of income has been interrupted and I have even less than before. Waldo said, “It only involves some waiting!” I said, “I've been waiting all my life.”

Sept. 16. To Boston-Lee and Shepard—meeting of creditors—about that convenient little cup that has slipped from my lips. However I had for two months the sensations of a comfortable income . . . .

Sept. 25. Tried in vain to write; I am so heavily weighed down with anxiety and care between M.'s wretched condition and Lee and Co.'s failure that it is almost impossible for me to write. The walls seem only to draw closer around me year by year.

But this depression was only temporary, and in October the tables were turned.

‘All my life I have had a sort of Bank of Faith in [288] money matters,’ wrote the relieved author,

when pretty low I always expect a windfall—so to-day came a letter from Lee & Shepard . . . with check for $247. 5 for sales since their failure . . . a very reassuring letter at once removing that uncertainty for the future which was my chief solicitude.

This successful history was translated into French in 1875, and two editions were published. In 1876, a German version was printed, and it was translated into Italian in 1888. In May, 1879, the book was adopted by the Boston public schools. This seemed to the author ‘a real access of fortune—yet I always think how little money can give after all.’ One of the best endorsements of the book came from a boy of eight, the son of a Harvard professor, who declared, ‘I like your History of the United States about as well as the Odyssey.’ Another came from a teacher in North Carolina: ‘My class is intensely interested in it [Young Folks' History]. The book has in it more to arouse the child's patriotism than any book that I have ever seen . . . .The teaching profession is under many obligations to you.’ In 1905, an edition of this History was, by private generosity, printed in raised letters for the blind.

The Higginsons made an occasional attempt at housekeeping, and during the latter part of Mrs. Higginson's life they were able to keep up this mode [289] of living, which gave both much pleasure. ‘We have now in the kitchen,’ wrote the Colonel, ‘as cook, the black minister's mother, very large and 70-she .. gets on well, makes pretty bad bread and is too old to come upstairs.’ Again: ‘Able to enjoy a quiet Thanksgiving at home. M. was very happy and the little house seemed very pleasant. I desire not to get used to it, but to keep freshly in mind what a pleasure it is to have a home.’

The diary of 1870 recorded that the writer was reading and planning for Europe. On each birthday or New Year's Day, Colonel Higginson wrote in his journal a brief summary of his life, and under date of January I, 1870, occurs the following:—

I begin the year under some new spiritual influences, I hope, with some firmer purposes, more patience. I shall miss “Malbone” and feel yearly the want of social interests here—but I have the prospect of Europe, which will be a great era.

This plan was sorrowfully relinquished, and in March he wrote:—

I am suffering under unusual depression, for me, partly the disappointment about Europe . . . and partly the stagnation of this place and my monotonous life.

However, two years later the European project was revived and he actually went abroad for two [290] months, his sister Anna taking his place during his absence. An account of this memorable visit to Europe will be found in a later chapter.

In 1876, Mr. Higginson began to write reviews of ‘recent poetry’ for the ‘Nation,’ and this critical work was continued for more than a quarter of a century. Looking over his outdoor notebook he exclaimed, ‘How I should love to devote the greater part of the summer to insects—but I am now more committed to the study of men and women.’

During his wife's long helplessness, Colonel Higginson's devotion was unceasing, and when the end came, September 2, 1877, he wrote to a friend:—

My wife died . . . after a week's illness of “intestinal fever.” She has been losing strength this summer and was perhaps unable to throw off an attack that she could else have resisted. She did not suffer much and closed her courageous life quietly. You are one of those whose personal experience has taught you what it is to lose an object of care; how little there seems left to be done, how strange and almost unwelcome the freedom.

The long continued weight of responsibility could not at once be thrown off, and for a time Colonel Higginson was haunted by the bewildering thought that he was neglecting his duty. This feeling was expressed in his touching unpublished verses, called [291] ‘Relieved from Guard,’ two of which are given below:—

O! I shrink from this untried freedom
     In a world I do not know.
Give me back the long, long watching
     And the pacing to and fro!

They will pass, these weak repinings;
     And only one thought be hard,
That I know not which of God's angels
     Is now at my post, on guard!

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