previous next

III: the boy student

In his college days, Wentworth Higginson was uncomfortably tall, shy, and reserved. He presented a curious combination of qualities—intellectual precocity with immaturity of character, and a marked love of study with great fondness for athletic sports. He was given to self-analysis, inclined to be somewhat sentimental, and, partly owing to his extreme youth, was not popular among his fellow-students. His only intimate friend in the freshman class was Francis E. Parker, who always held the place of first scholar, and who later became a prominent Boston lawyer. The two boys were rivals in rank and two years apart in age. Under date of May 22, 1839, Parker wrote of his young classmate, then a sophomore: ‘I like Wentworth rather, quite well. He is now young but a good scholar—tolerable looking, awkward.’

There were other members of the class of 1841 who attained distinction in later life. Among them were the Boston physicians, Dr. Edward Clarke and Dr. Francis Minot. Two of the men took high rank [24] as officers in the Union army; and the list of those who made their mark includes Henry F. Durant, the founder of Wellesley College. An intimate friend who entered college two years after Wentworth was Levi Thaxter, later the ardent student of Browning and FitzGerald. He did much to guide wisely young Higginson's literary tendencies.

The lifelong friendship between Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Edward Everett Hale also began while they were undergraduates. In some of the former's unpublished notes is this comparison:—

There was a curious parallel in some respects between the life of Edward Everett Hale and my own. He is nearly two years older than myself, graduated at Harvard College two years before me (1839); each of us having the second rank in his class, a time when much more was thought of college rank than now. There were analogies also in physical matters between Hale and myself in some directions which had perhaps a bearing on the later problem of old age. Each of us was six feet tall; each of us combined the love of three studies which are rarely combined—Greek, mathematics, and natural history—and had on this last point the invaluable influence of Dr. Thaddeus William Harris, librarian, botanist, and entomologist. Each of us, therefore, was tempted out of doors, a very desirable temptation to naturally studious boys, and likely to strengthen their constitutions.


From the same notes the following reminiscences are taken:—

When I entered Harvard College an Abstract of laws and regulations of the University was given me. The one thing that now seems of peculiar interest in that circular is an item headed, “Dress. On Sabbaths and Exhibition days, and on all public occasions, each student in public shall wear a black or blackmixed coat, with buttons of the same color.” What would a student think, today, of this regulation!

While in college I took an active interest in all athletic exercises, kicked football assiduously in the autumn on the so-called Delta where Memorial Hall now stands. We also played cricket of the oldfash-ioned kind with large bats and heavy balls, an outfit now stowed away by gift of the class in some unseen closet of the Harvard Union. The few who could afford it rode on horseback; in winter Fresh Pond afforded relays of beautiful black ice [for skating] after each ice-cutting.

I had invitations to join several of the college clubs, but declined membership in all but the I. O. H. which my elder brother, Waldo, helped organize and in which I was very much interested; and also the Institute of 1770 which was of elder date and of more permanent fame. Here the members had frequent debates.

Through the four years of college life Wentworth kept a minute account of all his doings in the form of a college journal. In these records are preserved, not [26] only lists of books read, but of ‘books I want to read,’ ‘of pieces I can repeat’; of bouquets (always composed of wild flowers he had gathered), with dates of presentation to his friends; of calls he had made, of drives and walks he had taken; and of the engagements and marriages of friends, as, ‘Dr. Howe and Julia Ward of New York’; ‘Mr. Longfellow and Fanny Appleton.’ He was equally careful and minute about all his expenditures, the latter being a lifelong habit. At one time he seriously thought of making the law his profession, and with this end in view he made an inventory of all the lawyers in Boston, and of various law books.

He was always a great pedestrian, often walking nine or ten miles a day, and taking evening walks with Parker far into the ‘gloomy and desolate’ country, after which he sometimes sat up reading into the small hours. His walks were varied by wanderings in old graveyards to study the quaint epitaphs. The daily rambles were, however, confined to no locality, as this note testifies:—

Walked to Charlestown through Lechmere Point [East Cambridge] and thence to Bunker Hill. Charley stumped and we rushed up the monument with a lantern. A weary distance, but finally got to the top. Splendid view all around. Counted 24 inward-bound schooners in the harbour.


The boy's frequent walks between Boston and Cambridge were interrupted at the Port to refresh himself with cream-cakes, and he seems to have been unmolested by the ‘Portchucks’ (the Cambridgeport boys) in spite of the rivalry existing between the youth of the latter place and that of Old Cambridge. The journal also mentions ‘a pleasant time’ at a horse-race, frequently sailing round on a raft at Fresh Pond; playing leap-frog, hockey, ‘pirate,’ and rolling ninepins at the same place, winding up the report with ‘had first-rate fun.’ In his elation at having recited ninety-five lines of Latin without many corrections, he records that he kicked football by moonlight; and he sometimes speaks of two hours spent in the water, once climbing a ten-foot fence to reach the wharf. In spite of his strenuous evenings, he usually rose at five to study. Living at home the first year, he found various ways to make himself useful. He chopped wood diligently, sometimes by candlelight; recorded transplanting clematis from the Norton place, and once gathering six dozen waterlilies at Fresh Pond. One day he was ‘engaged about 3/4 hour in driving a strange yellow cat out of the cellar,’ and in the afternoon making rat-traps. He took boxing-lessons, played chess and backgammon with his mother, recited poetry and read aloud. Another amusement was firing the cross-bow [28] with his cousin Farley Storrow ‘at bottles in the closet. Broke 5.’ He also speaks of ‘shooting with same at a phrenological bust. Smashed!’

Later he wrote to a friend,—--

It is dreadful to me to see a woman kill an insect.

Although his strong aversion to giving pain kept him from joining shooting expeditions when older, he says in his youthful journal:—

Went to shoot peeps with Thacher's gun. Something was the matter with the gun, however. It would not go. In the evening F. and I fired at a mark in a field, with pistols.

He was fond of visiting the Botanic Gardens (a habit he never abandoned), and was president of the college Natural History Society. Such notes as these often occur in his journals—

Caught a little green snake and afterwards killed and preserved it.

Skeletonizing a toad.

Talking with Dr. Harris, I was seized with a larva-mania and hunted for them. Obtained a variety of ugly worms which I am going to keep through vacation till they turn to chrysalises. I feel more entomological than oratorical just now.

Tried to draw some insects—particularly a beautiful Papilio Philenor Harris had given me. Succeeded quite well.


That he had a boy's healthy appetite we may judge from these statements made in his freshman year:—

Thanksgiving Day. Dinner, walked into the turkey, ham, pudding and pie!—Eat 2 quarts of cherries with P. at noon, his treat.—Eaten 12 ices in 3 days. Tuesday, Wednesday, & Thursd: 4 each day.—Home at XI & made half a pitcher of iced molasses & water—molasses not very good— drank some, however—reading Ladies' Magazine, &c., until dinner.

Occasionally he went to an evening party. After one of these gatherings, he reports: ‘Played backgammon. Danced. Had a miserable time.’ Those who knew him only in later years find it hard to comprehend how great a social stumbling-block was the youth's early diffidence. Improvement soon began, as the next year he wrote,—--

Went at 9 P. M. to a party. Had a decent time. Splendid ice-cream.

The following extracts are taken from his freshman journal, showing what an intimate relation existed in those simple days between President and student:—

President Quincy was present at our Livy recitation. Lucky. I never recited better.—President Q. was present at our recitation in Herodotus. Got along decently.—Went to President to get my [30] marks. He wants me to behave well, so he says at least.—Deaded in Geometry for the first time. —Cut both recitations for amusement. Spent some time in the library [a favorite place of refuge].

On his fourteenth birthday, December 22, 1837, he found that he was the youngest undergraduate. Two months later his journal records some of the lively scenes then witnessed at prayer-time:—

Many of the class having become slightly boozy, made somewhat of a noise in prayers.

And again:—

What a sight the Chapel presented at prayers this morning! About 200 panes of glass blown up, the hands of the clock taken off, and the dial stove in. The front panels of the lower part of the pulpit removed, and all the damask between the pillars torn away, and “A Bone for old Quin to pick” written on the wall.

On another page he exclaims:—

I have most indecorously omitted to mention one event . . . my receiving a Detur, Coleridge in 3 volumes, 12mo, college seal and all. 24 were given. Mine is pretty fair.

These volumes in the original handsome bindings are still on the shelves of the Higginson library.

In after years he often alluded with amusement to his youthful susceptibility, and wrote:— [31]

I don't believe there ever was a child in whom the sentimental was earlier developed than in me.

When a freshman, he records meeting an old friend, ‘now a fine-looking girl of sweet sixteen. I think I will fall in love with her in vacation!’ Of another damsel, met when away from home, he says:—

It is not exactly love I feel towards M. C. D.— it is rather a Platonic affection, if there is any such thing—or a connubial one.

When he was introduced to Mr. Papanti's ‘best scholar and very agreeable girl,’ he escorted her home from dancing-school and then wrote:—

To bed at 11 1/2. Smitten.

Apparently the impression lingered as this reproach follows later:—

Felt sentimental and loafing. Oh M. C.!


Dulcinea absent for which I am glad, for to have seen her would have used me up for some days.

Then he confides to his journal:—

By the way, I am getting quite susceptible to female charms.

Again, he reports.—

Had a glorious flirtation with H. & P. in the Study, first reading sentiments in the parlour, &c.


This letter to his boon companion, Parker, has no date, but was undoubtedly written somewhat early in his college career:—

Oh be joyful—hooray—hooray—Interviewed the eccentric brick this morning and he informs me that the term begins “three weeks from next Monday” —id est, the 2nd Monday after Commencement. Glorious, glorious—engage the horse & wagon, get a fresh supply of powder & shot, have your duck pants washed, brush up the Eminent, sharpen the knife and Jack,—and please the pigs we'll be off yet. . .

I cut my oration Monday and devoted the day to botanizing, which cheered me wonderfully and I feel quite nice now.


At the end of his sophomore year, he resolved to be fourth or fifth scholar, and a month later his diary contained this caution:—

Look out, Higginson, or your resolution, top of page 13, will go to grass!

The college term closed on July 19, and he wrote on that day:—

My Sophomore year is now over, this day concluding the second term. My rank during this term has been pretty satisfactory (v. p. 8 [of journal]). I must beat Hoffman, however, if possible.

When, early in the following October, he went to the President, the latter said to him, ‘You stand [33] very well. I couldn't wish you to stand much better.’ To the account of this interview, the young student adds, ‘If I only could be 3rd scholar.’ Two days later he speaks of lounging on the grass of the Delta with various friends, and exclaims, ‘I've given up all hopes of keeping above Parker.’ A little earlier in that year, Professor Felton had required the youth to translate the soliloquy of Henry V into Greek iambic verse, which the victim pronounced ‘A terrible visitation!’

Of the occasion on which this translation was presented to the public, Higginson wrote in later life:—

There lies before me a printed programme, entitled “Harvard University, Cambridge. Order of Performances for Exhibition, Wednesday, July 17, 1839.” It must have been a great day for me, for this is the first exhibition in which I took part. . . . I have somewhere, among my papers, my first efforts at that Greek poetic translation which was practically rewritten by Professor Felton and recited on the actual occasion with a dignity that I did not forget for a long time. My two nearest rivals in rank at that time spoke a Greek dialogue, a thing not done for many years, I believe, in the college.

The same event is described in his college diary:—

I spoke excellently, my friends say so, remembered my part and was much applauded. I felt perfectly comfortable & cool on the stage but badly [34] before going on. Drank 7 or 8 glasses of iced lemonade of which Sedgwick made a bucket & brought it up to Mason's room!

He also mentions his attire on this important day, when he escorted his mother and sisters to the chapel wearing ‘black coat, new pants, dark “veskit,” blk stockings & pumps.’

His report of a later exhibition is not quite so creditable:—

Oct. 2. Had the pleasure of finishing my oration & rewriting a good deal of it, wh. delighted me & I spent the rest of the day in reading Rookwood— also the eve'g—comfort, fire, 3 candles, rock'g chair.

Oct. 20. Exhib. passed off well. . . . I was perfectly self-possessed, but owing to looking round on the audience &c. did n't know what I was saying, made mistakes, hesitated & omitted—but they did n't perceive it & thought it good.1

The next interesting event seems to have been Wentworth's admission to the Phi Beta Kappa. In an address before this society, many years later, he said:—

I was chosen into it at sixteen, for we graduated from college earlier in my time than now; I took active part in later years, under strenuous opposition, [35] in expanding it into a national organization; I was President of this chapter for 3 years and of the national organization at the same time and helped build the latter up when it was so sought after that we had one application from a Southwestern college which said that they had heard of φ. B. K. and as they already had nine Greek letter societies it would be nice to have ten!

In the college journal, the event is thus recorded:

August, 1840. φ. B. K. day—the greatest of my life so far. Rushed round till 9 on committee business—having carried the ribbons to Wheeler's room and put on my medal. . . . I went in [to dinner] later than was necessary—Judge Story and the grandees sat at the raised West end. First course I had was roast beef carved by “WhiteSimmons. 2nd, plum pudding and apple pie, then wine, fruit and segars—Passed a charming afternoon, lots of wit— the Judge always ready and always witty, as President.

In the spring of his Junior year, Wentworth wrote:—

Such a smile as today's! The 2nd English Oration, a first Bowdoin prize and good pieces accepted in the magazine—and I am for the present perfectly happy.

During the senior year he roomed in a dormitory, and enumerated for his mother's benefit these modest wants:— [36]

3 chairs of a uniform pleasing pattern. I should prefer 2 uniform to 3 miscellaneous. I Washstand, I Bedstead and bedding, I Bureau.

Soon after leaving home, his mother wrote to him:

Your study and chamber look so forlorn I cannot bear to go near them—The Study particularly ... presents a scene of desolation and order, so opposed to that beautiful confusion in which you keep it, that I find myself sighing for the odd stockings, shoes, gloves, coats, and waistcoats that whilome adorned the floor—and look in vain for the odds and ends of insects—bottles of gum—dirty boxes, and scraps of paper that reposed on the table—

and continues:—

How thankful I and you ought to be, my beloved Son, for the pure and firm health which has enabled you without interruption to give yourself to your College Studies.

Judging from the next report, he could hardly have posed for a ‘grave and reverend senior’:—

The Prex sent for me. . . . He found I'd cut 17 prayers. . . . I must look out. Rather a bore, for I shall have to cut some more for skating. . . .

I went to see Fowler, the Phrenologist at the Marlboroa . . . said I had ‘splendid talents’ but no application. . . . Lovering says I'm the greatest trouble he has in recitation, and has deducted for whispering frequently.


At this age, as well as in maturer years, Higginson was easily lulled to sleep by monotonous lectures or sermons. His college journal reports:—

Slept throa sermon, hymn, prayer, read'g proclamation and blessing. Pleasant! Fellows laughed at me a good deal.

And of a lecture, he says,—--

Snoozed throa it all comfortably.

In the winter vacation of his last year he made a visit to his Southern cousin, Farley Storrow, who was a fellow-student. In anticipation of this visit he wrote:—

If I go, I intend to have a good time. . . and certainly not fall in love.

In his minute account of this journey the young traveller even gives the number of his berth on the Norwich boat. At New York he was pleased to see ‘Mr. Higginson's arrival’ announced in a newspaper; and while at the Astor House, he wrote thus to Parker at Cambridge:

As I must . . . miss the class election, I write to give you my proxy and charge you not by any means to let the Bird of Paradise be chosen Poet!

From Philadelphia, he wrote to his mother:—

I was at the hotel there with H. W. Longfellow, Esq. . . . He introduced me to the great Charles [38] Sumner who was with him, for which I was duly grateful.

At Baltimore, he saw for the first time a sign, ‘Negroes bought and sold,’ and noticed the difference in appearance between the ‘gloomy dulllook-ing’ Baltimore negroes and a lively colored waiter whom he had made friends with at the New York hotel, and added, ‘Slaves and a freeman is the difference, I suppose.’

While in Virginia, Wentworth received this letter from his mother, with its pathetic reference to her son Thacher's fatal voyage:—

Now for news—Thacher sailed yesterday for Rio Janeiro. . . . He took out Books of all kinds, Scientific and literary. Theology, Law, History, Poetry, Philosophy, French, Spanish and English— he expects to be home in July. . . .

I hope you will be able to come to some determination during this pilgrimage—what you would like best to do after you leave College. . . . At any rate the next term had better decide the business as it is very important that from the time you graduate you should be able to support yourself independently and be able even to lay up something to carry you through your Profession or to help you along during the first years of your setting out.

From the autobiographical notes made in later life we take the following:— [39]

During my senior year in college, I had under my charge a young fellow of the well known Perkins family, who with his elder companions, after a party, had sung a song beneath the window of the President's wife. So he was put in my care, although we were of much the same age and I needed supervision as much as he. My room was his headquarters, although he went to his home in Jamaica Plain every night. Later, when I lived at Newport, he and his family came there to live and his children were very anxious to see me, because they had heard so much about their father's guardian.

Continuing these notes about his college career, he says:—

My greatest peculiarity was an inordinate passion for books—of any sort—great and small, heavy and light, useful or useless, nothing came amiss and I probably accomplished, in the first 13 years of my life, more miscellaneous reading than most youths of eighteen.

In 1906, Colonel Higginson wrote on the fly-leaf of one of his old textbooks (Professor Peirce's ‘Elementary Treatise on Curves, Functions, and Forces’):—

When I left college at graduation in 1841, a few months short of 18, I was the best mathematician in the class, and Prof. Peirce. . . had me placed at once on the examining committee in that department. We studied this book in sheets as it came unbound [40] from the press and I enjoyed it, and used to give my elder brother Waldo (Harvard, 1833) who was a practicing engineer, lessons out of it. . . . Now, at 83, I cannot comprehend one word of it. Do I know more or less than then?

1 In order to save time, Mr. Higginson constantly used abbreviations as above. Such words are henceforth given in full to avoid confusion.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1841 AD (2)
1906 AD (1)
August, 1840 AD (1)
July 17th, 1839 AD (1)
May 22nd, 1839 AD (1)
1839 AD (1)
December 22nd, 1837 AD (1)
1833 AD (1)
1770 AD (1)
October 20th (1)
October 2nd (1)
October (1)
July 19th (1)
July (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: