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IX: the Atlantic Essays

In the midst of these public interests, Mr. Higginson did some of the best literary work of his life. In the winter of 1852, he dined with A. Bronson Alcott at James T. Fields', and Mr. Alcott amused himself by guessing, with astonishing success, Mr. Higginson's literary methods. Some of the features he had divined were the young author's habit of bridge-building, of composing much in the open air, and in separate sentences. This analysis the latter declared admirable, and reflected: ‘I might have said to him—in summer I bring home from the woods in my pockets flowers, lichens, chrysalids, nests, brown lizards, baby turtles . . . spiders' eggs . . . and scraps of written paper.’

In November, 1853, Mr. F. H. Underwood wrote to Mr. Higginson, asking for aid from his pen for a new ‘literary and anti-slavery magazine’ [the Atlantic Monthly], adding, ‘The articles will all be anonymous.’ In answer, he wrote: ‘I gladly contribute my name to the list of writers. . . I am very much absorbed by necessary writing, [156] speaking, and studies, and it is hard to do collateral work.’

The essays which Mr. Higginson contributed to the early numbers of the ‘Atlantic’ attracted a great deal of attention. ‘A Charge with Prince Rupert’ was considered one of the most brilliant of these early papers; while the first one, ‘Saints and their Bodies,’ so impressed Dr. D. A. Sargent, afterward director of the Harvard Gymnasium, that he was led to adopt physical training as a profession.

In reference to one of the essays, ‘Woman and the Alphabet,’1 Rev. O. B. Frothingham wrote to ask the author if it was abstinence from soups—and salt—and pastry that enabled him to write such papers. ‘Tell me how much liquid,’ he asked, ‘I must exchange for such a flow of thoughts—how much pepper must be forsaken to leave such spice of wit? How much pie crust must be sacrificed for such a crispness of style?’ This striking essay was at first considered by James Russell Lowell, then editor of the ‘Atlantic Monthly,’ as too radical for that magazine, but he afterwards decided to insert it.

In the diary of 1890, Mr. Higginson wrote, ‘Much gratified at letter from Miss Eastman telling me from Dr.——that my “Ought Women” was really [157] the seed of Smith College.’ A further tribute to the value of this essay came to the author in a letter from a thoughtful friend, who said, ‘I think it was one of the influences that opened Michigan University to women, and has now invited a woman professor on the same terms as men.’

The anonymousness of the ‘Atlantic’ essays caused some amusing mistakes, as when Mrs. C. H. Dall was many times congratulated on having written ‘Mademoiselle and her Campaigns.’ Finally she discovered the author, and wrote to him that no one except Macaulay could have written a better magazine article, ‘and his would have been half lies.’

Mr. Higginson himself wrote to Harriet Prescott:

. . . I had more [letters] about ‘April Days’ than about anything I have written—sick women, young farmers, etc. One odd anonymous person, signing Su Su, sent me a root of double bloodroot postmarked ‘Snow's Store, Vt.’ It seemed pretty that bloodroot should come out of Snow's Store— though I suppose the donor never thought of it.

I have a piece almost ready called “My Outdoor study,” based on a description of the lake where we go for boating. . . . These essays on Nature delight me so infinitely that all other themes seem tiresome beside them; I am sure that I have never come so near to Nature as during the last year, and therefore never so truly and deeply lived; and sometimes I [158] feel so Exalted in this nearness that it seems as if I never could sorrow any more.

... I wrote from pure enjoyment, spending days and weeks on single sentences.

In the correspondence between Mr. Higginson and Mr. Underwood occurred this protest from the former:—

I wish to be understood as giving a suppressed but audible growl at the chopping knife which made minced meat of my sentences. . . . It is something new. . . . I don't think I tend to such very long sentences; and it is n't pleasant to think that they belong to such a low order of organization that they can be chopped in the middle and each half wriggle away independently.

At thirty-six, in summing up his life, the author of these essays writes:—

I do not expect any visible sphere or position except in literature—perhaps not there because I do not find that my facility grows so fast as my fastidiousness . . . . Certainly nothing short of severe starvation shall make me write and print what does not in some degree satisfy my own conception of literary execution.

And the joy he found in literature is thus expressed:—

Nothing but Haydon's jubilees over his great ‘canvas up’ can describe my delight when I get a [159] new budget of notes and materials into a fresh portfolio, and begin upon a new picture.

In regard to the publication of the book of sea poems, profanely called the ‘Marine Sam-Book’ in distinction from the hymn-book compiled by Messrs. Longfellow and Johnson, and popularly known as the ‘Sam-Book,’ Mr. Higginson wrote to a friend:—

The best result of S. L.'s [Samuel Longfellow] visit [to Europe] was to transform Thalatta from a past vision to a future reality. . . . We planned it six years ago and now Europe has revived it all in Sam and he has proposed it once more to James T. Fields (Ticknor & Co.) and that bold youth (also fresh from Europe, these two having visited the Brownings together) consented. So the book is to begin to be printed in February and between now and then what copying and debating and selecting!

In 1859, the famous ‘Atlantic’ dinner was given to Mrs. Stowe, which Colonel Higginson has described in ‘Cheerful Yesterdays.’ To his mother he thus reported a conversation on this occasion with Dr. Holmes:—

He [Holmes] was very pleasant and cordial to me, but turned upon me when I refused a cigar. “What,” said he, “you don't smoke?” “No,” said I. “Then,” said he, “you unquestionably chew the [160] betel-nut.” I told him I was fond of nuts and also of beetles, but preferred my botany and entomology separate. “Ah,” said he, “but everybody must have some narcotic, if you don't chew the betel-nut, you take opium pills or laudanum in some form.” I assured him I took no pills but homoeopathic and those rarely.

The incessant activity of these years wore even on Mr. Higginson's wonderful physique and he wrote:—

I suppose that even I myself can hardly realize how much overworked I have been this winter—so much writing and speaking and visiting have I had to do (studying has been almost suspended)—to say nothing of travelling for various objects and the constant care of my wife who has scarcely ever needed more attention. . .

We suspended housekeeping awhile, for my wife's health, and have been boarding since New Year's at the queerest old rambling Hotel, one of the few old things in Worcester . . . .

We are so very nicely placed here at the Lincoln House, M. is quite delighted. We have a pleasant parlor on Elm St. with a little bedroom and a large closet; it fronts South and the house is brick, so it is perfectly warm and M. has stood a snowstorm without a shudder. . . . There is a girl with a violent piano below, a man with a violent nose beside us, and two youths over our heads who apparently sleep in boots.


Winter lecturing with all its drawbacks afforded a change of scene. One of his journeys took Mr. Higginson to Maine, and he wrote from Orono:—

Last night I drove from Bangor with a buffalo coat on, over wonderful sleighing and felt quite like a backwoodsman. Bangor streets are crowded with uncouth sledges and teams, and at the doors of the shops hang abundant moccasins and long red leggins and even snowshoes. To-day I am to have a lesson in these from Mr. L. and ride to where I can see Indians and Katahdin.

This glimpse of ‘the great lonely Katahdin,’ as he describes that mountain, led the next year to a nearer acquaintance; for in 1855 the Worcester parson, accompanied by a few of his friends, made the ascent of Mount Katahdin. This letter to Mrs. Higginson was written from Bangor:—

I am writing behind the bar; many men here— they come up and read our names in the book and wonder what brings so many here from Worcester. One says, “Higginson. He's the great abolitionist from Worcester, he who had the fuss in the U. S. Court—is that Theo. Brown beneath? It ought to be Theodore Parker.”

And in the delight which this excursion gave him, he exclaimed:—‘I am very happy and feel ready to mount up with wings as eagles.’

Mr. Higginson wrote an account of this expedition [162] for ‘Putnam's Magazine,’ the article purporting to be written by a woman. The author amused himself by sending a copy to each member of the party, that they might guess its origin.

‘We did have a charming time on the trip to Mount Katahdin,’ he wrote. ‘The 30 miles by water on our return, shooting the rapids, were the most exciting experiences I ever yet had.’

A later visit to Maine was of a different nature, for he spoke at Bangor on ‘ “Kansas and the Union,” the former being the bait and the latter the hook. I had a superb audience . . . and preached Disunion to 1500 people for $50—and no hisses.’

The Higginsons spent several vacations at Pigeon Cove, a wild, rocky sea-place on the North Shore. When they summered one season at the town of Princeton, they found quarters at the Post-Office. This seemed to Mr. Higginson a ‘funny’ place to stay, as he fancied the mattresses would be made of ‘exhausted mail-bags.’ From Pigeon Cove, he wrote to a young author:—

I enjoy the freedom of my life very much, and after having my thoughts poured regularly into one channel every week for so long, it is perfectly delightful to let them wander in other directions . . . .

The bathing is a regeneration of existence every day. . . . If you could put on a boy's jacket and [163] go to sea, before the mast, for a year, it would put a vitality into your inkstand that would last your life time. . . . Every month makes me think less, relatively, of books, and more of life. Indeed one gets but little out of books till we have taught them to know their places.

. . . I spent this morning wading after them [water-lilies] in a pond with two young ladies aged 10.

Involved again in the daily routine of parish work, Mr. Higginson felt the need of more leisure for thought and study and told his mother:—

I yesterday propounded an arrangement to the Free Church people, by which I am to have—don't laugh–nothing less than a colleague. I cannot always go on at the rate I have been lately working. . . . The plan is that Wasson should so come and do the greater part of the preaching, taking of course a good part of the salary; this will leave me time for preaching, lecturing and writing, and by this I can make up a sufficient income, for the present at least. . . . In fact, my natural activity is so great, that I have to contrive means to keep myself out of work.

An unexpected break in this too laborious life came in the autumn of 1855, when the Higginsons sailed for Fayal for Mrs. Higginson's health. They spent the winter there, and Mr. Wasson took charge of the Free Church during this absence. Fayal [164] proved to be more wonderful to the travellers than any dream, every inch of surface and each individual person being entirely different from anything they had seen before. In Mr. Higginson's ‘Atlantic’ paper, ‘Fayal and the Portuguese’ (1860), these strange experiences were described. And it was in Fayal that Mr. Higginson wrote his essay called the ‘Sympathy of Religions.’ This paper was afterwards read by the author before the Free Religious Association in Boston, and later before the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893. It was reprinted in England and also translated into French.

While in Fayal, he was delighted to receive ‘a charming letter from Agassiz, begging me to collect corals, starfishes, etc., of which I already have a store.’ And after his return, he reported:—

I spent part of yesterday with Prof. Agassiz and enjoyed it very much, and he was delighted with my collection from the Azores especially the sea-urchins, of which he found eight species, some of them new. Some of the things he is to return to me, labelled, for the [Worcester] Natural History Society.

The home-coming from Fayal Mr. Higginson described in this letter to his mother:—

We arrived last night at 9 1/2 [June, 1856] after a three weeks passage. . . .

The world looks very odd, people talking English, [165] lighted shops last night, and horses. To-day everybody with bonnets and shoes! People so well dressed, so intelligent, and so sick—so unlike the robust baseness of Fayal and Pico. And the foliage is so inexpressibly beautiful. Houses agonizingly warm, after the fireless rooms of Fayal, and the chilly ocean.

1 This article was also published as a tract under the title ‘Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?’

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