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My New Book!

Monday, January 24, 2011

January 24, 2011: Outside the Box

Many of the posts here in which I’ve focused on inspiring individual Americans have done so in large part because those individuals have been forgotten and elided, if not entirely than certainly mostly, from our collective national memories and narratives. That’s an unfortunate state in which to find some of our most impressive citizens, but it’s also, I would say, a relatively easy one to reverse, at least given sufficient time—not that any one voice (even one as eloquent and influential as this AmericanStudier) could effect such a shift, but if enough voices began to highlight an inspiring individual, I certainly believe that he or she would gradually gain attention and become a part (even if a small one) of those national stories. But the situation is a good bit more difficult for those individuals like my subject for today, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: individuals who are in fact remembered but in negative ways, for less than desirable reasons, and can seem as a result entirely and eternally boxed in by those negative reputations.
Higginson’s negative reputation is as a stiff and far too conservative literary critic, and stems partly from his lifelong antipathy toward Walt Whitman (and here the reputation is most deserved, as some of Higginson’s critiques of Whitman’s poetry are openly and unnecessarily homophobic) but mostly from his role as an informal but very definite mentor and editor to Emily Dickinson. Dickinson wrote to Higginson in 1862 after reading an advice for young authors column he published in the Atlantic Monthly, and began sending him some of her poems shortly thereafter; they maintained a correspondence and friendship for the remaining twenty-three years of her life. Higginson openly admitted that he did not entirely understand Dickinson’s poems or style, and did advise her to revise, more and in more orthodox ways than she was willing, if she wanted to be published (which, some of her specific poems on publication notwithstanding, she did at times pursue). And he did co-edit a volume of her poetry after her death in which important stylistic quirks like her capitalizations and dashes were heavily edited. But any reading of their voluminous correspondence, as well as Higginson’s own interesting 1891 essay on that correspondence (to which I linked in my November 16th post on Sarah Piatt), makes clear just how sensitive and thoughtful of a reader and editor Higginson was, how fully Dickinson valued and benefitted from his responses and perspectives, and how undeserved any overly critical take on their relationship would thus be.
But even if Higginson had been an insensitive or chauvinistic buffoon to Dickinson, his life and experiences and perspectives would still be among the 19th century’s most inspiring and worth remembering. At the age of 20 Higginson took a leave of absence from his studies at the Harvard Divinity School in order to devote himself to the cause of abolitionism; he later completed his degree and became the pastor of a Unitarian church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, but proved too radical, particularly in his critiques of Northern apathy toward the issue of slavery (but also in his outspoken support for worker’s and women’s rights, among many other causes), for even that liberal Christian congregation and was forced to resign. During the Civil War Higginson served as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first Union regiment to be composed entirely of freed Southern slaves; his memoirs of the experience (linked below) are one of the most significant and thoughtful texts to emerge from the war, and he also worked hard to record and capture for posterity the lyrics and music of his soldiers’ spirituals. In his final decades of life he continued to advocate and work tirelessly for African American rights and equality, but also became a passionate advocate of (among other things) women’s equality (publishing two forward-thinking books on the topic, including the one linked below) and even co-founded the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom.
A full engagement with Higginson’s identity and meaning for our society, in his own era and ours, would certainly not elide his response to Whitman or his (more understandable) inability to quite wrap his head around Dickinson. But I suppose this is one instance where Rick Perlstein and I would entirely agree—before we can complicate our narratives about somebody like Higginson, we do need first to change them, to make sure that a reputation and life this have been unfairly boxed in are given the space to impress and inspire us as they certainly should. More tomorrow, on one of our most violent and destructive wartime excesses and the hugely funny and sad masterpiece it yielded.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The full text of Army Life in a Black Regiment (1869):
3)      OPEN: Anybody else whose reputation should be revised for the better?

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