Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth
Higginson
1823
1911

American Unitarian Minister, Abolitionist, Editor and Author, "Discoverer" and Editor of Emily Dickinson's poems, Commander of Black Troops in the Civil War which was the first federally authorized African-American Regiment, Fought for rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples

Author Quotes

Fields are won by those who believe in the winning.

The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me, and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy.

Genius is lonely without the surrounding presence of a people to inspire it.

The coarsest father gains a new impulse to labor from the moment of his baby's birth; he scarcely sees it when awake, and yet it is with him all the time. Every stroke he strikes is for his child. New social aims, new moral motives, come vaguely up to him.

Great men are rarely isolated mountain peaks; they are the summits of ranges.

The test of an author is not to be found merely in the number of his phrases that pass current in the corner of newspapers... but in the number of passages that have really taken root in younger minds.

Happily, there are few among our cultivated men in whom this oxygen of American life is wholly wanting. Where such exist, for them the path across the ocean is easy, and the return how hard! Yet our national character develops slowly; we are aiming at something better than our English fathers, and we pay for it by greater vacillations and vibrations of movement. The Englishman’s strong point is a vigorous insularity which he carries with him, portable and sometimes insupportable. The American’s more perilous gift is a certain power of assimilation, so that he acquires something from every man he meets, but runs the risk of parting with something in return. For the result, greater possibilities of culture, balanced by greater extremes of sycophancy and meanness. Emerson says that the Englishman of all men stands most firmly on his feet. But it is not the whole of man’s mission to be found standing, even at the most important post. Let him take one step forward,—and in that advancing figure you have the American.

There is no defense against adverse fortune which is so effectual as an habitual sense of humor.

I saw before me, sitting on the counter, a handsome, burly man, heavily built, and not looking, to my gymnasium-trained eye, in really good condition for athletic work. I perhaps felt a little prejudiced against him from having read ‘‘Leaves of Grass’’ on a voyage, in the early stages of seasickness,—a fact which doubtless increased for me the intrinsic unsavoriness of certain passages. But the personal impression made on me by the poet was not so much of manliness as of Boweriness, if I may coin the phrase. . . . This passing impression did not hinder me from thinking of Whitman with hope and satisfaction at a later day when regiments were to be raised for the war, when the Bowery seemed the very place to enlist them. . . . When, however, after waiting a year or more, Whitman decided that the proper post for him was hospital service, I confess to feeling a reaction, which was rather increased than diminished by his profuse celebration of his own labors in that direction. Hospital attendance is a fine thing, no doubt, yet if all men, South and North, had taken the same view of their duty that Whitman held, there would have been no occasion for hospitals on either side.

To be really cosmopolitan a man must be at home even in his own country.

If I were to choose among all gifts and qualities that which, on the whole, makes life pleasantest, I should select the love of children. No circumstance can render this world wholly a solitude to one who has this possession.

Travelers find virtue in a seeming minority in all other countries, and forget that they have left it in a minority at home.

In an audience of rough people a generous sentiment always brings down the house. In the tumult of war both sides applaud an heroic deed.

We are accustomed to say that the war and its results have made us a nation, subordinated local distinctions, cleared us of our chief shame, and given us the pride of a common career. This being the case, we may afford to treat ourselves to a little modest self-confidence. Those whose faith in the American people carried them hopefully through the long contest with slavery will not be daunted before any minor perplexities of Chinese immigrants or railway brigands or enfranchised women. We are equal to these things; and we shall also be equal to the creation of a literature. We need intellectual culture inexpressibly, but we need a hearty faith still more. “Never yet was there a great migration that did not result in a new form of national genius.” But we must guard against both croakers and boasters; and above all, we must look beyond our little Boston or New York or Chicago or San Francisco, and be willing citizens of the great Republic.

In ancient Boeotia brides were carried home in vehicles whose wheels were burned at the door, in token, that they would never again be needed.

We need to become national, not by any conscious effort, such as implies attitudinizing and constraint, but by simply accepting our own life. It is not desirable to go out of one’s way to be original, but it is to be hoped that it may lie in one’s way. Originality is simply a fresh pair of eyes. If you want to astonish the whole world, said Rahel, tell the simple truth. It is easier to excuse a thousand defects in the literary man who proceeds on this faith, than to forgive the one great defect of imitation in the purist who seeks only to be English. As Wasson has said, “The Englishman is undoubtedly a wholesome figure to the mental eye; but will not twenty million copies of him do, for the present?” We must pardon something to the spirit of liberty. We must run some risks, as all immature creatures do, in the effort to use our own limbs. Professor Edward Channing used to say that it was a bad sing for a college boy to write too well; there should be exuberances and inequalities. A nation which has but just begun to create a literature must sow some wild oats. The most tiresome vaingloriousness may be more hopeful than hypercriticism and spleen. The follies of the absurdest spread-eagle orator may be far more promising, because they smack more of the soil, than the neat Londonism of the city editor who dissects him.

It is but a few years since we have dared to be American in even the details and accessories of our literary work; to make our allusions to natural objects real not conventional; to ignore the nightingale and skylark, and look for the classic and romantic on our own soil. This change began mainly with Emerson. Some of us can recall the bewilderment with which his verses on the humblebee, for instance, were received, when the choice of subject caused as much wonder as the treatment. It was called “a foolish affectation of the familiar.” Happily the atmosphere of distance forms itself rapidly in a new land, and the poem has now as serene a place in literature as if Andrew Marvell had written it. The truly cosmopolitan writer is not he who carefully denudes his work of everything occasional and temporary, but he who makes his local coloring forever classic through the fascination of the dream it tells. Reason, imagination, passion, are universal; but sky, climate, costume, and even type of human character, belong to some one spot alone till they find an artist potent enough to stamp their associations on the memory of all the world. Whether his work be picture or symphony, legend or lyric, is of little moment. The spirit of the execution is all in all.

What are Raphael's Madonnas but the shadow of a mother's love, fixed in permanent outline forever?

After all, when a thought takes one's breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence.

It seems unspeakably important that all persons among us, and especially the student and the writer, should be pervaded with Americanism. Americanism includes the faith that national self-government is not a chimera, but that, with whatever inconsistencies and drawbacks, we are steadily establishing it here. It includes the faith that to this good thing all other good things must in time be added. When a man is heartily imbued with such a national sentiment as this, it is as marrow in his bones and blood in his veins. He may still need culture, but he has the basis of all culture. He is entitled to an imperturbable patience and hopefulness, born of a living faith. All that is scanty in our intellectual attainments, or poor in our artistic life, may then be cheerfully endured: if a man sees his house steadily rising on sure foundations, he can wait or let his children wait for the cornice and the frieze. But if one happens to be born or bred in America without this wholesome confidence, there is no happiness for him; he has his alternative between being unhappy at home and unhappy abroad; it is a choice of martyrdoms for himself, and a certainty of martyrdom for his friends.

When a thought takes one's breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence.

All religions show the same disparity between belief and practice, and each is safe till it tries to exclude the rest. Test each sect by its best or its worst as you will, by its high-water mark of virtue or its low-water mark of vice. But falsehood begins when you measure the ebb of any other religion against the flood-tide of your own. There is a noble and a base side to every history.

Lavish thousands of dollars on your baby clothes, and after all the child is prettiest when every garment is laid aside. That becoming nakedness, at least, may adorn the chubby darling of the poorest home.

You are what you think are.

And the true and healthy Americanism is to be found, let us believe, in this attitude of hope; an attitude not necessarily connected with culture nor with the absence of culture, but with the consciousness of a new impulse given to all human progress. The most ignorant man may feel the full strength and heartiness of the American idea, and so may the most accomplished scholar. It is a matter of regret if thus far we have mainly had to look for our Americanism and our scholarship in very different quarters, and if it has been a rare delight to find the two in one.

Author Picture
First Name
Thomas Wentworth
Last Name
Higginson
Birth Date
1823
Death Date
1911
Bio

American Unitarian Minister, Abolitionist, Editor and Author, "Discoverer" and Editor of Emily Dickinson's poems, Commander of Black Troops in the Civil War which was the first federally authorized African-American Regiment, Fought for rights of freed slaves, women and other disfranchised peoples