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

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.

Many persons sigh for death when it seems far off, but the inclination vanishes when the boat upsets, or the locomotive runs off the track, or the measles set it.

As yet, it must be owned, this daring expectation is but feebly reflected in our books. In looking over any collection of American poetry, for instance, one is struck with the fact that it is not so much faulty as inadequate. Emerson set free the poetic intuition of America, Hawthorne its imagination. Both looked into the realm of passion, Emerson with distrust, Hawthorne with eager interest; but neither thrilled with its spell, and the American poet of passion is yet to come. How tame and manageable are wont to be the emotions of our bards, how placid and literary their allusions! There is no baptism of fire; no heat that breeds excess. Yet it is not life that is grown dull, surely; there are as many secrets in every heart, as many skeletons in every closet, as in any elder period of the world’s career. It is the interpreters of life who are found wanting, and that not on this soil alone, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon race. It is not just to say, as someone has said, that our language has not in this generation produced a love-song, for it has produced Browning; but was it in England or in Italy that he learned to sound the depths of all human emotion?

Nothing can hide from me the conviction that an immortal soul needs for its sustenance something more than visiting, and gardening, and novel-reading, and crochet-needle, and the occasional manufacture of sponge cake.

As yet, we Americans have hardly begun to think of the details of execution in any art. We do not aim at perfection of detail even in engineering, much less in literature. In the haste of our national life, most of our intellectual work is done at a rush, is something inserted in the odd moments of the engrossing pursuit. The popular preacher becomes a novelist; the editor turns his paste-pot and scissors to the compilation of a history; the same man must be poet, wit, philanthropist, and genealogist. We find a sort of pleasure in seeing this variety of effort, just as the bystanders like to see a street-musician adjust every joint in his body to a separate instrument, and play a concerted piece with the whole of himself. To be sure, he plays each part badly, but it is such a wonder he should play them all! Thus, in our rather hurried and helter-skelter training, the man is brilliant, perhaps; his main work is well done; but his secondary work is slurred. The book sells, no doubt, by reason of the author’s popularity in other fields; it is only the tone of our national literature that suffers. There is nothing in American life that can make concentration cease to be a virtue. Let a man choose his pursuit, and make all else count for recreation only. Goethe’s advice to Eckermann is infinitely more important here than it ever was in Germany: “Beware of dissipating your power; strive constantly to concentrate them. Genius thinks it can do whatever it sees others doing, but it is sure to repent of every ill-judged outlay.”

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or in other words a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear.

Character shows itself apart from genius as a special thing. The first point of measurement of any man is that of quality.

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.

Do not waste a minute -- not a second -- in trying to demonstrate to others the merits of your performance. If your work does not vindicate itself, you cannot vindicate it.

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