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Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823 – May 9, 1911) was an American Unitarian minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. He was active in the American Abolitionism movement during the 1840s and 1850s, identifying himself with disunion and militant abolitionism. He was a member of the Secret Six who supported John Brown. During the Civil War, he served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized black regiment, from 1862 to 1864. Following the war, Higginson devoted much of the rest of his life to fighting for the rights of freed people, women and other disfranchised peoples.
While studying at Harvard's divinity school, Thomas Wentworth Higginson forged a romantic friendship with a younger student, William Henry Hurlbert. This relationship, according to Higginson's wife and biographer, was a loving one, though it was misteriosly "destined to end in sorrow." A reformer, he espoused women's suffrage and was ardent in his opposition to slavery. He is said to have "discovered" Emily Dickinson and was the first to publish her work. Yet, despite his friendship with Hurlbert and all that meant to him, he was Walt Whitman's fiercest Boston critic. Higginson and Hurlbert started their relationship at Harvard in the 1840s, and it seems that Higginson spent the rest of life trying to rekindle the affair. Hurlbert was “a young man so handsome in his dark beauty,” wrote Higginson, “slender, keen-eyed, raven-haired. I never loved but one male friend with a passion—and for him my love had no bounds—all that my natural fastidiousness and cautious reserve kept from others I poured on him; to say that I would have died for him was nothing. I lived for him; it was easy to do it, for there never was but one such person … . To me, moreover, he was always noble and sweet, he loved me truly and generously".
Higginson married Mary Channing in 1847 after graduating from divinity school. Mary was the daughter of Dr. Walter Channing, a pioneer in the field of obstetrics and gynecology who taught at Harvard University, the niece of Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, and the sister of Henry David Thoreau's friend Ellery Channing. Higginson and Mary Channing had no children but raised Margaret Fuller Channing, the eldest daughter of Ellen Fuller and Ellery Channing. Ellen was the sister of the Transcendentalist and feminist author, Margaret Fuller. Higginson was also related to Harriet Higginson, whose Wooddale, Illinois, home was the first commission of famed architect Bertrand Goldberg in 1934.
Higginson was one of leading male advocates of woman's rights during the decade before the Civil War. In 1853, he addressed the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in support of a petition asking that women be allowed to vote on ratification of the new constitution. Published as "Woman and Her Wishes," the address was used many years as a woman's rights tract, as was an 1859 article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly, "Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?" A close friend and supporter of woman's rights leader Lucy Stone, he performed the marriage ceremony of Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell in 1855 and, by sending their protest of unjust marriage laws to the press, was responsible for their "Marriage Protest" becoming a famous document. Together with Stone, he compiled and published The Woman's Rights Almanac for 1858, which provided data such as income disparity between the sexes as well as a summary of gains made by the national movement during its first seven years. He also compiled and published, in 1858, "Consistent Democracy: The Elective Franchise for Women. Twenty-five Testimonies of Prominent Men," brief excerpts favoring woman suffrage from the speeches or writing of such men as Wendell Phillips, Henry Ward Beecher, Rev. Wm.H. Channing, Horace Greeley, Gerrit Smith, and various governors, legislators, and legislative reports. A member of the National Woman's Rights Central Committee since 1853 or 1854, he was one of nine activists retained in that post when that large body of state representatives was reduced in 1858. After the Civil War, Higginson was an organizer of the New England Woman Suffrage Association in 1868, and of the American Woman Suffrage Association the following year. He was one of the original editors of the suffrage newspaper Woman's Journal, founded in 1870, and contributed a front-page column to it for fourteen years. As a two-year member of the Massachusetts legislature, 1880–82, he was a valuable link between suffragists and the legislature.
Higginson is remembered as a correspondent and literary mentor to the poet Emily Dickinson. In April 1862, Higginson published an article in the Atlantic Monthly, titled "Letter to a Young Contributor," in which he advised budding young writers to step up. Emily Dickinson, a 32-year-old woman from Amherst, Massachusetts, sent a letter to Higginson, enclosing four poems and asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" He was not – his reply included gentle "surgery" (that is, criticism) of Dickinson's raw, odd verse, questions about Dickinson's personal and literary background, and a request for more poems. Higginson's next reply contained high praise, causing Dickinson to reply that it "gave no drunkenness" only because she had "tasted rum before"; she still, though, had "few pleasures so deep as your opinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue". But in the same letter, Higginson warned her against publishing her poetry because of its unconventional form and style. Gradually, Higginson became Dickinson's mentor and "preceptor," and he visited her twice, in 1870 and 1873, at her home in Amherst. Higginson never felt that he fully understood Dickinson. "The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me," he wrote, "and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy." After Dickinson's death, Higginson collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd in publishing volumes of her poetry – heavily edited in favor of conventional punctuation, diction, and rhyme. In White Heat (2008), an account of Higginson's friendship with Dickinson, author Brenda Wineapple credits Higginson with more editorial sensitivity than literary historians have previously noted. Higginson's prominence within intellectual circles helped to promote Dickinson's poetry, which remained strange and startling even in its altered form.
After the Civil War, Higginson devoted most of his time to literature. His writings show a deep love of nature, art and humanity. In his Common Sense About Women (1881) and his Women and Men (1888), he advocated equality of opportunity and equality of rights for men and women. In 1874, Higginson was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.
Higginson's wife was an invalid and as her health deteriorated, he sought out Hurlbert even more. Unfortunately, Hurlbert rejected his advances. One of the high points for gay men in Boston was the 1882 visit of Oscar Wilde during his tour of the US. Julia Ward Hove, then the presiding doyen of Boston aristocratic society, hosted a brunch in his honor with guests such as Isabella Stewart Gardner. Thomas Wentworth Higginson publicly attacked Howe for hosting Wilde, prompting her to take to the press to defend herself and her guest. Higginson's opposition wasn't because he was straight; he was madly in love with journalist William Hurlbert despite being married. Hurlbert and Wilde hit it off and the two spent private time together. This may have sparked jealousy in Higginson as Hurlbert had a notorious reputation as a womanizer and a flirt with men. Wilde and Hurlbert in New York and later in Washington were mutually attracted to each other as intensely as Wilde and Higginson in Boston were not, and all the intensity that made Higginson so formidable an abolitionist burst out in jealous rage against Wilde. At a stag dinner honoring Wilde hosted by Hurlbert at the Merchants’ Club in New York, “the first homeward-bound carriage left the portals long after midnight.” Higginson was, of course, excluded from these festive evenings, as he was not privy to more intimate outings between Samuel Ward, Julia Ward Howe’s brother, his beloved Hurlbert, and the “unmanly” Wilde. Thus, Higginson’s attack on Wilde’s aesthetic style may have been a more personal and complicated reaction, a jealousy bound up with Higginson’s own homoerotic and suppressed identity.
Demonstrating that being gay was no obstacle to striaght marriage in these years, Hurlbert eventually married at 60 while Higginson married twice. Mary Channing died in 1877. Two years later Higginson married Mary Potter Thacher, with whom he had two daughters, one of whom survived into adulthood.
Eventually Hurlbert refused even to reply to the monthly letters Higginson would not stop writing him. “Give too much love to the dearest and fairest and oh! What sad dissatisfactions,” confided Higginson to his journal, feeling only slightly less trapped, one imagines, than his friend. Though one of Higginson’s biographers does assert he sent no note of congratulation when Hurlbert married at nearly sixty, Higginson, though long estranged from Hurlbert, never spoke ill of his friend and remained, in one scholar’s view, “ever hopeful,” though so many years later it is hard to know the details. One biographer of Higginson, James W. Tuttleton, calls Hurlbert “a breaker of many female hearts and the disappointer of many high hopes” generally, his life in the end “destroyed by personal licentiousness and social scandal.” Tilden Edelstein calls his life “scandalous.” But both affirm the unusualness of Hurlbert and Higginson’s friendship. Tuttleton says, “Their relationship had been a curious one … . Higginson was half in love with him,” while Edelstein reports one observer as saying the letters that passed between Higginson and Hurlbert were “more like those between man and woman than between two men.” After the era’s fashion, Higginson wrote a book about it, but thinly veiled, and Tuttleton goes so far as to assert “the genesis of Higginson’s only novel, Malbone, was Higginson’s youthful disillusionment with a divinity school friend of the 1840’s, William Hurlbert.”
Thomas Wentworth Higginson comes up also in Roger Austen’s Genteel Pagan, a study of the life and work of the gay novelist Charles Warren Stoddard: as it turns out, he was a correspondent of Stoddard, the author of famously homoerotic travel stories set in the South Pacific, experiences with natives which were manly in another sense, a homoerotic sense.
In 1891, Higginson became one of the founders of the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom (SAFRF). He edited its public appeal "To the Friends of Russian Freedom". Later, in 1907 Higginson was the vice-president of the SAFRF. In 1905, he joined with Jack London, Clarence Darrow, and Upton Sinclair to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Higginson was an Advisory Editor for the second attempt at the Massachusetts Magazine. Higginson died May 9, 1911, and is buried in Cambridge Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the intersection of Riverview, Lawn, and Prospect paths.
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