The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)


Thomas Wentworth Higginson is little known today, but during his own lifetime his remarkable activism put him at the very heart of the pivotal social movements reshaping America for the nineteenth century and beyond. Born in Cambridge, he was a fervent abolitionist, running guns to anti-slavery settlers and financing John Brown's raid. During the Civil War, he commanded the first black unit to fight for the Union, and their achievements (publicized in his classic Army Life in a Black Regiment) opened the way for ...

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson is little known today, but during his own lifetime his remarkable activism put him at the very heart of the pivotal social movements reshaping America for the nineteenth century and beyond. Born in Cambridge, he was a fervent abolitionist, running guns to anti-slavery settlers and financing John Brown's raid. During the Civil War, he commanded the first black unit to fight for the Union, and their achievements (publicized in his classic Army Life in a Black Regiment) opened the way for further black enlistment. He also championed women's rights for sixty years, lecturing and agitating for suffrage. His lifelong correspondence with Emily Dickinson led to his editing her verse for publication, which some have called his greatest literary legacy. But in fact that legacy is here, in the essays he wrote about the many causes to which he dedicated his life. With this volume Meyer has guaranteed the rediscovery of a major American figure whose ideas made him a radical in his society but a visionary in ours.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Massachusetts-born Higginson was a 19th-century Renaissance man. He was an active abolitionist, a supporter of women's rights and an accomplished essayist. This collection of his essays captures Higginson's many talents and interests. "Obeying the Higher Law" offers a response to the Fugitive Slave Law. "The Fact of Sex" argues that it is precisely because men and women are fundamentally different that women need the vote--women "never can, and never will be, justly represented by" men. In "Negro Spirituals," Higginson gives thanks that during the Civil War, when he commanded an all-black Union regiment, he was able to learn some of the haunting melodies and arresting lyrics. "Scripture Idolatry" confronts the question of biblical authority; Higginson writes that advances in scholarship are bound to show that Scripture is not infallible, and he hopes that people's faith in God will not be shattered when the infallibility of Scripture is challenged. Several of Higginson's essays marry literary criticism with politics. In "Sappho," for example, he assesses the poet's work and also urges Americans to create a society where more women will be free to write great poetry. (Higginson was a crucial correspondent and friend of Emily Dickinson.) "The Clergy and Reform" takes ministers to task for failing to speak out against the "social evils against which we know that Christ if alive would have protested." There are dozens of similarly delightful, challenging essays in this volume; kudos to biographer and historian Meyer (The Amendment that Refused to Die) for making it possible for a wide audience of readers to once again enjoy the wit and insight of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Largely unknown today yet highly regarded historically and part of the inner circle that included William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Marie Childs, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Wentworth Higginson deserves to be a part of the nation's memory. This selection of his engrossing and eclectic writings illuminates his life and legacy. Though Higginson is probably most often cited for his discovery and support of Emily Dickinson, this book offers evidence of his activism and passion for racial and gender equality, literature, theology, nature, and anti-imperialist efforts. This reviewer couldn't help wishing that Higginson were alive today to lead the current debates on race, feminism, militarism, religion, globalism, and environmentalism. Edited by Meyer (The Amendment That Refused To Die), this marvelous collection has an equally marvelous introduction that provides a substantive biographical profile and discussion of an exciting period in American history. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries.--Sherri Barnes, Univ. of California Lib., Santa Barbara Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Richard Nichols
Howard N. Meyer, author of a biography of Higginson, has done an admirable job of tracking down Higginson's widely scattered work and has provided a carefully researched commentary on his career, setting the writings in the context of their turbulent times.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306809545
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 DA CAPO
  • Pages: 640
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard N. Meyer is the author of numerous articles on civil rights and peace history. Books he edited include the 1962 and 1984 editions of Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment and a biography of Higginson, Colonel of the Black Regiment and a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. His book The Amendment That Refused to Die was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Not by Bread Alone

    There are two kinds of what may be called Thanksgiving.

    There is a gratitude which, showing itself in thought and works, as love for the giver of all good things, temporal and things spiritual—shows itself whenever occasion is found, in love for man and unfailing service in the unrestrained imparting to others of whatever good is given, in wide philanthropy, in remembering those in bonds as "bound with them," the poor as having them always with us,—and this Thanksgiving, whether it show itself in its practical attitude, or its devotional, is especially bestowed and accepted.

    There is another kind which is less worthy. Its gratitude is superficial, or at least self-deceptive. Recognizing temporal goods as the beginning and the end of all blessing, the one thing needful in life, it dwells on its happiness in securing them, if it does secure them with such intense vividness that it seems like thankfulness; it calls itself grateful because it is glad, and exults that it is not as other men are. It forgets that Christ said "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which it possesseth," and values itself above others by comparative worldly possessions. It forgets that we are "not to live by bread alone," and by bread alone, that is by the body, its comforts and luxuries, by material acquisitions and triumphs does it live. This kind of Thanksgiving is in fact vainglory, material enslavement of the mind.

    Yet it is the ordinary vice of our society ... this avarice, this materialism, this money-getting, this "living by bread alone," is our peculiar sin and must be recognized as such and especially today, because, as I said, it comes so close to our Thanksgiving, as often to counterfeit it, intercept it, and take its place. And this temptation to to fall in with the popular estimate, and sacrifice conscience to comfort, the soul to "bread" is very terribly strong.

    It takes many shapes.

    It comes to the mechanic in the form of poor work and mind puffing; it comes to the merchant in the form of buying too cheap and selling too dear; it comes to the lawyer and the preacher in the form of supporting bad causes and opposing good ones; it comes finally, to the majority of the community in their political relations, just now in a peculiar form, which, because it is very important and very apparent, I shall take as the illustration of my text. Another presidential election has just passed. The plans I spoke of long since (a year ago, last August, you may remember) as being made to place another slaveholding president at the head of this nominally free republic, have been developed, consummated, carried through, with the consent and approval, nay the enthusiasm, of a majority of you.

    If the fact seemed important enough to allude to it then when I was here as an occasional preacher, and had no ties with you, you can hardly think it is strange if I hold it enough so to speak of it now, when the majority of you have defined your position on it, and that position, so widely different (as you know) from mine.... do you not see that by your expressions of delight at at the result of the election, you have voluntarily foregone all the defense you had when you endlessly lamented for the "necessary evil, ..." you have accepted the triumph as your triumph, and rejoiced over it and for that you are now to be held accountable.... you knew that the ultra slave men of the South electioneered for and chose him on this ground—bargaining, however, for as many northern votes as they wanted. You knew that he was a man professedly of not the smallest political knowledge, a mere warrior, a mere slaveholder and never could have been nominated or chosen but by this ultra slave influence.


Excerpted from THE MAGNIFICENT ACTIVIST by . Copyright © 2000 by Howard N. Meyer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Chronology xiii
Introduction 1
PART I Abolitionist and Champion of Civil Rights 41
1 Not by Bread Alone 47
2 The School of Mobs 52
3 Obeying the Higher Law 60
4 A Ride Through Kanzas 74
5 Assorted Lots of Young Negroes 101
6 The New Revolution: What Commitment Requires 106
7 Why Back John Brown? 117
8 Miss Forten on the Southern Question 124
9 Letter to the Editor 128
10 The South Carolina Blacks 130
11 Letter to The Nation: "The Case of the
Carpet-baggers" 133
12 Southern Barbarity 136
13 Lydia Maria Child 138
14 William Lloyd Garrison 155
15 Fourteen YearsLater 162
PART II Colonel of the First Black Regiment 175
1 The Black Troops: "Intensely Human" 178
2 Negro Spirituals 190
3 Camp Diary 212
4 The Negro as Soldier 233
5 Grant 247
6 Memo from War of the Rebellion 260
PART III Crusader for Women's Rights 263
1 Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet? 266
2 Who Was Margaret Fuller? 283
3 The Shadow of the Harem 303
4 The Pleasing Art of Self-Extinction 306
5 Repression at Long Range 309
6 The Fact of Sex 312
7 Womanhood and Motherhood 315
8 "Chances" 318
PART IV Essayist as Activist 321
1 The Clergy and Reform 324
2 A New Counterblast 331
3 Scripture Idolatry 344
4 The Sympathy of Religions 354
5 Public and Private Virtues 375
6 "Tell the Truth" 378
7 More Mingled Races 381
8 Edward Bellamy's Nationalism 384
9 The Complaint of the Poor 396
10 Where Liberty is Not, There is My Country 399
11 How Should a Colored Man Vote in 1900? 402
12 Higginson Answers Captain Mahan 404
PART V Naturalist 411
1 Water-Lilies 414
2 Snow 427
3 Oldport Wharves 447
4 The Life of Birds 457
5 The Procession of the Flowers 471
PART VI Critic as Essayist 483
1 Sappho 489
2 The Word Philanthropy 506
3 Unconscious Successes 515
4 Longfellow as a Poet 518
5 A Letter to a Young Contributor 528
6 Emily Dickinson 543
7 The Sunny Side of the Transcendental Period 565
8 The Literary Pendulum 577
9 Henry James, Jr 581
Bibliography 587
Publishing History 591
About the Author 596
Index 597
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