In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomas Wentworth Higginson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Letters and Journals
  • Natural History
  • Health and the Body
  • Slavery, Antislavery, and Civil War
  • Women’s Rights
  • Autobiographical Writings
  • Biographical Writings
  • Literary and Cultural Criticism
  • Religion and Spiritualism
  • Textbooks and Histories
  • Fiction
  • Translations and Poetry
  • Essay Collections

American Literature Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Sandra Petrulionis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0152


Thomas Wentworth Higginson (b. 1823–d. 1911) was a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Harvard College (1841) and Harvard Divinity School (1847). A prolific author and popular lecturer, Higginson was also a Unitarian minister, an abolitionist activist, a soldier, an editor, a women’s rights leader, and a literary critic. His reputation has largely been based on his relationship with and co-editing (with Mabel Loomis Todd) of the poet Emily Dickinson as well as on his antislavery activism and command of the First South Carolina Volunteers (later the 33rd US Colored Infantry Regiment), the first military unit composed of freed slaves during the Civil War. More recently, critical attention has focused on specific writings in Higginson’s extensive literary canon. In his wide-ranging articles, Higginson addressed topics of interest in 19th-century America—from transcendentalism, physical health, abolitionism, and women’s rights to US and transatlantic literary culture, Civil War experiences, biography, and history, in addition to, albeit fewer in number, works of fiction and poetry. His articles appeared regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, Putnam’s Monthly, Independent, Century, Harper’s Monthly, and other periodicals. He also contributed hundreds of columns addressing women’s rights and other political subjects to the Nation, the Radical, and the Boston Woman’s Journal. Higginson’s best-selling work was a classroom text, Young Folks’ History of the United States (1875), while his Civil War volume, Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870), has become a staple of today’s college syllabi. His only novel, Malbone (1869), is a fairly formulaic romance, set in New England, that received little critical attention. During the antebellum era, his liberal Unitarian ministry reflected his radical abolitionism as well as the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker. After the Civil War, Higginson settled in Newport, Rhode Island, with his first wife, Mary Channing Higginson, where he cultivated a staid postbellum literary identity frequently characterized as “genteel.” He was closely involved with the women’s rights activists who organized the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1868, and for many years he penned a column on women’s issues for this organization’s Woman’s Journal. Higginson is known for encouraging young literary aspirants, particularly women, who in addition to Dickinson, include Harriet Prescott Spofford, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Emma Lazarus. His Life of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884) offers a sympathetic treatment of Fuller’s genius and importance. In 1879, following the death of his first wife two years prior, Higginson married Mary Thacher Higginson; their daughter, Margaret, was born in 1881. Toward the end of his life, Higginson joined the likes of Upton Sinclair, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, and others in his support for the newly organized Intercollegiate Socialist Society.

General Overviews

Logan 2001 is the most recent and inclusive bio-critical study of Higginson’s life and writings. Brill 1968 investigates Higginson’s long relationship with the important Atlantic Monthly, while Hintz 1939 and Tuttleton 1978 offer early- to mid-20th-century appreciations focused on his social reform activism and liberal religiosity.

  • Brill, Leonard. “Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the Atlantic Monthly.” PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 1968.

    Examines Higginson’s extensive relationship with and publications in one of 19th-century America’s premier intellectual and literary periodicals.

  • Hintz, Howard W. Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Disciple of the Newness. New York: Graduate School of New York University, 1939.

    Summary of Higginson’s varied identities as historian, biographer, critic, poet, and fiction writer. Especially praises his nature writings. Includes bibliographical essay.

  • Logan, Judy. “Thomas Wentworth Higginson.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 243, The American Renaissance in New England. 4th series. Edited by Wesley T. Mott, 201–218. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark Layman, 2001.

    Presents Higginson’s life and career with contextual discussion of his varied social reform priorities, shifting politics, and personal life. Includes bibliography of primary writings, including many sermons.

  • Tuttleton, James W. Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

    Bio-critical overview of life and writings, with particular attention to Higginson’s authorship of social reform, history, biography, and works of romantic fiction.

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