In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ella Rhoads Higginson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archival Collections
  • Collections
  • Poetry
  • Nonfiction
  • Screenplays
  • Bibliography
  • Periodical Studies

American Literature Ella Rhoads Higginson
Laura Laffrado
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0219


Ella Rhoads Higginson (b. 1862?–d. 1940) was born in Council Grove, Kansas, a launching point for westward movement of settler colonialists. When she was a child, her family moved to Oregon, traveling in a wagon train following the old Oregon Trail. The family eventually settled in Oregon City, where she was educated in private school. Ella’s strong interests in reading and writing began early. Her parents possessed a substantial library that included books by Irving, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Tennyson. Ella began writing when she was eight. Her first publication, the poem “Dreams of the Past,” appeared in The Oregon City newspaper when she was fourteen. The following year she began work on The Oregon City Enterprise newspaper, learning typesetting and editorial writing. She also started publishing fiction. In 1885, she married Russell Carden Higginson, a businessman who was a cousin to New England author Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The couple moved north to Whatcom (later Bellingham), Washington, where Higginson lived for fifty-two years until her death. There she devoted herself to writing. She soon became the first influential Pacific Northwest author. People around the world were introduced to the region when they read Higginson’s award-winning writing. Her descriptions of majestic mountains, vast forests, and the scenic waters of the Puget Sound presented the then-remote, unfamiliar Pacific Northwest to eager readers. Her characterizations of white women and men who inhabited the region revealed what life was like in this part of the nation as opposed to regions such as New England. Higginson’s celebrated writings were the first to place the Pacific Northwest on the literary map. Her talent was widely recognized. The prestigious Macmillan Company, which became her publisher, approached her seeking to print her work. She was awarded prizes from magazines such as Collier’s and McClure’s. Her poems were set to music and performed internationally. She published over eight hundred works in her lifetime. However, World War I altered the means of production, resulting in books going out of print and diminishing reputations of well-known authors, especially writers of color and women. Most of Higginson’s books went out of print. After the war, new editors, mostly white men, managed US newspapers, periodicals, and publishing companies. Largely uninterested in prewar authors, they sought writing from nascent literary movements such as Modernism while also promoting works by overlooked white male authors such as Melville. Higginson’s reputation faded in the last decades of her life. By the time she was chosen first Poet Laureate of Washington State in 1931, she and her work were largely remembered only in the Pacific Northwest. When she died in 1940, she was almost completely forgotten. In the 21st century, Higginson and her writings are returning to literary distinction.

General Overviews

Higginson’s writing was widely admired and critically celebrated by authors such as Hamlin Garland, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Louise Chandler Moulton, among others. Reviewers compared her writing to work by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Leo Tolstoy, and other well-known writers. Despite this acclaim and the popularity of her writing, Higginson’s work was not only forgotten in her lifetime but also remained unrecovered by scholars until the late 20th century. A significant factor in this neglect was, ironically, the very Pacific Northwest location that was a hallmark of her writing and which had aided her rise to fame in the late 19th century. While New England women writers of the same period, such as Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and others, were valuably recovered in the 1970s and 1980s, for years Higginson and her work remained alone and forgotten on the far side of the nation. In the 21st century, critical work concerning Higginson’s life and writing is ongoing. The most comprehensive presentation of her life and work is Laffrado 2015. A more concise treatment is in the earlier Goodman 1989. Detailed though occasionally unreliable biographical information can be found in Koert 1985. Edson 1951 provides a detailed chapter on Higginson’s life and work. Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs 1941 supplies a tribute collection of selected Higginson poems with brief biographical commentary.

  • Edson, Lelah Jackson. The Fourth Corner: Highlights from the Early Northwest. Bellingham, WA: Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1951.

    This book contains extensive, detailed history of Bellingham Bay and Whatcom County, Washington, during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Goodman, Susan. “Legacy Profile: Ella Rhoads Higginson.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 6.1 (1989): 59–68.

    Excellent overview of Higginson’s life and work. This essay classifies Higginson’s writing with work by other women authors of the time who were viewed as regionalists, such as Mary Austin, Willa Cather, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edith Wharton.

  • Koert, Dorothy. The Lyric Singer: A Biography of Ella Higginson. Bellingham, WA: Center for Pacific Northwest Studies and Fourth Corner Registry, 1985.

    A local biography of Higginson, this book covers her works and life and is very useful in terms of information from people who knew or knew of Higginson. However, because it was researched and written before the availability of digitized sources, it includes details now known to be incorrect.

  • Laffrado, Laura. Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature. Bellingham, WA: Whatcom County Historical Society Press, 2015.

    This edition includes a thorough introduction, bibliography, chronology, illustrations, and other valuable textual apparatus. The selected writings include Higginson’s most well-known poems and short stories, as well as excerpts from the novel Mariella; of Out-West and the nonfiction travel book Alaska the Great Country.

  • Washington State Federation of Women’s Clubs. Ella Higginson: A Tribute. Bellingham, WA: Union Printing Company Press, 1941.

    Higginson’s women friends assembled this tribute volume after her death. It contains selected poems by Higginson, illustrations, and biographical information.

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