HIGGINSON, THOMAS WENTWORTH - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

HIGGINSON, THOMAS WENTWORTH (1823-1911). This Harvard graduate and versatile man of letters felt at home in water from his early childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While ministering to the Unitarian church at Newburyport, Massachusetts, he then formed friendships on the Isles of Shoals. Later, he sailed to Fayal in the Azores with his invalid wife and stayed at a fishing village that opened his eyes to the picturesque colorfulness of Europe and the attractions of a life that seemed crude and impoverished, yet somehow salubrious in contrast with New England. In the Civil War, however, Higginson faced his greatest seagoing challenges as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of freed slaves whose adventures in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as on the Carolina Sea Islands and tidal rivers he recounted in Army Life in a Black Regiment (1870, popularly reprinted in 1997). When a regimental gunboat burned as a consequence of rebel shelling while it was anchored just ashore from Port Royal Island, Higginson drew upon both Robinson Crusoe and Dante to characterize the disaster.

Settling in Newport after the war, Higginson depicted that Rhode Island city as “Oldport,” both in his only novel, Malbone (1869), and in Oldport Days (1873), a collection of nature writings, tales, and sketches. These included a Thoreauvian reflection on the serene pleasures of rowing a wherry and a quietly dreamlike representation of a vessel’s catching fire and sinking gently into the sea. A mentor to other writers, particularly women, Higgin- son provided encouragement to Celia Thaxter* of Appledore, Maine, and Harriet Prescott Spofford of Newburyport, Massachusetts. His most famous protege, however, was Emily Dickinson,* who displayed a copy of Malbone in her parlor when her “safest friend” visited in 1870. [See also THALATTA]

Jane Donahue Eberwein