Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (1823–1911)
Author:
Harris, W. Edward
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was an unremitting critic of Whitman and Leaves of Grass, which he first read when he was on an ocean voyage—he attributed his seasickness to the poem. He wrote unfavorable reviews of every subsequent edition of the book.

Higginson is best known in American literary history for his relationship with Emily Dickinson and his editing of the only poems she published in her lifetime.

An antislavery reformer, advocate of women's rights, and radical Unitarian, Higginson was a Boston Brahmin who did not appreciate the merit of Whitman's book. A colonel in the Civil War commanding a South Carolina black regiment, Higginson later wrote extensively of the Harvard graduates who gave their lives in the war. He was critical of Whitman for not joining the Union Army while encouraging others to do so.

When, in 1886, a private relief bill was introduced in the Congress to give Whitman a twenty-five-dollar a month pension for his work nursing the wounded, Higginson opposed it and the matter was dropped. A physical culturist, Higginson also wrote of Whitman's depraved living as a reason for his failing health. Higginson's attitude was representative of Boston literary opinion on the undisciplined character of Leaves of Grass. The week after Whitman's funeral Higginson published anonymously in The Nation (7 April 1892) all of his old criticism of the poet as a depraved malingerer and author of a book Whitman should have burned.

Bibliography

Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Burroughs, John. "Walt Whitman and His Recent Critics." In Re Walt Whitman. Ed Horace L. Traubel, Richard M. Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned. Philadelphia: McKay, 1893.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. 1869. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1960.

———. Cheerful Yesterdays. 1898. New York: Arno, 1968.


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