Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)
Contributing Editor: Paul Lauter
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It's almost impossible for students to connect the apostle of Nat Turner with the "mentor" of Emily Dickinson; a Christian minister; a colonel of a black Civil War regiment; an active feminist; an important nineteenth-century editor. All these roles were filled by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, yet only the first two aspects are represented by the texts. So the real issue is whether or not he is significant. And if he is, why?
If students know Higginson at all, they will probably know him as the man who, in putting Dickinson poems into print, disgracefully smoothed them out, changing her words, her punctuation, even her meanings. Why read such a fellow? Why in the world did Dickinson write to him?
At the same time, he doesn't smooth out Nat Turner. Yet, like any historical writer, he "constructs" Nat Turner in a particular way. The nature of that "construction" is not easy to define.
Sometimes it's useful to begin from an example of what Higginson (and Todd) did to a Dickinson poem. Their choices say something about Dickinson, about nineteenth-century sensibilities, and--with Higginson's and Dickinson's letters--about their unique relationship. The revised Dickinson also raises the question of why one might want to include Higginson in this anthology.
At one point in the 1960s, students had heard about William Styron's "Confessions" of Nat Turner. It may still be useful to bring up some of the summary accounts in magazines like Newsweek of Styron's version and the controversy that surrounded it. Higginson's picture is, of course, quite different, yet both can be understood, among other ways, as serving certain historical needs in their audience.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Is there any unity at all to Higginson's life as minister, military man, activist, writer, editor, mentor? More than most, Higginson's extraordinarily varied career expresses a nineteenth-century commitment by a well-to-do white man to racial, gender, and class equality--in politics, in social relations, and in culture. His sensitivity--and his limitations--say a great deal about the power as well as the constraints upon that kind of progressive politics, and about the forms of culture it inspired. To see why Dickinson sought him out and yet would not be limited by him reveals a great deal about the cultural revolution her writing represents, as well as about the strengths of what Higginson can be taken to illustrate.
The essay on Nat Turner also is very useful in relation to the other abolitionist writers, especially Walker and Garrison. Though Nat Turner's rebellion came after Walker's Appeal and the beginning of The Liberator, there are ways in which it was taken, literally and symbolically (as Higginson implies), as an outgrowth of such writings.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Higginson commands a fine and varied prose style, and it can be very rewarding for students to examine certain of his paragraphs--like the initial one on the files of the Richmond newspaper, the early one on the participants in the rebellion, the one on the lives of slaves not being "individualized," and the final one of the essay.
The essay and the letter can be usefully compared on this ground. They are not very distant in time, yet quite distinctly conceived because of audience.
The essay was written before the Civil War began, yet was published only after. What does that say about the limits of "acceptable" discourse? What does the essay imply about the readership of the Atlantic, where it was published?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Higginson's construction of Nat Turner can usefully be compared with Phillips's portrait of Toussaint, with Frederick Douglass's self-portrait (as well as with his picture of Madison Washington), and with the black characters of Melville's "Benito Cereno." All these texts involve the issue of the "heroic slave"--what constitutes "heroism" in a slave. Underlying that is the issue of what constitutes "humanity," since for many Americans, black people were not fully human.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
How does Higginson account for Nat Turner's motivations, actions?
Why did the essay on Nat Turner remain unpublished until after the Civil War began?
Why, given Higginson's letter about Emily Dickinson and her letters to him, did she wish to write to him?
What does Higginson's relationship to Dickinson (and the way he helped publish her poems) tell you about the kind of culture he represents?
What are the predominant features in Higginson's portrait of Nat Turner? What are the alternative views of Nat Turner between which he is choosing? Is Higginson's Nat Turner a hero or a terrorist?
Henry Irving Tragle's The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831 and Herbert Aptheker's Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion contain useful brief materials on Nat Turner, including the text of his "confessions," as compiled by Thomas Gray. The view of Nat Turner in that and other texts usefully contrasts with Higginson's.
If one is interested in the problem of how writers construct historical accounts (an issue quite relevant to Melville's "Benito Cereno," for example), such materials provide a useful case in point.