Forlorn & Bewildered

The Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911) was a Unitarian minister, author and abolition activist from Worcester, Massachusetts. After stopping here on a lecture tour in 1855, Higginson wrote to his wife, “Skaneateles is a small beautiful village on the lake; there I stayed in a fine great house with a rich English family of Quakers (I always happen among Quakers). The old lady, a widow, touched me to the heart by constantly referring to ‘my dear husband’ so tenderly—till I at last found that she was a regular Tartar and had nearly tormented that gentleman’s life out!”

But even though the Emancipation Proclamation was less than 10 years away, an anti-slavery lecture in Skaneateles wasn’t exactly a slam dunk. A placard announcing Higginson’s lecture described him as a “leader of the forlorn-hope from Worcester.”

But for many, Higginson is remembered primarily as a correspondent and mentor to Emily Dickinson. In April 1862, Higginson wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he offered advice to young writers. Emily Dickinson, then 32 years old, sent a letter in reply with four poems, from her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”

Higginson responded and eventually became Dickinson’s mentor, though he felt unequal to the task. In 1891, he wrote, “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me, and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy.”

* * *

“Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Atlantic Monthly, October 1891; Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story of His Life (1914) by Mary Thatcher Higginson; Letters and Journals of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1846-1906 (1921) edited by Mary Thatcher Higginson

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