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Thoughts about Henry Lee Higginson

by Brian Pohanka

Higginson portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1903   Henry Lee Higginson was a wonderful man, one of my favorite people. Student, aspiring musician, traveler, soldier, businessman, banker, philanthropist, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—Higginson led a full life, a long life. His example is so noteworthy, valuable and inspiring.

During his youth, it was not common for a young American of such potential to flail about, as it were, chasing dreams of music and art, abroad in a Europe that many Puritan New Englanders must have considered the height of decadence. In this Henry Higginson harkens ahead some hundred and ten years, to the late 1960s. But he was so eager, so good natured, so smart about it all—as well as sincere—that his efforts to win over his father ring a bell of common human experience down to our own times.

The war came. And it brought out his intrinsic beliefs in country, in Union, in love of the Republic, in sense of the rights of humankind, of the wrongs of slavery, of the need to risk for high ideals—of duty. It must have been one of those times when a sense of "higher than self" intersected with one's own longings, dreams, hopes, challenges, doubts—and it called him, as it did his friends, that noble cause.

His friends died—he lived—though he had his own brush with death and it served to strengthen his life's purpose. Major Higginson never forgot these dear friends who fell in the war, and three decades later, memorialized them at the Soldiers Field at Harvard: James Savage, Jr., Charles Russell Lowell, Edward Barry Dalton, Stephen George Perkins, James Jackson Lowell, and Robert Gould Shaw. In June 1890, Higginson addressed the faculty and students at Harvard at the Dedication of the Soldiers Field, reminding them—and us—of the bravery and loss of those comrades:

This field means more than a playground to me, for I ask to make it a memorial to some dear friends who gave their lives, and all that they had or hoped for, to their country and to their fellow men in the hour of great need.... These friends were men of mark, either as to mental or moral powers, or both, and were dead in earnest about life in all its phases. They lived in happy homes and were surrounded with friends, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts—had high hopes for the future and with good cause, too; but at the first call of our great captain, Abraham Lincoln, they went at once, gladly, eagerly, to the front, and stayed there. Not a doubt, not a thought of themselves, except to serve; and they did serve to the end, and were happy in their service....

All of these men were dear friends to me...so full were they of thoughts, and hopes, and feelings, about all possible things. These men are a loss to the world, and heaven must have sorely needed them to have taken them from us so early in their lives....

And let me say here that the war was not boy's play. No men of any country ever displayed more intelligence, devotion, energy, brilliancy, fortitude, in any cause than did our Southern brothers. Hunger, cold, sickness, wounds, captivity, hard work, hard blows—all these were their portion and ours.... It was not boy's play; and to-day these Southern brothers are as cordial and as kindly to us as men can be, as I have found by experience. Now, what do the lives of our friends teach us? Surely the beauty and the holiness of work and of utter, unselfish, thoughtful devotion to the right cause, to our country, and to mankind.... One of these friends, Charles Lowell, dead, and yet alive to me as you are, wrote me just before his last battle:—

"Don't grow rich; if you once begin, you'll find it much more difficult to be a useful citizen. Don't seek office; but don't 'disremember' that the useful citizen holds his time, his trouble, his money, and his life always ready at the hint of his country. The useful citizen is a mighty unpretending hero; but we are not going to have a country very long unless such heroism is developed. There! what a stale sermon I'm preaching! But, being a soldier, it does seem to me that I should like nothing so well as being a useful citizen."

This was his last charge to me, and in a month he was in his grave. I have tried to live up to it, and I ask you to take his words to heart and to be moved and guided by them....

I don't think it was so much the personal trials and suffering that Higginson endured that shaped his future—so many endured those things—it was the loss of his friends that forged his future as it scorched his soul. He seems to have been one who doubted himself, or his abilities at any rate, even as he quested for something that was elusive in a manner almost always cheerful and energetic and strong. He did not think much of his intellectual powers, or of his capacity, be it as musician or businessman. In part this was because he saw his dear friends and comrades, men of real potential and strength and intellect (as he saw them) and in the balance, compared with them, he felt he fell somewhat short.

I think that those words of Charles Russell Lowell—about being a "useful citizen" and the need for such individuals were a central force in his postwar character and the externalization of his "practical idealism"—they were key to Higginson's philosophy and indeed to his life. By living that way he not only manifested his own wonderful combination of the practical and the ideal, of the "Puritan" and the "Romantic," he gave expression to what might have been lost, have died, with Lowell and his other fallen friends.

That they fought and fell, that their lives were cut short, that they did not live to serve and prosper—and that he was able to do these things—this was both a burden and blessing to him. On one level they were lost, their potential for greatness and achievement and happiness was only a "might have been." But their memories and example were vibrant and alive nonetheless, as they lived on in the work and deeds of those, like Higginson, who would always remember them. Not only to lay a laurel upon their graves, literally or figuratively, but to live one's life as if they were still there at one's side—to enjoy the wonderful give and take of philosophy, or the strenuous rambles across the Alps or Tuscany...to hear their voices, to climb those mountains together, and bask in the sunshine along a stream in Virginia.... And I think Henry Higginson did this, almost every conscious moment of his living life long. And he was both thankful to have survived that war, even as he was saddened at the loss of those dear friends who still lived, for him.

But above all he chose to live his life as they would have, and his friends lived on, through him. All that he did was motivated, in large part, by this. And he was happy in his work, for it was, most truly, a labor of love.

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Black and white photo of John Singer Sargent's 1903 painting of Higginson from The Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson, by Bliss Perry, Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921. Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

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