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Major Higginson in 1863  

The Life Story of
Major Henry Lee Higginson

"Practical Idealism and the Gift for Friendship"


The story that follows has been adapted primarily from the book The Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson by Bliss Perry. This book contains Henry Lee Higginson's reminiscences dictated in 1918 at the age of 84, journal entries, and correspondence by Higginson and other writers. In order for you, the reader, to fully appreciate Mr. Higginson's story, I thought it best to let him tell as much of it as possible to you. Mr. Higginson's original words from his reminiscences are presented in serif type face (Times New Roman) with the exception of text in brackets [   ] that I have included for clarification and reference. To fill in portions of the story where no original words exist, I have written sections of text in sans serif font (Arial or Helvetica). Additionally, to add to your appreciation of Mr. Higginson's story, links to other pages on this site are provided. These pages contain images and further information about Higginson and significant persons from his life.


Part I: A Search for Self in a World of Music

Days of Boyhood and Youth

I was born in...New York City, on the 18th of November 1834, my father and mother being George and Mary [Cabot Lee] Higginson. In my fourth year we moved to Boston, as my father, who had been in business with his cousin as a small commission merchant, failed in the great panic of 1837. Then we lived in a very small house...and father carried on a very small commission business on India Wharf in Boston. We lived in the narrowest way, and got on very well; went into a house a little bit larger in Bedford Place where I had a pleasant boyhood [with my older brother George, younger brothers James (Jim) and Francis (Frank), and sister Mary (Molly)].

My father and mother both worked pretty hard [in a household that upheld the spirit of patriotism, along with piousness, bravery, honor, and integrity]. My father was a very kindly, industrious, sensible man, [a Whig and Unitarian] with a remarkable "nose" for character, scrupulously honest, and disinterested to a high degree. When he was earning very little money, he passed much of his time and any spare pennies possible in charitable work. My mother was unusually intelligent and attractive, as I now know from the various older men and younger men who used to come to our house and dine....

We used to play on the [Boston] Common [park] or in the little court in Bedford Place, where we lived, and I kept up with most of the boys, seeing chiefly the three Paine boys who lived close by us, and various others, among them
Charles (Russell) Lowell(, Jr.), who was just my age and as bright as I was stupid. He and I went everywhere together, coasted on the Common, skated, cut up all sorts of pranks; and with him James Savage(, Jr.), who was a year or two older, but who was with us all the time.

I did fairly well at the [Boston] Latin School [that I entered in 1846]...but was presently taken away because of colds and headaches, which came very often and which interfered with my work. After one year at a private school, I was sent back to the Latin School, and did much better. I remember studying hard and getting my lessons with effort, but still with determination, because it pleased my mother.... I got two prizes, but I cannot remember that I ever cared about it myself....

In the year 1849, when I was fifteen years old, my mother died, in August. She had had tuberculosis for some time, and it had increased and increased, and nothing could be done to save her. It was a terrible blow to my father, and of course very bad for us all, but we lived along and did the best we could.

[Following my graduation from the Latin School in 1851], I went to [Harvard] college [that year] with a very good lot of fellows. After six eyes were too sick to study and...I was sent to Europe [—a common prescription for this type of condition during the time—and placed under the guardianship of Reverend Eliot of Northampton, Massachusetts who also was staying overseas].

[On my first trip abroad] I was a very green boy, saw a few people, and did not know what to do—that is, had no "shape" at all. In Boston, before going away, we had been to the Italian opera, getting seats for twenty-five cents in the upper gallery, and enjoying it highly. I had an inborn taste for music, which was nourished by a few concerts in Boston and by the opera. It was really a great pleasure to us. In London of course the opera was better and delighted me.

Henry's fondness of music flourished after attending several operas in London, England and in Germany. While in Dresden, the philosophical, analytical, and introspective young man wrote in a letter to his father at the end of 1852:

...For amusements I want no money but for music, and that is not very expensive here: even that I would not indulge in to the extent I have and shall, did I not try to learn something by it, did I not consider it as a study in a measure: indeed I have already learned something and would know more. My desire has only increased very much since I've been abroad, and I shall certainly study it with a master, if I have the eyes, and if not, at least I can play somewhat, and amuse my otherwise idle hours....

...I know I learn something every day; that I need not and do not depend on those around me for occupation and amusement, but that I can always help myself; that my mind has something to do, to occupy itself with, and that is a most important thing for everyone. It is an occupation in itself to watch people and talk with them, to learn what they think, feel, and do, to study their national character, and compare it with our own and with what I know of theirs....

In March 1853, Henry wrote to his father about his progress and personal growth; condition of his eyes; schooling; the possibility of leaving Europe to continue his studies at home, and concerns about selecting a career path:

...I have striven to understand myself, my own nature, character, feelings, all as hard, nay harder than for anything, and if I have not succeeded, it is not my fault; but I think I have. Since I have left home, it appears to me I have changed, I have grown older, I have found my way, and can see more clearly thro' the mist that envelopes one's youth; I feel more as if I had an object in life, and consequently happier and better satisfied with myself....

...I have been waiting some time to tell you what I can now, that my eyes are decidedly better.... I can study six hours a day, and today have been writing and practising with notes seven or more without any suffering to speak of.... I think it would be well to take chemistry, physics to a certain degree, perhaps history, and to continue with music....

...There is one thing, as I before said, that makes me very, very sorry to leave Europe: the loss of music. I do think it makes and has made a real and a great change in me, since I first began with it; and if I continue to hear and to cultivate it, so will the change go on and the advantage increase. I do not believe there is anything more refining than music, no greater or stronger preservative against evil, and at least for me it has done much. I am almost thankful that I have had weak eyes; indeed I am quite so, for it has given me the time and opportunity to find out how much music is to me, and it has opened pleasures to me that otherwise would very possibly have never been discovered. I am afraid to trust to my feelings within, to my own ideas, or I should study music for a profession. I know not how one finds that he has a talent for any one thing without trying: but everyone has a particular faculty for something, everyone has a decided turn and talent for a particular branch, and it is his duty to try to find this out, and to turn to it. If one may trust what he hears within himself, in his own heart, and be sure that it is right, I should say that my talent was for music, and that, if I studied it properly and persevered, I could bring out something worth having, worthy of a life thus spent, worthy of a man, worthy of my mother and of you....

Work at Home and Continuing Self-Discoveries Abroad

Henry's reminiscences continue with his return home to Boston:

In March 1855, my father secured for me a place in the office of Messrs. Samuel and Edward Austin, India merchants on India Wharf, and there I served nineteen months as sole clerk and bookkeeper.... During all this time I used to go into society a good deal, went to the parties, made many acquaintances, saw many girls, with whom I made friends and who added very much to the happiness of my life. [One day] I...remember saying to Mr. Edward Austin—who was very bright—something about future employment. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I did not know; that work on the wharf did not seem to me to require any mind; that I wanted something which would use my mind and would give me a chance to take hold of life more seriously. He muttered: "I guess when you have some notes to pay, you will find that your mind is busy enough"; which struck me as true.

[Outside of work] I had seen a great deal of certain classmates, and a great deal of my friends
Stephen (George) Perkins, Charles Lowell, James Savage, and many others. We had walked and talked together, discussed all sorts of problems, been deeply interested in many things—and they had plenty of new ideas. Charles Lowell and Stephen Perkins were among the most brilliant men I ever have known—very thoughtful, and fond of taking up everything and discussing it from the bottom—not content with the affairs of this world, being what one now would call real reformers or radicals, and measuring everything by their own footrule. The slavery questions were more and more important at that time, and the question of Kansas came up. Men were sent to Kansas and Nebraska to keep the States out of Slavery....

It was a period of ferment for all of us young people. I was wild about slavery and anti-slavery, did not like the Abolitionists, could not bear the disgrace to our country of slavery, believed that we should have sooner or later a great struggle, and that we should get rid of it in some way. At that time several fugitive slaves in Boston were taken and sent back under the Fugitive Slave Act, which Mr. Webster had helped pass, being merely a strengthening of a law which had stood for many years....

Our class graduated in 1855 and [though I did not graduate with them, they] let me partake in the festivities of Class Day and Commencement, for I had many friends there. After another year of work in the office on the wharf, I wished much to go abroad. Charles Lowell had broken down [with a disease that caused his lungs to bleed] and had been sent abroad, and I proposed to join him. Stephen Perkins and Powell Mason were going with me, and we sailed about the first of November. At that time I had inherited about $13,000 from an old uncle who had just died, and I expected to live on the interest of that.

In November 1856, just before his 22nd birthday, Henry returned to Europe with Perkins and Mason where the three were eventually reunited with Lowell. Nearly a year later, Henry wrote to his father in September 1857 about his decision to remain in Vienna, Austria, and explained his reasons for continuing his studies and practice of music:

  Henry's class photo, 1855
Henry's class photo of 1855
from Bliss Perry's book,
Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson.
Image courtesy of Brian Pohanka.

...Here one can get good enough, if not the best, instruction in the theory of music, and also in instrumental music; and in singing far better instruction than in any other German city....

As everyone has some particular object of supreme interest to himself, so I have music. It is almost my inner world; without it, I miss much, and with it I am happier and better....

On my return home other studies took up my time so much that music had to be neglected much against my will. The same was true when in the store. It is quite true that I had plenty of spare hours during my apprenticeship, but it is, in my opinion, very false to suppose that a knowledge of anything so difficult as music can be gained, when the best hours of the day and the best energies of the man are consumed by the acquiring of another knowledge. Of course men more busily employed than I was have applied themselves to and conquered great things in science, in art, etc., etc., but they are exceptions certainly, and I nothing of the kind. At any rate, I did not learn anything more of music during those nineteen months. I felt the want of it greatly, and was very sorry to give up the thing dearest to me. When I came out here, I had no plans, as you know. Trade was not satisfying to the inner man for a life-occupation. Out here I have consulted, and have decided to try to learn something of music ex- and internally, i.e., of playing arid of harmony or thorough-bass. If I find that I am not profiting at all by my work, I shall throw it up and go home. If I gain something, I shall stick to it.

You will ask, "What is to come of it all if successful?" I do not know. But this is clear. I have then improved my own powers, which is every man's duty. I have a resource to which I can always turn with delight, however the world may go with me. I am much the stronger, the wider, the wiser, the better for my duties in life. I can then go with satisfaction to my business, knowing my resource at the end of the day. It is already made, and has only to be used and it will grow. Finally, it is my province in education, and having cultivated myself in it, I am fully prepared to teach others in it.

Education is the object of man, and it seems to me the duty of us all to help in it, each according to his means and in his sphere. I have often wondered how people could teach this and that, but I understand it now. I could teach people to sing, as far as I know, with delight to myself. Thus I have a means of living if other things should fail. But the pleasure, pure and free from all disagreeable consequences or afterthoughts, of playing, and still more of singing myself, is indescribable. In Rome I took about eight lessons of a capital master, and I used to enjoy intensely the singing to his accompaniment my exercises and some little Neapolitan songs.

My reasons for studying harmony are manifest. I cannot properly understand music without doing so; moreover, it is an excellent exercise for the mind. As to writing music, I have nothing to say; but it is not my expectation.... I am studying for my own good and pleasure. And now...I hope you will be able to make something out of this long letter. You should not have been troubled with it, but I thought you would prefer to know all about it. It is only carrying out your own darling idea of making an imperishable capital in education. My money may fly away; my knowledge cannot. One belongs to the world, the other to me.

By October 1857, with the panic of 1857 threatening financial ruin for businessmen in the states, Henry reconsidered his plans for remaining overseas with his friends. He offered to surrender his musical ambitions and return home to assist his father in the stock brokerage house of Lee, Higginson and Co., but his father reassured him otherwise. However, a few months later, a troubling incident eventually changed the course of the young man's career plans. Henry's letter to his father, written on December 1, 1857, brought worrisome news:

When I last wrote, a fearful headache of three days' duration was troubling me. I went to the greatest physician here, Oppolzer, a very renowned man; he was out of town, so I went to a bleeder, and got rid of 8 ounces of blood—a tumblerful. He would not take any more tho' I urged him to do so. In fifteen minutes the pressure, which had been tremendous, was nearly gone, and the next day (Sunday) I was quite well. On Monday and Tuesday I played [the piano] with my left arm (the one opened), and not considering the effect of such exercise, lamed it badly. I have since seen Oppolzer. He says the affliction is neuralgia (that I supposed) and gave me quinine to take daily, forbade cold bathing, ordered cold water on the head when in pain, and in the morning. I am now using these remedies, and am better.... I shall write less in future. The music demands eight hours a day, and I must study the languages and read a bit beside; then other necessary demands are made on my time, such as two lectures a week, a weekly evening at the Minister's unavoidably, etc., etc....

Despite the pain in his arm, Henry continued pursuing his musical goals throughout the following year, much to his father's increasing dismay. The elder Higginson could not convince his son to return home with the outlook for a career in business looking less than lucrative. Henry wrote to his father on August 30, 1858:

About my arm, I cannot say that it is better than before coming; yet I think improvement has taken place.... About returning home, father: I have already written you that my arrangements are made for another year from Sept. 1st in Vienna. How can I return when my object is music, and I've been unable to play at all the whole year? Besides, what is there in America particularly tempting in business, and what is there out of business for me?

Henry's optimism soon changed as he was confronted by the grim reality of his condition. In a letter from Vienna dated October 19, Henry disclosed disheartening news to his father:

The arm is probably injured for life, not seriously, but so far that I shall not be able to play the piano very long at a time.... When I look back at those six weeks I played, I could cry heartily. It is a hard line for me; cuts deeper than you think. What I had wished for years was at hand, with every possible help; and in that time I really learned much. Now it is over forever; I can never play freely again. I almost wonder that I managed to bear so much as I did....

With his hopes for a musical occupation no longer foreseeable, Henry contemplated a career as a wine merchant, then considered a clerkship in a wholesale drug business. As he searched for a practical occupation suited to his liking, unrest erupted on the home front in America. A day before his 26th birthday in November 1860, Henry set sail once more for Boston.


Henry's story continues with:

Part II: The Civil War Years

Sources Used in Writing this Section of the Essay


Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, NY, 1958-1964.

Harvard Memorial Biographies, edited by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Sever and Francis, Cambridge, MA, 1866.

Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson, by Bliss Perry, The Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, MA, 1921.

Web Pages:

Distinguished High School Graduates of the Boston Latin School, Boston Public Schools, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2001).

Making of America, University of Michigan, copyright 2001, (accessed March 2001).

Public Latin School Hall of Fame, Boston Latin School, copyright 2001, (accessed February 2001).


Index to Higginson's Pages
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