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Henry Lee Higginson:
"A Great Private Citizen"

by M.A. DeWolfe Howe

In March 1920, four months after Henry Lee Higginson's death, an article about Higginson by Mark DeWolfe Howe was published in the Atlantic Monthly. The excerpts that follow are from this article, with accompanying comments by Brian Pohanka.


Notham's photo of Higginson from 1905   [His] was the quality of a patriot's idealism evoked in time of war and sustained to the very end of a long life.

...He was a Puritan at heart, and in his daily life a hard-working, hard-headed man of affairs, deeply immersed in intensely practical matters...

The essential Puritan in him, that part of him which cried out against extravagance and waste, both public and private, and gave to his personal habits an austerity quite foreign to the households of modern American financiers....

Howe quotes a letter that Higginson wrote to a friend (in his 75th year), in which he describes the emotions he felt by listening to Beethoven's Third Symphony (The Eroica):

"As to the 'Eroica,' I had meant to tell you how I felt about it, but it opens the flood-gates, and I can't. The wail of grief, and then the sympathy which should comfort the sufferer. The wonderful funeral dirge, so solemn, so full, so deep, so splendid, and always with courage and comfort. The delightful march home from the grave in the scherzo—the wild Hungarian, almost gypsy in tone—and then the climax of the melody, where the gates of Heaven open, and we see the angels singing and reaching their hands to us with perfect welcome. No words are of any avail, and never does that passage of entire relief and joy come to me without tears—and I wait for it through life, and hear it, and wonder."

It seems that if Higginson was in part a "Puritan" he was also, in part, a Romantic.

...His constant refusal to count the cost in what he did for others was offset at every turn by the little severities he imposed upon his own mode of life.... Personal indulgence of any kind was as alien to him as to his Puritan forebears.

His personal presence truthfully bespoke the man within. Compact of stature, visaged with distinction, military in bearing, alert and vigorous, forthright and staccato of speech, both in public and in private, he visibly embodied the qualities of utter fearlessness and honesty, joined with a fortunate capacity for quick and righteous anger. These qualities, moreover, were not wholly unrelated to a human and endearing tendency to make impulsive mistakes. But they stood in an equally close relation to a definite gift for bestowing and winning affection. To a remarkable degree his letters spoke with his living voice. Nothing of good or evil fortune could befall his friends without his writing to them, briefly or at length, in terms appropriately compact of sympathy and humor. His good letters were not the product of accident, for he had a theory of letter-writing which he once communicated to a business associate as follows: "You sit down and visualize the person you are addressing; you dictate exactly as if he were present; you watch the changes in his face and anticipate his replies. You go through it and cut out all the adjectives and adverbs; then you probably have a good letter."....

[He was] not a churchman or a regular church-goer himself, but a holder of the simple faith that "without God the bottom drops out of everything."

...Instances innumerable might be drawn to illustrate the living out of his avowed belief that "there seems no other outcome, no other foundation for a happy mankind, for civilization, than a full, generous, wise use of our powers for the good of our fellow men, and a happy forgetfulness of ourselves."

As his 85th birthday was drawing near, one he did not live to see, Higginson wrote a friend:

"I've had only too many kind words of praise for doing my duty, and only my duty, as my eyes and those of dear, dead friends saw it. The simple tale—that he tried to fill up gaps and sought to bring sunshine into the lives of his fellow men and women, that he usually kept his word, given and implied, and that he worshipped his country and had the very best and most far-seeing of friends—is the whole story."

Howe concludes:

Thus in retrospect he saw his life. To others it may stand pre-eminently, as these pages began by suggesting, for the possibility of sustaining from youth to old age an idealism born in time of war. This central meaning of it was richly symbolized at his burial. Into and out of the academic surroundings of a college chapel the veteran soldier, the indomitable lover of righteousness and beauty, was borne in the uniform of his army days, his sword at his side; and over his grave the "grieving bugle" sounded its martial note of farewell. For his country and its ideals he enlisted in the war of more than half a century ago. The enlistment proved to be for life....


Special thanks to Brian Pohanka for supplying the following materials: Excerpts from "A Great Private Citizen: Henry Lee Higginson," by M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Atlantic Monthly, March 1920, pp. 329-339, and image of Higginson's 1905 photo by Notham, from Life and Letters of Henry Lee Higginson by Bliss Perry, Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1921.


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