HIGGINSON, THOMAS WENTWORTH (1823–1911). This Harvard
graduate and versatile man of letters felt at home in water from his early
childhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While ministering to the Unitarian
church at Newburyport, Massachusetts, he then formed friendships on the
Isles of Shoals. Later, he sailed to Fayal in the Azores with his invalid wife
and stayed at a fishing village that opened his eyes to the picturesque colorfulness of Europe and the attractions of a life that seemed crude and
impoverished, yet somehow salubrious in contrast with New England. In
the Civil War, however, Higginson faced his greatest seagoing challenges as
colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a regiment of freed slaves
whose adventures in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as on the Carolina Sea
Islands and tidal rivers he recounted in Army Life in a Black Regiment
(1870, popularly reprinted in 1997). When a regimental gunboat burned as
a consequence of rebel shelling while it was anchored just ashore from Port
Royal Island, Higginson drew upon both Robinson Crusoe and Dante to
characterize the disaster.
Settling in Newport after the war, Higginson depicted that Rhode Island
city as “Oldport,” both in his only novel, Malbone (1869), and in Oldport
Days (1873), a collection of nature writings, tales, and sketches. These included a Thoreauvian reflection on the serene pleasures of rowing a wherry and a quietly dreamlike representation of a vessel’s catching fire and sinking
gently into the sea. A mentor to other writers, particularly women, Higginson provided encouragement to Celia Thaxter* of Appledore, Maine, and
Harriet Prescott Spofford of Newburyport, Massachusetts. His most famous
prote ´ge ´, however, was Emily Dickinson,* who displayed a copy of Malbone
in her parlor when her “safest friend” visited in 1870.