The Monarch of Dreams

An essay by Caleb Crain, originally published in The New Republic 224 (28 May 2001), pp. 41-48.

The essay is a review of The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1823-1911, edited by Howard N. Meyer (Da Capo Press, 618 pp., $25) and of The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, edited by Christopher Looby (University of Chicago Press, 393 pp., $35).


In the summer of 1886, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote a peculiar short story. The sixty-two-year-old author ordinarily had no trouble getting into print. He was a widely published and widely respected intellectual, famous for his longstanding support of women’s rights and for having led a regiment of freed slaves during the Civil War. But no editor wanted ‘The Monarch of Dreams.’ Higginson was attached to the story, however, and he paid to have it printed privately. When his family read it, they became alarmed, and even today it is not hard to see why.

‘The Monarch of Dreams’ begins innocently enough. A young man named Francis Ayrault rents an isolated farmhouse in the New England hills, where he has come to recuperate. “A series of domestic cares and watchings had almost broken him down,” Higginson explains; “nothing debilitates a man of strong nature like the too prolonged and exclusive exercise of the habit of sympathy.” Since Ayrault is fleeing from “a Rhode Island seaside town,” Higginson’s relatives must have suspected that Ayrault was a proxy for Higginson himself, who had spent thirteen years in Newport nursing his chronically ill first wife—an interval so painful that he chose to omit it from his autobiography.

But recuperation is not Ayrault’s only motive. The secluded farmhouse also suits him as the site for a psychological experiment he is planning. Ayrault hopes to become “the ruler of his own dreams,” to control what happens in his mind while asleep. It is an odd ambition, and the narrator attributes it to “a certain taste for the ideal side of existence” among citizens of Rhode Island.

On his first night in his new home, Ayrault meditates on a photograph of Mont Saint Michel. When he falls asleep, he dreams that he is clinging to a steep grassy hillside. The next night, he succeeds in dreaming himself back to the same slope (dream continuity is one of his goals), and he sees other people clinging to it, too. But during his waking hours the next day, Ayrault plays with his younger sister, and that night he discovers, to his chagrin, that human contact dissipates his control over his dreams. For the next few days, he isolates himself, so as to return to his dreamsite, whose terrain now rotates ninety degrees, from hillside to plain. He finds that he can control where sunbeams fall. His sunbeams give joy to the people they hit, but the pleasure of the dream-people leaves Ayrault indifferent. “There was a certain hardness in his state of mind toward them,” Higginson writes. “The sole thing which disturbed him was that they sometimes grew a little dim, as if they might vanish and leave him unaccompanied.”

A few nights later, Ayrault’s dream changes again. The plain gives way to “a vast building,” where “all was for him.” All the books in the building’s libraries, all the paintings in its galleries, and all the laws in its legislative chambers are his creation or have been selected to please his taste. The building’s occupants also exist only to serve him: “There were always menials and subordinates about him, never an equal.” This is unpleasant; and Ayrault becomes lonely. Then he notices, to his horror, that the menials are beginning to resemble him.

Like John Malkovich after entering his own portal in Being John Malkovich, Ayrault finds himself surrounded each night by “a whole world of innumerable and uncontrollable beings, every one of whom was Francis Ayrault.” Ayrault drifts out of touch with the outside world. When his sister reports nightmares that sound eerily like his own, he sends her away. He promises to speak at a strike meeting in a nearby village, but he forgets to do so. He offers to check up on a young French runaway, but he doesn’t follow through.

Then the Civil War breaks out. Ayrault has a chance to enlist as an officer, and it seems, briefly, as if he might be able to break the spell. “He felt himself a changed being,” Higginson writes; “he was as if floating in air, and ready to swim off to some new planet.” In the preface to Harvard Memorial Biographies, a two-volume commemoration of Harvard students and alumni who died in the war, Higginson recalled his own first day in uniform in similar language: “The transformation seemed as perfect as if, by some suddenly revealed process, one had learned to swim in air, and were striking out for some new planet.”

In Ayrault’s case, however, the change doesn’t take. New recruits are supposed to report to the local railroad station at daybreak. Yet when Ayrault lies down at midnight to rest for a few hours, his dream-selves, which have multiplied and shrunk to the size of pinheads, swarm over him: “Ayrault was beset, encircled, overwhelmed; he was in a manner lost in the crowd of himself.” He oversleeps and misses his train, whose faint echo he can almost hear, “bearing the lost opportunity of his life away—away—away.” Higginson apologized for upsetting his relatives, but he defended his short story. “It is the first strong bit of purely imaginative work I ever did,” he wrote to them. The assessment is a fair one. The intricacy of Ayrault’s psychopathology is worthy of Hawthorne, though Hawthorne would probably have slipped even further into Ayrault’s nightmare palace than Higginson did. ‘The Monarch of Dreams’ is one of the most forceful things that Higginson ever wrote. It ends before the reader is ready for it to end—a rarity with Higginson—but the abrupt end was probably the point: Ayrault misses the chance of a lifetime by indulging in narcissistic paraliterary fantasy.

This was not the case with his creator. At the late age of thirty-nine, Higginson caught the train—or boat, in his case—to the Civil War, and he was “Colonel Higginson” ever after. Anxious relatives notwithstanding, ‘The Monarch of Dreams’ did not signal an imminent nervous breakdown, or even a major shift in Higginson’s life or writing. Although he called it a “first,” it seems to have been his last work of fiction. It did not interrupt his production of book reviews, deliberately cheerful memoirs, articles of popular history, and essays promoting progressive politics, which continued for another quarter century.

‘The Monarch of Dreams’ was, in fact, a confirmation of Higginson’s life as he had lived it. It reassured him that he had been right to subordinate his literary career to his political activism. And yet Higginson would not have written ‘The Monarch of Dreams’ unless he had remained ambivalent about this decision, even into his seventh decade. In his short story, to indulge in fantasy is selfish, irresponsible, and horrifying. A young person burdened with this prejudice would not have felt at moral liberty to choose art over politics. Though he seems to have been strongly tempted, Higginson was not selfish enough to become an artist.

He was, instead, a good man. A sustained act of will committed a dreamy, passive nature to an active life. Late in life, Higginson hedged on the issue of black voting rights and condemned Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde as unmanly, but those were aberrations of old age. In his prime, Higginson was on the right side of every important question, when it was difficult to take that side. He campaigned passionately for abolition, women’s rights, and civil service reform. He also encouraged exercise, disapproved of tobacco and alcohol, and advocated school reform. But he was not a prude: when it emerged that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child, Higginson advised voters to consider the candidate’s public virtues rather than his private morals.

In his introduction to The Magnificent Activist, his comprehensive new anthology of Higginson’s nonfiction, the biographer Howard N. Meyer claims that “Higginson’s writing was a tool of his activism, but did not dominate it and was not corrupted by it or prostituted to it.” There is certainly no corruption or prostitution in Higginson’s writing; Meyer protests too much. But activism did dominate Higginson’s literary career. Activism in itself was probably not what weakened his style. (After all, Thoreau’s political writing is among his best work.) Still, it is hard to shake the suspicion that Higginson took up reform as a compromise or a compensation. Anyone who undertakes to read The Magnificent Activist “for the sheer joy of the reading itself,” as Meyer recommends, faces a dish of fairly cold oatmeal. Although he remains important to historians of abolition and feminism, the only literary claim that Higginson has on our interest today is as a liminal case, or perhaps a cautionary tale.


Two natural affinities inclined Higginson to a dreamy life, and he felt that he had to oppose both of them. The first was to Transcendentalism, which he liked to call “the Newness.” In 1838, Emerson had commanded the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School to “cast behind you all conformity” and adopt the remedy of “first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.” As Higginson recalled in his autobiography, Cheerful Yesterdays, by the time he studied at Harvard in the mid-1840s the “wave of liberal thought” that Emerson had launched “was rapidly submerging the old landmarks.” In that era, the plight of a Harvard-trained Unitarian minister was a little like that of an English professor today: a sense of mission lingered, but you were no longer required to have faith in anything more particular than your own career. The looseness, and Emerson’s example, left many seminarians restless.

By Emerson’s lights, restlessness was itself a desideratum. There was no need to compromise it by choosing something to be restless about. In his lecture “The Transcendentalist,” he argued that although the new young idealists might appear antisocial or just plain lazy, there was nobility in their refusal to engage. “Each ‘Cause,’ as it is called,—say Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism,—becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers.” Emerson knew the older, responsible generation’s reproach: “Whilst you wait, you grow old and useless.” But he preferred the principled slacker’s reply: “Be it so….”

Emerson, in other words, was willing to bet that people like Francis Ayrault would pull through in the end. Higginson was not so optimistic. More than half a generation younger than Emerson, he saw around him lives that Transcendentalism seemed to have wrecked. As he recalled much later, in 1904,

The freedom … made some men indolent…. Others led lives morally wasted, whether by the mere cutting loose of a surge of passion ill restrained, or by that terrible impulse of curiosity which causes more than half the sins of each growing generation…. I can think of men among those bred in that period, and seemingly under its full influence, who longed to know the worst of life and knew it, and paid dearly for their knowledge; and their kindred paid more dearly still. Others might be named who, without ever yielding … to a single sensual or worldly sin, yet developed temperaments so absolutely wayward that it became necessary … for their wives and children to leave them and stay apart.

Higginson was too genteel to name names, but he was probably thinking here of Thoreau’s friend the poet Ellery Channing, whose daughter Margaret was largely raised by Higginson and his first wife.

Higginson saw Transcendentalism as not unlike Francis Ayrault’s desire to control his dreams—a destructive idealism, a romantic experiment that turned out to be dangerous. It was to supply the moral urgency that the ministry lacked that Higginson turned instead to social reform. In 1847, while auditioning for pulpits, he even preached a trial sermon on the topic, included in Meyer’s book. In “The Clergy and Reform,” Higginson reproached churchmen for lagging behind laypeople in progressive causes. “Thenceforth,” he warned, “a clergy which suffers any new thought to originate elsewhere, which permits any true Reform to lead it instead of itself taking the lead—hath the mischief in itself and is condemned already!”

For a job-seeker, the sermon was daring. It was praised by Theodore Parker, whose deism had rendered him a pariah even among Boston Unitarians, and Higginson was soon well known as a promising radical. As he told his mother, “Like Byron I have waked up & found myself famous.” Amazingly, he was even hired, by a congregation in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The job didn’t last. In abridged form, Meyer prints the Newburyport sermon of which Higginson was most proud. He delivered it on Thanksgiving 1848, shortly after most of his parishioners had voted for the Whig presidential candidate, the slaveholder and Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor. From the pulpit, Higginson berated the men and women who paid his salary for caring more about a tariff to protect Northern industry than about the millions living in slavery. “I cannot congratulate you on the reunion of families and the return of happy associates,” he preached, “without thinking of the very many families (of darker hue but light enough souls) to whom it brings no gleam of joy … because of the coalition you have just effected with their oppressor.” The congregants were offended. And they were hardly pleased when Higginson was nominated for a seat in Congress by the Free Soilers, when he invited the heretical Parker to give a guest sermon, or when he circulated a clemency petition on behalf of a Massachusetts black man convicted of murdering his parents. Within two years, the new minister was forced to resign.

“My (masculine) supporters,” Higginson explained to his mother, “are in a numerical minority.” In other words, the women liked him, and they liked him despite, or perhaps because of, his insistence on reform. This is fitting, because the second affinity that Higginson deeply felt, and deeply resisted, was to women.

In The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas described the uneasy alliance between ministers and women during the early nineteenth century. Both groups lost prestige and socio-economic power as the country industrialized, and business elevated secular concerns and slighted domestic ones. Both resorted to sentimentality for solace, and both found that moral suasion was almost the only tone of voice in which they could address the culture at large. The shared plight of clergymen and women led to a change in America’s literary culture. The women in the pews read magazines, and as magazines began to respond to women’s interests their circulation burgeoned. In their pages, the conservative and practical mores of businessmen could be set to one side, and reform and sentiment could be cultivated. When the recently unemployed Higginson chose to write for periodicals rather than seek a new congregation, he was taking part in a broad intellectual movement: the migration of the Unitarian reformist conscience into opinion journalism. Female readers made the migration possible; but since women could be writers as well as readers, their relation to belletristic ministers was at times competitive. And many wondered whether the new vocation of writing for women tarnished the clergy’s manliness.

Higginson returned to the pulpit between 1852 and 1857, when he served as pastor of the brand-new, hotly abolitionist Free Church of Worcester, Massachusetts. But he accepted the call because he knew that the radical congregation would support his development as a lecturer, an activist, and a writer. He no longer thought of himself as a minister. Struggling with religious doubt, in 1855 and 1856 he wrote an essay, “The Sympathy of Religions,” which argued that faith should be a light, not an anchor, to souls at sea. So broad was the essay’s ecumenical spirit that it seemed Higginson could even have dispensed with Christ, and certainly with Christians. In Worcester his literary career grew more and more secular—and more and more involved with women’s concerns.

It was an intimacy that Higginson found congenial. As a boy, he had been the youngest child in a predominantly female household, and one of his favorite books had been The Frugal American Housewife, a homemaker’s manual by the novelist and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. His support of women’s rights was early and fervent. He challenged Emerson to allow women into his Town and Country Club, and in 1853 he conspired with Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone to lead a feminist secession from the World Temperance Convention, which had barred women from its executive committees.

Higginson found it so easy to identify with a woman’s point of view that his Putnam’s Monthly account of scaling Thoreau’s Mount Katahdin in 1856 was written “in the assumed character of a lady of the party”. For fourteen years he edited and wrote for the Woman’s Journal, the weekly newspaper of the American Woman Suffrage Association. He once wrote in his diary that a projected “Intellectual History of Woman” would be “my magnum opus, if I can really ever get to it.” He never did, but before his death he donated nearly a thousand books on the subject, which he dubbed the Galatea Collection, to the Boston Public Library. Higginson’s professional involvement with the female sex was rewarding, but for many years his personal experience was not. A special poison sometimes accumulates in people shut out from power if they do not find a useful object for their anger. Higginson became intimate with the form that this poison sometimes took in nineteenth-century women, because he married someone as bitter as she was intelligent.

When he was just out of college, Higginson greatly admired his cousin Mary Elizabeth Channing, though he had already described her in his diary as having “a seeming want of softness but a fine heart,” and they married a week after his Newburyport ordination. It was not a happy match. Wentworth (like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller, he preferred to go by his middle name) wanted children, but Mary did not like to be around them. Like Emerson’s second wife, Mary was a caustic critic whose frustrations told in her own person. She suffered from neuralgia, chills, colds, strained eyes, rheumatism, and steadily worsening paralysis. In a well-researched biography that appeared in 1968, Tilden Edelstein reported this description by a visitor to the Higginson household in 1860: “Mrs. Higginson is very queer, a great invalid from rheumatism, a perfect mistress of the art of abuse, in which she indulges frequently with peculiar zest & enthusiasm.”

Wentworth admired the wit of his wife’s disparagements, which he relayed to friends and family in letters. Her health seems to have waned as her husband’s fame waxed, and she was touchy about it. “I didn’t mean to insult you dear by thinking you better,” Wentworth apologized to her in 1863, “but you seemed so.” Her father and brother-in-law were doctors, but she turned instead to non-standard treatments, including homeopathy, wet sheets, animal magnetism, electricity, and the water cure. Her husband became her attendant and nurse.

Mary’s illness seems to have obeyed an angry logic: if society rewarded a woman’s passivity and weakness, then she would earn through illness what her ambition could not procure. The example of feminists such as Stone and Anthony showed that in fact femininity did not have to be equated with passivity, but Mary was unable to follow their lead. In much that Higginson wrote during the early years of his marriage, he seems to have been addressing his wife’s health obliquely. In “Saints and Their Bodies,” his first essay for the Atlantic Monthly—an article whose “eclat … made it practically, in my case, the beginning of a literary life”—he attacked the “impression that physical vigor and spiritual sanctity are incompatible.” Preachers, artists, and writers ought to treat their bodies with respect, he insisted, because “physical health is a necessary condition of all permanent success,” including virtue. He recommended exercise: gymnastics, boxing, sailing, rowing, and especially swimming.

He was pleading for a redefinition of saintliness, for a goodness that could be active and strong. Meyer includes in his volume Higginson’s attack on tobacco; and other articles, not reprinted by Meyer, addressed diet, proper ventilation, the relation between health and civilization, and the importance of recess and vacations for children. “When an invalid once begins to enjoy the contemplation of his own woes,” Higginson wrote, “it is all over with him.” Was he advising his wife, or warning himself not to follow her example? Perhaps prophylactically, he set himself an austere physical regimen. During an 1855 trip to the Azores, undertaken for Mary’s health (which did not improve), every morning he asked the sailors to pour seawater on him as he stood on deck in his underwear. At age fifty, after decades of exercise, he reported in his diary that he could climb to the top of a rope in the gym using only his arms, a feat no other man his age could match. He pursued health as punishingly as Mary did illness. Like other radical abolitionists, he was training for war.


“Ever since the rendition of Anthony Burns, in Boston, I have been looking for men. I have found them in Kanzas,” Higginson wrote in 1856, in a series of letters to the New York Tribune that described his gun-running mission to the territory where free-soilers and pro-slavery men were killing one another. The slavery question was urgent to Higginson on purely moral grounds, but he plunged into militant abolitionism with a sense of relief that was highly personal. Here was an alternative to Transcendental detachment and feminine passivity; here was a reason to act as a man.

Good behavior, often associated with femininity and confused with passivity, could now be thrust aside. The Compromise of 1850, which required Northern states to return runaway slaves to their Southern owners, justified outlawry. In 1851, Higginson plotted with fellow vigilantes to spring the fugitive slave Thomas Sims from the Boston court house, without success. While in Worcester he assisted the Underground Railroad. In 1854, when the fugitive slave Anthony Burns was arrested, he bought a dozen axes and led an attack that broke down the Boston courthouse door with a battering ram. In the confusion a policeman was stabbed, and the rescue failed. But Higginson was undaunted.

In 1856, traveling under a pseudonym, he ran guns to Bleeding Kansas, where the settlers’ right to decide whether the new state would be slave or free had led to guerrilla war. In 1858 and 1859, he raised funds for John Brown, whom he described as “a high-minded, unselfish, belated Covenanter.” Though he was somewhat disingenuous later about what he knew and when he knew it, he proved to be stauncher than most of Brown’s other close supporters. He was the only one not to flee the country or check into a psychiatric hospital in the aftermath of Harpers Ferry.

“Amid the changes of time, the monotony of events, and the injustice of mankind,” Higginson wrote in one of his physical-culture essays, “there is always accessible to the poorest this one draught of enjoyment,—danger.” It is not hard to imagine why risk appealed to Higginson. Waiting at home were a sickly, querulous wife and a profession he scarcely believed in. Conventional virtue had lost its charms. “It is … strange,” he wrote in his diary, “to find one’s self outside of established institutions; to be obliged to lower one’s voice and conceal one’s purposes; to see law and order, police and military, on the wrong side, and find good citizenship a sin and bad citizenship a duty.”

In the Atlantic Monthly he published chronicles of slave revolts, including those of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey , and Nat Turner. In “The Maroons of Surinam,” he described Captain John Gabriel Stedman’s unsuccessful campaign to suppress rebel blacks in Surinam, and he was sympathetic to Stedman’s sexual attraction to and moral curiosity about the people he was supposed to subdue. “Stedman was struck,” Higginson wrote, “with the difference between the meaning of the word ‘good’ in rebellious circles and in reputable.” Virtue, among the Maroons, was martial rather than polite.

When Fort Sumter was fired on, however, Higginson did not immediately enlist. In “A Letter to a Young Contributor,” published in April 1862, he advised aspiring Atlantic Monthly authors not to rush off to war: “Be not misled by the excitements of the moment into overrating the charms of military life…. Never fancy for a moment that you have discovered any grander or manlier life than you should have been leading every day at home.” General Wolfe, he observed, died at Quebec wishing he had written Gray’s Elegy. In other words, stay home and write. Four months later, Higginson raised a company of white volunteers, and three months after that came the invitation to lead a troop of blacks. “I shld. hv. missed the best fortune of my life had I not come,” Higginson wrote to his mother. He had declined to take his own advice.

Among those who did take it was an Amherst poet in her early thirties named Emily Dickinson. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson asked. Her self-deprecation reads today as a sly dig, as if she foresaw that whatever occupied him would matter much less to later generations than her request. And it may have been a dig. After all, the following winter she made light of the danger he ran as a Civil War colonel: “I trust the ‘Procession of Flowers’ was not a premonition,” she wrote, turning the title of his latest nature essay into a funereal joke.

Higginson was indeed deeply occupied, but he found time to reply to Dickinson, and the good deed has not gone unpunished. Today he is more famous for failing to appreciate Dickinson, discouraging her from publication, and regularizing her verse than for any of his achievements. Of the first charge he is probably innocent. In 1891, he recalled that when he read the poems enclosed with Dickinson’s first letter, he had “the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius.” He never wrote to her as often as she would have liked, but the excuse he gave her in 1869 sounds honest: “I … feel always timid lest what I write should be badly aimed & miss that fine edge of thought which you bear. It would be so easy, I fear, to miss you.” He understood that she was beyond him. “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me,” he admitted after her death; “and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy.”

As for tidying up her style, he is probably less guilty than he is supposed. “I tried a little—a very little—to lead her in the direction of rules and traditions,” he remembered in 1891, “but … she interested me more in her—so to speak—unregenerate condition.” Higginson was a magazine writer, inured to heavy editing, which probably improved his prose (though he resented William Dean Howells’s rewrites at the Atlantic enough to move to Scribner’s Monthly in the 1870s). But as Anna Mary Wells pointed out in her lively 1963 biography of Higginson, he defended many of Dickinson’s unusual word choices to Mabel Loomis Todd, who co-edited with him the first two posthumous volumes of Dickinson’s poetry.

But Todd usually overruled Higginson. She was the Dickinsons’ neighbor, and he was under the misapprehension that she had the family’s unanimous support. He also seems to have been unaware that Todd had heavily revised Dickinson’s verse when making the copies she gave him. After the first collection was a success, Higginson urged her to edit more lightly: “Let us alter as little as possible now that the public ear is opened.”

Did he dissuade Dickinson from publishing while alive? He did. “I smile,” she wrote to him, “when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin—.” But even for this misdeed it may not be altogether fair to blame Higginson. It may be what she wanted from him. He was known for his support of young women writers; he was a mentor to Helen Hunt Jackson and Charlotte Hawes. Why would he have nurtured them and stifled Dickinson? According to her own testimony, she felt that he supported her. Twice, at an interval of ten years, she told him he had “saved my Life.”

For his part, he recalled his “not yets” as something she relied on—or prompted—him to say. “Sometimes,” he wrote in 1891, “her verses found too much favor for her comfort, and . . . I was sometimes put forward as a defense.” If she had wanted fame, he probably could not have resisted her, even if he had been spiteful enough to try. “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much,” he wrote of his 1870 visit to her. “Without touching her, she drew from me.” She could have chosen much worse. He saved her letters. In the end he saw her poems into print, and the scholars have long since indignantly undone whatever muddle he made. Without Higginson’s reportage, we would not have her famous definition: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry…. Is there any other way?”


Reporting is the strength of Army Life in a Black Regiment, Higginson’s most famous book. It was reprinted in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement renovated historians’ interest in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Meyer edited one of the versions still in print, and three chapters appear in The Magnificent Activist. Thanks to The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an impressively researched, well-organized edition by Christopher Looby, prepared with a thoroughness and respect that suggest a labor of love, we also have the raw material that Higginson drew on.

Raw, in Higginson’s case, is a relative term. In his essay on Stedman, Higginson wrote that in the rainforest the captain had “fortified himself against hopeless despair with Ovid and Valerius Flaccus, Pope’s Homer and Thomson’s ‘Seasons’.” Higginson fortified himself no less learnedly but somewhat less classically, even in his rough drafts. Here is his description of confiscated sheep: “Mr Obadiah Oldbuck, when he decided to adopt a pastoral life and assumed the provisional name of Thyrsis, never looked upon his flocks & herds with more unalloyed contentment than I on my flock of sheep.” As a footnote by Looby explains, the allusion is to a fairly obscure American novel. Unfortunately, it tells the reader nothing about his sheep, and about Higginson himself it reveals only that he was a bit of a show-off and liked to sound clubby.

Beneath the ornamentation, however, Army Life in a Black Regiment has facts. Until the capture of South Carolina’s Sea Islands by the Union in 1861, the black field hands there had been living in greater isolation and under poorer conditions than slaves on the mainland, and Higginson records their folkways in detail. He notes their distinctive dialect: they call whites “buckras” and refer to women and men alike as “he.” When Higginson sets the word “Fredericksburg” as a countersign, they change it to “Crockeryware.” He transcribes the lyrics of their “shouts,” or spirituals, sung nightly around fires in huts.

Higginson also has an eye for the human drama of emancipation, such as the reunion of a black corporal with the woman who used to own him. “Ah,” the former mistress observes, when Higginson introduces Corporal Robert Sutton, “we called him Bob!” After this comment, Sutton gives Higginson a tour of the slave jail on her plantation. But even when his vignettes are pointed, Higginson’s style is quaint and glassy. Allusions to minstrel shows and the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe obscure the blacks’ personalities. Fondly, condescendingly, and repeatedly, he compares them to children: “the dear blundering dusky darlings,” he writes in his diary.

Whites do not come into much sharper focus. Lieutenant Colonel Charles T. “Scroby” Trowbridge was with the black troops before Higginson and remained with them after. “Scroby has been all things,” Higginson writes, “from Bowery boy to Methodist class leader,” and one senses that Trowbridge had charisma. But in Higginson’s pages he never quite comes alive. In Army Life in a Black Regiment, only the author himself has complexity and depth. Indeed, at several points in his diary, Higginson admits that he is strangely indifferent to the individual fates of his soldiers. “The death of a man does not seem to affect my sensibilities in the slightest degree,” he writes; “it does not reach me.” Like Francis Ayrault in his dream, Colonel Higginson controls the fate of everyone in the landscape around him, but he sees them, and cares about them, only hazily.

At his worst, Higginson seems guilty of caring more about appearances than about men, rather like Melville’s chilly Captain Vere, who praised “forms, measured forms” and hanged Billy Budd. When Higginson refers to a fellow officer as “a martinet & a moralist,” he intends it as a compliment. Being a good disciplinarian, he explains to his mother, is “three quarters of a Colonel.” And more unsettlingly, where Vere enjoyed the white, girlish beauty of Billy Budd, Higginson’s “gymnasium-trained eye” appreciates with a similar hint of eros the “splendid muscular development” of his African American troops, lauding their “jet-black, or rather, I should say, wine-black” complexions. “The strongest men in my regiment,” writes Higginson, “have arms which would make the fortune of an English belle, in all but color, round & satiny, without a trace of hair.”

Yet Vere’s formalism served reactionary ends, and Higginson’s had a revolutionary purpose. It was not difficult to train former slaves to obey white officers; it was hard to teach them to obey black ones, and to respect themselves. Higginson insisted on protocol to show that military authority, unlike the racial authority to which the freedmen were accustomed, was deliberately artificial: “We impressed it upon them that they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers.” The black soldier who responded to an insult by pointing to his chevrons and declaring “Dat mean Guv-ment” had understood Higginson’s lesson that respect was due to a uniform, not a skin-color.

How, then, to explain Higginson’s interest in skin-color? With a scholar’s tact, Looby is chary of interpretation in his edition of Higginson’s diary, but elsewhere he has speculated about what he calls Higginson’s “proto-Mapplethorpean” tendencies. Looby refuses—rightly, I think—to demonize the colonel’s sexual response: “Higginson,” Looby writes, “shows us how political solidarity across racial boundaries may be grounded in an erotics of race.” I am not sure, however, that Higginson’s admiration of black bodies—and perplexity about his own white one—stem from desires quite as self-aware as Mapplethorpe’s.

Consider, for example, the most revealing chapter in Army Life. Late at night, alone, Higginson strips naked and swims a channel that separates his camp from a neighboring Confederate one. Midstream, he is exhilarated by the freedom and the danger of his adventure, then embarrassed by a “feeling of turgescence and congestion” in his head. After spying on the enemy’s sentinels, he swims underwater. He surfaces, disoriented. He panics briefly, but at last he reaches the Union shore, somewhat downstream from where he left it. Challenged by a black guard, he rises “at full length out of the shallow water, to show myself a man and a brother.” With this phrase, Higginson alludes to a famous abolitionist emblem—a kneeling slave in manacles who asks, “Am I not a man and a brother?”—but he is also indicating that the guard could see his sex.

In other words, he is identifying with the freedman while flashing him. The scene is provocative, but my hunch is that recognition is as much as Higginson wanted from the black guard. The swim itself is what he was after: the disembodied floating, the diffuse ecstasy, the awkward largeness of his head, the exemption from affiliation, the suspension between two camps—Higginson was symbolically returning to the womb, to be reborn as a man.

I say to be reborn as a man because, as it turned out, the army hadn’t quite made him one. While still in Worcester, the all-male dancing of his white soldiers had suggested to Higginson “the felicity of Adam before Eve appeared.” In this paradise, however, Higginson himself turned out to be the effeminate serpent. As a leader, he inclined toward a maternal fastidiousness. He joked self-consciously that “military life becomes millinery life” when commanders are too finicky about costume and ritual. But he admitted in his diary that “I like to perfect details always and fuss over my Camp as I used to do over a vase of flowers or an Atlantic article.”

He was nice rather than decisive. On his third expedition with the First South Carolina Volunteers, Higginson was supposed to blow up a bridge on the Edisto, but he lost time, a tugboat, four men, and two twelve-pound guns by pausing to rescue escaping slaves instead of speeding upriver. When his ship came under artillery fire on the way back to camp, he was grazed by a “piece of wood or . . . spent shell,” which left behind it a bruise and the scent of death. A week later, another white colonel of black troops, the younger and more dashing Robert Gould Shaw, was shot down and buried in a trench with his black soldiers. Shaw became a martyr.

Higginson must have envied Shaw’s glory. He almost never wrote about the younger man without repeating an unflattering anecdote about a conversation in which Shaw had speculated that if black soldiers proved reluctant to fight, they could be forced into battle by stationing whites to fire on them from the rear. And Higginson found it hard to face his own less than glorious survival. Although his bruise appeared to the doctors to be no more than a bruise, he became an invalid. His symptoms were ambiguous. “Nobody can find anything but ‘General Debility,'” he told his mother; Charlotte Forten wrote in her journal that Higginson was “not really ill, but very much reduced in strength.” After a three-week furlough in Worcester, he returned to South Carolina, again became ill (from malaria, he now believed), and in the end he accepted a six-month sick leave, which became indefinite. As he explained to the wife whose fate he now feared he would share, “I can understand a gradual sliding into slippers & dressing gown, far better than formerly.”

He joined Mary in Newport, where she had moved, against his wishes, to be near relatives. Her illness soon trumped his. Toward the end they would quarrel fiercely about whether to open or shut the bedroom window at night. In her last year he would take to clipping newspaper articles about “Crimes Against Women” and stashing them in an issue of the Edinburgh Review.


With slavery abolished, Higginson looked to new causes and new interests to reprieve him from nursing duty. In 1865 he convinced Newport’s school committee to integrate the public schools. Later in the decade he became deeply involved in the movement for women’s suffrage, then feuding over the Fifteenth Amendment. If Wells guesses right, he also managed to have an affair with the poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson.

And he wrote, prolifically. He edited two volumes of obituaries of Harvard’s Civil War dead. He revised a classic translation of Epictetus—a favorite, he boasted, of Toussaint L’Ouverture. (Higginson was probably more amenable to stoicism than L’Ouverture; as the ironic young Henry James sharply observed in the North American Review, a slave who adhered to Epictetus’s philosophy would be cheerfully quietist.) He finished and pieced together the magazine articles that became Army Life in a Black Regiment. But his major undertaking in Newport—“so attractive to me that were it to be my ruin in fame and fortune I should still wish to keep on”—was a novel called Malbone.

Malbone was an old Newport family name, but Higginson probably chose it not for local color but because Philip Malbone, his anti-hero, is a puzzling mix of bad and good, of mal and bon. “There was for him something piquant in being … neither innocent nor guilty,” Higginson writes, “but always on some delicious middle ground.” Malbone is a seducer; he means no harm, but cannot resist yielding to the vicissitudes of his “multivalve heart.” Both men and women find themselves drawn in by “this charming Alcibiades.” His morals are loose in part because his character was overstrained by long attention to a sickly, slow-dying mother.

Strict virtue’s partisan is Aunt Jane, a fifty-four-year-old spinster of “honest, steady, immovable dislikes.” She has hated Malbone literally since before he was born. “Of course he is lovable,” she snaps in an early scene, “and that is why I dislike him…. He ought to wear a label round his neck marked ‘Dangerous,’ such as they have at other places where it is slippery and brittle.” The antagonism between the fluxional, Byronic young man and the skeptical, joyless old woman is electric.

The novel’s plot, unfortunately, has little to do with their clash. Malbone is engaged to Aunt Jane’s niece Hope. As a favor to the family, he recently retrieved Hope’s half-sister Emilia from Europe, where she is said to have been in danger of eloping. He lured her back the only way he knew how—by flirting—and she has fallen in love. And so has he. To provoke him to break his engagement with Hope, Emilia becomes engaged to an amiable but dull businessman, whom Aunt Jane likens to “boiled potatoes.” Malbone fails to act, and Emilia marries. “There is no passion in your veins,” she reproaches him; “it is only a sort of sympathetic selfishness.” Thanks to a secret stairwell, they become lovers, adulterously, and are discovered by Hope. Melodramatically and somewhat confusingly, Emilia then suffers the fate of Margaret Fuller: her European lover shows up to reclaim her, just in time for her to die in a shipwreck within sight of shore.

As the second Mrs. Higginson noted in both of the books that she wrote about her husband after his death, Aunt Jane was a portrait of the first Mrs. Higginson—as acerbic as in real life, and only five years older. As Higginson himself explained in his autobiography, Philip Malbone was modeled on a friend from divinity school named William Henry Hurlbert—“a young man so handsome in his dark beauty that he seemed like a picturesque Oriental; slender, keen-eyed, raven-haired, he arrested the eye and the heart like some fascinating girl.” A native of South Carolina, Hurlbert had strong whims and many talents. He left the ministry for law, then journalism. He changed his name (it was originally Hurlbut) because he liked the way a stationer once misspelled it. He wrote poems and hymns, and he is probably the friend mentioned in Army Life who sang spirituals to Higginson long before the Civil War.

Like Higginson, Hurlbert started out a fervent abolitionist. In his sensuous travelogue Gan-Eden; or, Pictures of Cuba—a book lush with adjectives and tripping with subordinate clauses—he relates that it was “truly humiliating” when Cubans assumed that he, as an American, would take the pro-slavery side in an argument. But in 1862, after he escaped from a long confinement by Confederate vigilantes in Virginia, he switched to the Democratic Party, and in 1864 he sided with McClellan against Lincoln. He defected from The New York Times to the New York World, where he became the anti-Horace Greeley, harassing pious progressive causes for the next two decades in a pro-capitalist style praised by one fellow journalist as “exuberant, unscrupulous, and remarkable.” He died in Italy in 1895 with a warrant out for his arrest on charges of perjury.

Since he lived by his wits and not by his principles, Hurlbert generally fascinated. Theodore Winthrop and Charles Kingsley also wrote novels about him; and in Winthrop’s book, Cecil Dreeme, the Hurlbert character turns out to be a woman in disguise. Philip Malbone ends badly, but Higginson refused to condemn Hurlbert, despite his fickleness. “I never loved but one male friend with passion—and for him my love had no bounds,” Higginson told his second wife. Even after Hurlbert ceased to answer his letters, Higginson continued to write him monthly. “Still, O changing child,” ran one letter, “out of the depths of my charity I still believe in you and out of the depths of my heart I still love you.”

From more than a century’s distance, it is hard, and maybe futile, to try to distinguish an erotic attachment from a longing for a style of self admired but never dared. Yet I doubt that Higginson had much interest in sexual love between men. He remarried at the age of fifty-five, a year after his first wife’s death, and his second marriage seems to have been as happy as his late writing was respectable and voluminous. He may not even have known that men could have sex. In The Nation in 1892, he regretted the lack of “personal and romantic love” in Whitman’s poetry, noting that “the object always turns out to be a man and not a woman”; he seems innocent of any idea why Whitman would make the substitution. He thought Whitman “unmanly” chiefly because during the Civil War he had served as a hospital volunteer rather than a soldier. The bard’s pit-bull-like defender, William Douglas O’Connor, answered the charge forcefully: “Better be a good nurse like Walt Whitman, than a nondescript warrior like the Rev. Col. Higginson.”

Like “The Monarch of Dreams,” Malbone suggests what Higginson might have been by its compromises rather than by its achievements. What if Philip Malbone had been more courageous in his badness? What if he had been willing to go to hell for Emilia, as Huck was for Jim, or if he had been willing to go to hell merely for his own sake? As it is, he goes to Europe and “a manhood of self-denying usefulness.” Like its anti-hero, the novel loses its nerve, because Higginson, who loved Hurlbert and disapproved of Whitman, could not make up his mind to be so rebellious and unconventional. He resisted his dreamy, womanly self to the end.

And yet he knew it was the best thing in him—worth writing a novel about. As Edelstein reports in his biography, the critics lampooned Malbone for its feminine style. “If this book had been published anonymously,” an English reviewer wrote, “we should have said that it was written by an American lady who had carefully studied George Sand and Nathaniel Hawthorne.” But Higginson knew different. “I have fineness,” he wrote in his diary, “but some want of copiousness & fertility.” His genius, he understood, had not been feminine enough.