RECORD: Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. [1872-1878]. [Recollection of Darwin]. In Higginson, 1900. Cheerful yesterdays. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, pp. 283-86.
REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by Kees Rookmaaker 11.2010. RN1
NOTE: Part of this recollection is reprinted in Thomas Glick, What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010.
I visited Darwin twice in his own house at an interval of six years, once passing the night there. On both occasions, I found him the same, but with health a little impaired after the interval,—always the simple, noble, absolutely truthful soul. Without the fascinating and boyish eagerness of Agassiz, he was also utterly free from the vehement partisanship which this quality brings with it, and he showed a mind ever humble and open to new truth. Tall and flexible, with the overhanging brow and long features best seen in Mrs. Cameron's photograph, he either lay half reclined on the sofa or on high cushions, obliged continually to guard against the cruel digestive trouble which haunted his whole life. I remember that at my first visit, in 1872, I was telling him of an address before the Philological Society by Dr. Alexander J. Ellis, in which he had quoted from Through the Looking Glass the description of what were called portmanteau words, into which various meanings were crammed. As I spoke, Mrs. Darwin glided quietly away, got the book, and looked up the passage. "Read it out, my dear," said her husband; and as she read the amusing page, he laid his head back and laughed heartily. It was altogether delightful to see the man who had revolutionized the science of the world giving himself wholly to the enjoyment of Alice and her pretty nonsense. Akin to this was his hearty enjoyment of Mark Twain, who had then hardly begun to be regarded as above the Josh Billings grade of humorist; but Darwin was amazed that I had not read "The Jumping Frog," and said he always kept it by his bedside for midnight amusement. I recall with a different kind of pleasure the interest he took in my [Civil War] experience with the colored race, and the faith which he expressed in the negroes. This he afterward stated more fully in a letter to me, which may be found in his published memoirs. [...]
Darwin's house at Beckenham was approached from Orpington station by a delightful drive through lanes, among whose tufted hedges I saw the rare spectacle of two American elms, adding those waving and graceful lines which we their fellow countrymen are apt to miss in England. Within the grounds there were masses of American rhododendrons, which grow so rapidly in England, and these served as background to flower-beds more gorgeous than our drier climate can usually show.
At my second visit [May 1878] Darwin was full of interest in the Peabody Museum at Yale College and quoted with approval what Huxley had told him, that there was more to be learned from that one collection than from all the museums of Europe. But for his chronic seasickness, he said, he would visit America to see it. He went to bed early that night, I remember, and the next morning I saw him, apparently returning from a walk through the grounds—an odd figure, with white beard, and with a short cape wrapped round his shoulders, striding swiftly with his long legs. He said that he always went out before breakfast—beside breakfasting at the very un-English hour of half-past seven—and that he was also watching some little experiments. His son added reproachfully, "There it is: he pretends not to be at work, but he is always watching some of his little experiments, as he calls them, and gets up in the night to see them." Nothing could be more delightful than the home relations of the Darwin family; and the happy father once quoted to me a prediction made by some theological authority that his sons would show the terrible effects of such unrighteous training, and added proudly, looking round at them, "I do not think I have much reason to be ashamed."
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), American clergyman and abolitionist.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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