Journal of Educational Controversy


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Who was Ella Higginson? Award Winning Professor Argues for the Recovery of Lost Voices

Editor: Professor Laura Laffrado, an English professor at Western Washington University and new JEC editorial board member, has just published a new book, Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature. Her book raises an important question for our readers to ponder.  What other writers need to be recovered in the literary canon and why have they been lost?  We invite our readers to join the conversation by contributing their thoughts.

Meet Me at the Intersection of Lost Voices and Education: The Ella Higginson Project
Laura Laffrado
Western Washington University 
In recent years my scholarly time has been devoted to bringing public notice to the life and writings of Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862?-1940), the first prominent literary author from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Higginson has been forgotten as a key American writer. Yet she was once so internationally celebrated for her writing that she was said to have put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map. However, by the time she died in 1940, most of her work was out of print and both she and her writing were almost completely forgotten. Higginson and her work had disappeared from literary history.

In order to recover Higginson and her writing, I needed to persuade editors, interviewers, publishers, scholars, readers, and others that it mattered that Higginson’s voice had been lost. The unstated question I was expected to answer was this: why should anyone (else) care about the works of one long-dead Pacific Northwest white woman? Behind that question loomed a larger one: why make the effort to reclaim any works by any forgotten writers? After all, numerous writings by a range of authors are widely available. Many once neglected works have already been brought back to prominence. We already have plenty. Why do we need more? Though I had long held firm opinions on such subjects, I needed now to become especially fluent in arguing convincingly about the significant value of overlooked writers and writing. In what follows, I discuss my project to recover the works of Ella Higginson and how my efforts both furthered my thinking and reinforced my concerns about the intersection of lost voices and education.

Long before she was forgotten, Higginson was the best-known Pacific Northwest writer of her day. During the turn from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, readers across the United States were introduced to the remote Pacific Northwest region by Higginson’s descriptions of majestic mountains, vast forests, and scenic waters, as well as the often difficult economic circumstances of those dwelling near Puget Sound. Higginson wrote poetry, fiction, nonfiction, essays, newspaper columns, novels, and screenplays. Her work appeared in all the leading periodicals of the day such as the Atlantic, Harper’s Bazar, and McClure’s Magazine. Her primary publisher was the prestigious Macmillan Company in New York. She was extensively praised both nationally and internationally for her writing. Many of her poems were set to music by well-known composers and performed by celebrated dramatic singers such as Enrico Caruso. As a crowning honor, in 1931, Higginson was named the first Poet Laureate of Washington State.

Given Higginson’s popularity over decades, her prolific writing, and the glowing reviews of her work, one might think that a voice such as hers would not, could not, disappear. Yet disappear it most certainly did. The conditions that led to Higginson’s removal from the literary record as well as the long neglect of her work are the same conditions that regularly determine the diminishment of certain kinds of writers and their writings. Higginson’s case may be seen as a model for understanding what writers and writing tend to be cast off from the body of valued American literature.

                Large cultural reasons played a substantial role in the downward spiral of Higginson’s career. Most significantly, the advent of the First World War, which occurred at the height of Higginson’s popularity, shifted what was produced and purchased in the United States. The resulting decrease in book publication caused many books, including Higginson’s, to go out of print very quickly. As a result Higginson’s prominence dramatically diminished. She was, of course, not alone in this. Many writers experienced a similar eclipse of literary success during the war.

                To compound this collapse, after the war had ended, literary tastes begin to shift. Such changes were guided by editors, publishers, and university professors, nearly all of whom were professional white men. In their capacity as cultural agents, these men, directed by various biases and assumptions, primarily promoted works written by other white men. Consequently, the works of most once-popular US women authors, first out of print because of the war, now remained out of print. As a result, women’s writing in general received dramatically less attention than it had in earlier decades.

Personal circumstances also impacted the ruin of Higginson’s career. Higginson, a widow without children, expected her estate to be managed after death by her niece, her heir and only close surviving relative. But a little more than two months after Higginson’s own death, her niece died unexpectedly. Her death delivered a significant blow to the possibilities of Higginson’s writings and reputation being preserved and promoted. No one remained to perform such crucial work.

Taken together, all these conditions helped to reinforce the neglect of Higginson and her work. Other women writers and writers of color were similarly impacted by war, shifting production, and less normative personal circumstances. Though exceptions do exist, in general, authors who were not white men of higher class status found that their literary voices were no longer sought out or published.

After many years passed, the later decades of the twentieth century saw a welcome rise of scholarly attention to much neglected United States writing. At that time and in the years since, the texts and the literary reputations of many authors have been valuably recovered. However, Higginson and her writings were overlooked during this period. Higginson’s location, remote from the regions of the writers with whom she was classed in her lifetime, became an additional factor in her neglect. While authors who had been part of more populated regions were recovered, Higginson, from the remote turn of the century Pacific Northwest, remained forgotten.

But that is no longer the case. Higginson’s name and work are now, at last, returning to public notice. This very welcome occurrence has emerged from a mix of newspaper articles, television interviews, scholarly essays, and public lectures that focused on Higginson and her writing. Most significantly, a book that I have edited, Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature, has just been published, bringing Higginson’s work back into print for the first time in decades. Higginson’s writing is important today for a variety of reasons, one of them being that her writing introduced the world to the Pacific Northwest. With the new availability of Higginson’s writing, a crucial piece of the diversity of American literature has been reinstated.

But I am here to tell you that such retrieval is not an endeavor for the faint-hearted. Daunting forces hinder recovery, among them prevailing assumptions regarding what constitutes literary writing, extensive archives that must be navigated, vast databases that must be searched, and the limits of the 24-hour day. Even if you manage to succeed in such work, you will not, as with most things education-related, reap large or even small financial rewards. But having said that, you may find that your tenacity will result in other kinds of compensation. Each success in the recovery of neglected authors and their writing adds a little more diversity to the accepted body of American literature. While such work does not put money in the bank, it does enrich the greater educational endeavors to which we devote ourselves.

As I say, I had always advocated for lost voices in the classroom and in my work. However, in recovering Ella Higginson, I came to recognize more forcefully that when voices are lost or censored, education inevitably becomes more dangerously and damagingly narrow. In losing voices, we lose what those voices represent, who they speak for and who and what they speak about. Many times after a voice is lost, we are unaware that such a voice ever spoke at all. This is a crucial point. We never simply lose one voice. With every loss, the historical, literary, and cultural records are reshaped and inevitably made more restrictive. They become more homogenous—whiter, richer, more male, more heterosexual, more able-bodied, more Northern, more Protestant. When voices are lost and when we permit them to remain lost, the richness of our shared past is significantly depleted and the diversity of the material that we teach is radically diminished.

 Laura Laffrado is an award-winning Professor of English at Western Washington University. Her most recent book is Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature.


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