Thomas Wentworth Higginson on William Batchelder Greene

Two fragments from Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Cheerful Yesterdays (Boston, 1898)

[William B. Greene at Harvard Divinity School – pages 106-107]

Two of the most interesting men in the Divinity School were afterward, like myself, in military service during the Civil War. One of them was James Richardson, whom Frothingham described later as “a brilliant wreath of fire-mist, which seemed every moment to be on the point of becoming a star, but never did.” He enlisted as a private soldier and died in hospital, where he had been detailed as nurse. The other had been educated at West Point, and had served in the Florida Indian wars; he was strikingly handsome and mercilessly opinionated; he commanded the first regiment of heavy artillery raised in Massachusetts, did much for the defense of Washington in the early days of the Civil War, and resigned his commission when Governor Andrew refused to see justice done–as he thought–to one of his subordinates. His name was William Batcheldor Greene.

[The Town and Country Club – pages 172-176]

I had previously written an article for the “North American Review,” another for the “Christian Examiner,” and three papers in prose for “Putnam’s Magazine,” one of these latter being a description of a trip to Mount Katahdin, written as a jeu d’esprit in the assumed character of a lady of the party. A few poems of mine had also been accepted by the last-named periodical; but these had attracted little notice, and the comparative eclat attendant on writing for the “Atlantic Monthly” made it practically, in my case, the beginning of a literary life. I was at once admitted to the Atlantic Club, an informal dinner of contributors in those days, and at first found it enjoyable. Before this I had belonged to a larger club, rather short-lived, but including some of the same men,–the Town and Country Club, organized in 1849, at Boston. The earlier club had no dinners; in fact, it erred on the side of asceticism, being formed, as Emerson declared, largely to afford a local habitation and dignified occupation to Mr. Alcott. Had its christening been left to the latter, a rhetorical grandeur would have belonged to its very opening; for he only hesitated whether the “Olympian Club ” or the “Pan Club” would be the more suitable designation. Lowell marred the dignity of the former proposal by suggesting the name “Club of Hercules” as a substitute for “Olympian;” and since the admission of women was a vexed question at the outset, Lowell thought the “Patty Pan” quite appropriate. Upon this question, indeed, the enterprise very nearly went to pieces; and Mr. Sanborn has printed in his “Life of Alcott” a characteristic letter from Emerson to myself, after I had, in order to test the matter, placed the names of Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Lowell Putnam–Lowell’s sister, and also well known as a writer–on the nomination book. Emerson himself, with one of those serene and lofty coups d’etat of which only the saints are capable, took a pen and erased these names, although the question had not yet come up for decision, but was still pending when the erasure was made. Another vexed subject was the admission of colored members, the names of Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond being proposed. This Lowell strongly favored, but wrote to me that he thought Emerson would vote against it; indeed, Emerson, as he himself admitted to me, was one of that minority of anti-slavery men who confessed to a mild natural colorphobia, controlled only by moral conviction. These names were afterwards withdrawn; but the Town and Country Club died a natural death before the question of admitting women was finally settled.

That matter was not, however, the occasion of the final catastrophe, which was brought on by Falstaff’s remediless disease, a consumption of the purse. Ellery Channing said that the very name of the club had been fatal to it; that it promised an impossible alliance between Boston lawyers, who desired only a smoking-room, and, on the other hand, as he declared, a number of country ministers, who expected to be boarded and lodged, and to have their washing done, whenever they came up to the city. In either case, the original assessment of five dollars was clearly too small, and the utter hopelessness of raising any additional amount was soon made manifest. After the club had existed six months, a circular was issued, asking the members to remit, if possible, two dollars each before April 4, 1850, that the debts of the club might be paid, and their fellow members “be relieved from an unequal burden.” This sealed the doom of the enterprise, and “the rest is silence.” It is now far easier to organize a University Club on a fifty or one hundred dollar basis than it was then to skim the cream of intellectual Boston at five dollars a head. The fine phrase introduced by Mr. Alcott into the constitution, “the economies of the club,” proved only too appropriate, as the organization had to be very economical indeed. Its membership, nevertheless, was well chosen and varied. At its four monthly gatherings, the lecturers were Theodore Parker, Henry James the elder, Henry Giles (then eminent as a Shakespeare lecturer), and the Rev. William B. Greene, afterwards colonel of the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. Among the hundred or more members, there were well-known lawyers, as Sumner, E. R. Hoar, Hillard, Burlingame, Bemis, and Sewall; and there were clergymen, as Parker, Hedge, W. H. Channing, Hill, Bartol, Frothingham, and Hale; the only non-Unitarian clergyman being the Rev. John O. Choules, a cheery little English Baptist, who had been round the world with Commodore Vanderbilt in his yacht, and might well feel himself equal to any worldly companionship. The medical profession was represented by Drs. Channing, Bowditch, Howe, and Loring; and the mercantile world by the two brothers Ward, Franklin Haven, William D. Ticknor, and James T. Fields. Art appeared only in John Cheney, the engraver, and literature in the persons of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, and Whipple. These five authors were contributors to the “Atlantic Monthly,” and took part also in the early dinners of the Atlantic Club.