Western Washington University professor Laura Laffrado pens a belated obituary for once-famed writer Ella Rhoads Higginson.
Obituary: Ella Rhoads Higginson
Pioneer author of Pacific Northwest literature
Editor’s note: Despite her illustrious career and path-blazing literary achievements, Ella Higginson received only a small obituary in The Seattle Times upon her death in 1940. The Times regrets this historical oversight, and asked Higginson researcher Laura Laffrado, a professor of English Literature at Western Washington University, to correct the record.
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In 1931, Ella Rhoads Higginson was named the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, a crowning honor of a celebrated literary career. Decades earlier, Higginson had been the most influential Pacific Northwest literary writer in the United States.
People across the nation and around the world were introduced to the Pacific Northwest when they read Higginson’s award-winning poetry and prose. Her descriptions of the majestic mountains, vast forests and scenic waters of the Puget Sound presented the then-remote, unfamiliar Pacific Northwest to eager readers.
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Her distinctive characterizations of people who inhabited the region revealed what it was like to live in this part of the country as opposed to well-known regions such as New England. Higginson’s acclaimed writings were the very first to prominently place the Pacific Northwest on the literary map of the United States.
Ella Rhoads was born on Jan. 28, 1861, or 1862, in Council Grove, Kan. When she was a child, the family moved to Oregon, a journey of eight months by horse-drawn carriage. She grew up in Oregon, and in 1885 married Russell Carden Higginson (cousin of New England abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson). The couple moved north to New Whatcom (later Bellingham), where they resided for the remainder of their lives.
Higginson began publishing her writing as a young woman, first locally and then nationally. “Four-Leaf Clover,” her most well-known poem, attracted wide attention. Prominent New England author Sarah Orne Jewett wrote, “It is exquisite! I like it best of all!” Higginson’s fiction soon won national literary prizes, and her poems were set to music by notable composers and recorded by celebrated dramatic singers. The Macmillan Company, the most elite publisher in the United States, approached Higginson, seeking to publish her work.
Macmillan subsequently issued most of her books, including her foundational novel of the Pacific Northwest, “Mariella, of Out-West,” which reviewers compared to novels by Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola. The Chicago Tribune praised her writing as having “a breadth of treatment and knowledge of human verities that equals much of the best work of France” and proclaimed, “Ella Higginson has the hallmark of genius.” A prolific author, Higginson wrote more than 800 works.
Throughout her career, Higginson also wrote for newspapers and magazines. Her inaugural column for West Shore, of Portland, drew national notice for its provocative argument that women should marry later in life. In the early 20th century, at the peak of her career, Higginson penned a weekly column, “Clover Leaves,” for The Seattle Times. The celebrated, widely reprinted column ran for four years.
Though fiercely devoted to writing, Higginson also periodically participated in Washington State politics, most notably as campaign manager for Frances C. Axtell, cousin of President Grover Cleveland. Axtell credited Higginson’s leadership with her successful election as one of the first of two female members of the Washington state Legislature.
Higginson died on Dec. 27, 1940. Her self-designed granite monument is engraved with four-leaf clovers and inscribed, “ELLA HIGGINSON, POET-WRITER.”