How a formerly ‘lost’ literary giant just might help us find our way forward

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TO READERS, one of the abiding mysteries about our work, especially in the nonbreaking-news world of magazine writing, seems to be how it is we settle on a subject. In the case of our piece about “lost” Northwest literary giant Ella Higginson of Bellingham, appropriate amounts of serendipity were involved.

At different times, the driving force behind this story, Western Washington University English professor Laura Laffrado, and I each have spent more time than we like to recount in the same historical archive. My work focuses on the Depression-era political scandal that claimed the career of former Western President Charles H. Fisher. Laffrado’s is an ongoing project to “recover” the work of Higginson. The two subjects were contemporaries; some of our related research characters overlapped.

Comparing notes on these long-departed souls impressed upon both of us the complexity of applying modern political sensibilities to historic figures. We wound up hosting a fascinating panel discussion at WWU earlier this year about public memorials and namings, in the wake of the spate of “un-namings” of monuments across the country — including a bridge in Bellingham formerly named after Civil War Maj. Gen. George Pickett. Everyone learned a lot that day about historical context.

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There should be no such controversy involved in honoring the legacy of Higginson. Her long-forgotten work unquestionably deserves the boost in attention it’s now receiving, thanks to the tireless efforts of Laffrado, one of those rare academics who clearly lives to teach her research, rather than seeing teaching as a necessary evil to publish.

Higginson indeed never got her due, nor, regrettably, even a proper obituary in The Seattle Times, for whom she once worked. Our story, we hope, helps correct, in some small way, that oversight.

But the restoration of Higginson’s legacy serves a higher purpose: It’s sparking the imagination of countless students, people who will lead us into the future with important context, through Higginson’s writings, about who we Pacific Northwesterners, particularly women, have been in the past — and who we want to be moving forward. People and place matter.