As a specialist in early U.S. literature, Laura Laffrado knows that once-famous women writers sometimes fall into puzzling obscurity. She also knows that some of those writers have won new attention in recent decades.
But not Ella Higginson of Bellingham.
Sure, some people in these parts have an inkling of who Higginson was. She was once Washington's poet laureate. She wrote a famous poem about a four-leaf clover. She has a memorable grave marker in Bayview Cemetery. And Higginson Hall at Western Washington University is named for her, maybe.
When Laffrado, an English professor at Western, began researching Higginson nearly a year ago, she was dumbstruck that someone who had once received soaring critical and popular acclaim had fallen so far off the literary map.
"At the beginning of the 20th century, she was the great Ella Higginson," Laffrado said. "By 1940 she is forgotten entirely."
The more Laffrado has delved into Higginson's life and works, the more determined she has become to resurrect interest in her. She plans to write scholarly articles about Higginson, will push to have Higginson's writings brought back into print, and hopes to one day see a statue of Higginson erected in Bellingham.
"She was an international figure in American literature," Laffrado said. "Some of her stuff is absolutely hilarious. When it's not hilarious, it's deeply moving."
Laffrado has acquired numerous copies of Higginson's books and has read them closely. Despite being a century old, Higginson's stories remain fresh, serious and engaging, she said.
Born in Kansas in 1861, Higginson moved with her family to Oregon when she was a child. Her first published poem appeared in an Oregon newspaper when she was 14.
She married Russell Higginson, a pharmacist, in 1885 and they moved to Bellingham Bay three years later. With her husband active in the business world, Higginson wrote full time - articles, short stories and poems, including "Four-Leaf Clover," which first appeared in 1890.
In 1894, one of her short stories won a contest and appeared in McClure's magazine, a national publication. The magazine printed extra copies and the run of 80,000 sold out quickly.
"They knew there would be high demand," Laffrado said.
Collections of Higginson's short stories and poems soon appeared, followed by a novel, "Mariella; of Out-West," in 1902, and a non-fiction book, "Alaska," in 1909.
Reviews compared Higginson to the great writers of her and earlier generations.
"If there were any negative reviews, I haven't found any," Laffrado said. ""She was totally famous."
Smart, funny and hardworking, Higginson also was active in the community. She helped found Bellingham's first library, worked for women's rights, and was campaign manager for Frances Axtell of Bellingham, one of the first two women elected to the Washington Legislature, in 1912.
Higginson was named a member of "Who's Who in America" in 1923 and was named Washington's poet laureate in 1931, nine years before she died.
But stuck in a far corner of the country with no dedicated disciples or children of her own to lobby on her behalf, Higginson faded as a prominent figure in literature, a decline that may have left her bitter.
"You can see how bewildering it must have been," Laffrado said.
If it were still around, Higginson's house at High and Pine streets might qualify for landmark status, Laffrado said, but it was torn down in 1960 to make room for Western's Viking Commons.
"You could compare what happened to her house to what happened to her writing," she said. "There was no one to care for it."
People with books, photographs, artifacts or information by or about Ella Higginson are encouraged to contact Laura Laffrado at 360-650-2886 or Laura.Laffrado@wwu.edu.
Test your knowledge of Bellingham writer Ella Higginson.
(1) Her best-known poem is "Four-Leaf Clover." What location inspired the poem?
A. Her back yard.
B. The orchard where Orchard Terrace condominiums are now located.
C. A meadow at the future site of Fairhaven Park.
(2) Higginson suggested what change to marital laws?
A: People should be at least 30 before they can marry.
B. Divorce should be made easier.
C. Multiple spouses should be permitted.
(3) Poems by Higginson were put to music. Who performed one of them?
A. Justin Bieber
B. Judy Garland
C. Enrico Caruso
(4) In reviews, Higginson's work was favorably compared to which other writers?
A: Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.
B. Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola.
C. All of the above.
(5) Higginson Hall was named to honor:
A. Ellen Higginson's literary career.
B. Higginson and her husband's support for WWU.
C. A major donor to Western's foundation.
(6) What is inscribed on Higginson's grave marker?
A. "Yet, am I not for pity - trembling I have come face to face with God."
B. "If you work, if you wait, you will find the place where the four-leaf clovers grow."
C. "Nobody is forgotten when it is convenient to remember."
Answers: 1. B 2. A 3. C 4. C 5. B 6. A
Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.