NPR logo Excerpt: 'White Heat'

Excerpt: 'White Heat'

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
By Brenda Wineapple
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95

"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" Thomas Wentworth Higginson opened the cream-colored envelope as he walked home from the post office, where he had stopped on the mild spring morning of April 17 after watching young women lift dumbbells at the local gymnasium. The year was 1862, a war was raging, and Higginson, at thirty-eight, was the local authority on physical fitness. This was one of his causes, as were women's health and education. His passion, though, was for abolition. But dubious about President Lincoln's intentions — fighting to save the Union was not the same as fighting to abolish slavery — he had not yet put on a blue uniform. Perhaps he should.

Yet he was also a literary man (great consolation for inaction) and frequently published in the cultural magazine of the moment, The Atlantic Monthly, where, along with gymnastics, women's rights, and slavery, his subjects were flowers and birds and the changing seasons.

Out fell a letter, scrawled in a looping, difficult hand, as well as four poems and another, smaller envelope. With difficulty he deciphered the scribble. "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?"

This is the beginning of a most extraordinary correspondence, which lasts almost a quarter of a century, until Emily Dickinson's death in 1886, and during which time the poet sent Higginson almost one hundred poems, many of her best, their metrical forms jagged, their punctuation unpredictable, their images honed to a fine point, their meaning elliptical, heart-gripping, electric. The poems hit their mark. Poetry torn up by the roots, he later said, that took his breath away.

Today it may seem strange she would entrust them to the man now conventionally regarded as a hidebound reformer with a tin ear. But Dickinson had not picked Higginson at random. Suspecting he would be receptive, she also recognized a sensibility she could trust — that of a brave iconoclast conversant with botany, butterflies, and books and willing to risk everything for what he believed.

At first she knew him only by reputation. His name, opinions, and sheer moxie were the stuff of headlines for years, for as a voluble man of causes, he was on record as loathing capital punishment, child labor, and the unfair laws depriving women of civil rights. An ordained minister, he had officiated at Lucy Stone's wedding, and after reading from a statement prepared by the bride and groom, he distributed it to fellow clergymen as a manual of marital parity.

Above all, he detested slavery. One of the most steadfast and famous abolitionists in New England, he was far more radical than William Lloyd Garrison, if, that is, radicalism is measured by a willingness to entertain violence for the social good. Inequality offended him personally; so did passive resistance. Braced by the righteousness of his cause — the unequivocal emancipation of the slaves — this Massachusetts gentleman of the white and learned class had earned a reputation among his own as a lunatic. In 1854 he had battered down a courthouse door in Boston in an attempt to free the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1856 he helped arm antislavery settlers in Kansas and, a loaded pistol in his belt, admitted almost sheepishly,

"I enjoy danger." Afterward he preached sedition while furnishing money and morale to John Brown.

All this had occurred by the time Dickinson asked him if he was too busy to read her poems, as if it were the most reasonable request in the world.

"The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask — " she politely lied. Her brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, lived right next door, and with Sue she regularly shared much of her verse. "Could I make you and Austin — proud — sometime — a great way off — 'twould give me taller feet — ," she confided. Yet Dickinson now sought an adviser unconnected to family. "Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me," she told Higginson, "I should feel quick gratitude — ."

Should you think my poetry breathed; quick gratitude: if only he could write like this.

Dickinson had opened her request bluntly. "Mr. Higginson," she scribbled at the top of the page. There was no other salutation. Nor did she provide a closing. Almost thirty years later Higginson still recalled that "the most curious thing about the letter was the total absence of a signature." And he well remembered that smaller sealed envelope, in which she had penciled her name on a card. "I enclose my name — asking you, if you please — Sir — to tell me what is true?" That envelope, discrete and alluring, was a strategy, a plea, a gambit.