New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor Brenda Wineapple's highly engaging biography White Heat examines the poet's enduring friendship with editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
NPR logo

New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/94235765/94235868" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor

Review

Book Reviews

New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor

New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/94235765/94235868" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
'White Heat'

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

Read an excerpt.

Brenda Wineapple is also the author of Hawthorne: A Life. hide caption

toggle caption

Conventional wisdom has it you can tell a lot about a person by the company he or she keeps. But, what if posterity makes a big mistake in judging a famous somebody's friends; wouldn't that blunder then trigger a huge misreading of the chief person of interest? There you have the reasoning underlying Brenda Wineapple's fascinating new book, White Heat, which explores the relationship between Emily Dickinson and one of her closest confidants, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

For decades, Higginson has been derided by Dickinson scholars and fans as a kindly oaf, a Victorian man of minor letters damned with a tin ear. It was Higginson, after all, who helped edit Dickinson's poems for their posthumous debut publication. To make them palatable to readers of the time, Higginson fed Dickinson's five-alarm poems about passion and death and the afterlife through the Victorian de-flavorizing machine, watering down their off-beat punctuation and vocabulary.

Back to conventional wisdom again: The fact that Dickinson originally requested the stodgy Higginson's literary guidance in 1862, when he was a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly magazine and she was a "Nobody," surely testifies to her naïveté, her "recluse of Amherst " otherworldliness.

Balderdash! says Brenda Wineapple. While Higginson may not have been the defiant editor that Dickinson's poetry deserved, neither was he a wimp. Among other attributes, Higginson was a fierce advocate for women's rights, a staunch supporter of John Brown, and the commander of the first Union regiment of African-American soldiers during the Civil War — a unit that predated the far more famous Massachusetts 54th, led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson may not have entirely "gotten" the enigmatic Dickinson — who does? — but, nevertheless she told him in a letter that he was "the Friend that saved my Life. " In White Heat, Wineapple sets out to restore to Dickinson the brave friend and literary adviser that she had the sense to seek out. In re-injecting the moxie back into Higginson's veins, Wineapple also gives Dickinson more juice.

Wineapple opens her superb account of this friendship with the famous letter the 31-year-old poet sent to the 38-year-old Higginson after he had written what you might call an advice column in The Atlantic Monthly addressed to hopeful contributors. The letter began: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude--. " Wineapple takes off from that fateful moment, tracing the separate and intertwined lives of the friends, who, by the way, only met twice. (Higginson recalled that he had never met anyone "who drained my nerve power so much.") As Wineapple details, Higginson bolstered the poet, offering her a critical sounding board, as well as entry to the wider world of politics and events in which he moved.

The only thing unavoidably lacking in Wineapple's account are Higginson's letters to Dickinson, which vanished after her death — another mystery among the multitude surrounding this cipher. But, Wineapple is a shrewd reader of the letters that do exist, as well as of the poems. Indeed, as much as it's a highly engaging critical biography, White Heat is a book for anyone who just wants to revel in acrobatic language — Dickinson's, it goes without saying, but also Higginson's and Wineapple's own. Here, for instance, is a passage in which Wineapple turns away from the progression of her biography to mediate on Dickinson:

As the woman in white, savante and reclusive, shorn of context, place and reference, she seems to exist outside of time, untouched by it. And that's unnerving. No wonder we make up stories about her . . . And when we turn to her poems, we find that they, too, like her life, stop the narrative. Lyric outbursts, they tell no tales about who did what to whom in the habitable world. . . . [P]erhaps they unsettle us so — because Dickinson writes of experiences that we, who live in time, can barely name.

That assessment verges near the circumference of hocus pocus, but treads gently back. As White Heat illuminates, not only was Emily Dickinson lucky to find a loyal, perceptive friend in Thomas Higginson, but she also continues to be graced with astute and eloquent biographers.

Excerpt: 'White Heat'

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
By Brenda Wineapple
Hardcover, 416 pages
Knopf
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.

Books Featured In This Story