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White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
"Poetry and biography work at cross-purposes. Even when their facts overlap, one is artifice of the imagination, the other a record of the mortal coil. Poems convince us of a living presence on the page; biography, as Emily Dickinson noted, "first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied." When chronicling the lives of poets, though, it seems inevitable that some measure of poetry creeps in. Dickinson, whose neighbors in Amherst called her "the Myth," is a perfect example of a subject whose ambiguities encourage a meshing of the genres." Ange Mlinko, The Nation (read the entire Nation review)
Synopses & Reviews
The first book to portray one of the most remarkable friendships in American letters, that of Emily Dickinson—recluse, poet—and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, minister, literary figure, active abolitionist.
Their friendship began in 1862. The Civil War was raging. Dickinson was thirty-one; Higginson, thirty-eight. A former pastor at the Free Church of Worcester, Massachusetts, he wrote often for the cultural magazine of the day, The Atlantic Monthly—on gymnastics, womens rights, and slavery. His article “Letter to a Young Contributor” gave advice to readers who wanted to write for the magazine and offered tips on how to submit ones work (“use black ink, good pens, white paper”).
Among the letters Higginson received in response was one scrawled in looping, difficult handwriting. Four poems were enclosed in a smaller envelope. He deciphered the scribble: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
Higginson read the poems. The writing was unique, uncategorizable. It was clear to him that this was “a wholly new and original poetic genius,” and the memory of that moment stayed with him when he wrote about it thirty years later.
Emily Dickinsons question inaugurated one of the least likely correspondences in American letters—between a man who ran guns to Kansas, backed John Brown, and would soon command the first Union regiment of black soldiers, and the eremitic, elusive poet who cannily told him she did not cross her “Fathers ground to any House or town.”
For the next quarter century, until her death in 1886, Dickinson sent Higginson dazzling poems, almost one hundred of them—many of them her best. Their metrical forms were unusual, their punctuation unpredictable, their images elliptical, innovative, unsentimental. Poetry torn up by the roots, Higginson later said, that “gives the sudden transitions.”
Dickinson was a genius of the faux-naïf variety, reclusive to be sure but more savvy than one might imagine, more self-conscious and sly, and certainly aware of her outsize talent. “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat?” she wondered. She dared, and he did.
In this shimmering, revelatory work, Brenda Wineapple re-creates the extraordinary, delicate friendship that led to the publication of Dickinsons poetry. And though she and Higginson met face-to-face only twice (he had never met anyone “who drained my nerve power so much,” he said), their friendship reveals much about Dickinson, throwing light onto both the darkened door of the poets imagination and a corner of the noisy century that she and Colonel Higginson shared.
White Heat is about poetry, politics, and love; it is, as well, a story of seclusion and engagement, isolation and activism—and the way they were related—in the roiling America of the nineteenth century.
"In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a noted man of letters and radical activist for abolition and women's rights, asking if he would look at her poems. He did and recognized immediately their strange power. As Wineapple points out in this brilliant study, Dickinson's letter marked the blossoming of a complicated lifelong friendship. Although the two met face-to-face only twice, Higginson found Dickinson's explosive poetry seductive. Drawing on 25 years' worth of Dickinson's letters (Higginson's are lost), Wineapple contests the traditional portrait of her as isolated from the world and liking it that way. In her poems and her letters, Wineapple shows, Dickinson was the consummate flirt, a 'sorceress, a prestidigitator in words.' Wineapple resurrects the reputation of Higginson, long viewed as stodgy in his literary tastes (he reviled Whitman) yet who recognized Dickinson's genius and saw her work as an example of the 'democratic art' he fervently believed in. As Wineapple did previously with Hawthorne (Hawthorne: A Life), she elegantly delves into a life and offers rich insights into a little-known relationship between two of the late — 19th century's most intriguing writers. 32 photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In April 1862, the famously private Emily Dickinson sent a startlingly forthright letter to the writer and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The poet didn't know Higginson personally, but she knew his reputation as a champion of women writers, and she'd read his "Letter to a Young Contributor" in that month's Atlantic Monthly, in which he'd offered advice to beginning authors. She enclosed four... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) poems and a card with her name on it in its own envelope, as if to supply Higginson with the means to reply. Her letter got straight to the point: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" Thankfully, he was not. And thus began a robust correspondence that continued until Dickinson's death in 1886 and that constitutes one of our richest sources of insight into the nearly unknowable poet who wrote the poems we know so well. Brenda Wineapple, award-winning author of biographies of Janet Flanner, Gertrude and Leo Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne, brings a scholar's diligence and a novelist's imagination to her account of Dickinson and Higginson's relationship, crafting a tour de force that should delight specialists and casual readers alike. The book's individual strands of inquiry — Higginson's life, Dickinson's poems, the letters that passed between them, and the historical, political and artistic contexts of the age — are interesting in and of themselves, but when intertwined so as to inform and strengthen each other, they're fascinating. Before reading "White Heat," I thought of Higginson — if I thought of him at all — as the eminently ordinary man to whom Emily Dickinson wrote those beautiful letters. But Wineapple sensibly suggests that America's foremost literary genius must have had some reason to seek this particular person's approval. For one thing, as Wineapple quickly makes clear, Higginson was far from ordinary. The product of a venerable New England family, he received a predictably excellent education and made a predictably good marriage, but his adamant moral conscience made a predictable life impossible. After Higginson led an attempt to free a captured slave held in Boston's Court House, Thoreau praised him as "the only Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, Unitarian minister, and master of seven languages who has led a storming party against a federal bastion with a battering ram in his hands," a distinction I imagine Higginson holds to this day. He ran guns to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas, helped John Brown plot his attack on Harper's Ferry and commanded the Civil War's first regiment of freed slaves. He threw himself with comparable vigor into the struggle for women's rights, making plans to write an "Intellectual History of Women" and serving as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. How could I not have known any of this? Higginson himself is partly to blame. He tended to downplay his activities as subordinate to his writing; the life of the mind meant more to him than extraordinary deeds. In that "Letter to a Young Contributor," which appeared the very month Confederate and Union troops suffered more than 23,000 casualties in the Battle of Shiloh, he suggested that writing a single great poem was more significant than any battlefield accomplishment. A contemporary critic wrote that Higginson was "too much a moralist to lose himself in literature ... and too much of a litterateur to throw himself into reform." Higginson may well have agreed. He pasted the review into his scrapbook. Wineapple believes it was exactly this ambivalence that drew Dickinson to Higginson, and him to her. Dickinson saw in Higginson a contemplative soul reluctantly compelled to action; he saw her as a dynamo, brimming with intensity, who understood her gift would be best served by solitude. These twin conflicts, Wineapple shrewdly notes, are quintessentially American, since we tend to see ourselves as "a country alone, exceptional ... that regularly intervenes on behalf, or at the expense, of others. The fantasy of isolation, the fantasy of intervention: they create recluses and activists, sometimes both, in us all." Wineapple is a tremendously versatile and sensitive writer, and she elucidates her subjects' subtleties with authority and grace. She conjures up vivid scenes but never oversteps the historian's duty to fact, dispenses an enormous amount of documentary information without ever overburdening her narrative, and interprets Dickinson's often challenging poems with eloquence and lucidity. Not a biography, history or literary analysis, yet something of each, "White Heat" amply demonstrates that indirect illumination sometimes casts the brightest light. Joel Brouwer is the author of the poetry collections "Exactly What Happened," "Centuries" and the forthcoming "And So." He teaches at the University of Alabama. Reviewed by Joel Brouwer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Brenda Wineapple is the author of Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner; Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein; and Hawthorne: A Life, winner of the Ambassador Award of the English-Speaking Union for Best Biography of 2003. Her essays and reviews appear in many publications, among them The New York Times Book Review and The Nation. She has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at Columbia University and The New School.
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