Reviewed by Joel Brouwer
Sunday, August 3, 2008
The Friendship of Emily Dickinson
And Thomas Wentworth Higginson
By Brenda Wineapple
Knopf. 416 pp. $27.95
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 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 antislavery 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.