“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.’ ”
Maureen Corrigan, “New Biography Takes ‘Heat’ Off Dickinson Editor,” NPR Fresh Air, September 3, 2008.
“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.
Emily Dickinson stops my narrative. For 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: about her lovers, if any, or how many or why she turned her back on ordinary life and when she knew of the enormity of her own gift (of course she knew) and how she combined words in ways we never imagined and wished we could.
And when we turn to her poems, we find that they, too, like ther life, stop the narrative. Lyric outbursts, they tell no tales about who did what to whom in the habitable world. Rather, they whisper their wisdom from deep, very deep, within ourselves. And perhaps these poems plunge down so far—perhaps they unsettle us so—because Dickinson writes of experiences that we, who live in time, can barely name.