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New Biography Takes 'Heat' Off Dickinson Editor

Brenda Wineapple is also the author of <em>Hawthorne: A Life.</em>
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Brenda Wineapple is also the author of <em>Hawthorne: A Life.</em>

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.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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