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White Heat

The deep and distant friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

By / August 16, 2008



The Boston neighborhood in which I live encompasses an almost undisturbed patch of Victoriana. Huge, sleepy mansions line streets that stretch from a Unitarian church of somber stone up to a dark Episcopalian basilica set on a hill. Were Emily Dickinson to turn up on our block tomorrow – apart from the cars and utility poles – there would be almost nothing to surprise her.

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The surprises, I suspect, would all be on our side.

The Dickinson found in the pages of Brenda Wineapple’s intelligent, delightful White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson is aggressive, sexy, furious, flirtatious, subtle, witty, and very much in control. That is, except when she is timid, morbidly sensitive, reclusive, childlike, and decidedly odd.

“White Heat” is packed with contradictions, and Wineapple is a writer skilled enough to embrace these rather than to puzzle over them. The author of previous biographies (of Nathaniel Hawthorne,  Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Janet Flanner), Wineapple tells us from the start that here she is attempting neither biography nor literary criticism. Instead, she hopes to “throw a small, considered beam” on a remarkable friendship between “two unusual, seemingly incompatible friends.”

Dickinson and Higginson exchanged hundreds of deeply personal letters over the course of almost a quarter of a century and yet met face to face only twice in their lives. They had a friendship “based on absence, geographic distance, and the written word,” writes Wineapple, and yet “somehow these two people created out of words a nearness we today do not entirely grasp.”

Their connection began in 1862, seemingly on a whim, when the 31-year-old Dickinson wrote to the 38-year-old Higginson – whom she knew only by reputation as a writer for The Atlantic Monthly – sending him a handful of her poems and asking, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”

Higginson was stunned by what he read (“even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered,” he wrote, many years after Dickinson’s death) and immediately offered a friendly response. “The hand you stretch to me in the Dark,” she answered in turn, “I put mine in.”

And so a friendship was launched.

Most of Higginson’s letters to Dickinson were lost (or perhaps destroyed by her sister) so it is largely through Dickinson’s writings to him that we are able to enter into their connection. Being “coy but not capricious,” Wineapple tells us, Dickinson describes herself to her new friend as the “only Kangaroo among the Beauty.” When he asks for a portrait, she says she has none but offers a verbal sketch instead; “small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur – and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.”

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