White Heat

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

By

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.

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.

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“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.”

Higginson was a married man, bound to an invalid wife who was irritated, at best, by this new connection. (“Why do the insane cling to you?” she asked him.) Higginson may have been “half in love,” Wineapple speculates, with “this strange woman,” but to Wineapple’s credit she never pushes any conclusions. “I cannot reach you,” he tells his bewitching correspondent, “but only rejoice in the rare sparkles of light.”

Then, in the summer of 1870, after eight years of correspondence, Higginson found himself near Amherst and stopped by the Dickinson home. Emily greeted him, dressed all in white, with two daylilies in her hand. They would meet in person only once again, after the death of his wife. “I am glad not to live near her,” he concluded. No one else, he said, had ever “drained my nerve power so much.”

But Dickinson poured much of herself into her correspondence with Higginson, and it is largely through these letters that we know her today. After Dickinson’s death, when her huge cache of unpublished poems was discovered, Higginson helped to edit and prepare them for publication. His efforts to “tidy up” her unusual punctuation and structure earned him a reputation as a philistine in later years, but Wineapple is quick to defend him, pointing out that “language like this had never been seen before; nothing like it, really, every appeared again.”

One of the great pleasures of “White Heat” is the portrait of Higginson that it offers. An idealistic, somewhat melancholy being, he was an abolitionist and womens’ rights advocate with distinguished intellectual and activist credits to his name. (Thoreau once called him, “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.”)

During the Civil War Higginson commanded the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves and spent the rest of his life remembering his soldiers with deep affection. In 1869, his essays on the war published in The Atlantic Monthly were collected in a book called “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” a work that Wineapple calls “a minor masterpiece.”

“White Heat” is also an engaging glimpse of an era and yet another attempt to fathom the world that surrounded Emily Dickinson. But what is most touching in this book is its graceful depiction of an emotional and intellectual bond between an admirable man and a remarkable woman, a tie that “neither of them expected or wanted ... to lead anywhere specific.” Directionless though it might have been, to travel with Dickinson and Higginson down the road of their friendship is a rich and satisfying journey.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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