The deep and distant friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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 After Dickinson’s death, when her huge cache of unpublished poems was discovered, Higginson helped to edit and prepare them for publication.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.