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White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 12, 2008
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a noted man of letters and radical activist for abolition and women's rights, asking if he would look at her poems. He did and recognized immediately their strange power. As Wineapple points out in this brilliant study, Dickinson's letter marked the blossoming of a complicated lifelong friendship. Although the two met face-to-face only twice, Higginson found Dickinson's explosive poetry seductive. Drawing on 25 years' worth of Dickinson's letters (Higginson's are lost), Wineapple contests the traditional portrait of her as isolated from the world and liking it that way. In her poems and her letters, Wineapple shows, Dickinson was the consummate flirt, a sorceress, a prestidigitator in words. Wineapple resurrects the reputation of Higginson, long viewed as stodgy in his literary tastes (he reviled Whitman) yet who recognized Dickinson's genius and saw her work as an example of the democratic art he fervently believed in. As Wineapple did previously with Hawthorne (Hawthorne: A Life), she elegantly delves into a life and offers rich insights into a little-known relationship between two of the late–19th century's most intriguing writers. 32 photos. (Aug. 13)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
Critics embraced this new angle on the life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s best-loved poets but also one of the most difficult to understand. While the subject of the book may seem rather narrow, reviewers claimed that Wineapple’s excellent narrative and literary sensibilities keep White Heat from becoming overly obscure. Only the Boston Globe faulted Wineapple for reading too vaguely between the lines, literally, of Dickson and Wineapple’s correspondence and for rehashing older material. Overall, however, the result is a book that balances literary criticism, biography, and history, while never straying too far from the few available facts about Dickinson and her life.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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No doubt that is something like what Thomas Wentworth Higginson dimly perceived, himself a wannabe poet, from the first day he set eyes on some highly eccentric (by the standards of the time) poetry included in a letter from the unknown spinster daughter of a very good Amherst Massachusetts family, writing to ask whether literary lion Higginson was "too deeply occupied" to spare her a few words of poetic mentorship. Higginson wrote back with some prosaic advice on how Emily might strive to make her work more publishable, together with an admonition not to attempt publication until she succeeded, thus launching a decades-long correspondence that ran right up to Emily's death in 1886.
In all those years, Emily never actually took any of Higginson's advice, Higginson never published any of her poetry, and the two only met in person twice, on occasions that could not have been very gratifying to either of them. During all that time, Emily maintained her coy pose as "nobody,"a recluse shut away from the world in her upstairs bedroom, living through her books and a fits-and-starts production of poetry that she rarely showed to anyone but family and dearest friends and never sought to publish. As to "who" Higginson was, Harvard educated Boston Brahmin Universalist minister, Abolitionist, Feminist, radical Activist, Civil War commander of the first Union black regiment, featured Atlantic Monthly writer and prominent literary critic, it would seem a question that Higginson himself spent most of his restlessly eventful career trying to answer, as very much a man of his hyperambitious times. It was a question that Emily, quintessentially agnostic backwoods nobody who also happened to be a delphic poetess for the ages with a genius standing somewhere entirely outside historical time, and who probably had Higginson's number from day one, could probably have answered for him with a bulls-eye accuracy, had she ever chosen to do so. For all that it was Higginson's own exertions that made him historically important, it was only his tenuous connection with Emily that, ironically, made him immortal.
As such, it may look to us today, in history's wrong-end-of-the-telescope retrospect, like a totally frivolous hookup between these two very different characters, a mere distraction in the strange career of a poetic genius about whom we are always wishing we knew more. It is on this point that Brenda Wineapple steps in with an insight almost as telling as Emily's own might have been, to show how wrong we are to take the correspondence as unimportant or a mere distraction in either of their careers. Rather, it would seem that Emily, at least, knew exactly what she was doing, and her genius profited by it, even if not in any way that Higginson might have intended. It was an intellectual flirtation or courtship, the kind Emily preferred, the coquettish quality of which totally mesmerized Higginson and played him like a fish for decades, no physical contact necessary. In fact, when they did finally meet in the flesh, on the occasion of a visit by Higginson to Emily's Amherst home, the encounter seemed to completely unnerve the both of them.
In the end, Higginson did finally man up and give his peculiar protege her due. Not only did he eulogize Emily at her funeral, but he ultimately helped edit, regularized, and played a key role in the publication of, a posthumous collection of her poetry that astonished all concerned by flying off the shelves as an immediate best seller. Today, of course, when contemporary taste tends to prefer Emily's poetry just as she wrote it, in its purest form, much of Higginson's editorial workmanship looks rather like a travesty upon great art, a lacy brassiere on the Venus de Milo, and I still wince every time I spot Emily's "Because I could not stop for Death--" orthographically tarted up, editorially tweaked and made-over as "The Chariot." What we may forget, of course, is the vote of thanks inevitably owed Higginson and others, inasmuch as, by the standards of the time, chances are that Emily's reinventions of the English language, without the aid of such ham-handed handiwork, might not have been publishable at all, meaning that it would all have disappeared into history's black hole and we wouldn't have it today.
As to Emily Dickinson, her oeuvre, and the many circumstantial sidelights cast upon it, the literary and critical corpus waxes enormous as her name and fame only grow over the decades since her death. Though not all of the books are good, some are indeed good and useful, and a very few offerings can truly be called great. Brenda Wineapple's specially insightful contribution to the corpus is uniquely admirable and must rank as an example of that latter class.
Emily Dickinson "the Belle of Amherst" Massachusetts wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson a letter asking if he thought her poetry was worthy of being published. He wrote her that her work was excellent. Thus from the early 1860's until her death the two were ardent pen pals
Higginson was a man of letters, an abolitionist who worked with John Brown on the latter's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, a U.S. Congressman and an advocate for Women's Rights. Higginson was also the first commander of the African-American regiment the First South Carolina which fought at Fort Wagner in the summer of 1863.
Dickinson corresponded with Higginson until she died in 1886. They met only a few times and their relationship was platonic. Dickinson was red headed and freethinking regarding spirituality. Higginson was deeply involved in the transcendalist circle of Concord Mass. He knew such literary giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowe and Henry David Thoreau. Dickinson would not leave her well to do family's property while Higginson traveled to Europe and saw combat in the Civil War in which he was injured. Higginson wed twice but was probably in love with Dickinson as was she with him.
Brenda Wineapple is one of our finest American Literature scholars. She is especially good at:
a. Examining many of Dickinson's poems with a skilled eye.Emily Dickinson's poems were directly related to her life experiences in her sequestered old maidish milieu.
b. Wineapple also looks at the literary efforts of Higginson whose best writing was in his political articles defending freedom for slaves and supporting women in their long fight for the vote and social justice.
c. Wineapple is very familiar with Concord, Amherst and Harvard where much of the story of her two subjects was played out overe several decades. She explores the dynamics of both her subjects home lives.
Emily was the middle child of an austere set of parents. Her father was a congressman and Emily visited Washington DC. Her younger sister Vinnie
was a complex person as was Emily's older brother Austin. Austin became involved in an affair with Mrs. Mabel Dodge. The two eventually married. Dodge and Higginson worked hard in their joint effort to have Dickinson's poems published> In this they succeeded though they often disagreed on how the poems should be presented to the poem and what version to use in the printed book. There were also disuptes within the family regarding the arduous publishing of Emily's work. During her life only two of the poems had been published. Following her death is was Dodge and Higginson who got her poems in print beginning her journey to literary fame.
d. The author is good at explaining the New England literature in mid-nineteenth century American culture. We eat, sleep, write and dream with Dickinson. We also follow the amazing career of Thomas Wentworth Higginson a good man who fought for freedom for the downtrodden.
Emily Dickinson is not the tiny little wimp many people believe her to have been! Rather, she was a bold explorer of the use of language and her unorthodoxy was brave in a culture of conformity.
This is an excellent volume which is essential in understanding the genius of Dickinson and how she reached out to the world through her poetry and letters. Recommended.