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Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95 (cloth)
In The Love Affair as a Work of Art, Dan Hofstadter writes: “The intimate letter can be, among other things, a hand surrogate. The pen flourishes on an envelope call to mind its sender’s touch, and the paper’s small size and pleasant texture flatter the hand of the receiver. Once the letter is opened, its message can suggest the warm pressure of a palm.”
The sex appeal of the letter might explain why the opening pages of Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson hold the reader in voyeuristic thrall: “Out fell a letter, scrawled in a looping, difficult hand, as well as four poems and another, smaller envelope. With difficulty he deciphered the scribble. ‘Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?’” The “he” is Thomas Wentworth Higginson; the scribbler, of course, is Emily Dickinson.
In beginning her narrative with this scene, Wineapple foreshadows the provocative argument of her book, which subverts the conventional assumption that Higginson’s most active intervention in Dickinson’s life transpired after her death, when he famously undertook the heavy-handed editing of her poems. Instead, White Heat argues not only for the plausibility but also for the deep importance (to Dickinson and Higginson, and to literary history) of a friendship that, once activated by Dickinson, evolved and deepened in the course of a nearly twenty-five-year correspondence. Wineapple’s book, in the author’s own words,
attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incompatible friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them.
In Wineapple’s telling, the poet first sought Higginson (after reading his advice to young writers, published in The Atlantic Monthly) for his talents as a reader and established critic, and later (after “a tender bond had sprung up between them”) for emotional sustenance. After her death, Dickinson’s brother claimed that she “posed in her letters to Higginson”; Wineapple similarly suggests that Dickinson’s correspondence might have been a medium for affectation—initially of novicehood, and then of intellect and courage, in addition to sexuality—as much as candor. For Higginson’s part, his “dependence on her, his infatuation, his downright awe of her strange mind” is unquestioned by Wineapple: she portrays him as “intrigued, perhaps half in love (or so he may have fancied), and doubtless moved by this strange woman.” If her performance in her letters did not entrance him, he surely saw that the “poetry was more than a performance, however incandescent; it was transcendent, white-hot, volcanic.”
White Heat is divided into three parts: “Before,” “During,” and “Beyond the Dip of Bell.” “During” spotlights the period of Dickinson and Higginson’s correspondence and, consequently, forms the book’s most engrossing section. In it, Wineapple masterfully finds the drama in a story that, like a late Henry James novel, eschews dramatic event: Dickinson and Higginson only met twice. And while Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson is laced with the same sexuality, or performance of sexuality, that Wineapple finds in Dickinson’s poems, White Heat is careful not to overstate the role that sexuality might have played in the friendship:
Totemic assumptions about Emily Dickinson and Thomas Higginson do not for a moment let us suppose that she, proffering flowers and poems, and he, the courtly feminist, very much married, were testing the waters of romance. But about their correspondence is its faint hint or, if not of that, then of a flirtation buoyed by compassion, consideration, and affection.
Steering well clear of the salacious, White Heat gives credence both to the idea that Dickinson purposefully chose Higginson to be her “preceptor,” and that Higginson, the chosen, is a more nuanced figure than previous writers have (often scathingly) suggested—he is ultimately, in Wineapple’s estimation, “a very good man.” But although Wineapple demonstrates more affection for Higginson than others have, readers looking for new and exciting answers to the question “Why him?” may be disappointed. Higginson emerges as a figure more useful than remarkable:
Accused by the cadres of scholars who wish she had contacted a more prescient correspondent, like one of them, Higginson was a vigorous, liberal advocate of women writing, women voting, women educated and free, self-respecting and strong. Of this Dickinson had been amply aware for a very long time. She took what she needed and discarded the rest.
Wineapple claims “he was unlike all other men,” but Higginson is unlike all other men because Dickinson chose him. And chose to create him: “No droopy supplicant, drab and forlorn, she can create her own interlocutor just by imagining him, which she, in part, will do.” The Dickinson in Wineapple’s reconstruction of this relationship—the Dickinson who applied herself to the lively envisioning of Higginson’s interior life—is a woman who, while living, firmly retained the upper hand.
Wineapple’s superb grasp of nineteenth-century American history, especially literary history, allows her to sumptuously recreate Higginson’s somewhat peripatetic, if not dilettantish, career—as an undergraduate at Harvard; as a conflicted young minister in Massachusetts; as a traveling activist; as the leader of the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves in South Carolina during the Civil War; as the dutiful husband attending to the health of his first wife in Newport, Rhode Island. Higginson’s mobility counterpoints Dickinson’s immobility: after completing her first year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, she came home and stayed. Her stillness is, paradoxically, what makes her elliptical: “She was allowed to return, and the rest is history—or, since history depends on historical record, speculation.” In lieu of imagining Dickinson in a place, the nonfiction writer must imagine Dickinson in a place in her mind—which, as Wineapple confesses, is no easy task. “Emily Dickinson stops my narrative,” she writes. Dickinson is known as much for being a recluse—anchoritic, eccentric, dressed in white for no earthly marriage—as for her poems, which means that not much is really known about Dickinson at all.
Wineapple quotes generously from Dickinson’s poems and, although White Heat is concerned more with history than close reading, Wineapple often uses the poems (not just those sent to Higginson) as instruments for understanding Dickinson’s friendship with Higginson, assuming the friendship as “a context for particular poems,” and interpreting the poetry in light of the personal life developing alongside it. But the poems are difficult, and Wineapple’s necessarily cursory readings are sometimes awkward. Here, for instance, is a gloss of “I saw no Way — The Heavens were stitched —”: “The poetic ‘I’ is alone in the universe, intrepid though a speck upon a ball. Yet she does see a way (poetry) that extends beyond time (the ‘Dip of Bell’).” Such readings reinforce Wineapple’s own warning: “when we turn to [Dickinson’s] poems, we find that they, too, like her life, stop the narrative.”
“Beyond the Dip of Bell,” the third and final section of White Heat, chronicles the, by now, quite well-known story of the publication of Dickinson’s poems—discovered by her sister Lavinia, “normalized” by Higginson, possessively championed by Mabel Loomis Todd. In these final pages Higginson emerges, thanks to Wineapple’s attentiveness, as a sympathetic figure, if not a sympathetic editor. In a sense the story has already ended by the time of the poems’ publication. Dickinson is dead, and what transpired between her and Higginson is over.
But what, finally, did their conversation amount to? In spite of Wineapple’s elegant reconstructions, we will never fully know. Although the letters summon Dickinson’s voice, if not always her presence, only half of her epistolary conversation with the outside world survives: when Dickinson died, her sister destroyed all of the letters Dickinson had received, including those from Higginson. The extant correspondence is a monologue and, being Dickinson’s, an elusive one at that. While Wineapple beautifully envisions what their correspondence might have looked like, it is its irretrievability that this book finally evokes.
If the great divide of writing runs between fiction and fact, or between fiction and what is nowadays optimistically known as ’nonfiction,’ then letter writing doesn’t know where it stands, and never has. When a brilliant but confused letter writer convinces himself that he’s in love with somebody, is he or isn’t he?
Beginning with the title itself, White Heat begs the question that Wineapple cannot answer: were Higginson and Dickinson in love? “Something undescribable had passed between them,” she writes.
Wineapple eventually posits that Dickinson and Higginson are best remembered as two people in love with the words they used to express something that, for both of them, dodged articulation. Strangely enough, distance kept them close. Perhaps that is why they kept on writing, composing a friendship
based on absence, geographic distance, and the written word. They had exchanged letters in which they invented themselves and each other, performing for each other in the words that filled, maintained, and created the space between them.
Dickinson “wrote to Higginson as if he grasped her meaning, though he was, as he admitted, often befuddled. But he understood enough to please her, that was clear.”
What was Dickinson pleased to have Higginson understand, and what was she pleased to leave misunderstood? White Heat excels at reminding those among us who feel that “Dickinson teases us, winks at us, and escapes, leaving us begging for more” that Higginson would have known just how we feel.
Cecily Parks is the author of the poetry collections Field Folly Snow (2008) and O'Nights (2015), and editor of The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses (2016). She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.
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