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Book Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple

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Emily Dickinson kept her writing in a drawer in her dresser. Amongst the unbound fragments found after her death was a note that read simply "But, ought not the amanuensis to receive a Commission also –" (Dickinson & Werner, 1995, p 21).

So it was with most of her writing; quickly jotted notes, thoughts written in the moment of their birth. Unbegun. Unfinished. As if the muse had demanded the scribe to write this now and left the understanding of why for a later time.

emily_dickinson_booksThe year was 1862 when Emily Dickinson first wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In that mail parcel she included four of her poems. The question she asked Higginson — to tell her if her verse is alive. Upon that first instance of cyphering through the idiosyncrasies of Dickinson's writing with a pedant's intellect, Higginson had no way of knowing that he would eventually find himself the sole inheritor of one of the most gifted writers in American history. Awed by the genius of her writing, Higginson wrote later that he could make only the most mundane recommendations for her. He was already aware of her genius. As was she — however, she preferred the role of coquette, and reeled him in just so.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was himself a man of singular achievements. A respected minister and writer, when the Civil War began he used his words to push the cause that he was passionate about, abolition. Until words were not enough — he then joined the Union forces and commanded the first black regiment, he supplied guns to John Brown as one of the Secret Six.

thomas_wentworth_higginsThe fact that Emily Dickinson would choose such a man to judge and protect her poetry is not as odd as it at first might appear. Higginson was a journalist and editor for the Atlantic Monthly. He was a writer whom Emily Dickinson admired greatly. She was initially seduced by his bravado, his passion and his concern over issues usually exclusive to women. A feeling of admiration shared by her entire family; his articles were often the topic of discussion within the Dickinson household.

The most amazing thing about their relationship is not so much the wealth of treasured poetry which Dickinson bestowed upon Higginson alone, but the length of their friendship. Dickinson was known for ending her relationships with an apocryphal, fatalistic thrust.

Though Thomas Wentworth Higginson's name is more familiar to those who study the Civil War, abolition, religion and history, it should also be included when mentioning the poetry of Emily Dickinson. At her insistence, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made a promise that he would not release her poetry until after her death. He would be, in her words, her "Preceptor."

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple is the biography of these two historic, literary figures as well as the relationship that developed over their nearly 25 year correspondence. They would meet only for brief encounters, which seemed to torment Emily Dickinson; she desired his attention, as well as Higginson; he desired her companionship. Yet they shared a commitment that would prove unwavering during their lifetimes.

They shared a love specific to those who share a journey, and only through written word. That love, built upon mutual respect and literary admiration, is what Brenda Wineapple has captured in this stellar historical novel; she has moved their relationship out of the realm of corporeal love stories and into a world, ravaged by Civil War and restricted by decorum, where the connection between two people needn't have been evidenced physically in order to bear the highest significance.

Brenda Wineapple has done a superb job of capturing the personalities of these two historic figures, of sifting through Emily Dickinson lore and poetry to get at the heart of this amazing writer and her relationship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the only person she ever trusted entirely to keep her words, and in just the way she asked. In Thomas Wentworth Higginson she found a stoic friend, one of few who seemed to truly appreciate her as both belletrist and companion.

She trusted that after her death Higginson would protect her words, but her family would eventually win in their struggle to gain control, forcing Higginson to share editing credits with her brother's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Still, Higginson did his best to stay true to his oath, refusing to edit her pieces, other than the first publication Poems (1890), which he rationalized might confuse readers considering Emily's habit of writing without titles. He also feared that her trenchant punctuation might overwhelm the uninitiated, coming as they did like stabs from an unexpected stiletto.

By the second publication he felt that Dickinson had been sufficiently introduced to her audience and he fought Mabel Loomis Todd for every poem, line by line, determined to create a true reflection of his friend's work. Higginson would eventually be over-run by the Dickinson clan and give up trying to save her poetry from their clutches. He would bear the brunt of undeserved criticism, mainly due to sabotage from Mabel Loomis Todd who accused him of her own heavy-handed editing. What Emily Dickinson had desired, in the end, meant nothing to them.

Brenda Wineapple reconstructs their relationship through their own notes and letters, as well as historical documentation, her poetry and their diaries. Later Thomas Wentworth Higginson would be severely criticized by those who claimed to understand Emily Dickinson in ways that he was incapable. A charge that now seems spiteful and ridiculous. The poet Amy Lowell would thank those who came after him for reviving Dickinson's words and spirit, calling Higginson "a bungler too dim for the dauntless poet," and saying "there is nothing sadder than well-meaning Mr. Higginson trying to guide Emily's marvelous genius."

This book is a reminder that, regardless of how others thought of Higginson, he was Emily Dickinson's choice as her inheritor — and she trusted that he knew her well. The later stripping of his dignity in comparison to Emily Dickinson's genius seems particularly cruel after reading this insightful novel. In writing White Heat Brenda Wineapple has proven one thing as simple fact — Emily Dickinson loved Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and his attention and care mattered to her. She could never put herself in his hands physically during her lifetime, but in death, she wanted to belong to him entirely.

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  • http://hubpages.com/profile/Bob+Etier Miss Bob Etier

    “Because I could not stop for Death,
    He kindly stopped for me;
    The carriage held but just ourselves
    And Immortality.”
    These words are as dear to my heart now as when I read them as an Emily-Dickinson-adoring seventeen-year-old. Thanks, AGG, for this insightful piece on one of my early idols. –The real bob