Friday, February 20, 2009

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

I have become interested in dual biographies lately. I find that they have a similar appeal to novels that weave two story lines. Authors often alternate chapters, bringing one subject up to a milestone or turning point and then switching gears to tell about the other subject. I find that I read a bit more intently, wanting to bring the story lines together. These books naturally give the reader benchmarks with which to measure the qualities of the characters. Readers have to compare Person A and Person B. Such is the case in Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer. It is now also true in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

The alternating of chapters is a bit subtle in White Heat. It almost feels at times that the book is really a biography of Higginson with a bit of Dickinson thrown in, but the poetess from Amherst is always in the background when not on the stage. Between the chapters about the very public Higginson are the chapters about his long correspondence and infrequent visits to see Dickinson. If you are like me, you are less familiar with Higginson, who did very many things in his long life. As a young man he idolized the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau, with whom he wrote letters. He graduated from Harvard and tried being a minister, but he was too radically liberal for his congregations, who did not really want someone urging them to completely remake the world every Sunday. His main causes were abolition and women's rights. In his early career as a writer, he often turned to these topics in the articles that he wrote for Atlantic Monthly and other magazines and newspapers.

Dickinson wrote to Higginson out of the blue because she sensed that he was a compassionate man with a willing ear. According to Wineapple, Higginson truly was that, but he never completely understood Dickinson nor what she wanted. In the book, he does not actually visit her until page 179, about a decade after they started writing. He had at this point already led black Union troops in the Civil War and turned to writing more about literature and nature. He even tried his hand at poetry. Their meeting exhausted him, as Dickinson had so much to say. He did not return for years.

When Dickinson died, he was enlisted in the effort to publish her poetry in a manner that the public would accept. With limitless tact, he mostly stayed above the fight among Dickinson's sister, sister-in-law, and brother's mistress over which poems to include and who to credit with editing. He was regrettably responsible for putting titles on some of the poems and replacing original words and punctuation. Later editions of Dickinson's poetry have restored the works to their manuscript versions.

In White Heat, Wineapple takes readers to a time of Victorian sensibilities when Dickinson's poetry was quite shocking. She depicts Higginson as a man who is very forward thinking but still weighed down by the conventions of his time. This dual biography should be enjoyed by many public library readers.

Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. ISBN 9781400044016

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