Monday, December 29, 2008

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

Alright, I apologize if my review is a little scattered. It's the end of the year, the time when I desperately want to start 100 new projects to 'make this year better', but when I quietly know that it's the starting of these 100 projects last year that somewhat contributed to my general disarray through the ensuing 12 months. As such, I'm a little bit scattershot today. Add on top of this the fact that I had to read the last third of this book in a single afternoon when I should have been doing other things that needed doing, because it was due back at the library, and I will blushingly apologize for whatever happens for the rest of this review.

This book has been the talk of the town this year, frequently cited as one of 2008's best pieces of nonfiction. And, it's about Emily Dickinson. So. It didn't take much prompting for me to put it on hold at the library. I actually was the first to receive it, after the library put on a cover and what-not. And the book did exactly what everyone said - knocked you on your ear with a gentle humanity that makes you smile and blush - at least if you had certain popular notions before you started.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was one of Dickinson's longest friendships. Though they met only twice, and both times only briefly (and the first time resulting in Higginson writing that he was thankful she didn't leave nearby), they wrote for most of Dickinson's adult life, and he played an important role in the publishing of her poetry. By important, I mean, generally, infamous. Most people have demonized poor Higginson as a priggish man who didn't really understand what he was reading, and who butchered Dickinson's verse for years with the aid of Dickinson's brother's mistress - ah, my friends, yes, Dickinson who lived so insularly while alive, was the object of one of the ugliest literary soap operas of all time after her death. All this is true of course, but the thing that this book made me realize was that Higginson, imperfect and at times maddeningly blind, was really a generally good man, who had Dickinson's best interests at heart, and who, in purely practical terms, lived a good, boldly virtuous life through, championing abolition and women's rights, for instance, in a time when it was very perilous to do so. Especially in his early years of friendship with Ms Dickinson, he was no timid speechifier. He led a mob that tried to break down the doors to the Boston courthouse in order to release a fugitive slave, he was the only one of the co-conspirators of John Brown (yes, THE John Brown) that didn't run off to Canada, go crazy, or deny his involvement in the plot at Harper's Ferry, and led the first regiment of freed slaves in the Civil War, professing a dislike for the famous Robert Gould Shaw, because he was too cruel to his black soldiers. He was also alive at one of the interesting times in American literary history - his French teacher, for instance, in College? Well, it was this guy named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Maybe you've heard of him. He was one of the candidates to edit the papers of Thoreau after he died, and wrote an essay in the Atlantic, that Thoreau complimented warmly. Speaking of the Atlantic, one of the most distinguished voices of American letters over the years, he was one of the earliest, and most frequent contributors to the magazine - it was in fact an article in the Atlantic that sparked his friendship with Dickinson.

The book also did a good job of giving a very humanizing picture of Dickinson, at once a beautiful genius with a maturity on the subjects of fame and human praise that most never reach in their lifetime, and at the same time, someone who exhibited, shall we say, a well-tuned sense of drama. It was refreshing, and warmly humanizing, to read about a Dickinson that breathes the same air as the rest of us. And the details in the story were refreshing, well-placed, and narrative, without being gossipy (Emily Dickinson, for instance, had auburn hair, a detail at once insignificant and so out of our image of the poet that it makes us think of how much mythologizing we really do with her). But, in Dickinson terms, though there was certainly a bias, this was the best sort of biography, at once revealing and honest, straightforward and daring, and filled iwth an interesting angle to look at the same, impenetrable mist that is Emily Dickinson

1 comment:

hamilcar barca said...

puh-leez! we want sordid stories, not friendship fluff. passionate trysts involving ED and TWH. drunken binges. kinky things involving a peacock feather.

anything to rid ED of her stodgy reputation. she'd get a much wider readership if it was determined that she became Britney Spears in a later life. ;-)