Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson corresponded for almost 25 years, yet met in person only twice. Beginning with a letter from the reclusive poet in 1862 to a literary figure she knew only through his essays and social activism, and lasting till her death in 1886, it is arguably one of the most important relationships in American literary history. In that initial letter, which included four of her poems, Dickinson famously asked, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?"Their connection, as described by Brenda Wineapple in her luminous new book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was "based on an absence, geographic distance, and the written word." After their first meeting at her home, in 1870, Higginson wrote that Dickinson "drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." But he recognized her unique talent and wished to help her if he could. Though he admitted after Dickinson's death that he could not teach her anything, Wineapple shows how Higginson's encouragement and support were meaningful for both of them.
Wineapple, the acclaimed biographer of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Janet Flanner, makes a very persuasive case that Higginson, whose place in the poet's life and work has often been downplayed, did indeed perform a singularly significant role. In their letters, she writes, "they invented themselves and each other, performing for each other in the words that filled, maintained, and created the space between them." They shared a passion for the natural world and literature; Wineapple demonstrates how through the years Dickinson dipped into Higginson's work and rewrote it for her own poetic purposes.
She trusted and liked him and, as far as is known, there was no one else except her sister-in-law to whom she gave more of her poems. Only a few of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime. Higginson played a central role in the posthumous publication of her work, collaborating with Mabel Loomis Todd in selecting and editing the first two volumes of poems. He found a publisher and wrote an introduction for the first volume. Higginson has often been criticized for changing the poems - eliminating Dickinson's dashes at certain points and substituting more "appropriate" words - but this charge is probably not fair. Mrs. Todd, who copied many of the poems, admitted that it was she who made most of the changes.
White Heat succeeds magnificently in shining a light into the work of two unlikely friends. Dickinson did not live as isolated a life as we might imagine, while Higginson was indeed a radical activist, a supporter of John Brown, a strong advocate for women's rights, and the leader of the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves during the Civil War. But his compassion and literary sensibility were also at the heart of what he was about.
This book is not, Wineapple writes, conventional literary criticism or biography. She lets Dickinson's poetry speak largely for itself, as Higginson first read it. The result gives us a powerful insight into two extraordinary figures who were there, in a rather unusual way, for each other.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a regular contributor to BookPage.