2008 Biography Finalist White Heat, by Brenda Wineapple

by Jane Ciabattari | Feb-11-2009


Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member and president Jane Ciabattari discusses Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf)

In White Heat, Brenda Wineapple, biographer of Hawthorne, Janet Flanner, and Gertrude and Leo Stein, explores the curious 24-year relationship between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her designated tutor and critic, a radical abolitionist Wineapple describes thus: “Braced by the righteousness of his cause––the unequivocal emancipation of slaves––this Massachusetts gentleman of the white and learned class had earned a reputation among his own as a lunatic.” Higginson was one of the “secret six” who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and head of the first federally authorized regiment of former slaves in American history.

Wineapple begins her narrative with the first letter the poet, then 30, wrote to Higginson in April 1862, after he had offered a “Letter to a Young Contributor” in the Atlantic, exposing himself to a flood of pleas for literary guidance from New England’s wannabes. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Dickinson wrote. She enclosed four poems, including “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.”

Imagine. These poems, with their “metrical forms jagged, their punctuation unpredictable, their images honed to a fine point, their meaning oblique, elliptical, heart-gripping, electric,” as Wineapple puts it, may as well have been dropped into his Worcester mailbox from a future century. Higginson later called it “poetry torn up by the roots that took his breath away.”

In eloquent prose, Wineapple interweaves the literary and political lives of the Amherst poet and her abolitionist muse and mentor. Higginson was the question mark in this equation. Dickinson has been the target of more than a century of obsessive scholarly excavation. White Heat adds a startling new dimension to the Dickinson canon, making a case that her connection with Higginson reflects a parallel sensibility, iconoclasm, fanaticism, and courage: “...the two of them, unlikely pair, drew near to each other with affection as fresh as her poems, as real and as rare.”

My review here.

Excerpt from White Heat here.

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