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Jane Ciabattari on Emily Dickinson’s Friendship With Abolitionist

Posted on Sep 11, 2008
book cover

By Jane Ciabattari

How many know that Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the radical abolitionist who was one of the “Secret Six” who supported John Brown’s bold raid on Harpers Ferry, later became the literary confidant of the reclusive apolitical poet Emily Dickinson?

Higginson is the question mark in this equation. Dickinson has been the target of more than a century of obsessive scholarly excavation.

      In “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson,” Brenda Wineapple, biographer of Hawthorne, Janet Flanner, and Gertrude and Leo Stein, explores the curious 24-year relationship between the Amherst, Mass., poet and Higginson, her designated tutor and critic. Wineapple makes a case for a parallel sensibility, iconoclasm, fanaticism and courage. She captures the intellectual and political climate of New England in the last half of the 19th century and sheds light on Higginson’s radicalism. “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,” she notes.


book cover


White Heat


By Brenda Wineapple


Knopf, 432 pages


Buy the book


    Wineapple begins her narrative with the first letter the poet, then 30, wrote to Higginson, in April 1862 at the raw front edge of the Civil War. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Dickinson wrote.

Why Higginson? Dickinson had read his work in The Atlantic, where he wrote about slavery, women’s rights, gymnastics, flowers, birds and the changing seasons. He had shown himself to be a man “willing to risk everything for what he believed,” Wineapple notes. He was forced to resign as minister of a Newburyport, Mass., congregation in 1849 because of his abolitionist fervor (he had railed against the slave-owning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor from the pulpit). He wielded a battering ram at the Boston Courthouse door in 1854 in a failed effort to free the fugitive slave Anthony Burns. In 1856, with “a loaded pistol in his belt,” he helped arm antislavery settlers in Kansas. (Upon his return, he predicted the coming conflict: “Kanzas [sic] may be crushed, but not without a final struggle ...which will convulse a continent before it is ended, and separate those two nations of North and South, which neither Union nor Constitution has yet welded into one.” He helped buy the rifles John Brown and his followers toted into Kansas, and after the raid at Harpers Ferry, Va., contributed to his defense. (Brown was hanged in December 1859.)

When Higginson received the unsigned letter from Dickinson, he had just published “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic, exposing himself to a flood of pleas for literary guidance. The four poems she enclosed, he wrote later, gave him “the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius.” Among them was “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—.”  (Dickinson coyly neglected to mention it already had been published in the Springfield Republican, which was owned by her friend Samuel Bowles).

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.”

Born into the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, Dickinson had resisted it wholeheartedly, ending her school career at Mount Holyoke Seminary at age 17 as a “no-hoper,” resistant to religious conversion. Thereafter, she wrote, “Home is the definition of God.” When she initiated her correspondence with Higginson, Dickinson was living in her family Homestead with her parents and her sister Lavinia; her brother Austin and his wife, Susan, to whom she was deeply attached, were next door.

He responded at once, asking whether she published, and would she, and making a few editorial suggestions. She termed this “surgery” in her immediate second letter, but added, “It was not so painful as I supposed.” She asked him to be her teacher, and he agreed. That summer she sent him “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’ ” and three others. “Dickinson had thrown down the glove, daring him to watch her perform,” Wineapple writes. Over a near quarter-century, Dickinson’s most productive years, she sent him drafts of nearly 100 poems. “You were not aware that you saved my Life,” she wrote several times, referring to a mysterious grievous loss.

    In November 1862, at age 38, Higginson became head of the first federally authorized regiment of former slaves in American history. His First South Carolina Volunteers predated by five months the celebrated 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment of free African-American men led by Robert Gould Shaw

    In her chapters on Higginson’s war years, Wineapple gives a glimpse into the rarely ballyhooed history of the Union Army’s black soldiers and seamen and the white officers who led them.  (Some 200,000 of them are commemorated in the 10-year-old African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) She draws upon Higginson’s Civil War journal and letters, his official reports, his essays. She also reminds us of his minor masterpiece, “Army Life in a Black Regiment, ” a collection of Atlantic essays based upon his war journals and the story of his three military expeditions, infused with his sense of the “valor of the black soldier—and his outrage that black soldiers had been underpaid when paid at all.”

    Back in Amherst, Dickinson published a handful of poems anonymously in various newspapers, in part for the war effort. These were among the few to appear in print in her lifetime.

    After the war, while The Atlantic’s new editor, William Dean Howells, noted the nation had “grown tired of racial issues,” Higginson stayed the course for many years. His postwar writings rail against the betrayal of the fighting men he saw in action. He denounced Northern “colorphobia” and President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction plan, which restored confiscated land and congressional seats to the Southern rebels.

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