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Jane Ciabattari on Emily Dickinson’s Friendship With Abolitionist

Posted on Sep 11, 2008
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(Page 2)

    A stalwart in the women’s suffrage movement, Higginson also launched the careers of dozens of literary women, including Charlotte Hawes, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Emma Lazarus and the poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson. Yet still he discouraged Dickinson from publishing. “Nudging open literary doors for Helen Hunt, he could have done the same for Emily Dickinson,” Wineapple writes. “One suspects he would have, were she tractable, which she was not. Her own ambivalence about publishing her work, her own tensile strength, and her choice of an alternative route of publication—circulating her poems among friends, nurturing her reputation by piquing curiosity—rendered moot what Higginson could offer. ...”

    The two correspondents met for the first time in the summer of 1870, eight years after that first letter. Higginson went to the Homestead, where Dickinson greeted him clad in white, offered him two daylilies, and talked nervously for hours. Afterward he told his wife, who considered Dickinson crazy, “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me.” He visited her only once after that, despite her many imploring letters.


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White Heat


By Brenda Wineapple


Knopf, 432 pages


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    Dickinson wrote at once when Higginson’s wife, Mary, long an invalid, died in 1877. “The Wilderness is new—to you,” she wrote. “Master, let me lead you.” There is a sense of possibility in her tone, and she urged him once again to see her. But rather than another trip to Amherst, Higginson went south, revisiting scenes of his military life, and spent some time in Europe. Upon his return, he married Minnie Thacher, who was 22 years younger. They had two daughters, the first of whom died in infancy (alert to loss, Dickinson sent him a touching condolence letter). The correspondence dwindled, as did the output of poems. Dickinson’s father died, then her beloved nephew, her mother, her friend Samuel Bowles. The string of losses mounted. Her health declined.

    Wineapple notes that “White Heat” is not conventional literary criticism or biography (she tips her hat to Richard B. Sewall’s “The Life of Emily Dickinson” and others). Her focus is on the letters, the poems, the parallel lives. “White Heat” certainly brings to the fore the lifework of these “two unusual seemingly incompatible friends” and draws a plumb line from their time, with its tension between solitude (whether at Walden Pond or in Amherst) and activism, and ours. “The fantasy of isolation, the fantasy of intervention: they create recluses and activists, sometimes both, in us all,” she writes.

    The two met only twice, and most of Higginson’s letters to Dickinson were lost or destroyed, although their context lingers suggestively in many of Dickinson’s responses. The drama in “White Heat” comes from Wineapple’s exquisite setting of scenes, her incisive explication of the work, and her portrayal of the intellectual and political ferment within which the two maintained their commitment to Dickinson’s artistic “offspring.”

    Wineapple also makes a case for Higginson as Dickinson’s sometime muse. Her “As imperceptibly as Grief,”  with its description of summer departing, Wineapple notes, “may be her description of him; the guest that would disappear, if he ever came, and her idea of him never quite fulfilled by his presence.” They were able to “invent each other,” to “speak to each other without bounds,” Wineapple notes. “For their link was words—their letters, her poetry, his essays. Words meant everything to her and a great deal to him.”

    After Dickinson’s death in May 1886, her sister Lavinia discovered the hundreds of poems and letters in her room and was determined to have the work published. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd (the interloper whose affair with Emily’s married brother Austin caused much consternation) co-edited the first posthumous Dickinson volume. Simply titled “Poems,” it was a slim volume, bound in white, with gold trim and silver Indian pipes on the cover. The two of them flattened out Dickinson’s idiosyncratic diction, punctuation and capitalization to match the conventions of the day. Higginson may have “saved her life,” nurtured her genius and helped midwife her work into print, but future literary critics and scholars condemned him for bowdlerizing her work. Wineapple shows how lifeless the edited versions were in comparison to the preternaturally Modernist originals (these were not restored until 1955, when “Poems of Emily Dickinson” was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson).

    “I feel as if we had climbed to a cloud, pulled it away, and revealed a new star behind it,” Higginson noted when that first volume appeared. The book went back to press 11 times, and the eminent William Dean Howells wrote, “... if nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry we would feel that in the world of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world. ...”

Having urged her to delay publication in her lifetime, Higginson witnessed the overwhelming response to her work: “Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity,” he wrote in the October 1891 Atlantic.

Higginson died in 1911, at 87. He was remembered mostly as a “bungler,” (Amy Lowell’s term) for his role in altering Dickinson’s work. He was dismissed within months of his death by Harvard scholar George Santayana as one of a faded genteel transcendentalist generation. He was ignored by Santayana’s student Conrad Aiken, whose 1924 reevaluation of Dickinson portrayed her as an independent, symbolist freethinker who resisted the call to “sew for soldiers, join a Browning club, and recite Hiawatha.” To the new generation of Modernists, “Dickinson was avant-garde, Higginson an heirloom.”

Higginson was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts, his casket wrapped in the First South Carolina regimental flag. His pallbearers were African-American men, members of the Sixth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (Colored). His headstone simply notes his rank and his service to the country’s pioneering combat soldiers of African descent. (A plaque commemorating him and his regiment is on a highway in Beaufort, S.C. ) “The pendulum has ... swung far from him, and he is hardly remembered,” Wineapple notes. In “White Heat,” she reminds us who he was.

As for Emily. ...  Check the canon.

Jane Ciabattari, author of the short story collection “Stealing the Fire,” is president of the National Book Critics Circle. Two of her abolitionist forebears served as chaplains for black regiments in the Union Army.

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