Friday, June 10, 2016


This book attracted me because of its subject matter--the relationship between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson which took place almost entirely through letters for a period of approximately 24 years.  I've had relationships like this myself, entirely conducted through correspondence, so the subject matter was of interest to me.  I wanted to know if the relationship between Emily and Wentworth was in any way similar to mine.  Of course, one big difference is that Emily was a genius, which I am not, but still it seemed to me that a relationship like this ought to have a few common denominators which might be of interest to me.  

To start with I want to say what a fascinating book this was. It was accessible, readable, and endlessly informative. However, to go straight into criticism, which I always like to do, let me say that one of the most frustrating aspects of this book was its size and the tiny print.  What were the publishers of this book thinking of?  Anchor Books, a division of Random House must have some intelligent folks working for them.  So why would they publish a book of such great literary value in such a small size with print so tiny that you have to have a magnifying glass to read it?  Already, after ten minutes of reading this book, you've got a headache just peering at the print trying to decipher it.  Overall, this means that not only was the print difficult to even see, the abundant number of photos included in the book also end up being very difficult to see without a magnifying glass.  What I call this is a major publishing blunder.  

Brenda Wineapple is a really excellent writer with the ability to explain her ideas in a deceptively simple and direct manner.  I was really struck by how she recreated the historical scenes she described--battle scenes, street demonstrations, and social interactions of people who died long ago--through the exercise of a meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy.  Frequently, when Ms. Wineapple described what went on, I could see the scenes she evoked in my mind's eye with great clarity. 

The most important insight Brenda Wineapple provided in this book which I found very meaningful was her understanding of what brought these two great minds together.  The stereotypical understanding I had as I approached this book was that Emily Dickinson was a radical thinker and writer who carried out a correspondence with a gentleman who was a staid, insensitive traditionalist, as Wineapple repeats frequently, a man with a "tin ear".  In fact, this idea is absolutely not correct.  

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was as radical in his life and politics as Emily Dickinson was, and he also wrote quite exceptionally well, although he may not have achieved the heights of genius that Emily achieved.  In a sense, then, this is not the story of two absurdly mismatched individuals who somehow, nonetheless, managed to find a connection.  This is the story of the meeting of two minds that had an extraordinary amount of interests, attitudes, and thoughts in common.  The only contrast, I would say, is that one of them, Wentworth, found satisfaction in a life of engagement with the world, while the other chose to withdraw from it.  

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a radical activist who supported abolition, women's rights, and exploited factory workers.  After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, he took a group of friends to Boston where he tried to free escaped slave Anthony Burns from the federal courthouse where he was being held.  Despite gallant efforts, they did not succeed, and Higginson ended up being wounded by a saber.  In addition. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was directly involved, along with five other confederates, in planning John Brown's uprising at Harper's Ferry.  Unlike the other participants, Higginson never tried to escape the country after his involvement was found out and he never denied what he'd done.  Later on, from 1862-1864, he led the first regiment ever formed of African American soldiers during the civil war, the First South Carolina Volunteers.  

So in his politics, radical, and in his actions, radical, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the perfect companion of the mind to the intellectually and spiritually radical Emily Dickinson.  

Mr. Higginson was simply not afraid of venturing in the unexplored frontiers of the mind and heart and embraced those who did the same.  Thus, at one point Brenda Wineapple explains, Higginson stated, "the moment any person among us begins to broach any 'new views' and intimate that all things aren't exactly right, the conservatives lose no time in holding up their fingers and branding him as an unsafe person--fanatic, visionary, insane."  As far as he was concerned, "If every man who is accused of having a crack in his brain is to be silenced, which one of us is safe?"  In other words, according to Wineapple,  when it came to Higginson, "Half-crack'd visionaries:  they remained, always, his ideal."  

Such a man, I can imagine, was well able to handle anything Emily Dickinson sent in his direction.  Thus, far from being a stuffy conservative who suppressed Emily Dickinson's creativity, Thomas Wentworth Higginson made Dickinson's work possible by providing her with a partner and friend whose similarly radical insight and vision could facilitate her work.  These kinds of wise understandings and many more are available in this book which proceeds to fill in all the blanks of Emily Dickinson's story and bring her life and poetry alive in an extraordinary manner.  

As for my own situation, with which I began this conversation, I will say that these are relationships that in so many ways defy description.  I can also say that no matter how these relationships begin, ultimately for those who participate in them, there does come a point where you recognize that, as with Dickinson and Higginson, the relationship is much more about what you both have in common intellectually and spiritually, rather than your differences in terms of age, education, or social status. Reading this book certainly confirmed that understanding for me.  

The second half of the book has some juicy details regarding the love triangle between Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, his wife Sue Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd--or perhaps it should be called a love quadrangle since Austin's son's Ned was involved for a while as well.  All these hot blooded New Englanders running around their quaint town misbehaving--it's almost impossible to believe if we didn't have the proof from Brenda Wineapple's very conscientious and thorough research work! There is also a very intriguing discussion of Emily Dickinson's late life passion for Judge Otis Lord, a man at least 20 years older than she was. Talking about "White Heat"!  

The last few chapters discuss the steady rise of Emily Dickinson's reputation versus Thomas Wentworth Higginson's decline into obscurity.  There is also a quite fascinating discussion regarding who was more responsible for the extensive and widely held to be reprehensible editing of Emily Dickinson's poetry when it was first published--Mabel Loomis Todd or Thomas Wentworth Higginson--one or the other, both, or one a little bit more so than the other.  In addition, Brenda Wineapple provides an interesting examination of the various critical responses to Emily Dickinson's work in the early years of the intellectual community's assessment of the value of her work. 

What the book makes amply clear is that to the day he died, Thomas Wentworth Higginson was Emily Dickinson's foremost admirer and champion.  So whatever he might have felt in his heart about Emily Dickinson, and, of course, we can never quite know entirely the depths of what it is he felt for her, his actions demonstrate considerable loyalty and respect for her achievement well before anyone had any idea of its existence or extent and well beyond the capacity of any of his contemporaries to imagine. 

Anyway, for those who would like to order the book, which I certainly encourage you to do, the link to the book at Amazon is below:

No comments:

Post a Comment