Sunday, February 7, 2010

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brenda Wineapple)

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

This is all I remember about Emily Dickinson, reclusive poet extraordinaire. One of my English teachers in high school would start her class every single day by making us recite this poem. A little strange, but I guess she didn't want any of us arrogant teenagers to get a big head. We're "nobodies".

The subtitle of this book says it all. This is the story of the odd "friendship" (although I don't know if I would call it that) between Dickinson and Higginson, an extreme abolitionist. Dickinson, who lived a hermit-like existence, never venturing beyond her father's gates, sent Higginson, an occasional contributor to various publications, some poems for critique. Calling him the "master" and herself the "pupil", Dickinson respected his opinion immensely. Higginson was one of the only visitors she would ever allow to see her, begging him to visit her in Amherst. We learn many things as both of their lives intertwine, including the fact that Higginson was the leader (not Robert Gould Shaw, as the movie Glory would attest) of the first Union regiment made up of ex-slaves. We are also introduced to Dickinson's family, who most of the time respected Emily's need for solitude, as well as Mabel Todd, Emily's brother's mistress. Todd and Higginson published Dickinson's poems posthumously, editing with a heavy hand. Since Emily only published on her own terms, the reader is made to wonder if she would have preferred to remain unknown, even in death.

Wineapple does a fine job of thoroughly researching her characters. However, while Emily Dickinson herself is a fascinating study, a 318 page book about a friendship can get a little dull.


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