Photo by Marion Ettlinger
Literary biographer Brenda Wineapple discusses her book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. [28:47]
Brenda Wineapple: I've found, over the years, that Emily Dickinson's poetry speaks to almost anyone, everyone. It's very, very unusual that way. But people have regarded her as an eccentric, which she is. And as a kind of almost a phobic shy person who lived in western Massachusetts. Sometime in her 20's decided never to-- not only never to go to another city, never to go to Boston anymore, but never to go out of the house. "I will not cross my father's ground for any house or town," she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson. So we see her as, kind of, alone and cut off from the world. And what this friendship does, and what I hope it does, is suggest the ways in which she was really very much part of the world. That she didn't have to go out to know what was going on. That she had a very active, creative, imaginative, and in a certain way, social life.
That was Brenda Wineapple; she’s the author of the book White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –"
That’s how Emily Dickinson begins her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The year was 1862; The 38-year-old Higginson was an prominent cultural critic and activist. Emily Dickinson was 31, an unknown, if prolific poet and a recluse. Yet, an improbable and intense friendship began. Dickinson reached out to Higginson, who responded to the genius he saw in her work. Their correspondence would continue for the next quarter century, with Dickinson sending Higginson almost 100 of her poems. After her death, Higginson became a co-editor of Dickinson’s work and arranged for its publication. Drawing on 25 years' worth of Dickinson's letters (Higginson's are lost), Brenda Wineapple re-creates this extraordinary friendship in her book White Heat, which was a finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award. White Heat combines biography, literary criticism and history.
The result is a book that allows us to see Dickinson and her poems through the eyes of a contemporary, as a person within the context of her times—a genius to be sure, but more savvy than one might imagine. While Higginson emerges as a radical thinker, astute critic and wise friend. I spoke with Brenda Wineapple in NYC last year and began our conversation by asking her why the title, White Heat.
Brenda Wineapple: Well, I'm glad you asked that. It's one of the things I'm fondest of, actually, in the book. The title comes from a poem. The line of the poem begins, "Dare you see a soul at the white heat." It's one of the poems that Emily Dickinson sent to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. And it's a very difficult, very wonderful poem. And I take it to be about the creative process. When you work at a white heat, you are outside of yourself. You are transported by something. You are suddenly somewhere else. And that could be writing
poetry. That could happen when you're playing a sport. It could happen when you're agitating politically, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson did. So "Dare you see a soul at the white heat." It's also a challenge. "Can you take me on," in a sense, she's asking him. Also, I like the title in that sense, where I'm using because white heat is a little different from a red heat. And this was a friendship. And it had a kind of almost erotic component, but certainly never going to be consummated. It was a flirtation. It's a white heat, as opposed to a red heat. And also, the white refers implicitly to white and black. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a radical abolitionist.
Jo Reed: Now, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, many listeners will not know who he is.
Brenda Wineapple: Right.
Jo Reed: So explain his background to us.
Brenda Wineapple: Yes. He's been forgotten, which is interesting in and of itself. He is known in certain circles as the editor to whom Dickinson sent her poetry. But he didn't really get it, didn't understand it. And he was almost coerced into publishing it after her death. That is a misconception, too. He was a very unusual man. He was, as I said, a radical abolitionist, who believed in equal rights for women, for blacks, for everyone. He seemed to be, what I consider, on the right side of every political issue that there was in the 19th century, and willing to put his life on the line for it. He backed John Brown. He ran guns to Kansas. When he was a minister. He preached abolition and lost his job in Newburyport, Massachusetts. And he was a nature writer, as well. So he's a very unusual figure. And as I said, very well known in his time. His name and his doings were in the newspaper quite a bit. Dickinson would've known who he was.
Jo Reed: Do we know why she sent poems to him?
Brenda Wineapple: The best guess is that he'd written an article in The Atlantic Monthly. It's the same Atlantic Monthly that's with us today.
Jo Reed: Bless its heart.
Brenda Wineapple: Yeah, good. I know. And he was writing for them. He was one of the early contributors. And he wrote an essay called, "Letter to a Young Contributor." And what he was doing was saying, "Well, if you want to get published in The Atlantic Monthly, this is what you do. You use white paper and black pens." And besides the practical advice, he was also talking about writing, and the process of writing. And writing, really, in a sense, at the white heat. And Dickinson had been reading all of his Atlantic essays. And this one seemed to spur her to write him a letter, out of the blue, and sent him four poems.
Jo Reed: How did he respond to the poems?
Brenda Wineapple: He responded pretty well. I mean, it's amazing. He said he got a passel of mail after that article, and lots of poetry. But he responded to Dickinson right away. He was intrigued by what she had sent him. And that began a correspondence that lasted her entire life, which was 24 more years. So whatever he responded, we don't have the exact letter, it was enough to have her write back pretty quickly. He was intrigued. He liked the poetry. He said, years later, that he couldn't help making a few little suggestions. She ignored him. And the rest became a very, I think, important friendship to both of them.
Jo Reed: Clearly, his opinion mattered to her.
Brenda Wineapple: Yes, I think it did. I think she was going to follow her own instincts, anyway. She, I think, knew she had a very unusual voice. But his opinion mattered to her. And I think his connection to the world and his radicalism, in a sense. Because she was a radical, too, not politically, but certainly in terms of literary style and what she was doing. And his sensibility in that way, I think, was very important to her. And vice versa.
Jo Reed: Was Emily Dickinson aware of her own talent?
Brenda Wineapple: You know, one can never know.
Jo Reed: Yeah, but...
Brenda Wineapple: My best guess is yes. I think she was. I mean, I think, in some sense, one of the intriguing questions about Dickinson is why did she not choose to publish? She had the opportunity. And, in some respects, Higginson's often been blamed, why didn't he help her publish? But she refused opportunities all over the place. Her family was very well connected to, say, the Springfield Republican. Those days, newspapers had poetry often on the front page. So she could've published, and she didn't want to. But she sent her poems to friends, like Higginson, whom she trusted, and members of her family. And it was very clear that her poetry was important to her. And that she knew it was unusual. And, in a sense, by not publishing, she was also making a statement. And she became more well known, ironically, because people knew she was a poet, but one that held back. It's certainly not anything that we understand in the 21st century with so many people wanting instant fame and celebrity. And, of course, if you're writing, you assume you're not putting it in your draw and forgetting about it. You want to communicate. But she did.
Jo Reed: What would these two write to each other about? Because much of their friendship was carried out through correspondence?
Brenda Wineapple: Yes, absolutely. Because we have her correspondence to him. She would write about writing. She would write about what she was reading. She would write, in a sense, about what she was feeling. She would write about what she thought he might be feeling. Particularly, because, for example, he
had a wife at the time, his first wife, who was an invalid. And Dickinson was very sensitive to that. And he would try to answer her, knowing that she was such an unusual person, and the wrong answer might cause her not to respond. So it was a, kind of, delicate friendship in that way. Often, she wrote to him, saying, "Why don't you come visit me?" And he would say, "Why don't you come to Boston?" All ladies do. And she would say, "No, no. I’m not coming to Boston." But he did visit her twice. And the records of that visit and the poems she sent to him, almost 100, and the letters, give us a real insight into Dickinson that we wouldn't have if there had been no friendship.
Jo Reed: What insight? What do we see that we wouldn't have seen without that friendship?
Brenda Wineapple: Well, for example, that visit. You know, he was a first and perhaps only person from the outside and what I mean by that is outside the family, outside the circle of friends in Amherst, who was really allowed to come to the Dickinson homestead in Amherst, to pull the bell and to be ushered in by Emily Dickinson. These are two strangers, remember. They've only known each other through correspondence, pen pals, email, whatever. And to confront this woman who came to him dressed in white, and gave him a daylily, and said, "How long will you stay?" He was so taken. And they had such an intense conversation that afterwards, he went back to the Amherst Inn, where he was staying. And he wrote down almost everything she said. So we almost have a transcript of Dickinson speaking, which is remarkable. Then, he also wrote to his wife, describing the encounter. So it's as close we get to firsthand experience of this very reclusive, hermetic poet. And it's really marvelous that way.
Jo Reed: And yet, he also said--and I'm quoting him now. He said he had never met anyone, quote, "who drained my nervepower so much," unquote...
Brenda Wineapple: I know that quote. Yeah. Sure. She was intense. The rest of that quote says, "I never met anyone who drained my nerve power so much I'm glad not to live near her." You know, and in a sense, you could see why. Because she was exhausting. She was so, as I said, intense, so involved in what she was doing, so demanding, emotionally and intellectually. That he probably left exhausted. He came back the next day, but you can see why. Yeah, he was saying she was quite charged. She was really quite charged with life, with poetry. Probably with sexuality, too, and he'd better get home.
Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about the erotic undertone between these two. And I think that's certainly part of what you talk about in this book.
Brenda Wineapple: Um-hum, yeah. As you asked about the preconceptions of Dickinson. Before, we see her as really, kind of, asexual, apolitical, ahistorical, sort of locked in this homestead, as if it's a dungeon. You know, she's a kind of madwoman in the attic, to, you know, use that phrase. And she's not at all. In fact, the first letter to Higginson was enormously flirtatious. When I first told my husband about it, told him how she had a little card with her name on it in an
envelope within an envelope, because she didn't sign the letter. He said, "Higginson was a dead man." That it was such incredible flirtatious bait. So she was very coquettish. And Higginson, he responded to that. He was a very good-looking man. He liked the fact that the ladies and the gents were both attracted to him. As I said, he had a difficult marriage, because his wife was an invalid. He was not home a lot. And here was this unusual poet, sending him poetry that, like the poem, "Dare you see a soul at the white heat," is not only filled with life, it's filled with passion. So that there's a real passionate connection between the two of them. I don't think they would've continued to write for almost 25 years if there hadn't been that.
Jo Reed: How did that relationship evolve over 25 years?
Brenda Wineapple: Well, it's interesting because it started at a pretty high note. It started intensely. I mean, the first line of her first letter to him is, "Are you too preoccupied to say if my verse is alive?" You know, so that's really quite a daunting question. And he was preoccupied, but not too preoccupied. He must've found it alive. So as I said, it started fairly intensely. And I think right away, Dickinson was sensing something about this man. And don’t forget that she'd been reading his writing. So she had a sense, also, of his style, of his interests, of his commitments, of his unusual qualities. So it started, as I said, in a very intimate way. He started asking her questions. You know, "Do you go out? Who are your friends? What are you reading?" And she answered them. And she answered them very openly, for Dickinson. You know, she said she liked her dog better than most people because he knew, but did not tell. She said that she wasn't religious, but her family was. They worshipped an eclipse that they called "Father." I mean, these are really quite intriguing statements. And they're also very revealing. And she talked about her need for writing poetry. And I think she offered him a kindness, too. So I think, over time, it became even more intimate in ways I think we've lost the ability to understand.
Jo Reed: You know, in some ways, it reminds me of friendships between Victorian women. Which took place through a lot of correspondence, as well. And there's a passion there that is clearly there. But at the same time, it doesn't mean that there was a physical relationship. But it doesn't necessarily mean...
Brenda Wineapple: That there wasn't.
Jo Reed: ...that there wasn't.
Brenda Wineapple: Right. And in a sense, we can't go behind that door, in a way. And, in a way, it's better that we don't. Dickinson and Higginson to a certain extent are people who lived in words. They lived by words. Words were so important. And their words were passionate, you know. And that was a kind of consummation for them, in a way. And, you know, and in the very literal sense, Higginson was a loyal man. He was a married man. And Dickinson was a single woman. No wonder he didn't want to go up to Amherst too much, in that way. But you're right. These letters are very, very passionate at that particular time. And it
was a mode of expression that was not inhibited, really, the ways maybe clothes inhibited people or certain social customs inhibited people. But I think they were freer in their letters. They're really rather remarkable in some ways.
Jo Reed: Is it hard translating those letters through 21st century eyes?
Brenda Wineapple: Well, yeah...
Jo Reed: Or challenging. That's a better word.
Brenda Wineapple: Yeah, because, you know, we've all had the experience of writing something to someone and having it misunderstood. Even the statement that Higginson made, "You know, I never met anyone who drained my nerve power so much." And that's been typically interpreted as, "She scares me." And that there was a kind of weakness there. But I don't interpret it that way. I look at the correspondence. I look at the fact that she chose him. And that she chose almost no one. And so I see that as, kind of, intensity, because I see what she's saying to him. And so yeah, of course, it's a challenge. But once we kind of change our perception or open up our understanding, and say, "Maybe, Dickinson wasn't what we thought she was. She was something else." And maybe Higginson wasn't what we thought he was, and he is something else. Maybe we've misunderstood the letters so here's another interpretation of it. So that's what I was able to do. And one never knows. Of course, it's a challenge. And that's what's so much fun, because Dickinson's letters are really like poems. They're poems, in a way.
Jo Reed: You know, it's interesting, because in their lifetime, Higginson was the celebrity. Dickinson...
Brenda Wineapple: Yes. Isn't that interesting? Yeah.
Jo Reed: ...was the unknown.
Brenda Wineapple: Absolutely.
Jo Reed: And now, we're talking about Higginson because of his relationship with Dickinson, who...is the great name.
Brenda Wineapple: You know, and he knew that. He lived long enough to know that his star was setting. You know, he died in 1911. So, you know, he was-- and here he had been a leader of the first regiment of black troops in the Civil War. I mean, it's quite a different world. He's all the way in the 20th Century. He rode on New York City subways. He died the year Ronald Reagan was born. So we don't think of Dickinson in those terms, absolutely. And as I said, he was fading. And so he's associated with that kind of late Victorian fussiness. But he is really largely responsible for her becoming the celebrity that she became. He promoted her quite a bit. He wrote an article when the book was coming out that he edited. He wanted the second volume to be less tampered with than the first. And he knew he wasn't a genius. He knew he wasn't a Hawthorne or a Dickinson or whomever we might put
in that category. He was good. But he didn't have that special quality that he saw in Dickinson, he saw in Thoreau. He actually liked these kind of reclusive people. And now the tables have turned. Because ever since people started reading Dickinson, which was in the 1890s, she's been a mainstay, really, of American literary culture. So it's very interesting. And you're right. He's gone. But he's partly gone because his politics were so radical. And that was very out of fashion by the turn-of-the-century and until fairly recently.
Jo Reed: Now, how did he end up being the editor of Emily Dickinson's poems?
Brenda Wineapple: Well, after she died, she left a sister, with whom she'd been living. Both, Emily Dickinson and her sister, were single women. And they lived in this homestead where they had grown up. And Lavinia, the sister, found a tremendous number of poems. And she wanted them published. And she knew enough to know that the best person for her to contact was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Because he was so well connected in the literary world of Boston at the time. And she did. And she knew that Dickinson had been so fond of him. In fact, Dickinson had asked that he speak at her funeral, which he did. So Lavinia got in touch with Higginson and, also, another woman-- It gets very complicated at this point-- who happened to be Emily Dickinson's brother's lover. And the two of them, Mabel Todd and Higginson, edited the poems. Mabel Todd because she had to transcribe them. Some of them were really on scraps of paper. And Higginson because, as I said, he had the literary connections. And, also, you know, was considered a fairly astute literary mind and critic. So they did it.
Jo Reed: There’s been a lot controversy about the editing of Dickinson’s poems.
Brenda Wineapple: That's right. The difficulty with Dickinson's poetry is that she didn't publish. And what that means is she didn't choose the so-called authoritative poem. In other words, "This is the poem I want in the public. This is the finished version." And once she said, "It is finished can never be said of us." And that was true of her poetry. So her poetry is in a state of process. And she may have three or four versions of the same poem. So every editor has to make choices about which version to use. And in the 1890's, what Higginson was doing was, as he said, "readying the public for her." Here was a man who fought against the status quo, and knew people just really don't like things that are unusual. So he made the horrible error of giving the poems titles. Dickinson didn't use titles. Taking some of the dashes out and putting in commas. In other words, regularizing them for the public so that they would go down a little more smoothly. It's as if he sugar-coated them, in a way, to make them palatable. And he did and that worked. But, of course, by the 20th century, he's seen as a fool for doing that. What's forgotten is that he only did that as a means to an end. And in the second volume, he told Mabel Todd, he said, "Now that the public ear is open, let us alter as little as possible." And she really didn't want to. So it's a complicated story. And, of course, he's the one who bore the brunt of being a silly man. Because Mabel Todd outlived him and she became a Dickinson promoter. And when people said, "What happened? Why were these poems changed?" She said, "Oh, Thomas Higginson did it." You know, and they both did it in a sense. So that's what happened. But, you know, even now,
choices about which poems they're going to put in print. So each editor, in a sense, is tampering. You have to do it with Dickinson. It's like translating, in a way. The translator is trying to be close to the original writer's language and intent. But often translators have-- each one has a different coloration. You know, a different hue, a different outlook, even that...
Jo Reed: Or a different emphasis.
Brenda Wineapple: Yeah, or a different emphasis, exactly. That influences the choice of which word one would use. And it's very similar in that way. And so we think now we're closer to whatever her intentions were. But those intentions, you know, are multiple and not finite, at all. So it's very interesting. So each editor, as I said, faces that problem as a translator would.
Jo Reed: Brenda, what brought you to this story?
Brenda Wineapple: Well, you know, every writer wants to write about Emily Dickinson. And she's a most elusive person. And, you know, there are biographies out there. Richard Sewell's a wonderful biography. I knew I couldn't do a biography of a person who said, you know, that "The biographied always flees the biographer," and which is true. And I didn't want to write that. And I was always intrigued by this friendship. And I thought to myself, very simply, I thought, "Well, if Dickinson chose this man to be friends with, why don't we look at her choice and see what it was that she was up to?" And once I did that, that really, sort of, opened a whole world to me.
Jo Reed: Tell me, did anything surprise you?
Brenda Wineapple: Everything surprised me. She's a constant surprise. I mean, you know, you always say, when you're looking at a poem, "How did she think of that? Where did she get that image?" I mean, it's so stunning, even today. So she's a constant surprise and a constant mystery. And he was an enormous surprise. I had no idea what a committed and deeply, a man of such deep committed convictions. And as I said, on really the right side of everything. He was involved in Women's Rights, before the Women's Rights, practically. And he said, "But it doesn't matter that a man is involved, because I'm not taking any risks." So he was really a very unusual person. So he was a surprise. The whole thing was a surprise. It was also a wonderful surprise. It's a pleasant surprise. Because it's a very-- to my mind, very touching, very real and very wonderful story. Because it's a story about poems getting published ultimately, you know.
Jo Reed: Why do you think Emily Dickinson's poetry--not why do you think it's read in the 21st century. Why do you think it still sounds so fresh in the 21st Century?
Brenda Wineapple: Yeah, it's amazing, really. And it's a great question and in some ways unanswerable. But as I said before, the images that she uses, you know, seem to go right into the heart, mind and sensibility of us. And she gets to a place very quickly that most of us don't even realize exists. And I think that the willingness to be able to do that and to understand the nuances of emotion, you know, talking about death. She says, "It's so appalling it exhilarates." I mean, to say things that frighten us, that unnerve us, that take away all of our pretensions and defenses, I think is quite unusual. You know, all kinds of people enjoy Dickinson. But it goes for all time, too, that there's something so amazing about what she's able to do in language. It's like Shakespeare, really, in a way, whom she admired enormously. And you always go back to him, see the plays in a slightly different way. And, also, think the images are just so amazing. How did he think of that? And they seem so right. And that's what I think she, also, was able to do.
Jo Reed: That was Brenda Wineapple, she’s the author of White Heat: The friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentowrth Higginson. The poems of Emily Dickinson are a selection for the NEA’s literary program, The Big Read. For more information about the program or to see if the Big Read is coming to your town, go to NEABIGREAD.org
Here’s a Big Read alert to folks in or near Tucson, Arizona. The city is in the middle of it’s Emily Dickinson Big Read with all manner of events happening around the city ending with a party appropriately enough on Emily Dickinson’s birthday, Dec. 10. Between now and then, you might want to check out Rocco's Restaurant where you can get a pizza inspired by Emily Dickinson.
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