Amherst College Archives and Special Collections
Poetry and biography work at cross-purposes. Even when their facts overlap, one is artifice of the imagination, the other a record of the mortal coil. Poems convince us of a living presence on the page; biography, as Emily Dickinson noted, “first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.”
When chronicling the lives of poets, though, it seems inevitable that some measure of poetry creeps in. Dickinson, whose neighbors in Amherst called her “the Myth,” is a perfect example of a subject whose ambiguities encourage a meshing of the genres. It can work to genius effect, as in Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, a devotional work published in 1985 that probes Dickinson’s allusions to Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Robert Browning and others. It culminates in a glorious and harrowing vision of Dickinson as Childe Roland “at the moment of sinking down with the sun, like Phaeton in a ball of flame, see[ing] his visionary precursor peers ringed round him waiting.” If Howe’s study succeeded in becoming a kind of poem itself, it did so because Howe’s intentions rhyme with those of Dickinson. Her book is formally and thematically complex, passionate, provocatively inconclusive, coiled and taut. Now there are two new additions to the Dickinson bibliotheca. What kind of poems would they be?
Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat looks at the correspondence (in both senses of the word) between Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a minister, essayist and eminent Bostonian, that spanned a quarter of a century. If White Heat were a poem, it would, like Dickinson’s poems, revel in paradox and upend clichés. First and foremost, Wineapple sets out to rescue her subjects from stereotype. She puts further distance between Dickinson and the “Belle of Amherst” label that shadowed her for decades, and she rehabilitates Higginson, who fell into disrepute as Dickinson’s editor when the extent of his revisions, made while readying a selection of her work for book publication in 1890, became a flash point in the twentieth century. The disdain is evident in Adrienne Rich’s famous poem “I Am in Danger–Sir–” but it goes back to the year of Higginson’s death, 1911. That was when George Santayana–teacher of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens–delivered a lecture called “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” declaring that Higginson’s brand of Transcendentalism “has floated gently in the backwater.” Higginson was the fusty Atlantic Monthly columnist to Dickinson’s ungovernable and unappreciated genius.
But in the decade preceding their correspondence, which Dickinson initiated in 1862, Higginson was an abolitionist with a rosy view of what we now call “collateral damage.” In 1854 he declared, against the return of a runaway slave who had been seized in Boston, “A revolution is begun! not a Reform, but a Revolution. If you take part in politics henceforward, let it be only to bring nearer the crisis which will either save or sunder this nation–or perhaps save in sundering.” He participated in a botched plot to liberate the prisoner, taking a battering ram to the doors of the Boston courthouse and clashing with the police inside–one guard was killed in the melee. He was indicted (briefly) for treason. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Higginson helped arm antislavery homesteaders in Kansas and became one of John Brown’s “Secret Six,” planning and financing the violent insurrection at Harpers Ferry in 1859. John Brown “swallows a Missourian whole, and says grace after the meal,” Higginson declared in the pages of the Liberator. “Don’t you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?” Dickinson speculated. Higginson surely agreed. He said no to his country, as Wineapple shows, in uncompromising terms.