Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson's White Heat | The Nation


Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson's White Heat

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Amherst College Archives and Special CollectionsEmily Dickinson, age 17

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

Also by the Author

Drawing a line between poetry and the political has never been simple.

Saving the venerable NYPL… cooperation, not capitalism… a jewel in the dross… you could look it up…

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.

Paradox was a hallmark of Dickinson's verse ("A Death blow is a Life blow to Some/Who till they died, did not alive become--"), and Wineapple, too, uses paradox (beginning with her title) to frame her subjects. Dickinson was "a poseur deeply sincere." Higginson was "a curious mix of caution and courage." And their relationship is framed within a larger paradox: are words not actions? The story of the friendship is backlit by scenes from Higginson's days as an activist and military officer (in the Civil War he led the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves, the First South Carolina Volunteers). In 1864 he retired to literary life, disillusioned with activism. Yet he was never able to pursue intellectual greatness--what Dickinson called "immortality"--at the expense of social justice. Wineapple sees Higginson and Dickinson as flip sides of a coin: "The fantasy of isolation, the fantasy of intervention: they create recluses and activists, sometimes both, in us all." By mapping these contradictions so scrupulously, Wineapple allows Dickinson and Higginson their full measure of humanity.

Covering some of the same ground, Christopher Benfey's A Summer of Hummingbirds isn't, properly speaking, a biography. It is an account of a cultural moment, the summer of 1882, when the literati were breaking sexual taboos and finding a metaphor for this liberation in hummingbirds, which had been popularized by early-nineteenth-century naturalists. Benfey marshals Dickinson and Higginson into this "informal cult," which included contemporaries Martin Heade, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain. If this book were a poem, it would be refined, sociable and wrapped up neatly in its conceit. It would also be didactic: "In science and in art, in religion and in love," Benfey writes, Americans "came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence. This dynamism...found perfect expression in the hummingbird."

It's true to some degree: Heade painted them, Henry Ward Beecher stuffed them, Dickinson and Higginson referred to them. But there was a whole lot of amateur naturalism going on in those circles; Benfey bears down on the hummingbird imagery because it provides an objective correlative for his real story: a sort of postbellum Summer of Love. There's Emily Dickinson: "reclining," as her sister-in-law put it, in the arms of her father's colleague Judge Otis Lord. There's the Amherst artiste Mabel Loomis Todd: letting Martin Heade paint the panels of her plunging collar with sweet peas; befriending the besotted teenager Ned Dickinson; dropping him for his father, Austin.

Benfey's sanguine take on the hummingbird cult and its symbolism vis-à-vis evolution and social upheaval ("brave new world") is hard to reconcile with the cunning poet of White Heat. If there was a hummingbird cult, it was a repression of the anxieties caused by increasing disenchantment with the world--a crisis of faith that, for Dickinson and Higginson, lay at the heart of their aesthetic struggles. Here is the Dickinson whom Benfey leans on for support:

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel--
A Resonance of Emerald--
A Rush of Cochineal--
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head--
The Mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning's Ride--

This was her "signature poem"; Benfey reports she "sometimes signed it 'Humming-Bird,' as though she herself were its evanescent subject." If she circulated it widely--seven people was a lot for her--it makes sense: the poem is accessible, sociable, felicitous. But to suggest that it is one of her best edges us back to the sentimental Belle of Amherst. Compare it with "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" whose temperature is more typical of the poet discussed in White Heat. It is not a poem to send to an acquaintance. Rather than miniaturizing its author-subject, it aggrandizes her. Rather than celebrating "evanescence," it looks into the abyss of our awful contingency. Susan Howe speculated in My Emily Dickinson that this poem was inspired by Higginson's grisly essay "Nat Turner's Insurrection," which recounted in graphic detail the torture and execution of the rebellious slaves:

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--
And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--

And when at Night--Our good Day done--
I guard My Master's Head--
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow--to have shared--

To foe of His--I'm deadly foe--
None stir the second time--
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye--
Or an emphatic Thumb--

Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill
Without--the power to die--

This poem delivers a jolt to the nervous system, and its mysteries will be pondered for as long as its English is intelligible. Wineapple doesn't overdo the gun motif, but she suggests the affinity between the friends when she describes Dickinson's style as "explosively nonverbal" and quotes Higginson quoting Thoreau: "the art of composition is as simple as the discharge of a bullet from a rifle." Benfey, by contrast, returns to his hummingbird conceit at inappropriate moments. He quotes Dickinson on hearing that Judge Lord was gravely ill: "I grasped at a passing Chair. My sight slipped and I thought I was freezing." Benfey concludes cheerfully: "Meanwhile, the birds were returning, the flowers were blooming, and New England was rounding into summer." If this book were a poem, its stanzas might end on the refrain, "We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.