Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson’s White Heat

Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson’s White Heat

Her Nature Was Future: Emily Dickinson’s White Heat

The intimate friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson takes wing in two new books.


Amherst College Archives and Special CollectionsEmily Dickinson, age 17

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.”

Wineapple’s Dickinson is a spinster seductress–white heat itself. She flattered and cajoled her epistolary conquests while retaining the upper hand, almost never leaving the realm of the Homestead, the Dickinson family’s mansion and grounds. From her first letter to Higginson, when he was 38 and she 31, Dickinson was wily: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she wrote, without signing her name, but enclosing four poems amounting to a self-addressed stamped envelope to ensure his reply. When he made a few editorial suggestions, she thanked him but incorporated none of them. She said she had begun writing poetry only recently–untrue. She said she avoided Walt Whitman–untrue. (Higginson loathed him.) She hid her few publications and her attempts to engage other editors. In 1866 she insisted falsely that her poem “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” which appeared in the Springfield Republican, was stolen. (She published fewer than a dozen poems during her life, anonymously.) Higginson was, she said, her “Preceptor.” But the outrageous pupil would declare things like “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire could ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” They met only twice in the course of their lives, possibly because after their first encounter Higginson confessed he had never met anyone “who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

Dickinson’s sexual paradox stands in for a greater one: her belief that one could have victory without success–not only seduction without sex but immortality without fame. As she got older she hardened in her resolve not to publish, but she worked feverishly toward an oeuvre:

Success–is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed–
To Comprehend a Nectar–
Requires sorest need–
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag–today–
Can tell the Definition–so clear–of Victory–
As He–defeated–dying–
On whose forbidden ear–
The distant strains of Triumph
Burst–agonized–and Clear!

Despite Wineapple’s sympathetic grasp of Higginson’s life and works, his contradictions aren’t nearly as electric. Yes, he too had a vigorous and complicated sexuality. The renowned essayist had thrived on the routines of military life: he championed virility and admired the male body. Women found him attractive, and he made himself their chivalrous knight as a suffragist. Also chivalrously, he remained devoted to his invalid first wife until she died. Then, rather than fall for one of the intellectual women he admired, he hastily married a young, pretty society girl. (It’s less of a contradiction when we read that his first wife, Mary Elizabeth Channing, was something of a thwarted intellectual herself. She was prickly and anti-child. Higginson desperately wanted children; his second wife obliged.) Wineapple’s accounts of Higginson’s involvement in the Secret Six and of his military exploits are riveting. They serve to underscore her point that he was a sort of inverse Dickinson: fiery radical in the realm of action. Late in life he ruefully admitted that he had internalized Emerson’s dictum “Better that the book should not be quite so good, and the bookmaker abler and better, and not himself often a ludicrous contrast to all that he has written.” But Emerson was wrong. Higginson’s scruples, and Dickinson’s lack of them, confirm the old Faulkner saw about “Ode on a Grecian Urn” being “worth any number of old ladies.” Collateral damage indeed.

Higginson knew what the stakes were. In 1862, the year Dickinson initiated their correspondence, he published an essay in The Atlantic, “Procession of the Flowers”:

There is no conceivable beauty of blossom so beautiful as words,–none so graceful, none so perfumed. It is possible to dream of combinations of syllables so delicious that all the dawning and decay of summer cannot rival their perfection, nor winter’s stainless white and azure match their purity and their charm.

It’s a rare voluptuary who loves “combinations of syllables,” yet Dickinson surpassed him as a fundamentalist surpasses a mere evangelical. When, in 1883, Higginson declared Shakespeare’s “Since Cleopatra died” one of the supreme emotional phrases in literature, Dickinson did him one better: “That engulfing ‘Since‘–.” Gertrude Stein said, “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is.” But for Dickinson, there was agony and ecstasy in morphemes. The poems, of course, bear this out, but perhaps it’s even clearer in the letters, with their direct address, that for Dickinson thought and emotion were one flashing thing, fused in the heat of a rhyme:

Love is its own rescue, for we–at our supremest, are but it’s trembling Emblems.

I felt it shelter to speak to you.

His nature was Future.

Even at the death of her 8-year-old nephew, Gib, in 1882–a blow from which she never recovered–she could write to her sister-in-law, in crescendoing phrases: “His Life was like the Bugle, which winds itself always, his Elegy an echo–his Requiem ecstasy.” Her metaphors were dictated by the ear; her cerebrum seemed to have grown right out of her cochlear nerve.

Dickinson’s more famous contemporary Helen Hunt Jackson once chided her: “You are a great poet–and it is a wrong to deny to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy.” When Dickinson died in 1886, her nearly 2,000 poems bore witness to a soul that was anything but stingy. But their discovery prompted feuds among her survivors–Lavinia, her sister; Sue Dickinson, her socially prominent sister-in-law; and Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austin’s mistress and a writer and painter in her own right. Lavinia and Mabel teamed up against Sue, enlisting Higginson’s editorial help in assembling a collection of poems; later, Lavinia would vengefully sue Mabel on a separate property issue and demand that Higginson leave Todd’s name off the book (he refused, but on the property matter, Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled in Lavinia’s favor). Higginson was just a bystander to these machinations, but blame fell heavily on him when scholars uncovered the extent to which grammar had been corrected, punctuation and titles added, dashes disappeared.

The truth is complicated, as Wineapple’s scrupulous account of the preparation of Dickinson’s Poems shows. For one thing, those changes were made at the behest of the only publisher who would consider issuing a volume. For another, the manuscripts were riddled with indeterminacies. Though Dickinson famously sewed up poems in fastidious booklike packets (Todd dubbed them “fascicles,” and it stuck), she also composed on scraps of paper, the backs of recipe cards and in the midst of letters to her correspondents. Her handwriting was difficult to decipher: Higginson compared it to “the famous fossil bird-tracks” in the Amherst museum. Most important, as Wineapple reports, “She kept variants and appears not to have chosen among them, sometimes toying with as many as eight possibilities for words, line arrangement, rhyme, enjambment; nor did she choose among alternate endings.” Short of a facsimile reproduction, Dickinson’s work will always require editorial interpretation. It just so happens that the twentieth century was far better prepared to read Dickinson’s poems on their own terms–variants and all–than was the nineteenth century. (“Her true Flaubert was Penelope,” Richard Howard once quipped, simultaneously rewriting that other famous reviser Ezra Pound and writing Dickinson into high Modernism.) Benfey relates how Jay Leyda, a mid-twentieth-century Dickinson scholar with a background in avant-garde photography and film, was the first to recognize “a manuscript about a bird formed of two parts of an envelope pinned together to resemble a bird…a poem about a house written beneath the rooflike arc of another envelope.”

Yet the first edition of Poems sold out–as did the second and the third and the fourth–suggesting that the nineteenth century was ready for Dickinson in some form. Wineapple writes, “Fed for years on Tennyson, Patmore, and Longfellow or, more recently, on the folksy verse of James Whitcomb Riley and the jingles of Rudyard Kipling, to say nothing of the verse of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, they were evidently tired of the didacticism and overrefinement of poetry without heat.” They were weary, in other words, of hummingbirds.

Higginson lived out his later years in physical, if not mental, comfort. He championed women’s writing. He translated Epictetus, the freed slave turned Stoic philosopher. The influence of Transcendentalism, in which his soul was minted, had faded from American life, and in the waning days of the nineteenth century he deplored the excesses of the Gilded Age, scoffing: “Everything which does not tend to money is thought to be wasted.” He felt that Dickinson was posthumously keeping the flame of spirit alive with her “irresistible needle-touch” (as he wrote, in 1890, in this magazine). She still is. Are words not actions? “Of our greatest acts we are ignorant–You were not aware that you saved my Life.” When Dickinson wrote this to Higginson in 1868, she must have known that the events they set in motion together would, for others, do the same.

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