In her new book, White Heat (Reviews, June 23), literary critic Brenda Wineapple looks closely at the 25-year epistolary friendship between the reclusive Emily Dickinson and activist and man of letters Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to whom she sent many of her most famous poems. Higginson was criticized for his part in the heavily edited posthumous versions of Dickinson's poems and, until now, had fallen out of favor with literary critics.
How and why did you decide to do this book as a double biography of Dickinson and Higginson?
I never thought of it as a biography of either of them. I don't think you can write a biography of Dickinson, who said, “Biography always convinces us of the fleeing of the biographied.” This is absolutely true of her. The only access we have to Dickinson is through her poetry—the person isn't there; it's words. I've always wanted to write about Dickinson. Literary critics have not been as interested in Higginson, but I thought that since we love and read Dickinson, and since we value her commitment to poetry and the kind of life she led, why not respect her choice of friends?
In her poems and her letters, Dickinson is always performing, flirting, imagining. Did that make it challenging to evoke her?
When you're writing a letter, you're performing for the recipient. Higginson stands in for the reader, because we're in the same position, on the receiving end of Dickinson's performance. I'm not sure we would have behaved as well as he did. Everybody thinks, “I would have understood her, I would have made her publish,” but in fact, she kept writing him, so he did something right. She saw something in him that, in the 20th century in particular, we have just lost. As a result, we also lost a bit of her.
Among the people involved in publishing Dickinson's poems posthumously—including her brother's estranged wife, Sue, his mistress Mabel Todd, and Dickinson's sister Lavinia—Higginson was the least motivated by a personal agenda.
He had no agenda at all at that point. It's an interesting moral/commercial argument that he was making: that we have to ready the public for her, and the only way to do that is to tone her down a bit. You could say that is pandering to public taste, and in that sense he sounds like a stuffy Victorian. But on the other hand, you could say that maybe he really understood that public, and he did get those poems out. The poems couldn't have been damaged that much, because they persisted.