non fiction · Reader's Advisory

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple

It is definitely closing in on the darkest and coldest days of the season, so my Five Star Friday recommendation is to grab some tea and warm up with the poetry of my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.  In the book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple not only shares many selected verses, she also provides, a context for those poems.

White Heat “is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere…,” Wineapple explains.  Nor is it conventional criticism.  The author said she hoped this book throws “a small, considered beam onto the lifework” of the poet and her unlikely friend, Thomas Higginson.

3361966-_uy450_ss450_Publisher Summary   A radiant portrayal of one of the most remarkable friendships in American letters—between the elusive, original poet and the radical abolitionist, reformer, and writer whom we have to thank for the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Brenda Wineapple re-creates the extraordinary, delicate connection between these two wildly dissimilar personalities, giving us new insight into the correspondence between them, which lasted almost a quarter of a century, a correspondence that included nearly one hundred of Dickinson’s dazzling, unseen poems. We see how Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his dual role as friend and literary adviser, counseled her against publishing, suggesting that her poetry was too unconventional, defiant, and unpredictable. And we see how, after her death, he himself co-edited the first editions of her poetry—changing her distinctive punctuation—and watched them become immediate bestsellers.

The added treat  of White Heat is that we get a glimpse into the lives of Dickinson’s contemporaries: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet Helen Hunt, journalist Samuel Bowles, and a host of other celebrities of the day.   While Dickinson avoided interacting with the outside world, Higginson’s politics and employment provide ample backstory to the lives of both male and female writers.  He was an abolitionist and an outspoken supporter of equal rights for women.

Judith Thurman  wrote in her New York Times review, “Higginson, the radical, was a pious man. Dickinson, the dormouse, was a heretic who dared to call the dead suckers, conned of their heaven. Her sweetness of tone makes it easy to miss her bleak audacity. She didn’t, it seems, take much of Higginson’s advice (which we can only infer from her replies—his half of the correspondence disappeared), except for his suggestion that she delay publishing. But, lost at an anguished crossroads, she needed a Virgil. He had once risked his life to rescue a fugitive slave, and she was, in her way, also a fugitive.”

Don’t just take my word for it, Brenda Wineapple’s work earned her wide recognition:

Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, 2008

Winner of the Arts Club of Washington’s National Award for Arts Writing

New York Times Notable Book, 2008

Best book of 2008: The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and Maureen Corrigan on NPR

Happy Winter Reading, Susan C.

Other biographies by Wineapple:

Ecstatic nation : confidence, crisis, and compromise, 1848-1877

Hawthorne: A Life

estatic-nation    hawthorne

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