Every writer writes for an audience. The most secret, carefully hidden diary that is supposedly the repository of the diarist's darkest secrets is written with an eye towards someone finding and reading it, whether now or far in the future. I often think diary keepers always have a tiny hope that their writing will be found, so the reader can find the "real me," or at least the me the writers have constructed. Others write less secretly, with the hope that someone will read their work and discover how talented or insightful they are (and then hopefully introduce the scribbling genius to the world so that everyone will see what a great artiste said writer is). Writers write with an eye on the audience, and what is said or left unsaid is due to the recognition that someone may see it and you never know who that person will be. Even me. I always tell people I keep a blog and no one reads it, but I still write with the caution--sometimes the wish--that my words will be read by someone, known or unknown.
In popular imagination, Emily Dickinson is the weird, solitary genius, huddled in her room in a house in Amherst, scratching away at poem after poem, then locking them up in drawers, hiding them from view. So shy, so delicate, too gentle for this world, readers or critics. But like any reader, Dickinson sought out an audience and in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple writes about Dickinson and the man she chose to be her audience.
Higginson's name isn't one that we remember very much these days--you'll stumble across him in accounts of abolitionists and women's suffrage in the nineteenth century (I know I have), but he's usually not the centerpiece of any story of these movements. But he was a committed anti-slavery activist and a tireless promoter of women's rights. During the Civil War, Higginson led a unit of freed slaves, the First South Carolina Volunteers, months before the more famous Massachusetts 54th was created. He was highly active before the war in trying to keep slaves who had escaped from being returned to the South. He believed in full emancipation for freed slaves; when it came down to the post-Civil War battle over whether to fight for women's suffrage at the same time as the enfranchisement for all men or leave the women's vote for later, he sided with those who thought it was better to win the vote for men first.
That's not to say Higginson thought less of women--it's interesting to note that while he tended to fall into the paternalistic language typical of the day when speaking of the slaves he fought to free, he never diminished or minimalized the capabilities he believed women had and were not allowed to exercise. His choice of the less radical course, though, is indicative of Higginson's overall more moderate nature, despite his views. He held radical views, but had a moderate temperament, if that makes any sense.
Higginson was a contributor to The Atlantic, and one time wrote a piece giving advice about how to get published to hopeful writers. He received many letters from aspiring authors looking for his advice or opinion, but one stood out--a letter from a woman in Amherst who sent several poems, asking if he thought her verse was "alive." Indeed it was, he thought.
Emily Dickinson's family was reasonably well off, and her father was one of the leading citizens of Amherst. The family was extremely insular--Emily told her beloved older brother Austin "we're all unlike most anyone." When Austin married--one of Emily's friends, no less--he moved into a house built next door to the house he grew up in. Emily and her sister Lavinia, called Vinnie, never left their childhood home.
Emily went to school in Amherst as a child, then spent a brief time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, before returning home for good. She became less and less social, until she rarely came out of her room for anyone but her family members.
People in town speculated about her for the duration of her life, believing that she was an invalid, or had suffered some tremendous disappointment--perhaps in love--or was incapacitated in some mental way that made her unfit for the world. None of this was true--she just simply decided that her world, her home was what she liked best. It wasn't that she was scared of the outside world; she simply didn't need it. People often think that withdrawing in such a way is a sign of weakness or fear, but it takes a towering strength to leave the world. And Emily Dickinson had that towering strength, as anyone who has read her work knows.
She wasn't completely cut off--she corresponded with numerous friends, but Higginson was the recipient of most of her poems. She wrote to him in the guise of a student seeking help or advice to improve her writing, but her letters reveal a sort of sly, teasing tone that shows she was well aware of the level of her work, with complete confidence in her abilities. Higginson tried to offer some suggestions at first, but he quickly realized that she was the master, and he was just the lucky audience.
It's hard to characterize the relationship between Higginson and Dickinson in any way. It's hard to say there was a frustrated or unfulfilled love affair on either side. When his first wife died, he didn't rush to court Emily; when he remarried, she didn't betray any heartbreak. They only met twice--Emily, filled with nervous energy the first time, wore Higginson out--but neither seemed to regard it as a tragedy that they didn't spend more time together. The letters and poems seemed to be enough. Can you fall in love with someone on paper, through words only? Absolutely (though I wouldn't advise it). But maybe it's a special, different kind of love. Higginson seemed to be more curious and amazed about her writing, maybe in love with the poems, not the person. In one of his forgettable novels, Higginson wrote, "Every one must have something to which his dreams can cling, amid the degradations of actual life, and this tie is more real than the degradation; and if he holds to the tie, it will one day save him." Maybe Emily's poems were the thing to which his dreams could cling.
As for Emily, she seemed to not need his love, but rather just a reader, even to confirm what she already knew.
Higginson is best known today for his role in getting Dickinson's poems published. After Emily's death, Vinnie discovered the hundreds of poems Emily had squirrelled away in her room. She sought the help of Higginson in getting them in shape to be published. Mabel Todd, Austin's mistress, a pushy sort who had insinuated herself into the family, also helped out quite a bit. Historically, Higginson has born the brunt of criticism for editing Dickinson's work into more conventional style, diluting its power and meaning; decades later the originals would be restored. Wineapple makes it clear, though, that it was likely Todd who pushed more for the editing, reshaping things into what she thought her best (and her style was always best).
Wineapple's book is in many ways a restoration of Higginson's reputation. He's not, as has been perceived, the stuffy Victorian who didn't understand her work. But rather he was an inordinately kind man, not at all the narrow-minded, patronizing, conservative, although his own overly genteel writing projects that image. He knew there was nothing like Dickinson's work. Wineapple uses HIgginson's life as the outline for the narrative, with Emily and her poems intruding in along the way, much as it must have been like for Higginson in his own experience.
There have been numerous biographies of Dickinson and exhaustive studies of her poems. Although Wineapple doesn't intend to write a full out biography or critique every poem, her book still functions quite well as an introduction or understanding of Dickinson's life, and provides a guide for reading her poems to even the most inexperienced reader (like me--I am guilty of always avoiding poetry classes).
I had read Wineapple's biography of Janet Flanner, but didn't care much for it. That wasn't Wineapple's fault--the book was workmanlike, professional and easy to read. I just found I didn't care much for Flanner. So I was unprepared for how much more I liked this one--it's rather dazzling the way Wineapple assembles all the parts--poems, letters, biographies--into one absorbing whole. I could have lived without the long descriptions of Civil War events, but that's not my favorite war and I always get bored at the mere mention of Fort Sumter. Other than that I highly recommend White Heat.
I always secretly fancied myself a bit of an Emily Dickinson, without the talent, of course. But the recluse scribbling (or in this day, typing) away furiously in my isolated tower, compelled by that unknown force that keeps even the least writer going in the most unlikely of times. I suppose some of this kindredness that I feel comes a little from her location in Amherst, where I know I have left something of my heart. The rest, though, is here, in my dark, crumbling aerie, hoping to be discovered, wondering if I'll find my reader.