Review: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Brenda Wineapple

Emily Dickinson declared, “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.” Brenda Wineapple not only takes on the monumental task in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson of writing a biography of the enigmatic Belle of Amherst, but also of her friend, now (unfortunately) mostly unknown except for his connection to Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Dickinson sent her poetry to Higginson along with her query:

Mr. Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

So began a friendship and correspondence that would last until Emily Dickinson’s death, after which, Higginson, along with the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd, would edit and assist in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems after her death. Dickinson personally sent Higginson over 100 of her nearly 1800 poems.

After the introduction describing Emily Dickinson’s first letter, Wineapple’s biography is divided into three major parts, titled “Before,” “During,” and “After,” which describe the lives of Dickinson and Higginson in alternating chapters before they began their correspondence, during their correspondence and friendship, and after Emily Dickinson’s death, respectively.

Emily Dickinson first wrote to Higginson while he was living in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is my home. I had to look him up on the 1860 US Census, and I was not disappointed.

1860 Census

Take a look at his occupation: “Literary Man.”

Emily Dickinson Letter

Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson via Wikipedia

What Wineapple so expertly brings to light in this extraordinary biography is just how important Higginson’s contribution not only to preserving for posterity the poetry of one of the greatest American poets but also to history. Over time, he’s been accused of heavy-handed editing and of not understanding Dickinson’s genius. Both accusations may be true. One can hardly blame him for not understanding her. She was unlike any poet he had read before. Higginson himself claimed that “The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me; and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy” in an essay he wrote about Dickinson for The Atlantic, a magazine to which he was a frequent contributor. As to whether he was too heavy-handed an editor, Wineapple claims that it’s almost impossible to tell today whether it was Higginson or Mabel Loomis Todd who is more responsible for the edits. Thankfully, after the scholarship of Thomas H. Johnson and Ralph W. Franklin, we have editions of her poetry that more likely capture Emily Dickinson’s intentions. However, Wineapple does note that Higginson implored Todd on several occasions to “alter as little as possible, now that the public’s ear is opened.” Wineapple claims Todd “did not listen” (292).

In any case, Higginson’s reputation foundered with the advent of Modernism in the twentieth century, and while appreciation for Dickinson soared, Higginson was nearly forgotten. It’s a shame, too, because he was an admirable man. He was an abolitionist whose house was always on the Underground Railroad. He was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage. It was he, not Robert Gould Shaw (now memorialized in the movie Glory) who led the first black regiment in the Civil War, the First South Carolina Volunteers. He suffered an injury that would leave a scar he carried all his life in an attempt to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns and prevent his return to the South.

Wineapple’s triumph in this biography is not only that she is able in some way to offer a peek into the lives of the Dickinson family, but also that she resurrected Higginson from “the dustbin of literary history” (12). As she explains in her introduction,

Sometimes we see better through a single window after all: this book is not a biography of Emily Dickinson, of whom biography gets us nowhere, even though her poems seem to cry out for one. Nor is it a biography of Colonel Higginson. It is not conventional literary criticism. Rather, here Dickinson’s poetry speaks largely for itself, as it did to Higginson. And by providing a context for particular poems, this book attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incomparable friends. It also suggests, however lightly, how this recluse and this activist bear a fraught, collaborative, unbalanced, and impossible relation to each other, a relation as symbolic and real in our culture as it was special to them. (13)

Wineapple’s book is not only one of the most interesting books about Dickinson to be found, but it is also one of the most well-written. I have rarely read a biography that swept me up in quite the same way this one did. I found myself both eager to pick it up to read, and reluctant to read too fast so that I could savor it and stretch out my experience of reading it. I came away with renewed appreciation for Dickinson and a newly acquired appreciation for Higginson. It’s definitely worth the read for anyone curious about Emily Dickinson, but I imagine even those who aren’t sure about Dickinson would enjoy this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I bought this book in September 2015, I think right after I visited the Emily Dickinson Homestead the first time. I just now finally picked it up. It was published in 2008. I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

Related posts:

Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

Related posts:

Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

Related posts:

A Few More 2017 Reading Challenges

I have found a few more 2017 reading challenges I want to participate in since my recent post about next year’s reading challenges. I have to thank Tanya Patrice at the GirlXOXO for maintaining such a comprehensive list of reading challenges. I have been checking in periodically to see what’s been added to her list.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017The Backlist Reader Challenge will give me a reason to read some of the older books that have been on my shelf for a while. I tend to do that anyway, and to review them, even if they are not new and have been out in some cases for years and years. What I like about this challenge is any books that are older than 2016 and have been on my TBR pile can count, whether I own them already or not. I can think of plenty of books that meet both qualifications. Anyway, my goal is to read 20 books for this challenge, but I think I’ll play it by ear and see how the year goes. It will be a good opportunity to chip away at my backlist.

Beat the BacklistTo that end, I’m also participating in the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge mainly because there is a House Cup competition. Ravenclaw, represent! Just to make it interesting and to challenge myself to chip away at more of my backlist, I am not going to count books toward both challenges. I will count them for one or the other, trading back and forth as I chip away. This challenge allows books published in 2016, so I may put in some books I published this year that I haven’t read yet for this one. I will also try to read 20 books for this challenge, but I’m not sure which ones I will target yet.

British Books ChallengeI love British literature, and I was pleased to find the British Books Challenge, which is similar to one I’ve done in the past, but hadn’t been able to locate again. I’m supposed to declare which authors I plan to read, but I’m honestly not sure. I have a ton of authors in my backlist as well as some I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Definitely some Zadie Smith, I think. I have been wanting to read her for a while, and this challenge will give me a good excuse. I might try to tackle George Eliot finally. I need to read Middlemarch. I was also thinking about Elizabeth Gaskell because I really want to watch the miniseries of North and South, and I was thinking of reading it first. Perhaps I can return to some favorites: the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen? I’ve also wanted to read “The Goblin Market,” so perhaps a collection of Christina Rossetti poems? It might also be time to re-read Possession by A. S. Byatt. When is the third Cromwell book by Hilary Mantel coming out, anyway? I promise, if it’s 2017, I’ll put everything aside when it comes out to finish that series. I never did finish her book on the French Revolution, either. I am sure I’ll think of others. I will probably count books I read for either backlist challenge toward this challenge as well, if they fit the parameters. I’m setting a goal of ten books for this one.

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI am really tempted by this Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, particularly in light of new Sherlock episodes. I think I’ll sign up and see if I can make it work. I haven’t read all the stories in over 20 years. I did fly through all of Sherlock Holmes one summer when my oldest was a baby, and she’s 23 now. I reckon I could give it another go. I remember that being quite an enjoyable reading summer, too. The idea of this challenge is to read all four novels and all 56 short stories. I actually have the complete collection around this house somewhere. The challenge runs for 16 months, too, which seems completely reasonable.

Well, I think that’s enough to be getting on with for now. Still, I’m excited about all four of these challenges. I don’t think I’ll sign up for any more, however, unless the Historical Fiction Challenge runs again (haven’t seen a sign-up post for it yet), and, of course, the R. I. P. Challenge. One further goal: to actually post linkups to my reviews on the challenge websites and participate in the challenges beyond crossing books off my list.

Related posts: