A Queer History of the United States, American Radical, Arguably Essays, Author Vs Voice Vs Persona, biography, Book Review, Brenda Wineapple, Christopher Hitchens, Creative Writing, Ellen Page, Emily Dickinson, Fred Kaplan, If you're reading this pat yourself on the back because you can read and that's awesome, Lesbianism, Literature, Lolita, Michael Bronski, Operation, The Singular Mark Twain, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Vladimir Nabokov, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Writers
The literary biography is a careful dance and many authors who attempt it have two left feet.
This is a conflict for me as a writer and reviewer of great works because I have yet to really stumble across a biography that is truly atrocious, well, okay, I have but the one I’m thinking about I haven’t finished yet and I plan to review it after finishing this essay. While I have read numerous biographies, some interesting but not great and some that defy the laws of conventions and seal their enormity and wonder upon the psyche of the writer’s mind, because I have yet to read one that is utter garbage I feel that calling a book a “great biography” places myself in a dangerous ethical position. I’m also struggling against the fact that I’m still learning the biography game, having read only a few in my lifetime, and for the fact that Hasbro didn’t include the instructions or batteries in the box.
Bobby’s dad down the street can afford a new Operation but I have play with hand-me-downs. It’s lame man.
A biography compels the writer to write or else it doesn’t, and unless the book has some merit or relevance there isn’t much of a point bothering writing anything at all. Having said that, Grad School works wonders for motivations and this semester I have been put through the ringer. This semester I signed up for a course covering the entire works of Emily Dickinson, and while I cannot say it has made me an expert on the subject, Dickinson as a woman and writer have taken on new meanings in no small part because of the work I have put, the brilliance of my professor, and of course the endless series of reading and writing I have had that is currently sending me into a spiral of madness. Two of the books this semester have been biographies of Dickinson, and while one has sent me reeling in horror and disgust, the other one, which happens to be the subject of this review, has left me deeply impressed of Emily Dickinson but also of a man I had never known or heard of before.
Before I get to Brenda Wineapple though I need to briefly clarify the idea of biography and for that I’ll need Christopher Hitchens. In the November 2003 edition of The Atlantic Hitchens published a scathing review of an unfortunate biography about Mark Twain entitled American Radical. The biography in question was The Singular Mark Twain by Fred Kaplan and I rediscovered this essay in my copy of Arguably Essays two semesters back when researching for information about Twain’s life. Hitchens could be a mean bastard and this essay stands as one of his most brutal, relentless assaults that I have ever read. The relevance though to the issue of biographies is that in American Radical Hitchens lays out the scope and purpose of a biography in fine detail and slamming Kaplan while doing so:
There are four rules governing literary art in the domain of biography—some say five. In The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan violates all five of them. These five require:
1) That a biography shall cause us to wish we had known its subject in person, and inspire in us a desire to improve on such vicarious acquaintance as we possess. The Singular Mark Twain arouses in the reader an urgently fugitive instinct, as at the approach of an unpolished yet tenacious raconteur.
2) That the elements of biography make a distinction between the essential and the inessential, winnowing the quotidian and burnishing those moments of glory and elevation that place a human life in the first rank. The Singular Mark Twain puts all events and conversations on the same footing, and fails to enforce any distinction between wood and trees.
3) That a biographer furnish something by way of context, so that the place of the subject within history and society is illuminated, and his progress through life made intelligible by reference to his times. This condition is by no means met in The Singular Mark Twain.
4) That the private person be allowed to appear in all his idiosyncrasy, and not as a mere reflection of the correspondence or reminiscences of others, or as a subjective projection of the mind of the biographer. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in The Singular Mark Twain.
5) That a biographer have some conception of his subject, which he wishes to advance or defend against prevailing or even erroneous interpretations. This detail, too, has been overlooked in The Singular Mark Twain.
One wonders when the referee finally pulled Hitchens off Kaplan and how long the medical examiner waited before declaring Kaplan dead before he even hit the floor. These five “rules” have often been my approach to determining whether or not a biography has succeeded in its task and looking at Brenda Wineapple’s book White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, I’m happy to say all five rules are satisfied. This is ironic seeing as how Wineapple is honest about her position of the book:
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. (13)
This would seemingly make all this build up an anti-climax were it not for the following section in which Wineapple clarifies her purpose:
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 incompatible 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. After all, who they were—the issues they grappled with—shapes the rhetoric of our art and politics: a country alone, exceptional, at least in its own romantic mythology—even warned by its first president to steer clear of permanent alliances—that regularly intervenes on behalf, or at the expense, of others. The fantasy of isolation, the fantasy of intervention: they create recluses and activists, sometimes both, in us all. (13).
This proposition floored me the first time I read, however at the same time there was a part of me that called bullshit. The reason for this was ignorance of Higginson as a man. I had no conception of him other than as an editor who gave less-than-constructive criticism of some of her poems. Higginson as a man had no meaning and so the idea that his friendship with Dickinson was something worth writing a book about seemed absurd…until I began to read the book and discover that Higginson in his own right, was a bonafide badass. Apart from commanding the first all African American infantry unit during the Civil War, he was a staunch abolitionist, outdone in his zeal for black rights only by John Brown, whom he apparently almost joined. A Minister, writer, political activist, lecturer, and part-time poet, Higginson’s life was often one of constant activity and in one instance that reads more like an action film than contemporary imaginings of the Pre-Civil War era, Wineapple describes an attempt to liberate run-away slave Anthony Burns:
Posted near the court Hourse, Stowell began to hammer its heavy oak door with one of the axes. Several men threw bricks. Several other men—Higginson at the front—hoisted a fourteen foot wooden beam. […] Higginson, at the head of the beam, elbowed his way into the room, but Lewis Hayden pressed ahead of him. Unarmed, Higginson fought bare-handed. The police were swinging swords and billy clubs, and Higginson received a cut, nothing sever, on his chin. […] For many years afterward Higginson supposed, or wanted to believe, the sheriff’s deputies would carelessly or drunkenly murder their own. (82-3).
Higginson’s steadfast political activism may be in no small part due to complications with his marriage. Wineapple notes that his wife suffered a severe medical condition which left her constantly in pain, in need of attendance, and sexually impaired. Though this last note should not send the reader scurrying to the bookshelves for Wineapple’s biography spurns salacious details. Instead she places these figures in the midst of their time. Higginson would, in his lifetime, encounter great authors like Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and even Nathaniel Hawthorn.
Speaking of which I suppose I should get back to Dickinson:
For like Hawthorne, whom she greatly admired, Dickinson spurned the overtly topical; he sneered at what he called the “damned mob of scribbling women” who wrote of social issues, not timeless truths of the human heart, and Dickinson, who shares his sense of literature’s incomparable and universal mission, took literature even further from recognizable person, place, or event. (101).
Dickinson as an author tends to be surrounded by a golden areole of mystery and speculation, for while there are only one or two photographs of the actual woman, a cartoon reproduction has surfaced in relation to her name that tends to dominate the public consciousness. The image is either a heavily repressed hermit living in her parents home looking out the window to write poems about butterflies, or, in more recent time, the image of a closeted lesbian using flower imagery, like Georgia O’Keefe did apparently, to express her closeted sexual longings. The conflict I have with both of these interpretations is they both reek of failure to dig deeper into Dickinson as a woman as well as a figure of history. In one earlier passage Wineapple gives us a brief glimpse into Dickinson’s behavior:
Deliberate, gracious, and self-depreciating. Dickinson filed her renunciatory rhetoric to a razor’s edge, her weapon, words, charming and implacable. Otherwise, she darkly hinted, there were consequences. Going to church by herself, she had to rush to her seat and, terrified, wondered why she trembled so, why the aisle seemed so wide and broad, why it took almost half an hour afterward to catch her breath. Yet knowing when and how to protect herself, she managed her fear, and evidently her family cosseted her. When her father suggested they come to Washington in 1853, he did not insist that Emily join them. Instead, she stayed at home with Sue and a cousin, John Graves, who later remembered Emily improvising on the piano late at night: he was invited to sit in the next room while she mesmerizingly played. (64).
It may seem that Dickinson as a hermit is validated in this passage however to classify Dickinson with that term is impractical and unfair to her as a person. While Dickinson did actively avoid leaving the territory of her family’s property she was not the Howard-Hughs-Mason-Jar-Hermit that many of the popular critics like to classify her as. In this passage Wineapple shows a real woman who, while not much of a social creature who was probably suffering from social anxiety or a mild case of agoraphobia, was still a complex individual with depth of soul.
The reader may then wonder about the lesbianism, a thought process which tends to be justified by a fair amount of criticism and recitation by queer theorists and even queer historians. Michael Bronski’s A Queer History of the United States has an entire page dedicated to this topic, and Bronski argues:
Emily Dickinson, who wrote explicitly about intimacy between women in the mid-nineteenth century, showed her large body of work to a handful of people and published fewer than a dozen poems. A member of a well-to-do Amherst, Massachusetts, family, she was unmarried, lived a reclusive life, and was passionately devoted to her friend Sue Gilbert (who later married Dickinson’s brother Austin). The homoerotic content in Dickinson’s poetry is notable for its time. (53).
The conflict of Bronski’s argument here is his heresay evidence which is rather weak for a declaration of lesbianism or at least same-sex desire. Part of his problem is that he’s writing a summary history of queer sexualities in all of American history in only 242 pages when really he should have written it in at least 500, but I’m forgiving on that front. While I, and numerous Dickinson scholars, have observed some queer persona operating in Dickinson’s poetry I believe it’s dangerous to call her a lesbian and leave it at that. The conflict is that the identity of “lesbian” is a political one that really began in the American Civil rights movements in the 1960s. Now before the reader throws their computer out the window remember that it cost a lot of money.
There has always been same-sex activity between women as far back as there were people walking this earth, and as long as this activity has occurred there have been some women who are more than happy to exist in single-sex exclusive behavior whether it be purely sexual, purely emotional, or else a lovely combination of both. The conflict is the contemporary identity of “lesbian” is so wrapped up in Post-modern political and psychological philosophies and paradigms that trying to call Emily Dickinson a lesbian in the same way Ellen Page (Quite possibly one of the most awesome people in the history of awesomeness) is a lesbian is not only irresponsible it’s shaky at best. Many of the critics arguing for this behavior look to her poetry and there lies the great conflict. There is difference between a writer, an author, and a creative voice. If you don’t believe me look at that great nightmare of Lolita.
Nabokhov wrote the book through the first person narration of the character of Humbert Humbert, and so many people have mistaken the man as a pedophile. What they fail to recognize, or perhaps they just don’t want to is that as the writer Nabokhov is acting through the creative voice of his author who in turn is creating the character Humbert Humbert. If I sound testy about this it’s because I’ve had to teach poetry and the first lesson that seems to be forgotten over and over again is that Byron, Browning, Whitman, Auden, Shakespeare, Ginsberg are never the speaker of a poem unless otherwise specified. Critics who look at Dickinson’s poetry and immediately argue that the woman is a lesbian do a disservice to Dickinson as an individual as well as an artist (and also to real lesbians who already struggle getting their voices fully understood in the discourse).
Wineapple does not assert anything that cannot be observed either in hard historical record, letters, diaries, personal correspondence, reporting’s, the collections of books and articles read by the authors at this time, and what emerges from such an effort are more than two authors who wrote letters back and forth, what emerges are two people who tried in their time to contribute something to the efforts of humanity.
It is a book about friendship however, and since both Higginson and Dickinson had processed the identity of writer to their own egos their friendship assumes the real significance. The friendship that exists between writers, real writers, is more than just having someone to look over your work and suggest a better word here and there. It is an energy relationship in which the figures sharing the bond feed off of one another’s encouragement and competition. In one passage Wineapple discusses the friendship, describing its significance to the authors themselves:
It was Higginson’s writing she complimented most often, and he in turn wanted to know what she thought of it. When she failed to comment on his Atlantic piece “A Shadow,” he prodded her, or so we can gather from her somewhat noncommittal reply: “I thought I spoke to you of the Shadow—it affects me.” Yet his new collection, Atlantic Essays, which included “A Letter to a Young Contributor,” prompted Emily to ask him again to guide her. Even if he could offer her nothing but encouragement and, those few grammatical touch-ups certain only to tickle her, she desired his opinion, perhaps more than ever.
That opinion was far higher than his critics have guessed. Frequently he praised her poems to friends in Newport […]. (185).
In my own life I have met personally at most three or four writers who I have considered truly great and it’s been an honor to discover they feel likewise. The relationship that followed was a careful balance of submitting work to one another, trying to out compete each other, and often telling others new to our creative circle about each other’s talent. This relationship was a solace as well as a parasitic relationship and I imagine that is the sentiment expressed by many creative people who form similar clicks. Artists require such company to keep them sharp and Dickinson and Higginson follow this path.
There’s so much more to Wineapple’s biography but alas I feel that gushing at the expense of honest sentiment is a waste of time and writing. Allow me two more quotes and then I’ll finish.
Wineapple steals into Dickinson’s room to give a vital element in her life story because it is demonstrates the choice that continues to elude and inspire scholars and Dickinson fans.
By 1858, Dickinson was fastening groups of her poems together into small hand-sewn packets, each of which contained as many as twenty poems. She sent a number of these poems to friends; others she kept and reworked. And even after she entered them into booklets, she continued to alter them, dividing long stanzas, for instance, into quatrains, or shifting some of the punctuation, or substituting words. Later called fascicles by one of her first editors, these packets survive, all forty of them, and though they cannot be dated with precision, they reveal a self-conscious poet, never satisfied with the work at hand. “ ‘It is finished,’ “ she would say, “can never be said of us.” (74).
I understand Dickinson painfully in this last sentiment, for it is the condition of the honest writer. I have never in my life been completely satisfied with a work of writing, whether it be for school, for personal creative writing, or whether it even be the published work either on this blog or other websites. I have kept well over three books worth of writing hidden away in drawers or computer files because there was one sentence, one paragraph, one word wanting that needed something more that language could not supply or my ability lacked. Because of that desire I can understand Dickinson as a writer. But likewise I understand Higginson:
Like Dickinson, Higginson never stopped writing. Seated either in his cozy book-lined study, his desk near a window, or in the larger room on the second floor where he installed a typewriter, he flooded newspapers and magazines with essays and reviews. He opposed all proposals to restrict immigration, he advocated religious tolerance—including toleration for atheism—and woman suffrage. (315).
Side by side the authors seem mirrors of one another answering for something lacking in themselves. Higginson as a writer has largely been ignored or forgotten by the mass consciousness and honestly I have never read the man’s work myself. I knew the name of Dickinson and had read one or two poems before opening Wineapple’s biography and this in the end seems the real power of her work. Wineapple does not want her reader to find one author superior than the other, rather as she said at the start this literary friendship comes to stand as something relevant to any and all who approach the task of writing and reading. Action and careful reflection are not anti-thesis of each other, for both Dickinson and Higginson in their own way contributed great artifacts and actions to and for their culture. Higginson in his life tried his best to make American letters and culture something as significant as the Europeans masters, and Dickinson, trying ever to reach that space of the immortal poets, did just this by producing a body of work in-line with her creative will.
Wineapple’s biography is not just an impressive work of outstanding scholarship, it’s a careful dance designed to chronicle two people who come to exemplify the greatness of intellectual capacity and humanity that existed during the period of the American Civil War. Even if the reader is not American, or even a fan of poetry, they will walk away from this book rewarded for knowing these two writers.
And at the end of the day that’s all that you should ask from a biography.
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold…you should also try A LIBRARY because those still exist you know…Todd.