Monday, July 28, 2008

A New Reading of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson is the mother (to Walt Whitman's father) of American poetry. She may be both the most read and the least understood of poets, but no one doubts the importance of her work and the innovation of voice.

The article sets out to review the new book, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf; $27.95), by Brenda Wineapple. But it does much more than that for those who haven't studied Dickinson's work -- it explains the somewhat strange relationship that launched her public career.
Her Own Society
A new reading of Emily Dickinson.

By Judith Thurman

In April of 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to a stranger, initiating a fervent twenty-four-year correspondence, in the course of which they managed to meet only twice. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, thirty-eight, was a man of letters, a clergyman, a fitness enthusiast, a celebrated abolitionist, and a champion of women’s rights, whose essays on slavery and suffrage, but also on snow, flowers, and calisthenics, appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. “Letter to a Young Contributor,” the article that inspired Dickinson to approach him, was a column addressed to literary débutantes and—despite his deep engagement with the Civil War—a paean to the bookish life: “There may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence,” he wrote, evoking Dickinson’s poetry without yet having seen it. “Mr. Higginson,” she began, with no endearment. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”

Dickinson was a spinster of thirty-one, birdlike in habit and appearance, with fine chestnut hair and abnormally wide-set eyes, whose color she compared to sherry. She lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her parents and her sister, Lavinia, next door to her brother, Austin, and his difficult wife, Susan, whom she adored. Her father, Edward, a prominent lawyer and the treasurer of Amherst College, had a heart that was “pure and terrible,” she told Higginson years later. (He found the old man more remote than forbidding.) Her mother, née Emily Norcross, was recovering from a nervous breakdown that had lasted several years, during which time the poet herself had become reclusive. The room where she worked, and spent much of her life, was furnished with a sleigh bed, a cast-iron stove, a bureau, and a writing table.

Dickinson came to Higginson in the guise of an unpublished novice, though by this point—middle age (she died at fifty-five)—she had composed hundreds of poems. Among them are some of the greatest ever written in English, but an English unique to her—an unworn language. It revives sensation at the extremities of feeling that, in most lives, habit and cliché have numbed. Few voices are more solitary than her first person, yet few are more intimate: she writes I to I. Richard B. Sewall, whose critical biography, “The Life of Emily Dickinson” (1974), is still unsurpassed, classed her with George Herbert, Wordsworth, the author of the Psalms and of Job, and, in her eerie genius for metaphor (a comparison that isn’t impertinent), Shakespeare.

It is hard to believe that Dickinson didn’t know who and what she was, even if no one else did. She kept her poems in a bureau drawer, sewn into bundles. But she had shared a few with her closest friends, among them her sister-in-law and Samuel Bowles—a driven man, famously attractive, like her new pen pal, and the editor of an influential newspaper, the Springfield Republican. Bowles had already printed three lyrics anonymously. She enclosed one of them in her note to Higginson (who then lived in Worcester) with three others:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning—
And untouched by Noon—
Sleep the meek members of the
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone—

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
And Doges—surrender—
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow.

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.
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