Brenda Wineapple reminded us that Emily Dickinson was a woman “eminently capable of saying no”; she considered it a radical act. “No is the wildest word in the language.” So what about when she didn’t say no?
Dickinson chose Thomas Wentworth Higginson “from an ample nation” to be her reader, and she initiated the relationship with a letter, the seductive description of which begins Wineapple’s book White Heat. Dickinson wanted him to say if her poems were “alive.” The language and format of the letter were as original as the poems enclosed, but most remarkable, in Wineapple’s description, is the fact that Dickinson enclosed her name on a tiny card in its own tiny envelope, separated from both the poems and the letter. In the context of our seminar, the eccentric gesture becomes a potent symbolic representation of the complex relationship between the author, the person, and the work.
Dickinson’s choice of Higginson has long been regarded as a mistake. Instead of choosing Emerson or even Longfellow, as a friend of Wineapple’s lamented, Dickinson reached out to Higginson, an abolitionist, an activist, a women’s health and physical fitness advocate, an engaged writer for the Atlantic Monthly. Why lamentable? Higginson was the one who “mangled” her poems, poems which were not published in the form we know now until Johnson’s edition in 1955. White Heat reexamines an important relationship forged by Dickinson with real intention, lifting it from a dismissed, derided, and insufficiently examined position.
In the final panel of the day, with Thurman, Atlas and Parini, Wineapple quoted Dickinson again: “Tell all the Truth but Tell it slant –” The slant Wineapple takes in White Heat allows her to open up Dickinson’s life through the “Circuit” of her relationship to a very different kind of radical. If Higginson “reflected almost everything in the air of his time,” Dickinson breathed in the realm of her “isolation” and reflects an unfounded originality. From a broader perspective, Wineapple asked the compelling question, what makes us into “recluses and activists, sometimes both?”