The editor criticized for dumbing down the great American poet’s work gets a fairer assessment from literary biographer Wineapple (Hawthorne, 2003, etc.).
Dickinson (1830–86) wrote her first letter to Higginson (1823–1911) in 1862, coyly asking, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She had not chosen him at random; known as an ardent proponent of women’s rights, he had just published an article in the Atlantic Monthly offering advice to aspiring writers. Higginson responded positively, but advised Dickinson to “delay” publication and made some attempts to regularize her unconventional prosody and punctuation. Ever since, scholars have depicted him as the clueless Victorian who condescended to genius. On the contrary, Wineapple demonstrates in her astute assessment of their quarter-century epistolary relationship (they met in person only a few times), he was in awe of her from the beginning, well aware that his considerable gifts as a polemicist and essayist paled in comparison to her brilliance. Quoting extensively from Dickinson’s letters to Higginson and the poems she enclosed in them (his side of the correspondence has been lost), the author shows a powerful—and sexually suggestive—writer who disguised her forcefulness in coquettish, sometimes simpering prose. Higginson was not fooled. He had never met anyone “who drained my nerve power so much,” he wrote to his wife after their first meeting. “I am glad not to live near her.” At a safe distance, he relished the privilege of being the favored recipient of “thoughts of such a quality.” Wineapple never makes quite clear what Higginson gave the poet other than a sympathetic ear, and she devotes too many pages to his ardent abolitionism, which had little impact on Dickinson. Still, she paints a warm portrait of an honorable man remarkably free from the prejudices of his time whose appeal for his sequestered friend—and appreciation of her artistry—is evident. The biographer blames co-editor Mabel Loomis Todd for most of the editorial meddling in the posthumous 1890 and 1891 editions of Dickinson’s work.
A moving portrait of two unalike but kindred spirits who did indeed “Dare [to] see a Soul at the ‘White Heat.’ ”