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White Heat

The deep and distant friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

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The Boston neighborhood in which I live encompasses an almost undisturbed patch of Victoriana. Huge, sleepy mansions line streets that stretch from a Unitarian church of somber stone up to a dark Episcopalian basilica set on a hill. Were Emily Dickinson to turn up on our block tomorrow – apart from the cars and utility poles – there would be almost nothing to surprise her.

The surprises, I suspect, would all be on our side.

The Dickinson found in the pages of Brenda Wineapple’s intelligent, delightful White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson is aggressive, sexy, furious, flirtatious, subtle, witty, and very much in control. That is, except when she is timid, morbidly sensitive, reclusive, childlike, and decidedly odd.

“White Heat” is packed with contradictions, and Wineapple is a writer skilled enough to embrace these rather than to puzzle over them. The author of previous biographies (of Nathaniel Hawthorne,  Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Janet Flanner), Wineapple tells us from the start that here she is attempting neither biography nor literary criticism. Instead, she hopes to “throw a small, considered beam” on a remarkable friendship between “two unusual, seemingly incompatible friends.”

Dickinson and Higginson exchanged hundreds of deeply personal letters over the course of almost a quarter of a century and yet met face to face only twice in their lives. They had a friendship “based on absence, geographic distance, and the written word,” writes Wineapple, and yet “somehow these two people created out of words a nearness we today do not entirely grasp.”

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