Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Worthy Ghosts

I wrote here, some little time back, about a bit of retail therapy I indulged in one lunchtime. Among the spoils of that orgy, were four little uniform volumes from editor/contributors to the olde Harper's Magazine, and among the four was Concerning Us All, by one Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Didn't know him, though the name rang but a little bell.

The essays I read therein were mild stuff, very much of the period; gentlemanly, literarily concerned, well mannered and a little hearty for my taste. None the less, I was glad of those I read, satisfied with my purchase, pleased.

Seems the bell I heard has been better rung, and just recently, by a biographer whose work I know and enjoyed before, Brenda Wineapple. Hawthorne: A Life, I haven't read, but both GenĂȘt: A Biography of Janet Flanner, and Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein I have, with considerable pleasure. The Janet Flanner book, when it came out, caused a bit of a flutter in which I myself was caught up; reading Flanner's Paris Journals and London book as a result of the biography. Wonderful stuff. The book on the Steins did not make me any more a fan than I was of the family, but Wineapple's biography I've kept because it was so good, and because it has helped me as a reference when I have had to encounter Gertrude here and there since. That, to my mind, is exactly what literary biography ought to do: tell with enthusiasm sufficient to recreate the life for a new reader, honor the facts as known, and send the reader on or back to the work of its subject. Brenda Wineapple has proved herself already, very much my sort of biographer and critic.

Now come to find out, her latest book -- well, I'll let the title tell: White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson. How's that?

Higginson was the Man of Letters to whom retiring Emily sent a letter, enclosing some poems and asking the distinguished party if he found them to be "alive." He did indeed.

Having read only the first 60 pages, I am already enthralled both by the story of Higginson, his friendship with the great poet, and Wineapple's marvelous book. It is such a pleasure to read a writer as good as this. With perfect sympathy, a scholar's reserve, and a mission to restore to the Higginson something of his due, not only as an admirable man, and writer, but as perhaps Dickinson's most significant early enthusiast, Wineapple writes a surprisingly exciting story without hyperbole or speculative divergence from the known.

She has already sent me back to the poems, and again to my little book of essays from Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Nothing better could be asked of so good a critic and biographer as this.

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