four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-White HeatBrenda Wineapple teaches creative writing at Columbia University and The New School. Her previous books include biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne and of Gertrude and Leo Stein.

The Topic: Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a Unitarian minister, a generation’s early advocate of equality for women, the white commander of the first federally sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War, and one of the best-known literary figures of his day. Emily Dickinson was, well, Emily Dickinson—hardly a woman of the world. Yet through their letters (Dickinson originally contacted Higginson in 1862 to see if her "Verse is alive"), these two authors enjoyed a bond closer and more complicated than many people have with their most intimate friends. By extracting her dual biography from the letters of Dickinson (Higginson’s do not survive), Wineapple provides new insight into the America of the mid-19th century and two of its most inscrutable personalities.
Knopf. 432 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 1400044014

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"The Dickinson found in the pages of Brenda Wineapple’s intelligent, delightful White Heat … 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." Marjorie Kehe

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"While praising Higginson’s (usually overruled) wish to promote Dickinson’s poetry in its original form, this excellent biographer also reveals a bolder, stronger man than the feeble espouser of good causes devotees of Dickinson have been encouraged to despise. Emily Dickinson herself gains from this new perception in Wineapple’s lively, thoughtful and admirable book." Miranda Seymour

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"If it seems a tad precious to peg 300-plus pages to an almost exclusively epistolary friendship—Higginson and Dickinson met only twice, when he came to visit her at her home in Amherst, Mass., and his letters to her do not survive—not to worry. Ms. Wineapple specializes in imparting flesh-and-blood substance and narrative thrust to literary biographies." Bill Christophersen

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Wineapple is a tremendously versatile and sensitive writer, and she elucidates her subjects’ subtleties with authority and grace. … Not a biography, history or literary analysis, yet something of each, White Heat amply demonstrates that indirect illumination sometimes casts the brightest light." Joel Brouwer

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Brenda Wineapple, whose previous subjects have included Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein, examines this relationship in White Heat, a model biography cum literary study set against an inexhaustibly interesting historical backdrop: ante- and postbellum America, the before and after periods highlighted by the nation’s violent rebirth and unprecedented industrial expansion." Ariel Gonzalez

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"So rather than write what [Wineapple] calls conventional literary criticism, she is mainly content to quote the poems, making perceptive if sometimes glancing remarks about their originality of diction and movement. The difficulty of her enterprise is most evident when she suggests that Dickinson’s poems, in their deep wisdom from within, also, somehow, may refer to or even incorporate Higginson, the secret sharer." William H. Pritchard

Critical Summary

Critics embraced this new angle on the life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s best-loved poets but also one of the most difficult to understand. While the subject of the book may seem rather narrow, reviewers claimed that Wineapple’s excellent narrative and literary sensibilities keep White Heat from becoming overly obscure. Only the Boston Globe faulted Wineapple for reading too vaguely between the lines, literally, of Dickson and Wineapple’s correspondence and for rehashing older material. Overall, however, the result is a book that balances literary criticism, biography, and history, while never straying too far from the few available facts about Dickinson and her life.