One Envies the Distinguished Dust

by Alyssa Rosenberg

I finished reading Brenda Wineapple's White Heat, her book on Emily Dickinson's correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, last week. It's a terrific look at poetry, a history of a very select part of the Civil War, and most of all, a book about how radical figures become part of the canon--or get dismissed as fusty relics of limited vision as the world moves on.

I find the last element of the book particularly illuminating. Higginson was, truly, a radical for his day. Educated at Harvard, he was something of an academic dilettante and an unsuccessful preacher, but abolitionism made him a radical figure in Boston. He led the storming of the courthouse where Anthony Burns was being held in Boston awaiting extradition. He acted as a purchasing agent for the National Kansas Committee, buying up muskets, 92 pistols, 5,900 rounds for revolvers, and knives to arm homesteaders who wanted to make Kansas a free state. He wrote home from the state that "I almost hoped to hear that some...lives had been sacrificed, for it seems as if nothing but that would arouse the Eastern states to act." He quit the church to back John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry--and when he remarried after the war, took his second honeymoon there. And before Robert Gould Shaw led the Massachusetts 54th, Higginson commanded the first black Union regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. His men were runaway slaves from South Carolina and Florida, where they primarily saw action.*

The idea that a man like that can come to be seen as a square, a guy who was a little too into physical education; and whose ideas about women's education got implemented, and thus became passe; whose answer to what his black troops were like--"intensely human"--now sounds frustratingly paternalistic, is fascinating to me. We venerate folks as visionaries who saw all the way into the present day. But we often abandon people who could only see over the next horizon, even though we need those people to move us forward, to see the next standard for progress if not the final one. John Brown may have died for the cause, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson kept spreading it long after his death, through word and deed.

And he also helped make Emily Dickinson part of the canon, by forging compromises and fighting for the integrity of many of Dickinson's poems with an editor who substantially rewrote some of Dickinson's more complicated lines and images. Those compromises are some of the reasons Higginson has a hidebound reputation he probably doesn't deserve. I don't think that the world would have been a better literary place if Higginson had held his ground, been an indie rock snob of his day, and prevented Dickinson from being published in any remotely adulterated form. His compromises helped send her words out into the world. They helped former slaves assert their dignity as fighters. History has moved past him. But that doesn't mean that he stood athwart its velocity.

*He also, for those folks who enjoyed, as I did, Cynic's post on teaching non-fiction writing, wrote a piece for The Atlantic on how to become a writer. Dickinson began her correspondence with him in the guise of seeking advice after the piece was published. Wineapple's book is itself a fascinating mini-history of The Atlantic's early days.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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