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.*