• Email
  • Print

The Woman in White

The Riddle we can guess

We speedily despise.

—Emily Dickinson (1222)

A mysterious “confluence of hummingbirds” is the starting point for Christopher Benfey’s engagingly impressionistic work of literary and cultural criticism, focusing on the summer of 1882 when Americans as gifted and temperamentally disparate as Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, and Mabel Todd and Martin Johnson Heade seem to have become “fanatical” about hummingbirds:

They wrote poems and stories about hummingbirds; they painted pictures of hummingbirds; they tamed wild hummingbirds and collected stuffed hummingbirds; they set music to the humming of hummingbirds; they waited impatiently through the winter months for the hummingbirds’ return.

In addition to what Benfey calls his “motley assemblage” of dramatis personae he has also included Mark Twain, Henry James, John Greenleaf Whittier, the capitalist investor Henry Morrison Flagler, the suffragette activist Victoria Woodhull, and the twentieth-century artist Joseph Cornell; there is even room in this leisurely constructed narrative for an exploration and exegesis of the Gilded Age phenomenon of the lavish “hotel-world” of South Florida. As if to suggest an aestheticism seemingly at odds with our more customary sense of American pragmatism and Puritanism, Benfey begins his book with a curious epigraph from John Ruskin—

I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something myself worth doing. If I could only have seen a hummingbird fly, it would have been an epoch in my life.

—and he includes in his final chapter a passage of adulatory prose from Henry James describing the gigantic Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, in 1905, by all reports a bizarre Disneyland of conspicuous consumption:

It is difficult to render the intensity with which one felt the great sphere of the hotel close round one, covering one in as with high shining crystal walls, stretching out beneath one’s feet an immeasurable polished level, revealing itself in short as, for the time, for the place, the very order of nature and the very form, the only one, of the habitable world.

All of which is to argue, the reader surmises, that the post–Civil War/pre–World War I America of which Benfey writes bears a significant relationship to fin de siècle English culture, and that the individuals whom Benfey discusses—Emily Dickinson, for one, of whom it’s said by her sister-in-law/neighbor Susan Dickinson that the reclusive Amherst poetess had not “any idea of morality”—are aesthetic epicureans of a sort, finding profound meaning in “routes of evanescence” unexpectedly akin to the Pateresque ideal of burning with a hard gem-like flame.

Christopher Benfey, poet, critic, and professor of literature at Mount Holyoke, whose previous critical works include Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others (1984), Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet (1986), The Double Life of Stephen Crane (1994), The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2004), and most recently American Audacity: Literary Essays North and South (2007), has constructed an intricately woven bird’s nest of a book arguing that the “seismic upheaval” of the Civil War and its protracted aftermath precipitated a psychic crisis in the national consciousness as Americans tried to retain traditional beliefs, values, and conventions in the face of ever-shifting new social, political, and racial realities. Both during and after the war, Benfey speculates, Americans “gradually left behind a static view of existence, a trust in fixed arrangements and hierarchies”:

In science and in art, in religion and in love, they came to see a new dynamism and movement in their lives, a brave new world of instability and evanescence…[a] dynamism…[that] found perfect expression in the hummingbird.

And the hummingbird as a creature of mysterious, otherworldly beauty is most brilliantly evoked by the watercolors of Martin Johnson Heade—see Heade’s masterpiece Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds (1871), which Benfey discusses in detail; and by the poetry of Emily Dickinson—see the riddlesome poem indexed as number 1463, which Benfey calls the poet’s “signature poem” since Dickinson frequently sent it to correspondents and “sometimes signed it ‘Humming-Bird,’ as though she herself were its evanescent subject”:

A Route of Evanescence

With a revolving Wheel—

A Resonance of Emerald—

A Rush of Cochineal—

And every Blossom on the Bush

Adjusts its tumbled Head—

The Mail from Tunis, probably,

An easy Morning’s Ride—

(circa 1879)

A Summer of Hummingbirds is richly populated by eccentric personalities in addition to Dickinson and Higginson: the itinerant and obsessive Martin Heade, one of the greatest of nineteenth-century nature painters, who yearned to evoke a kind of New World Eden in his highly stylized, symbolic paintings; the beautiful and uninhibited Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd, whom Heade loved at a distance, and who conducted a scandalous love affair virtually in public, in staid Amherst, Massachusetts, with the older brother of Emily Dickinson; the flamboyant hedonist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, of whom Benfey says admiringly that he was “drawn to things that flickered and flashed….He liked to tell people that he was intoxicated by art”; and Beecher’s Christian-messianic sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but the author as well of a curious book-length polemic titled Lady Byron Vindicated (1869).

More a skeptical observer than aparticipant of the genteel cultural scene, Mark Twain emerges intermittently in Benfey’s narrative as a kind of measuring rod for the author: the most famous writer of his time and yet harshly judged by such envious New Englanders as Higginson, who claimed to have found Twain “something of a buffoon,” and by an anonymous critic for a local Amherst newspaper who, after Twain lectured in Amherst to a large audience, reported: “As a lecturer we are of the opinion that he is a first-class failure.”

Though A Summer of Hummingbirds thrums with the interlocking tales of these idiosyncratic individuals, with inspired vignettes and gossipy asides, and the author’s prevailing Olympian perspective, in a manner suggesting Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America (2001), at the core of the story that Benfey finds so intriguing is an impassioned portrait of Emily Dickinson—what might be called Dickinson’s most inward and erotic self. Benfey has written of this in such earlier essays as “The Mystery of Emily Dickinson” (in American Audacity ), and here he associates Dickinson herself with the “route of evanescence” that finds its ideal expression in the hummingbird. It isn’t just that Dickinson is the most original and provocative of the figures in Benfey’s book but she remains the most enigmatic, a perennial goad to critical speculation: despite the enormous attention shehas received, Dickinson “remains almost as mysterious as Shakespeare…. She is part of our language without quite being part of our history.” As Brenda Wineapple concedes with disarming candor at the midway point in White Heat , her wonderfully evocative double portrait of Dickinson and Dickinson’s friend/editor/”Master” Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

Emily Dickinson stops my narrative. For as the woman in white, savante and reclusive, shorn of context, place, and reference, she seems to exist outside of time, untouched by it. And that’s unnerving. No wonder we make up stories about her: about her lovers, if any, or how many or why she turned her back on ordinary life and when she knew the enormity of her own gift (of course she knew) and how she combined words in ways we never imagined and wished we could.

As Benfey’s subtitle suggests, for all its shimmering web of interlocking ideas, the “scandal” of eros is the driving force here, culminating in two seeminglyecstatic adulterous relationships—the affair of the most famous Protestant preacher of his era, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and one of his female admirers, Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton—“the biggest sex scandal in the history of American religion,” as Benfey breathlessly notes—which resulted in a highly publicized adultery trial in 1874; and the remarkably protracted affair of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and the much younger Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor.

While Emily Dickinson’s connection with the dashing Reverend Beecher was slight, she was well aware of her brother’s longtime affair with Mrs. Loomis and seems to have been, with her sister Vinnie, in some way a confidante of the illicit lovers who used the Homestead, the Dickinson family house, for their trysts. And there were Emily Dickinson’s shadow-lovers, among them the “Master” to whom Dickinson alludes tantalizingly in numerous poems, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court justice Otis Lord, Dickinson’s elder by eighteen years and a “crusty conservative” who emerges in Dickinson’s life after the death of her father, as a source of solace and affection, even as possible fiancé.* Unhappily for Dickinson, the one man who seems to have unequivocally loved her and may have wished to marry her died of a stroke in 1884, before anything like a formal engagement was announced. Broken in spirit by this loss, as by numerous others including the terrible typhoid death of a beloved little nephew, Dickinson herself grew ill and died in 1886, at the age of fifty-five.

Benfey locates in the poetry of Dickinson’s younger years an obsession with Lord Byron—Byron’s famous poem “The Prisoner of Chillon” becomes “the Rosetta stone of…[Dickinson’s]tortured destiny”—and a frankly sexual undertone to her elliptically imagistic poetry of the 1860s:

I tend my flowers for thee—

Bright Absentee!

My Fuchsia’s Coral Seams

Rip—while the Sower—dreams—

Geraniums—tint—and spot—

Low Daisies—dot—

My Cactus—splits her Beard

To show her throat—

The passive female being is overcome—seemingly ravished—by the mysterious Byronic “Master” who has never been definitely named by countless biographers and commentators but whose presence in Dickinson’s most ardent poetry is unmistakable:

My life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

In Corners—till a Day

The Owner passed—identified—

And carried Me away—

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—

And now We hunt the Doe—

And every time I speak for Him

The Mountains straight reply—

….Though I than He—may longer live

He longer must—than I—

For I have but the power to kill,

Without—the power to die—

Benfey suggests that Dickinson’s “Master” poems are addressed to three prominent men in the poet’s life, with whom she corresponded in terse, playful, enigmatic letters very like her verse—the “handsome and worldly editor of the nearby Springfield Daily Republican ” Samuel Bowles; the “brooding…Byronic” Protestant preacher Reverend Charles Wadsworth of whom it was thrillingly said that his “dark eyes, hair, and complexion have decidedly a Jewish cast”; and Colonel Higginson, the prominent Boston literary man to whom Dickinson sent her verse in the pose of a schoolgirl eagerly seeking advice from a distinguished elder, though Dickinson was thirty at the time and had already written—and published, in Samuel Bowles’s newspaper—a poem as assured as the one beginning “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers…” (the romantic relationship with elderly Judge Lord came later in Dickinson’s life). Here is Dickinson’s now-famous letter of appeal, dated April 15, 1862:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quickgratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is its own pawn—

We can surmise that Higginson replied with encouragement and a predictable sort of advice, to which Dickinson responded with enigmatic dignity:

You think my gait “spasmodic”—I am in danger—Sir—

You think me “uncontrolled”—I have no Tribunal.

As Benfey notes, Dickinson didn’t change a thing in her poems, and assures Higginson that she has no wish to be published: “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.”

Both Benfey and Wineapple are very good at presenting the ways in which Dickinson and Higginson “invented themselves and each other” in their epistolary friendship; in both their books, though at greater length in Wineapple’s, Colonel Higginson unexpectedly emerges not as the contemptibly pompous figure who dared to “correct” the most original poet of the nineteenth century as if he were indeed her schoolmaster, which is our usual sense of Higginson, but as aperson of considerable courage, imagination, generosity, and achievement. Unlike his distinguished New England literary mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Higginson managed to combine the intellectual life with the life of a vigorous activist: as a young man he was a Protestant minister who lost his church as a consequence of fervent Abolitionist beliefs; a radical in New England reformist circles, he was a staunch supporter of John Brown; in the CivilWar he was a colonel who led a contingent of nine hundred ex-slaves in the occupation of the city of Jacksonville, Florida. (Higginson later wrote movingly of this experience in Army Life in a Black Regiment , 1869: “a minor masterpiece” in Brenda Wineapple’s estimation.)

With astonishing zeal and steadfastness Higginson was an early advocate of women’s suffrage as he was a vociferous advocate of civil rights for Negroes during Reconstruction; he was a quasi-mystical nature-writer, in the mode of his model Henry David Thoreau; his Young Folks’ History of the United States (1875) became a best-seller. Higginson’s first love had been poetry, in which he may have been slightly discouraged by a rejection letter from Emerson at The Dial that in its devastating brevity deserves enshrinement like the pithier aphorisms of Oscar Wilde:

(Your verses) have truth and earnestness and a happier hour may add that external perfection which can neither be commanded nordescribed.

Yet Emily Dickinson seems to have virtually idolized Higginson, having committed to memory much of his published writing in The Atlantic and elsewhere and constantly deferring, or seeming to defer, to his “superior” judgment. As Benfey notes, “she told him, twice, that he had saved her life.” Their famous first meeting in August 1870, at the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, is preserved solely in Higginson’s prose, in a letter to his wife Mary:

A step like a pattering child’s in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face… with no good features—in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue worsted shawl. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said “These are my introduction” in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice—& added under her breath Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say—but she talked soon& thenceforward continuously—& deferentially sometimes stopping to ask me to talk instead of her—but readily recommencing.

And, later, somewhat defensively:

I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much…Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her. She often thought me tired.

Though convinced of Dickinson’s originality and of the possibility of her genius, Higginson persists in seeing in her something frankly repugnant; he suspects “an excess of tension…something abnormal” in her.

Within the loosely constructed space of A Summer of Hummingbirds , the epistolary friendship/romance of the self-styled “scholar” Emily Dickinson and her “Master” Higginson is but one thread in an entanglement of erotic yearnings, while in the aptly titled White Heat the primary focus is a tenderly voyeuristic evocation of the literary couple’s relationship, as in these Jamesian observations of Wineapple’s:

Totemic assumptions about Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson do not for a moment let us suppose that she, proffering flowers and poems, and he, the courtly feminist, very much married, were testing the waters of romance. But about their correspondence is its faint hint or, if not of that, then of a flirtation buoyed by compassion, consideration, and affection…. Each of [Dickinson’s] notes bursts with innuendo, attachment, warmth, flattery…. She admired his gravitas. “Your thought is so serious and captivating, that it leaves one stronger and weaker too, the Fine of Delight.” She admired his probity. “That it is true, Master…is the Power of all you write.”

How crushed Dickinson must have been by Higginson’s remarriage after Mary’s death in 1877, and by his obvious reluctance to visit her, yet, admirably, as so admirably Dickinson weathered any number of personal blows, in some fusion of female stoicism and pragmatism she seems to have rechanneled her attention upon the elderly widower Judge Otis Lord, a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, to whom she wrote letters of unfettered longing:

My lovely Salem smiles at me. I seek his Face so often—but I have done with guises.

I confess that I love him—I rejoice that I love him—I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth—that gave him me to love—the exultation floods me. I cannot find my channel—the Creek turns Sea—at the thought of thee—

At the same time, Dickinson continued to write to her “Master” Higginson in elevated, occasionally elegiac terms, as in this final poem sent to Higginson shortly before her death in 1886:

Of Glory not a Beam is left

But her Eternal House—

The Asterisk is for the Dead,

The Living, for the Stars—

The concluding chapters of Wineapple’s White Heat are a detailed scrutiny of Dickinson’s posthumous career—“posthumous” being the only career possible for one of such startlingly original gifts, as if, in the midst of the revered Hudson Valley landscape paintings of the nineteenth century there might have appeared the unsettling canvases of Cézanne. How does one see what is so radically new, still more how does one draw meaning from it? Leaving 1,775 poems of varying degrees of legibility and completion, often in teasingly variant forms, Emily Dickinson presented a considerable puzzle for scholars of her work through the decades, and particularly for her first,at times overwhelmed editors Higginson and the indefatigable Mabel Todd, who could not resist correcting Dickinson’s punctuation and other seeming flaws in her verse. It may even be—this would constitute another radical strangenessin Dickinson, amid the staid formality of her era—that “her poems were always in progress, meant to be revised, reevaluated, and reconceived, especially when dispatched to different readers.”

As Richard Howard suggests, finishing poems may not have interested Dickinson: “her true Flaubert was Penelope, to invert a famous allusion, forever unraveling what she had figured on the loom the day before.” It seems likea simple query, why apoem must be singular and not rather plural , as musical compositions inthe mode of John Cage are not fixed and finite but ever-improvised. Perhaps it’sonly a convention, that the gravitas of print seems to insist upon permanence, and it’s the “route of evanescence” so magically embodied by Dickinson’s poems that is the truest nature of poetry.

Though critical responses were inevitably mixed, with British critics the most roused to contempt, the first edition of Dickinson’s poems sold out rapidly through eleven printings in 1891, and the second, “swathed in white, like its author,” was another best-seller later in the same year. Tireless Mabel Todd, thrilled by her new mission of bringing a New England poet of genius to the attention of the public, set on the road as a sort of precursor of Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst , giving lectures and readings throughout New England.

Benfey concludes A Summer of Hummingbirds with a lyric epilogue titled “Toward the Blue Peninsula” in which, as in a cinematic flash-forward, he breaks the nineteenth-century frame of his gossamer narrative to bring us to Joseph Cornell who, in the mid-1950s, so brilliantly incorporated images from Dickinson’s poetry—birds and flowers and jewels and planets in his box sculptures “with a ghostly majesty and strangeness.” Appropriately, Benfey’s ending isn’t a critical summing-up or a statement of fact but an evocative poetry: “The window is open. The perch is empty. The bird has flown.”

  1. *

    Though the judge’s portrait, reprinted in White Heat, suggests the very antithesis of Byronic romance, it was very likely Lord in whose arms Emily Dickinson was reputedly once seen “reclining” in the Homestead parlor by her scandalized neighbor/sister-in-law Susan Dickinson. Unmistakably it’s to Judge Lord that Dickinson wrote girlishly flirtatious love letters: “Emily ‘Jumbo’! Sweetest name, but I know a sweeter—Emily Jumbo Lord.”

  • Email
  • Print