Arts and Entertainment | Books

Author talks challenges of biography

  • REAL TALK | Brenda Wineapple (right) discusses her book “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.”

The purported values of love and friendship became more than cliched remnants of a chivalrous past with the help of the acclaimed nonfiction writer and literary critic Brenda Wineapple on Thursday night.

Wineapple’s lecture, part of the seventh season of the School of the Arts’ “Nonfiction Dialogue Series,” was equal parts intellectual foray into her writing process and profound discussion of the lives of her biographical subjects. She is currently teaches in the MFA programs at the New School and Columbia’s School of the Arts.

According to Wineapple, her latest published work, “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson,” was not even supposed to be a biographical work.

“I never thought of it as a biography. In fact, in the very first chapter, the prologue, I say, ‘This is not a biography.’”

Instead, Wineapple said, she intended for “White Heat” to tell the story of a lifelong friendship and the ways in which that friendship affected both the individuals involved and even the course of American history.

“A biography of Emily Dickinson would get you nowhere,” she said. “In other words, we don’t know enough about her, and it wouldn’t give you, really, any sense of that poetry.”

Focusing on the idea of “complication”—an overabundance or scarcity of biographical material—Wineapple explored Dickinson’s conquests and failures. The complications for Wineapple in “White Heat” were that Dickinson was “too enigmatic and not interesting biographically” and that Higginson “led an interesting life, in many ways,” but was not “a biographical subject.” So, she decided to tell the story of the two friends through their correspondence and other pertinent biographical material, while bringing in Dickinson’s posthumous legacy.

“For me, the person keeps changing, or the situation that the person is in changes—this is why we can have a conversation about Flanner in the 20s as opposed to Flanner during the Second World War,” Wineapple said, referring to the issue of complication in her first book, “Gênet: A Biography of Janet Flanner.”

Wineapple advised young writers to “make complications come alive” rather than gloss over biographical holes they encounter.

Still, Wineapple willingly faces this challenge, and is currently writing a book on America set between 1848 and 1877.

“I always feel like I’m reinventing the wheel. Every time I sit down, it’s a different day, every book [has] different problems, different solutions,” Wineapple said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that Wineapple is the director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY Graduate Center. Gary Giddins is the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography. Spectator regrets the error.


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Anonymous posted on

Gary Giddins is the Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, not Ms. Wineapple.