Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vampire Hunters

Re-reading Thomas Wentworth Higginson's account of meeting Emily Dickinson for the first time at her home in Amherst on August 16, 1870. That evening he began a letter describing his impressions to his wife, completing it (best as I can tell from my volume of "selected" E.D. correspondence - how I wish I had access to the complete) the following day. The final words of his letter stay with me today for some reason (a day in which I've had to beat off, or face, like weeds growing into windows, pangs of sickening, amorphous anxiety). Of E.D.'s effect on him Higginson tells his wife ("defensively," I think it's Benfey who writes - or that in my perusals and skimmings all over the place, I recently read - oh, now I know, an online Joyce Carol Oates review of his and Wineapple's books.)
I never was with any one 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 & seemed very thoughtful of others.

I agree with Oates. That statement is a bit strong and jarring, considering the fact that Higginson and E.D. had warmly corresponded for eight years, since April of 1862.

What strikes me in his language is that it suggests to me the conventions of describing a vampire. Higginson seems to be confiding to his wife that he felt E.D. to have a vampiric quality, and vampiric effect on him. I try to imagine their meeting (I keep trying to imagine the dramatis personae as I learn more about them - so hard, with all the simultaneous & contradictory facets - e.g., earnestly feminist and priggish Higginson - all in one!)

There seem to be fewer than six degrees of separation (or, alternatively, easily drawn lines between dots) between Higginson, the Atlantic Magazine editor, who published Poe, who wrote vampire stories... Also, reading the whole of Higginson's letter to his wife - it reads to me like the narrated account of the innocent, impartial observer who dutifully writes to his "dearest," describing in mild detail his itinerary and the scenery... reminiscent of the classic conventions of a ghost story, horror story, vampire story - a story of psychological suspense. Not - "it was a dark and stormy night" - but rather, everything so plain as day - and yet off. That's very Henry-Jamesian, too, isn't it - as in Turn of the Screw.

(I've got a wonderful book, The Living Dead, by one Professor of English, James Twitchell (too tired for proper links right now, will come back to add) that has in the past (and today) help me explore the vampire theme in literature...)

Bottom line of what I think? My unscholarly take, but I wonder if Higginson, himself a conflicted man in the midst of conflicted, changing times, was very unaccustomed to meeting someone quite so fully Her Self as E.D. She wasn't playing some role with him (as either, perhaps, a wife might, or a suffragette - or any other species of female playing up, for a man's regard, a certain aspect of herself). What he was encountering, startlingly, in the physically utterly unprepossessing E.D. was the power of her full, keenly alert, sentient self - the not mere reed - but thinking reed - that she was. That's what unnerved him, attracted and threw him off him by turns. A man of letters, he perhaps did a disservice to E.D. in describing her as he did - was disloyal to her, I think (but it was a private letter - but surely he must have known that whatever he might write about E.D. might have a legacy). But he did, in intimate fashion, reassure his wife. I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much... I am glad not to live near her.

He wrote it in this fashion in order to give an account, colored in a sophisticated gothic style, to his wife.

But you know - Higginson went further, in 1891 writing (as I consult my "selected letters"):
The impression undoubtedly made on me was that of an excess of tension, and of an abnormal life. Perhaps in time I could have got beyond that somewhat overstrained relation which not my will, but her needs, had forced upon us. Certainly I should have been most glad to bring it down to the level of simple truth and every-day comradeship, but it was not altogether easy. She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour's interview, and an instinct told me that the slightest attempt at direct cross-examination would make her withdraw into her shell; I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson.
Oh nice try for a save, Mr. Higginson, turning her into a species of bird after your penultimate semi-colon - because what all you said before - all morbid, vampiric imagery.

Where's my loaded gun?


Oh dearest (plus anyone else behind the bird-blind), apologies for this loopy post & I do reserve the right to come back tomorrow and tweak it. I strive for dailiness - so there are lapses in perfection - but - Hey, it's Saturday night!

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