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The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter - [#729]
Memory is a strange Bell - Jubilee, and Knell.
Remembrance often overpowered Emily Dickinson. It ran like a fault line beneath the surface of her life, frequently shifting and disrupting the normal course of affairs. As the poet wrote shortly after her mother died in November 1882, memory was to her "a strange Bell - Jubilee, and Knell." It was "Jubilee" because it brought the dead to life and lodged them securely in the mansion of the mind. "My Hazel Eye/Has periods of shutting -/But, No lid has Memory -," Dickinson claimed, for "Memory like Melody,/Is pink Eternally -" [#869, #1614]. Yet at the same time, memory also sounded the death "Knell," tolling the loss of ones she had loved. "Remorse - is Memory - awake -," and the mind that raises the dead must also acknowledge that "The Grave - was finished - but the Spade/Remained in Memory -" [#781, #886].
Because of Emily Dickinson's passion for memory and commemoration, it seems curious that there is but a single reference to her ancestry in all of her poems and letters. Her grandfather was a founder of Amherst College and a major public figure in his day; her forebears on the Dickinson side were among the first settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and played vital roles in the life of the colony and the early republic. Yet all we hear of them in the writings of Emily Dickinson is one brief mention, in the form of a promise she made to send her aunt the family's copy of her grandfather's Bible.
Dickinson neglected her ancestral past because she had a remarkably concrete understanding of remembrance and cared little for history in the abstract. Neither the traditions of the church nor the legacies of her ancestors interested her greatly. Because she had not known them directly, she had no memory of them. For her, memory meant the recollection of intense experiences or encounters rather than rituals of general commemoration. It usually involved the revival of a sensory impress - the cadences of a voice or the sight of riveting eyes - that Dickinson carried in her mind and that brought back to life one who had been snatched from her grasp by death. To borrow one of her metaphors, she was intrigued only by the memory of what went on within the dwelling of her conscious life; in the props that had assisted in building that house she had little interest.
MILLENNIALISM AND MORALISM
It was indeed a rich family history to which Dickinson could have turned her attention, if she had chosen to do so. Her ancestry can be traced to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, when Nathaniel Dickinson was among the four hundred or so settlers who accompanied John Winthrop in the migration that began in 1630. Nathaniel and his wife Anna were doubtless present on the voyage when Winthrop preached his famous sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," offering a prophetic vision of New England. In language that continues to resonate in the American experience, Winthrop reminded his fellow sojourners to the New World: "We are entered into Covenant with Him for this work" and "we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."
The New England Puritans were in the main postmillennialists. They believed, that is, that the thousand-year reign of Christ prophesied in Revelation, the final book of the Bible, would come as a result of their ardent efforts to purify the church. The Puritans with whom Anna and Nathaniel Dickinson came to the New World believed themselves to have been sent by God on a divine "errand into the wilderness." If they were successful, Christ would dwell in their midst and establish his rule over the earth.
The pursuit of godliness and opportunity sent Nathaniel Dickinson first from Boston to Wethersfield, Connecticut, and several decades later to the new plantation of Hadley, Massachusetts. Once planted in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, the descendants of Nathaniel Dickinson took root in the area and, for several generations, took charge of the town of Amherst. In a biography of her aunt, Martha Dickinson Bianchi wrote of the original Nathaniel Dickinson that "he appears to have dominated to a large extent the organization of his own world in his own time." Nathaniel had ten children, and families of nine or ten children became common among his descendants. So many of his heirs stayed in the Amherst area that by the 1880s a family historian could write that in central Massachusetts the Dickinsons "threatened to choke out all other forms of vegetation." In reporting on a Dickinson reunion held in Amherst in August 1883, the Boston Journal observed that "we may well doubt whether the Dickinsons belonged to Amherst or Amherst to the Dickinsons." At a Dickinson family reunion in 1933, Bianchi noted, "Our names outnumber even those of Smith in the telephone book, without counting those of us who have married into another family, and are a perplexity to strangers."
For many generations the Dickinsons farmed the land, remaining active in civic affairs and committed to the covenantal faith of their Puritan ancestors. Only in the generation of Emily Dickinson's grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, did some members of the Dickinson family begin to forsake farming for the professions. Following the lead of his older brother Timothy, Samuel entered college and eventually graduated second in his class from Dartmouth in 1795.
In selecting Dartmouth, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and his family chose to align themselves with the heritage of the colonial revival known as the Great Awakening. While the older Congregational colleges, Harvard and Yale, were skeptical of the emotions of revivalism, Dartmouth and other institutions had risen up to champion the Awakening. When he graduated from Dartmouth, Samuel Fowler Dickinson decided to follow his older brother into the ministry. Within a year, however, he gave up training for the pastorate and turned his attention to the law, thus setting the course for his family in Amherst for the next century. His son, Edward, and grandson, Austin, would follow his lead, both in their devoted service to Amherst College and in their legal careers that placed them at the center of Amherst's life. The stage for Emily Dickinson's life was set, then, when her grandfather left the ministry and entered the law in Amherst at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Emily's grandfather was a brilliant man who struggled with conflicting impulses and demands throughout his life. Samuel Fowler Dickinson's ambition initially found a satisfactory outlet in the practice of law and political affairs in Amherst. After his marriage to Lucretia Gunn in 1802, Dickinson quickly rose to the top of his profession in the town. It was not long before his became one of the wealthiest Amherst families. By 1813, when Emily's father Edward was only ten, her grandfather had achieved such success that he was able to build the impressive Dickinson Homestead on Main Street several hundred yards east of the center of the town. This imposing structure was the first brick house in Amherst and was to be Emily Dickinson's home for all but fifteen years of her life.
Yet even as his legal career flourished, Samuel Fowler Dickinson felt driven to pursue loftier aims. There was in him a quality of restlessness that was passed down directly to Emily's father, brother, and herself. As a college graduate who had trained for the ministry and the law, Dickinson sought to advance both the Kingdom of God and the American republic through the establishment of a college in the Connecticut River valley. His tireless labors upon behalf of Amherst College were motivated in good measure by the postmillennial heritage that he shared with other New England Congregationalists of his day. Dickinson, Noah Webster, and others interpreted the moral, political, and economic prosperity of the new republic as a sign that God was about to establish the Kingdom foretold by John Winthrop two centuries earlier. In the words of the first historian of Amherst College, "the conversion of the world often pressed heavily on [Samuel Fowler Dickinson's] mind." He viewed Amherst as "one of the agencies that would surely hasten that promised event."
The realities of Emily Dickinson's evangelical Protestant inheritance run counter to many established conceptions about her religious life. It has become commonplace to claim that she was the product of a harsh Puritan environment that stifled her spirit and inspired her poetic rebellion. In her home, church, and school, young Emily supposedly had a rigid Calvinism drummed into her. As a recent biography puts the matter, the Dickinson family clung to a reactionary Calvinism "containing elements of terror and psychic violence" and spurned the new Unitarian faith, which "stood for serenity, a life of rational virtue, a view of Jesus as a model for imitation rather than a divine savior." With its visions of a terrifying hell and a dour heaven, this dire Puritanism oppressed the gifted young woman. Only through heroic resistance, the argument goes, did Dickinson manage to define herself in contradiction to it. Her eventual choice of a poetic career, her embrace of solitude, and her alleged lesbian practices, among other things, have been attributed to her revolt against the tyranny of an overbearing creed.
To be sure, the Puritan legacy was still strong in the Connecticut River valley in Emily Dickinson's day, and many of the poet's personal traits and poetic practices show the imprint of that heritage. Her poetry, as we shall see, was shaped in complex ways by the Trinitarian theology that had been preached from the pulpits for two centuries before her in the Connecticut River valley. Her complex understandings of God, self, nature, and human destiny were all influenced in manifold ways by the Reformation tradition that permeated life in the towns of western Massachusetts. Like many significant literary figures in nineteenth-century England and America, Dickinson adapted and transformed that inherited faith in her art, where its imprint remains clear and unmistakable.
To understand Emily Dickinson's life, however, it is crucial to note that by the time she was born in 1830, the transformation from the austere Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards to a more genteel Christian profession was well under way in the Amherst area. Edwards, who died in 1758, had promoted a majestic vision of God's economy; in the scheme of things as he envisioned it, the human will stood naked and vulnerable before the throne of God. "Natural men are held in the hand of God over the pit of hell," his most famous sermon asserted. "They have no refuge, nothing to take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted unobliged forbearance of an incensed God." Edwardsean Calvinism offered a bracing theological vision that demanded a great deal of the wounded rebel and promised even more to the repentant sinner. With its stringent diagnosis of sin, it labored to expose the gaping wound of the human will and applied the crucified and risen Christ as the only salve for that wound.
Gradually by the end of the eighteenth century and more rapidly in the first decades of the nineteenth, Edwards's descendants had begun to blunt the edge of the scalpel he had used to cut into the New England soul. Edwards's incisive depiction of the will in bondage to sin seemed poorly suited to the needs of the church in a nascent republic; instead, what the new nation needed was a clear vision of the social usefulness of Christian faith. "How does religion make a man useful to his fellow?" asked Edwards's grandson, Timothy Dwight, in "Farmer Johnson's Political Catechism." The answer: "By rendering him just, sincere, faithful, kind and public-spirited, from principle. It induces him voluntarily, and always, to perform faithfully in the several duties of social life." Dwight shied away from theological and philosophical speculation and called instead for Christian social action. "From first to last," Mark Noll explains, "Dwight was a man in motion."
Over the course of the first several decades of the nineteenth century, the transformation of the Edwardsean legacy continued across New England. Following the lead of Dwight and others, evangelical Christians sought increasingly to link church and society by stressing the moral improvement of the self rather than the inscrutable will and character of God. By promoting moral reform, ministers thought they could both strengthen the tie between a distant God and everyday life and bolster the waning influence of the church in a democratic culture. Gradually, "with passing decades," writes James Turner, "Evangelical millennialism merged imperceptibly into a more secular idea of progress.... At times, they [Evangelicals] almost identified growing prosperity, increasing knowledge, and improving social organization with the perfecting of the earth supposed to presage the millennium."
Emily Dickinson's immediate ancestors found little to object to in the theological changes taking place around them; indeed, especially in the case of her grandfather, they eagerly supported efforts to have their Calvinist heritage recast to bear the imprint of newly minted republican ideals. In the first several decades of the nineteenth century, the Dickinsons were, like many well-situated families in Congregational New England, Whiggish in their politics and New School Calvinist in their theology. The Whig ideal provided for these antebellum New Englanders a means of securing the social order for divinely appointed ends without emphasizing the more abstruse or embarrassing elements of the Puritan theological tradition. In the words of Louise Stevenson, "Whiggery stood for the triumph of the cosmopolitan and national over the provincial and local, of rational order over irrational spontaneity, of school-based learning over traditional folkways and custom, and of self-control over self-expression." It was the ideal faith for men of the rising professional class in the early nineteenth-century New England village, and it would prove to be a superb foil for Emily Dickinson, the greatest poet of the age.
For southern New England in general and the Dickinson family in particular, Yale College led the way in uniting Whiggery and New School Calvinism. Edward Dickinson graduated from Yale in 1823, and from 1840 to 1878 - virtually the whole of Emily Dickinson's adolescence and adulthood - the pulpit of the First Church of Amherst was filled by Yale graduates. It was at Yale, under the leadership of Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel Taylor, that the heirs of Edwards attempted to sustain his influence by modifying his teachings.
Excerpted from Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief by Roger Lundin Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|Preface to the Second Edition|
|1||The Props Assist the House||7|
|2||The Child's Faith Is New||19|
|3||I've Stopped Being Their's||49|
|4||Homeless at Home||63|
|5||Laying Away the Phantoms||75|
|6||A Soul at the White Heat||98|
|7||A More General Sorrow||121|
|8||Vesuvius at Home||142|
|9||The Mind Alone||182|
|10||A Blissful Trial||221|
|11||Rendezvous of Light||243|
|Index of First Lines||306|
|Index of Names and Subjects||310|