Cover image for Religion Around Emily Dickinson By W. Clark Gilpin

Religion Around Emily Dickinson

W. Clark Gilpin


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06476-5

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ISBN: 978-0-271-06585-4

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216 pages
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Religion Around

Religion Around Emily Dickinson

W. Clark Gilpin

“Thorough and revealing, replete with poem exempla and references to the principal spokespersons of that era, Gilpin’s study contributes significantly to illuminating both Dickinson’s poetry and the culture that inspired it.”


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Religion Around Emily Dickinson begins with a seeming paradox posed by Dickinson’s posthumously published works: while her poems and letters contain many explicitly religious themes and concepts, throughout her life she resisted joining her local church and rarely attended services. Prompted by this paradox, W. Clark Gilpin proposes, first, that understanding the religious aspect of the surrounding culture enhances our appreciation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and, second, that her poetry casts light on features of religion in nineteenth-century America that might otherwise escape our attention. Religion, especially Protestant Christianity, was “around” Emily Dickinson not only in explicitly religious practices, literature, architecture, and ideas but also as an embedded influence on normative patterns of social organization in the era, including gender roles, education, and ideals of personal intimacy and fulfillment. Through her poetry, Dickinson imaginatively reshaped this richly textured religious inheritance to create her own personal perspective on what it might mean to be religious in the nineteenth century. The artistry of her poetry and the profundity of her thought have meant that this personal perspective proved to be far more than “merely” personal. Instead, Dickinson’s creative engagement with the religion around her has stimulated and challenged successive generations of readers in the United States and around the world.
“Thorough and revealing, replete with poem exempla and references to the principal spokespersons of that era, Gilpin’s study contributes significantly to illuminating both Dickinson’s poetry and the culture that inspired it.”
“W. Clark Gilpin’s new take on the enigmatic giant of American poetry, Emily Dickinson, eruditely weaves literary criticism into an exploration of the religious landscape contemporary to the poetess, managing a gentle unmasking of the still elusive thinker.
“Gilpin’s work respects Dickinson’s legacy, even as it presents new avenues into her body of work. Much of her mystery is maintained, with chapters working towards contextualization over pure biography. Those intrigued by the poet should find much to whet their appetites in Gilpin’s fresh interpretations.”
“A wonderful book that crosses disciplinary lines quite well.”
“In this illuminating, deeply researched book, W. Clark Gilpin probes the multifaceted religious contexts—historical, biographical, cultural, and theological—of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Gilpin provides the richest account yet of Dickinson and religion.”
“In a book subtly yet lucidly focused on Emily Dickinson’s metaphors of crossing thresholds, boundaries, or bridges between disparate realms, W. Clark Gilpin succeeds in bridging the boundary between historians of American religion, like himself, and lovers of literature. This book calls attention to the startling range of often contradictory influences Dickinson may have ‘overheard’ within nineteenth-century religious culture—influences not limited to revivalism and theological discourse but extending to hymnody, spiritualism, women’s culture, and the Civil War. Readers will especially appreciate Gilpin’s choice of poems for insightful analysis of the poet’s practice of seclusion, her habits of fostering friendships, her responses to grief, and her sustained attention to possibilities of immortality.”
Religion Around Emily Dickinson is a subtle exploration of the ways in which literary creativity and religious ideas and practices can deepen and extend one another. W. Clark Gilpin illuminates how Emily Dickinson experimented with the religion around her to create a poetry of singular religious vision, a poetry that is shaped by nineteenth-century religious thought and practice and that reimagines it in significant ways.”
Religion Around Emily Dickinson is a finely textured discussion of Dickinson that brings into critical view both earlier trends and the most current modes of scholarship. Religion is extended beyond theological, intellectual history to religious practices, expressions, historicities, and enactments, embedding Dickinson in a wide cultural matrix. In doing this, the book traces changes in the meanings of America and in fundamental paradigms for representing American lifefrom the national to the transatlantic, from one narrative (and narratives about oneness) to multiple senses of American identities. Enjoyably written, this book brings together contemporary issues in American culture and Dickinson studies in ways that alter our sense of Dickinson's reading of her American world and hence our reading of her.”
“Religion around Emily Dickinson contains several insightful readings of individual poems, including a provocative account of ‘‘Some—keep the Sabbath—going to church—’’ that identifies a tinge of mortality underlying the more apparently cheerful declarations.”

W. Clark Gilpin is Margaret E. Burton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity and Theology in the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Religion Around Emily Dickinson

Chapter Two: Society and Solitude

Chapter Three: Domesticity and the Divine

Chapter Four: An Intimate Absence

Chapter Five: The Cadences of Time


Reshaping a Religious Repertoire

The title of this book, Religion Around Emily Dickinson, raises a preliminary question. What do I mean when I refer to religion that is around any individual person? In this case, the person—Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)—was a reclusive, unmarried woman who lived out life in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. By the time she was thirty, Dickinson had fully committed herself to poetry and was producing what would become an extraordinary corpus of nearly eighteen hundred poems. However, fewer than a dozen appeared in print during her lifetime, and these publications occurred primarily through the insistence and mediation of friends. Instead, the letter became Dickinson’s preferred medium for circulating her work; across three decades she enclosed several hundred poems in letters to more than forty friends and family members. After Dickinson’s death, her younger sister, Lavinia, discovered a mass of poems in manuscript, many carefully copied and stitched together into handmade booklets. Despite family feuds and editorial worries about Dickinson’s unconventional meters and rhymes, an initial group of these poems was published in 1890. The volume received notable acclaim, prompting two additional series of poems, in 1891 and 1896, and an edition of letters in 1894. Especially since the 1950s, recognition of Dickinson’s stature as a poet has steadily increased, and—along with Walt Whitman—she is now generally regarded as one of the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century, read and pondered not only by American literary historians but also by a devoted public following.

Throughout Emily Dickinson’s posthumous rise to fame, her biography has presented readers with a seeming paradox. Both her poems and her letters were suffused with explicitly religious themes and concepts: the soul, heaven, redemptive suffering. Yet, despite the omnipresence of Christian symbolism in her writing, Dickinson resisted joining Amherst’s First Congregational Church and as an adult rarely attended its services, preferring from time to time to sit on her lawn on a Sunday morning and “listen to the anthems.” Dickinson’s “overhearing” of religion strongly marked her writing, and her ambivalent obsession propels the following narrative. From one perspective, how does the religion around Emily Dickinson help us to understand and appreciate her poetry? From another perspective, how does Dickinson’s poetry illuminate religious dimensions of the surrounding culture that might otherwise escape our attention? In order to address these intertwined questions, Religion Around Emily Dickinson explores three different connotations of the phrase religion around.

First, perhaps most straightforwardly, the religion around Emily Dickinson consisted of the religious practices, literature, architecture, and ideas that were inescapable features of everyday life in Amherst and the Dickinson family routine: attending worship services at the Congregational church, listening to sermons delivered from its pulpit, singing hymns, reading regularly from the Christian Bible in the Authorized (King James) Version of 1611, and attending family prayers led by her father, Edward Dickinson. These practices incorporated the Dickinson family into patterns of religious tradition and religious change that were shaping regional, national, and transatlantic Protestant culture. Emily Dickinson’s familiarity with Protestant hymnody, for instance, linked her to a wider nineteenth-century context of both devotion and writing. When she quoted hymns in her letters, Dickinson could assume that her correspondent understood the reference, and, when writing her older brother, Austin, she could recast the lyrics into a family joke, fully confident that Austin would recognize the source of her phrasing. Asahel Nettleton, a Connecticut minister and family friend who had been instrumental in the conversion of Dickinson’s aunt, Lavinia Norcross, compiled one of the favorite antebellum hymnals, Village Hymns (1824), one of many printed in the nineteenth century to transmit the piety of transatlantic evangelical missions and of individual Protestant denominations.

Women writers seized on this expanding market for religious music, and composing hymns became one avenue for their entrance into print. Susan Warner, an American novelist best known for The Wide, Wide World (1851), collaborated with her sister, Anna Warner Bartlett, to publish Hymns of the Church Militant in 1858. Another pair of songwriting sisters, Phoebe and Alice Cary, composed evangelical hymns of consolation in the love of Jesus, “No Trouble Too Great But I Bring It to Jesus,” or “To Suffer for Jesus Is My Greatest Joy.” And devotion to Jesus took a decidedly militant turn in Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. Dickinson, too, turned to Protestant hymnody in her writing, not because she wrote hymns but because the metrical structure of hymns became a paradigm for her verse. Helen Vendler, among our most incisive contemporary interpreters of Dickinson’s poems, comments that the poetry was, “in the past, sometimes considered amateurish because it is for the most part constructed within a single frame, the ‘childish’ four-line stanza of hymn-meter: 4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats, with a single rhyme-sound linking lines 2 and 4.” Barton Levi St. Armand, author of Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, has likened the metrical form of her poems to self-conscious innovation based on folk art, since the consistency of the form “allowed Dickinson to condense and abstract complex motifs as she fitted them to the purposely limited requirements of her art, as rigid as the geometric patterns dictated for patchwork quilts.” Poem and song were interchangeable terms in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, and Dickinson has been described as “a poet of sounds” because the rhythms of hymns and ballads were “in her ears” as she wrote.

Like hymns and hymn writers, sermons and preachers were also around Emily Dickinson. As a young adult, Dickinson was an attentive student of sermons, and her letters regularly commented on preachers she heard at Amherst or at South Hadley during her year as a student at Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Sermons, not only on Sunday mornings but also on public occasions such as thanksgiving days and election days, influenced regional identity and standards of oratory throughout New England. The sermons of notable preachers increasingly circulated in print as individual pamphlets, in sermon collections, and in magazines devoted to the profession such as the National Preacher, which had begun publication in New York in 1826. In the course of the century, in both the United States and England, ministers expanded their writing into other genres: poetry, literary reviews, occasional essays, and novels. So much was this the case that William R. McKelvy has argued for the importance of a Victorian social persona, “the clerical author,” who engaged in both literary and religious pursuits “at a time when the practical, institutional, and professional links between the religious and the literary were manifold.” When Emily Dickinson listened to an individual sermon in Amherst, it thus reflected a much wider context of religious, literary, and oratorical sensibilities. Furthermore, after Dickinson had developed her own poetic talents, she sought out ministers—most notably the social crusader, Civil War officer, and expansive essayist Thomas Wentworth Higginson—who might become her “preceptors” as she honed her craft. These relationships have attracted great attention from Dickinson’s biographers, and I shall return to them in a later chapter.

Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer who was active in Whig politics and elected to Congress in 1852. The family exemplified what the historian Daniel Walker Howe has termed “Whig culture.” That is, the men of the family were engaged in business and the professions, favored government-aided economic development, and, in New England, frequently came from families active in Congregationalist, Unitarian, and Presbyterian congregations. The Second Great Awakening—an umbrella term for antebellum evangelical revivals, benevolent societies, and home missions—deeply imprinted Whig social theory, which stressed the organic unity of society and the signal importance of Protestant religious guidance in addressing the era’s dramatic social changes and conflicts. Howe proposes that the missionary spirit of the Awakening instilled an “aggressive didacticism” in the Whig cultural program of education and moral self-discipline. The Whigs, Howe remarks, wanted to teach people that “liberty has no real value without responsibility and order.” Whig culture, including its religious aspect, emphatically marked Emily Dickinson’s views, even when she resisted its didactic insistence on order.

Through many such connections, the religion around Emily Dickinson was New England Protestant culture, in both its specific practices and its transatlantic conversation with the English-speaking religious and literary world. But religion was also around Emily Dickinson at a second, more general level. Religion exerted a shaping influence of considerable consequence on deeper habits of thought, styles of expression, and daily routines, influences that often extended beyond what Dickinson and her contemporaries explicitly perceived. At this level, religious presuppositions affected the normative patterns of social organization, including gender roles, hierarchies of status, and the aims of education. Religious narratives vividly represented the arc of time across which not only individual lives but also nations and empires ran their course. These social patterns and archetypal narratives constituted the organizing assumptions of what the pragmatist philosopher William James once called “the background of possibilities” that are around—that encircle or encompass—individual lives. In the summer of 1856, for instance, Dickinson wrote playfully to her longtime friend and correspondent Elizabeth Holland, “don’t tell, dear Mrs. Holland, but wicked as I am, I read my Bible sometimes, and in it as I read today, I found a verse like this, where friends should ‘go no more out’; and there were ‘no tears,’ and I wished as I sat down to-night that we were there—not here—and that wonderful world had commenced, which makes such promises, and rather than to write you, I were by your side.” I return to this letter later in the book, but I cite it now to call attention to the way in which Dickinson’s regular practice of reading the Bible provided her with a style and vocabulary (in this case, borrowed from Revelation 3:12 and 21:4) for depicting the “heavenly” joys of correspondence and companionship with an intimate friend. Habitual practices such as reading the Bible, pursued across generations, incorporate members of a culture in patterns of speech, common narratives, and shared symbols that—as in Emily Dickinson’s letter to Elizabeth Holland—situate daily activities such as writing a letter within a cosmic frame of reference. These culturally influential religious practices persist across long periods of history, and Robert Alter has deftly argued that the King James Bible had a “powerful afterlife” in the prose style of American writing and rhetoric from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. “Style,” Alter proposes, “is not merely a constellation of aesthetic properties but is the vehicle of a particular vision of reality” or a “way of imagining the world.” In short, when religiously inflected patterns of nineteenth-century culture were so thoroughly taken for granted, their invisibility may well have made them more powerful, not less so.

This second level of the religion around Emily Dickinson—the broad cultural presuppositions that created a “background of possibilities—instilled assumptions about the very nature of religion and what “counted” as being religious. In the tradition that developed from seventeenth-century Puritanism to the evangelical Protestantism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, religion, whatever else it may have included, centered on a personal relationship with God. As chapters 2 and 3 discuss in more detail, this focus on personal devotion shaped expectations about individual religious experience and prompted the development of aids to devotion (private prayer, diary keeping, and meditative reading practices) that cultivated a sense of religious interiority. To cite Williams James once more, his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) epitomized these cultural assumptions about the core of religion in James’s definition of the term: “religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” In his emphasis on individual experience, on solitude, and on the indeterminate object of this solitary experience—“whatever they may consider the divine”—James identified crucial features of the religion around Emily Dickinson.

To the extent that contemporaries did become self-consciously aware of these taken-for-granted, widely shared practices and symbols, it was in no small measure because historical forces had begun to exert disruptive pressure on them. These disruptive pressures came from diverse directions: new immigration, the transatlantic circulation of scientific and religious ideas, a wider encounter with non-Christian religions, and the transition from a largely agricultural economy to a commercial and industrial one. In this context of social and intellectual change, religion became an arena of conflict over ideas and patterns of conduct about which members of the society fundamentally disagreed. In most cases these were disagreements of long standing that had reached a point of urgent social decision by the middle of the nineteenth century. Most obviously, many decades of debate about enslavement and racial theories culminated in irresolvable political conflict over the continuance and expansion of slavery in the United States and its territories, a conflict in which antagonists used Christian theology to buttress directly contradictory positions. At the same time, rapidly expanding scientific investigation of the earth’s geological history and the place of the human species in that history fueled long—and continuing—debates over scriptural accounts of creation and the human engagement with nature as a source of religious insight. Wide-ranging cultural debate became most intense when it directly impinged on questions of human nature, personal meaning, and identity. The nineteenth-century “age of the first person singular” thus also became an age of tremendous anxiety over the immortality of the soul and a search for evidence of the soul’s endurance beyond death. Sixty years ago, the literary historian R. W. B. Lewis made the important point that a culture produces, and is produced by, the debates that “preoccupy” it over long periods of time. I share Lewis’s view that “a culture achieves identity not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogue.”

We might, therefore, think of the religion around Emily Dickinson as a rich, although by no means unlimited, repertoire of cultural forms and images. The forms had been created at many different times and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, had served many different purposes. Religious traditions such as Christianity that develop across extended periods and in diverse cultural contexts gradually accumulate multiple layers of practice and reflection. In these shifting historical contexts, Christian communities have marshaled their symbolic resources to address a host of different problems or questions. Ideas and practices prominent—even central—in one epoch recede to the margins in another. Often, they have combined with political and economic power, but sometimes they have emboldened rebellion against such combinations. The variety is sufficiently great that it implicitly invites arrangement in new patterns. Recognizing this, the historian of religion Catherine Albanese has invented the word “combinativeness” to describe the eclectic shaping and reshaping of religions in American history. At any given moment of cultural history or in the life experience of any individual, certain elements of the religious repertoire may be selected, accentuated, paired, mixed, contrasted, or called into question in ways that effectively reshape the whole.

To a considerable degree, the kaleidoscopic power of imaginatively rearranging inherited patterns is a capacity of both art and religion. Creativity, whether in art or in religion, is culturally embedded without being culturally determined. This suggests a third sense in which we may think of religion around Emily Dickinson. This third connotation sets Dickinson at the center of an imaginatively reconfigured world, proposing through her poetry, as she famously put it, to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (F1263). In Denis Donoghue’s pithy summary, Dickinson “took her Christianity not as she found it but as she altered it. She read her Bible as a rhetorical manual.” Culturally available religious symbols commanded her sustained reflection not because they provided authoritative answers from Bible or creed but because they evoked an interconnected set of questions about desire and sorrow, the self and human fulfillment, which she pursued through her poetic and epistolary art.

The four main chapters of Religion Around Emily Dickinson investigate both the nineteenth-century repertoire of religious practice and religious ideas and Dickinson’s imaginative reshaping of them. Chapters 2 and 3 explore her reconfiguration of a classic religious practice: solitude. Disciplines of solitary reading, meditation, and writing had been prominent ingredients of Christian devotion in New England since first colonization. In Dickinson’s own time, American Romantic writers, preeminently Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, refocused these traditions on solitude in nature as the site of encounter with the Absolute and the sustenance of artistic imagination. Emily Dickinson took these disciplines of meditative and artistic solitude “not as she found them but as she altered them,” and her purpose in altering them was to develop and clarify her vocation as a poet. Chapters 4 and 5 turn attention from religious practices to the reconfiguration of religious ideas. These two chapters examine how classic ideas of heaven, immortality, and eternity enabled Dickinson to interpret experiential problems of mourning, desire, and the transience of all things human. Taken as a whole, the book attempts to understand Dickinson’s “slant,” in order to arrive at a better appreciation of the workings of the creative religious imagination and a clearer historical sense of the cultural work performed by religious thought and practice in nineteenth-century America. To the extent that the book succeeds in this effort at understanding, it will have accomplished my purpose in writing it.