- Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief
Roger Lundin’s Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief is an interpretive biography, drawing upon both external sources and Dickinson’s poems and letters to present an account of her life and major responses. Prepared as one in a series of biographies of “religious” writers in American and British literature, Lundin’s work seeks primarily to place Dickinson within the cultural and religious milieu of mid-nineteenth century Amherst. Herein lies its distinctive contribution.
As a biographer, Lundin does not attempt to match the thoroughness of Richard Sewall’s two-volume documentary life of the poet. His intended audience appears to be not only less interested than Sewall’s in the full particulars but also less inclined to pursue the subject further. Endnote markers are not provided in the text, slowing the reader who values citations as windows for additional research and reading. Relying in part on the poems as “evidence,” the author presents them with relatively little explication beyond the context in which he places them. A prefatory note comments that the series is meant “to be read and enjoyed as well as studied,” and “free of footnotes and academic jargon.”
While acknowledging Dickinson’s roots in an earlier New England Puritanism, Lundin moves quickly to explain that a nineteenth-century world of dilution and change helped to evoke her deepest responses to religious issues. In her day, worship of an inscrutable, omnipotent God was yielding to efforts for social improvement, based upon a higher regard for unaided human ability; religious belief and scientific theory likewise were moving toward a parting of the ways. Against the author’s exceptionally well-informed overview of issues and [End Page 108] trends affecting religious belief in the Valley during her lifetime, Dickinson emerges an intelligent “participant” in the life of the contemporary mind, rather than an anachronism or a rebel who stood alone.
Out of his understanding of the religious climate of Dickinson’s Amherst, Lundin supplies welcome correctives to the widespread notion that Mary Lyon’s measures at Mount Holyoke were extreme, admissions standards at First (Congregational) Church were overly stringent, and revivalism as Dickinson encountered it in the Connecticut Valley was dominated by uncontrolled emotion. In reality, he explains, a far less strenuous tone prevailed by the poet’s time, and Dickinson’s own responses were certainly mixed but not defiant.
Lundin contends that Dickinson’s choice to create poetry was fostered also by her rearing in nineteenth-century New England. Besides inheriting an experiential religious faith, she was strongly influenced by the contemporary romantic emphasis upon subjectivity. Although a longing for religious certainty never left her, poetry became her “surrogate” for traditional orthodoxy, a means of establishing “connectedness” with a reality beyond the self. The movement toward “modern inwardness” that romanticism encouraged, the author interpolates, pointed toward isolation and even despair.
Lundin fully appreciates the complexities of the poet’s religious quest and underscores her ambivalence on issues surrounding the Trinity, the natural universe, human nature, suffering and death. Dickinson, he argues, both believed and doubted. Most consistently, “having emerged at that point in history when the hopes of romanticism were giving way to the bleak realities of naturalism, [she] struggled to reconcile her visionary desires with her sober reading of the human plight.”
While the outline of events and relationships presented in this biography records little that would be unfamiliar to Dickinsonians, nevertheless the book offers a well balanced portrait of the poet, into which poems and fragments of poems and letters are gracefully woven. Its frequent allusions to other writers and thinkers broaden the scope of its appeal. Its most significant feature, however, is its consideration of the poet against Lundin’s excellent grasp of a complex cultural and religious backdrop.If for this important dimension only, all serious readers of the poetry are well advised to study and enjoy Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.
Professor Emerita of English at Northern Michigan University, Rowena Revis Jones was among the...