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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001) 75-78
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Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown
McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
With a respectful bow to those who have previously wrestled with the topic of Emily Dickinson's enigmatic religious beliefs, James McIntosh successfully explores and establishes Dickinson's dynamic relationship with Deity in Nimble Believing. His approach to Emily Dickinson's religion is appropriately eclectic. His analysis of her spiritual nimbleness is likewise "elastic" or "labile," perhaps in accord with Thomas á Kempis's advice that each part of a sacred text "is to be read with the same Spirit wherewith it was written" (Of the Imitation of Christ, 1894).
The introduction provides a cohesive focus for subsequent chapters on religious influences, Biblical narratives, and the poet's neDickinson for an awesome Unknown. McIntosh patiently develops the idea that Dickinson was a poet whose special province was the Unknown. He documents Dickinson's encounter with the Numinous as a source of spiritual revelation for herself and thus for her readers.
In chapter two, he takes into account the complexity of religious and literary influences in nineteenth-century New England. Furthermore, he seats Dickinson as the queen of the American Renaissance. This long overdue coronation fills gaps in Mathiessen's 1941 canonization of major male writers in New England. While addressing the contributions of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville, McIntosh's research acknowledges Dickinson's unique theological genius and literary talent. Affirming Dickinson's rightful place in the American Renaissance is an important contribution since Dickinson sometimes slips into curricular oblivion by slipping out of the genre bounds of Romanticism and Realism (Margaret Dickie, "Reperiodization" (College English 52:4, 1990).
Chapter three gives sensitive interpretations of Dickinson poems that are basDickinson on encounters with the Divine, highlighting Biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, and Christ. Most insightful is McIntosh's assertion [End Page 75] that Dickinson re-created these scriptural stories, translating the narratives into her own experience and understanding. He provides informative historical support from primary texts that were current in Dickinson's socio-academic context. For example, he mentions the New England Primer in explaining Dickinson's ability to use "biblical figures to represent personal lessons she discovers in them" (90). Such a hermeneutic rings true with other early American religious exhortations to apply sacrDickinson writing to one's individual circumstances: "I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" (1 Nephi 19:23, Book of Mormon).
McIntosh is thorough. He seems to have identified every religious reference and Biblical allusion that Dickinson ever recorded in poems or letters, then set them all out in front to look for patterns and connections. In chapter four, he uses his findings to support the proposition that Dickinson approaches Deity as an awesome Unknown, whose face can only be seen through the eyes of flexible faith. This thesis makes sense not only as a critical perspective but also as a Christian point of view, for "faith is . . . the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Rather than insisting on his particular perspective as the one-and-only account of Dickinson's religiosity, he presents Dickinson as another "unknown" whose sacred writings we we as readers can explore with nimble belief. Just as God tests human beings with absences, omissions, oppositions, and ironic juxtapositions, Dickinson puzzles her readers with ellipses, riddles, paradoxes, and syntactic inversions.
Although McIntosh's endnotes were meticulous, his index was insufficient. I was disappointed to find a limited list of proper nouns rather than a full index of the interesting topics and issues that McIntosh had addressed. Mary Lyon and other important historical figures are missing in the index. Comprehensive endnotes are useful, but they do not allow for widespread and systematic comparison of points throughout the book.McIntosh's prose is clear and pleasant to read, reminiscent of the sermo humilis style recommended by early Christian philosophers. His presentation of arguments and interpretations is refreshingly direct yet diplomatic...