- Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering
By happy circumstance, I was reading astronomer Hugh Ross’s Why the Universe Is the Way It Is at the same time I began Patrick J. Keane’s intriguing inter-disciplinary reflection on science, theology, and literary theodicies, Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Although Ross (whose book examines such cosmological puzzles as dark matter and dark energy from the viewpoint of what Keane might call a “scientist-theologian”) is not one of the many scientists and philosophers mentioned in Keane’s book, he might well have been. More than the title indicates, Keane’s book-length meditation on “Apparently with no surprise” (Fr1668) is as much a thoughtful engagement with contemporary American debates on the relationship between science and faith as it is with the nineteenth-century disputes that Dickinson likely followed. This is not to say that Dickinson or her writings are given short shrift in this book; rather, Keane’s work demonstrates—especially to his intended audience, the general interest reader—that Dickinson as thinker and artist is a meaningful companion for those who are fascinated by the twenty-first-century interplays between skepticism and belief, empirical science and inexplicable suffering.
Keane’s refreshingly personal tone and his conversational manner of organization are two of the most striking and essential properties of Emily Dickinson’s Approving God. (He introduces the book by relating its genesis in discussions of the poem with two friends and by acknowledging his own religious agnosticism.) It is a method that handsomely mirrors some of the deeper questions the book will ask about the roles of personal bias, reader response, and multi-perspectivism in poetic interpretation. Keane’s amicable style also belies his depth of fluency with Dickinson and her milieu, with the breadth of contemporary Dickinson scholarship, and with Romantic, modernist, and contemporary poetics. A Professor Emeritus of English at Le Moyne College and author of books on Coleridge and Emerson, Keane is clearly the consummate scholar-educator who [End Page 98] knows how to woo his audience even as he lays out principles that challenge intellectually and spiritually.
The book is divided into two parts: in the first, Keane situates Dickinson’s work in the theodicean tradition of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. He then goes on to examine the stakes and players of our ongoing, present-day arguments concerning divine design of the universe, evolution, and the theological problem of suffering, as well as relating how and what Dickinson might have known about similar debates during her own lifetime. In the book’s second half, Keane focuses more particularly on close readings of “Apparently with no surprise” (Fr1668) and numerous other Dickinson poems and letters to further elicit her artistic and religious proclivities, finding mutual affinities in the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, and others as he does so.
Keane makes no claims of offering original insights about Dickinson, nor is his treatment of her work and life ever heavy handed, even when he suggests unlikely but provocative comparisons. Reminding his audience that “no matter how objective and attentive our close reading, this poem can scarcely be understood without ‘bringing in’ as necessary background the image of ‘God’ most familiar not only to its readers but to the author herself” (35), Keane grounds his own interpretations in the generally received understanding of Dickinson as an on-and-off-again believer in a personal yet often cruel, pseudo-Calvinist God. The two studies he acknowledges as particularly influential to his understanding of Dickinson’s iconoclasms are James McIntosh’s Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown and Roger Lundin’s Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief.
Keane establishes the likelihood of Dickinson’s silent participation in the nineteenth-century creationism/evolution scrimmages through careful delineation of articles, letters, and reviews appearing during the poet’s adult years in such publications as the Springfield Republican and Scribners, and also through his analysis of the poet...