Dickinson and the Art of Belief
Unlike other biographies which merely record a life and offer an overview of the subject’s contribution, Lundin’s work delves deeply into Emily Dickinson’s ambivalence towards Christian faith, and examines the way this shaped her life and influenced her work; as it is very aptly stated in the back cover of the book, Lundin achieves to do so by looking into the political, social, religious and intellectual milieu of her times.
Very appropriately associating the notion of faith with the scientific and philosophical discoveries of the late 1880s, Lundin considers the way the Darwinian evolution came to refute the argument from design and discusses how this was depicted in Dickinson’s poetry. Never dismissing the importance of her Puritan past for the self and her poetry, Lundin examines how this "fed into the romantic inwardness of her cultural present" [p. 92]. As he sees it, by allowing the self to taste the freedom awarded by imagination and rejecting redemption as the efficacy for the fallen self, Dickinson “exposed the self to a heightened risk of disillusionment” that led to the ambivalence manifested in her poetry [p. 93].
The Holy Trinity becomes Lundin’s starting point for his discussion of religion and in his exploration of the Father God figure in her work, he stresses her notion of God as a stingy, jealous creature who would not allow his creatures to enjoy happiness, and who stole her beloved ones from her [p. 79]. Very uniquely Lundin associates Dickinson’s agoraphobia with her search for God: looking for Him, she only discovers but “Vast Prairies of Air” [p. 135] and this realization leads her to her fear of open spaces as well as her seclusion, which Lundin does not see as an enigma as other biographers and critics have done thus far, but as a means of assisting her in the “marshalling” of her resources [p. 48].
Another important figure Lundin does not omit from his discussion of faith, is Jesus Christ in whose drama she was greatly interested but whom she occasionally saw as offering no solace since, he himself suffered at the same time in his father’s hands. Further elaborating on the Trinitarian distinction, Lundin observes that on occasions Dickinson equates the Holy Spirit with her poetry. His argument is sound but would have been stronger and more easily accepted—especially by novices in Dickinson’s work—if he had cited specific poems, which would have illustrated his point more lucidly.
Further, Lundin acknowledges Dickinson’s skepticism at the explanation provided by religion on the nature of death, and delves into her interest in immortality associating it with the life after death her poetry would provide for her. Finally, Lundin uniquely summons Dickinson’s poetry to discuss her original use of hymnody and its evolution, manifest in her experiment “with the standard patterns to produce her own distinctive metrical effects” [p. 145]. Lundin sees the Civil War of 1880 as an important influence that stamped Dickinson’s faith and looks into the way this was manifested in her poetry. He discusses the way she appropriated the war to equate with her own grief, and cites a number of poems which depict how, under the influence of the war, the self emerges from its dependent (on God) origins to an “independent destiny” which he sees as indicative of her loss of religious faith [p. 160].
This biography is also valued for its comprehensive reference to other biographies, acknowledging their contribution, as well as for the extensive use of Dickinson’s correspondence to elucidate important religious issues arising from her poetry. At this point however, a scholar well versed in Dickinson’s work may notice the lack of details in the discussion of her correspondence with her sister-in-law Sue Dickinson, in which one could trace important points that would shed additional light on her “art of belief.”
The book will set a stepping stone for a fresher consideration of Dickinson in that Lundin opens new vistas for the further exploration of Dickinson and the art of faith, as for instance in the association he makes between her religious poetry and Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on the medieval style of parody.
Thus the book is an indispensable guide to students and scholars alike and is recommended as such without any reservations.