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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Knowing, Seeing, Being

Jennifer L. Leader, Knowing, Seeing, Being: Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and the American Typological Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016)

Leader ImageThis is a fascinating study by an up-and-coming scholar of American life and letters teaching at Mt. San Antonio College in southern California. It traces Edwards’ long-range legacies in the typological thinking of two major American poets: the nineteenth-century Massachusetts recluse, Emily Dickinson; and the celebrated twentieth-century modernist, Marianne Moore.

Leader argues that her comparison of these three verbal artists “reveals a deep structure of American metaphysical thought that has heretofore been largely unexamined. While it is a truism,” she notes, “that the Bible has had a tremendous influence on American letters,” most scholars working in the wake of Harvard’s Perry Miller have neglected the most important theological influences on modern American literature, focusing mainly, as they have, on Transcendentalism. “In fact,” Leader contends, “early training in the Protestant Scriptures did more than shape (or discourage) religious belief” in a vaguely defined, transcendental way among nineteenth and twentieth-century writers. “It also shaped, via specific theological traditions, underlying assumptions about the authority, transparency, and trustworthiness of all language to contain or mediate reality. This book,” she continues, begins to demonstrate this rather more specifically theological kind of literary influence “by locating and articulating ways Edwards, Dickinson, and Moore received and transformed both models of language and depictions of the natural world from within their own Reformed typological heritage” (p. 4).

Leader’s most important summary of her work for Edwards scholars comes at the end of chapter one. “In the sense of an American literary heritage,” she writes, “Edwards’s typological imagination situates him upstream of a shared American metapoetic which finds significance in the natural world as a second kind of text that complements the King James Bible. Such a stream veers away from a desire for ‘oneness’ with creation, however, by its emphasis on differentiation and meaningful relation with the other-as-other, a core proclivity that is rooted in the embrace of differentiation and ambiguity in concepts of religion, language, and scientific thought. Later partakers of this stream, such as . . . Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore, were neither embarrassed nor intellectually crippled by their own iterations of this religious (and specifically Reformed and Trinitarian) set of beliefs. Rather, they worked both within and against the American typological imagination, using their nature poetry as evocative meditations on the mystery of revelation from a source outside the self, on the roles of desire and ethics to put one into relation with what one perceives, and on consent to life as a kind of being-as-becoming” (p. 33).

Emily Dickinson grew up in the heart of New Divinity country (i.e. Edwardsean New England), and even studied for a time at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, which was led by Mary Lyon, an Edwardsean theologian. Although Dickinson mentions Edwards only once in her poetry, Leader demonstrates that Dickinson’s perception of the natural world was haunted by Edwards’ thought. (Joseph Conforti, Amanda Porterfield, and several other scholars have also written about Mt. Holyoke’s Edwardsean priorities.)

Marianne Moore, on the other hand, never read Edwards (at least as far as we know). However, as Leader makes clear in the most original part of her book, “she was well versed in the writings of Augustine and early Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Luther.” More importantly, her outlook was shaped quite profoundly “by two pastors who were very fluent in Edwards’s theology: the Reverend E. H. Kellogg . . . and her grandfather, the Reverend John Riddle Warner, who attended a Reformed seminary in the mid-nineteenth century at the height of the Edwardsean influence on ministerial training” (pp. 172-73). These ministers, with whom Moore enjoyed close relationships, mediated Edwards’ thought to her on a regular basis–along with older, broader strains “of Augustinian and Calvinist biblical interpretation” (p. 143).

This is a very important book. Not only does it revive scholarly interest in the literary legacies of Edwards, it clarifies those legacies by showing that they survived not merely in a diffuse way among the Transcendentalists, but in a more specific way among writers raised in Reformed and Edwardsean church contexts in which the typological interpretation of reality, informed by the interpretation of Scripture, remained alive and well into the late modern period.

Leader’s Knowing, Seeing, Being is highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of American literature.