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Volume 96, Issue 2


Scholars of solitude

In the gospels Jesus “goes into the wilderness and is tested by Satan, and he comes back to be who he’s going to be.” This condensed biblical narrative, explains W. Clark Gilpin, the Margaret E. Burton professor in the Divinity School, provides a model of self and spirituality for a trio of American writers: Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson. In his forthcoming book, Alone with the Alone: Solitude in American Religious and Literary History, Gilpin argues that those authors chronicle a break from religious traditions, embracing solitude and nature as a way to carve a new space for encountering divinity and critiquing society’s distracting, consuming, and volatile bustle.

In the 18th century, he explains, “an idea is gradually floating out of traditional Christian views of the church: you encounter God when you’re alone.” For Edwards, Emerson, and Dickinson, Gilpin writes in the 2001 Spiritus, “the purpose of contemplative solitude was the cultivation of a moral aesthetic that situated the self” in relation to the divine. Because “particular ideas about God and the self interact with particular forms of writing,” he says, the three authors used different genres, both private and public, to shape a distinctive moral aesthetic. “But in each case it involved a religious attentiveness to nature that resolved or mediated a particular existential threat to the self.”

Edwards, a Protestant preacher and theologian, felt that an individual could be consumed by worldly concerns and, Gilpin writes, suffer “a dispersal of the self, in which attention is diverted away from the central, consolidating aim of life.” Edwards, explains Gilpin, believed that God revealed himself as providence, and the theologian often used a narrative structure in his personal writings to put “together the past in order to try to discern [life’s] plot.” He stayed focused on the righteous path, Gilpin writes, through a “discipline of solitary contemplation,” in which he sought divinity through nature. In a brief memoir, composed around 1740, Edwards notes an “appearance of divine glory in almost every the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.”

Writing a century later, Emerson believed that “the self was endangered by social convention that threatened to erase its individuality,” Gilpin says. He understood God “not in terms of a kind of providential structure but an almost pantheistic infusion of reality with divine power.” An assiduous journal keeper, Emerson resisted social pressure “in the name of an elemental individuality,” Gilpin writes, recording the “perceptual immediacy” of his individual experiences in nature. Pursuing solitary reflection away from society, Emerson wrote, “In the garden, the eye watches the flying cloud and distant woods but turns from the village.”

Emerson’s fellow New Englander, Emily Dickinson, was likewise worried about the integrity of the individual. For her, Gilpin explains, “the principal threat to the self was transience, that all things pass,” and she saw God as “the horizon that’s always receding as you move toward it.” Though remembered for her poetry, Dickinson, Gilpin argues, explored her spirituality revealingly in her letters, which shaped a “structure of absence and memory.” She “believed memory could, in a way, keep something present and permanent,” and she used the meditative letter, in which she contemplated nature, as a hedge against impermanence and a way to approach the divine. In an 1856 letter to her cousin John L. Graves, she described “the crumbling elms and evergreens—and other crumbling things—that spring and fade...well they are here, and blue eye look down...a league from here, on the way to Heaven!”

The three authors’ private writings—personal narratives, journals, and letters—were intimately connected, Gilpin says, to their more public genres: Edwards’s sermons, Emerson’s essays, and Dickinson’s poems. Each writer sought solitude for religious reflection, to understand and to preserve the self’s relationship with the divine. In their published work, their moral aesthetic became thoughtful social criticism. Thus, as in the gospel narratives, rather than solitude as an end-of-career retreat, Gilpin says, the writers’ solitude was vocation driven: even in their separation they were concerned with the social order. And while they pursued time “alone with the Alone,” Gilpin cautions, they weren’t necessarily hermits. “All three of them include ideas of intimacy and closeness to friends, so that solitude doesn’t mean simply being alone, it really means the parting of some objectionable feature of society in order to achieve something true.”

Though Edwards, Emerson, and Dickinson continue to influence contemporary religious and literary studies, Gilpin’s book, he says, is “not so much a book about influence as it is about people who actually thought seriously about what the wider religious culture treats superficially.” Unlike today’s peddlers of self-help and pop spirituality, “these were three people who actually had something interesting to say. They go into solitude in order to create a fulcrum on which to lever the world.”—A.L.M.



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