Readings from Paul Johnson #9

I had occasion over the summer to listen to the audio book version of Paul Johnson’s Heroes. It is a book of biographical sketches from history’s most fascinating, famous, infamous, and in some cases, virtually unknown individuals society would consider “heroic.” I would recommend anyone picking up a copy, or listening to the book on audio format. This section on Emily Dickinson was thoroughly amusing and provides good insight as to why she was an eccentric recluse. If ever I preach on the subject of anxiety, I will certainly cite this passage.

The Terrors of Emily Dickinson

[Emily Dickinson’s] life was a successful struggle against fear, in which she drew nourishment from her creative gifts… Though writing poems was a protection against fear, publication of them, to her, was a gross intrusion on her privacy, a rape, or an act like going naked into a drawing room.

The fear was instinctive, natural and lifelong, and sprang from two causes: her religion and her parents. She, like her family, was Calvinist and believed in double predestination. She, like her mother, but unlike her father, believed from an early age that she was “saved,” and took Communion, on occasion, without difficulty. Religion pervaded her life, but it is not clear whether she believed in God, at any rate in a benevolent, merciful and loving God. She thought God was unjust and cruel, especially to Moses, in not letting him see the Promised Land: she wrote three indignant poems on this subject. … The most important word in her life was “power.” She used the word often, and associated it with God, who exercised power for good or evil. Death, especially from tuberculosis and scarlet fever, was common in her age group. Her uncle Asa Bullard edited (in the 1830s) a children’s paper, the “Sabbath School Visitor,” designed to convert children to religious enthusiasm by emphasizing the imminence of sudden death, physical dismemberment and fatal illness. …

But if her parents had no godlike power over her, they could keep her in fear, if only by the contagion of their own fears. Her mother was in a constant quiver of anxiety, always terrified of losing her purse, her sewing, her luggage, her way. She used to say: “When in doubt, don’t go out.” She was a poor creature: “I never had a mother,” said Emily later. Her father was far from a nonentity… [H]is belief that he was not (yet) “saved” led to fear that he would die thus, and so be separated from those he loved for eternity. This fear dominated his life, and he passed it on. But he filled Emily with physical fears too. She recalled in her fifties that he had taken her to the mill to get grist, and warned her about the powerful mill horse: “Do not get out [of the wagon] and go near the horse, or you will be trampled.” She added: “The horse looked around at me, as if to say, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor Ear heard the things that I would do to you if I weren’t tied.”…

When he was away his family, and especially Emily, were told to observe many restrictive rules, which limited their movements. She was not allowed to go to school if it were cold; no sledding; no play in the snow. Her father had a terror of drafts, of being struck by lightning and of sudden sickness. … Edward Dickinson’s letter are full of advice about and formulas for health. Staying at home, preferably in bed, was the sovereign remedy. He believed himself to be prone to accidents, and was terrified of what would befall his family if they left the house, especially if he was not there. When away, he told Emily: “Never go out, and lock all doors at all times.” His instructions to Emily when she had to go on a visit by train, were disturbing: “When you come home be careful to get out of the car at Palmer -don’t fall, keep hold of something all the time, till you are safely out-lest they should start, and throw you down, and then run over you.” He had a particular fear of going to a prayer meeting in the vestry, which was a basement: “My positive instruction is that you do not go into the vestry, on any occasion, for any purpose, in my absence. Now don’t disregard this. I shall find out if you do. It is a most dangerous place, and I wonder that anyone will venture into it.” He also gave constant instructions about avoiding snakes. She later wrote:

I was much in the wood as a little girl. I was told that the snake would bite me, that I might pick a poisonous flower, or goblins kidnap me, but I went along and met none but angels, who were far shyer of me than I could be of them.

Heroes, pp. 153, 154, 155, 156.


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