Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christian Feminism in the Minister's Wooing: A Precedent for Emily Dickinson

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Christian Feminism in the Minister's Wooing: A Precedent for Emily Dickinson

Article excerpt

Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

--Luke 12:32

God will not let us have heaven here below, but only such glimpses and faint showings as parents sometimes give to children, when they show them beforehand the jewelry and pictures and stores of rare and curious treasures which they hold for the possession of their riper years.

--Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Minister's Wooing

 
   The Love a Life can show Below 
   Is but a filament, I know, 
   Of that diviner thing 
   That faints upon the face of Noon-- 
   And smites the Tinder in the Sun-- 
   And hinders Gabriel's Wing-- 
 
   --Emily Dickinson, Fr285/J673 

As Thomas Wentworth Higginson maintains in his 1867 essay "A Plea for Culture," the great minds who are best remembered by posterity are "rarely isolated mountain-peaks" but rather "the summits of ranges" (18). The same argument has been brilliantly expanded by critic David S. Reynolds, who concludes that the great writers of the nineteenth century "memorably reconstructed the popular subversive imagination" and that Emily Dickinson was the "highest product of a rebellious American sisterhood" (567, 413). Many of these rebellious sisters were revisionists rather than radicals. Amid the social constraints and political inequalities they endured, they sought and found liberating principles within their cultural traditions. By privately and sometimes publicly appropriating for themselves the ideals of equality and individualism professed within Christianity, Romanticism, and American democracy, many nineteenth-century women contrived to maintain their sanity and inspire their contemporaries and descendants. From reading Scripture and other literature, they were increasingly empowered to challenge the very institutions that had taught them how and what to read. A striking expression of that challenge is The Minister's Wooing (1859) by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

In this novel Stowe balances her themes celebrating romance and domesticity with a good admixture of comedy and satire, all expressed in a remarkably descriptive and leisurely style. Certainly The Minister's Wooing is no action-packed adventure story, but it is a shrewd psychological study, a feast for the visual imagination, and a compassionate critique of the New England Puritan tradition. Christianity, Romanticism, and feminism are blended in the portraits of Mary Scudder and several other admirable female characters. Mary is courageous, unselfish, and unconventional, expanding traditional definitions of female virtue. She upholds yet transforms the rigorous Puritan belief system, establishing through her example the possibility of a new community founded upon love rather than fear.

It seems likely that Dickinson may have read and enjoyed The Minister's Wooing, inasmuch as it was originally serialized in early issues of the Atlantic Monthly, shortly before the peak of Dickinson's creative productivity. As Beth Maclay Doriani has pointed out, Stowe would have provided Dickinson with at least one literary model of an assertive female voice "speaking prophetically while not seeming to transgress cultural boundaries" (149-50). Doriani's Emily Dickinson, Daughter of Prophecy provides a wide-ranging examination of Dickinson's prophetic vocation in the context of her religious and intellectual milieu. The present discussion complements this invaluable study by focusing on a single literary contemporary of the poet in detail, partially to establish Stowe as a precedent and potential resource not only for Dickinson but also for other readers (past and present) familiar with the same theological and cultural heritage. (1)

Both Stowe and Dickinson merit the attention of anyone interested in interdisciplinary women's studies, perhaps especially those who continue to grow up, as did these writers, in an evangelical tradition that impresses upon them the concept of the divine presence as unquestionably there, no matter how alarming or indifferent that presence might seem. …

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