Theology and insects: researching a novel
It feels good to think about research in fiction in conversation with Brian Kiteley, whose lyrical, tough, heartfelt novel, The River Gods, draws deeply on the landscape and history of Northampton, Massachusetts, where I find myself writing, as well. I’ve spent nine years, off and on, more or less, researching and writing Spider in a Tree, a novel set in Northampton during in the years that eighteenth century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards preached there. The process of doing research for the novel proved to be more aesthetically pleasurable; more challenging to my sense of identity and reality; and more tactile than I had imagined.
I didn’t know when I got interested in his story that Jonathan Edwards is a compelling, poetic writer whose work approaches the most central questions of human existence with live, supple language; unstinting rigor; intellectual and literary appreciation for emotion; and deep commitment to beauty. Reading his sermons, treatises and letters was a core activity for me in researching the book. Doing that reading changed me. His Calvinism earns its reputation for fierceness and judgment, I think, but he is a great writer. His language slows the modern mind and tongue. His theology offers a way out from under the seemingly inescapable metaphors of psychology as a way of understanding and interpreting human life. Doing this research was an enormous emotional, intellectual and cultural challenge, and it brought strange relief. Both the language and the theology entered the story I had to tell, and became more explicit as part of my inheritance as a novelist. The twenty-first century may not want me to pass along that gift, but I’m offering it.
I want you to feel the thrill of this, and I’m aware of so many barriers.
I started reading scholars of church history. Some of them — Douglas Winiarski, Kenneth Minkema — are telling meticulously-researched, amazing stories. Dr. Minkema is the Executive Editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards and of the Jonathan Edwards Center and Online Archive, which can be found online at http://edwards.yale.edu/.
The archive, which went online while I was writing the novel, aims to make all of the writings of Jonathan Edwards available, including much previously unpublished (and close to unreadable in his tight handwriting) work from the archives of his papers at Yale. It includes a chronology of Jonathan Edwards’s life by Dr. Minkema that created order out of chaos for me. The archive meant that when I wanted to read the sermon that Jonathan Edwards preached when his seventeen year-old daughter Jerusha died, I could not only find it, I knew which parts he had reused from a previous sermon. Dr. Minkema has written scholarly articles on Jonathan Edwards and slavery that reshaped everything I thought I knew about the man’s life. I struggled with trying to get a sense of what Jonathan Edwards might be wearing or how his food might be served on any given day, until Dr. Minkema sent me a copy of his will, which listed all of his household goods. Then, I didn’t have to wonder if he had a beaver hat or a pair of leather breeches. I knew.
Moving into the spaces like conferences where I found access to the work of these historians and theologians often meant that I had to think strategically about what I wore (plain dresses with high necklines) and how I spoke. I went to Budapest. I went to Yale. I went to church. I also did another kind of research that was completely grounded in my ordinary life. I crossed the street in front of my apartment and walked in the cemetery. I wrote there, among the graves of Edwards’s grandparents, children, friends and antagonists. I rode my trike daily along the paths he and the people in his household would have walked to church or to the fields to tend the livestock. Everywhere I went, I took notes: on the weather, the weeds, the smells. I wrote a lot outside, on paper in a notebook. Whenever I encountered an insect, I stopped whatever else I was doing, and watched it intently. I tried to capture what it looked like, and wrote down everything it did. Sometimes I flinched, but I didn’t swat. Bugs and spiders have a place in Jonathan Edwards’s writing and thought, and they came to seem like emissaries from his time, living relics, moving, sensually, in ways that I could experience on my very skin, not on his agenda, but on their own.