Imagining Edwards as a human being

How is Jonathan Edwards like a fat lesbian?

According to Susan Stinson, author of Spider in the Tree, a novel of the First Great Awakening, this is not a weird set-up for an awkward joke. There are actually some similarities, similarities which, she says, helped her conceive of and portray the 18th c. Calvinists as complicated, three-dimensional human beings.

“My four previous books,” Stinson writes, “all centered on the lives of fat lesbians, and when I started writing this novel, I was struck by how the intense experiences of revival, the intimacy of pastoral care, and the terrible conflict that developed between Edwards and most of the people in Northampton seemed parallel to some of the gifts and fights in the lesbian feminist community there as I’d know it in the 1980s and 90s.

“It was fascinating to me that such different ideologies seemed to share such similar emotional and social arcs. I thought for a time of writing parallel stories set in the same geographic space in Northampton, one in the 1980s and the other in the 1740, but once I got into the eighteenth century, that story took over.”

Publishers Weekly gave the book a good review, praising especially the way the author presented Edwards and those around him as full figures. “Stinson ┬árestores personhood and complexity to figures who have shriveled into caricature,” the magazine reports. “The actual Puritans were fallible people trying to live up to extraordinarily high moral standards while knowing that God was everywhere — in the wind and the leaves and the merest insects — august, confusing, beautiful, and terrifying.”

The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale has video excerpts of Stinson reading from her novel, which are definitely worth checking out.

— Daniel Silliman

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