'Spider in a Tree': Local author’s novel imagines life in Jonathan Edwards’ Northampton

Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013

You may have seen the famous stark portrait: the thin-lipped, unsmiling mouth and the disapproving eyes, staring out from underneath the tightly woven wig, clerical garb tucked up just as tightly beneath his chin. This was the man who became the most famous theologian of Colonial America — perhaps in U.S. history — the one who wrote the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

But as Susan Stinson sees it, Jonathan Edwards was not a grim Puritan preaching hellfire and brimstone. He was a thoughtful philosopher who saw God’s design everywhere, particularly in the natural world, and often composed his sermons while sitting in an elm tree outside his home, the better to try and grasp the beauty and wonder of God’s creation and share that with his parishioners.

In her richly imagined novel, “Spider in a Tree,” published by Small Beer Press in Easthampton, Stinson has painted not just a portrait of Jonathan Edwards but of his world — from his wife, Sarah, and their family, to their neighbors and cousins, to the greater community of 18th-century Northampton.

In doing so, Stinson, the writer-in-residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, has recreated a long-vanished way of life — one of a much slower tempo, ruled by weather, harvests and the fickleness of illness and death, as well as by a sense that everyone’s life plays out under the eyes of a watchful God.

“I started with [Edwards’] own writing, because he was such a brilliant writer,” said Stinson, who lives in Northampton. “We know he thought deeply about God, about our place in God’s universe. But we also have a sense of what life was like in his home ... he left some of those domestic details on scraps of paper.”

His wife also wrote at length about her religious experiences by putting them in the context of her day-to-day life, Stinson says: “We know what she was feeling, what was happening in the house ... that was something I built on.”

In addition, Stinson was interested in exploring the contradictions in Edwards’ life — most notably his ownership of slaves. “In fact, a lot of ministers in this region had slaves,” she said. “That’s something a lot of people don’t know or have forgotten, so I think it’s worth talking about.”

“Spider in a Tree” uses a range of voices to tell the story: that of Sarah Edwards; the Edwards’ slave, Leah; Jonathan Edwards’ cousins, Joseph and Elisha Hawley, and their mother, Rebekah; and even the occasional insect. It’s a portrait of regular people who, despite the intense world of the spirit they inhabit, are prey to all the usual human frailties, from greed to lust to jealousy.

And in recreating Edwards’ key years in Northampton — from sparking the Great Awakening, the Protestant revitalization movement, in the 1730s, to having much of the town turn against him by the late 1740s — Stinson has rescued the word “puritan” from being “a stand-in for prudery, small-mindedness, and backbiting,” writes Publishers Weekly.

“The actual Puritans were fallible people trying to live up to extraordinarily high moral standards,” says the review. “In her fictional account ... Stinson restores personhood and complexity to figures who have shriveled into caricature.”

Curiosity piqued

Stinson, who grew up in Colorado and Texas, moved to Northampton in the mid-1980s. But it was only about 10 years ago that she began to learn much about Jonathan Edwards and his time in Northampton. Her curiosity was first piqued when she began visiting the Bridge Street Cemetery, near her apartment, and noticed old grave markers connected to the Edwards family, which had lived on King Street.

Those markers, she said, “were talking to me, telling me something. I had to figure out what that was.”

The experience led Stinson, who works as a writing coach and has published three previous novels, to begin lengthy research on Edwards, on local history, and on daily life in Colonial America. One of the novel’s most interesting aspects is its portrait of a very different Northampton, with its abundant meadows and crops, its dusty (or muddy or icy) roads, and a smelly tannery, for some reason located in the center of town, just down the street from the Edwards house.

Edwards himself is something of an absent-minded professor, a man who lives a good deal of the time in his head, writing for hours and often neglecting his appearance. He’s fascinated by science and nature, both charming and perplexing his wife in one scene in which a spider crawls onto his finger: “He was regarding the spider almost tenderly ... with the look of a boy scratching the nose of his first horse. He was dear to her, but so strange.”

“He was sort of socially awkward,” Stinson said.

Edwards is a dutiful father, too. He and his wife have 11 children, and when his daughter Jerusha dies at age 17, all are heartbroken, even if they believe Jerusha has gone to heaven: “The family’s grief was structured by submission to God, but trying to contain it was like trying to fence in smoke.”

The episodic novel begins in 1731, when Edwards purchases a young West African girl, Venus, from a sea captain in Newport, R.I., and renames her Leah. Leah is resigned to her fate but eventually develops affection for the Edwards children. She is also gradually drawn to Edwards’ preaching and becomes the first black member of the Northampton congregation.

Yet she’s also clear-eyed about her relationship with the family, such that when she and another Edwards slave, Saul, fall in love and marry, they think long and hard about having a child, not knowing if he or she might one day be sold. Leah’s voice is one of the novel’s strongest, offering a natural counterpoint to Edwards’ internal debate over how his slave ownership dovetails with his spiritual mission.

Front and center in the story is the Great Awakening, in which Edwards tries to convince his parishioners of their need for salvation by Jesus Christ and encourages them to develop a new sense of spiritual conviction and introspection. Church members who make these “conversions” often do so in dramatic fashion, crying out or weeping or fainting.

But it’s not for everyone, and Edwards is frustrated that some people sleep through his sermons while others “have returned to their sins like a dog to its vomit.” He preaches in a quiet voice, using reason rather than raw emotion to make his points, and he prides himself on self-control. But he wrestles with real anger at times, for which he chastises himself.

Still, he’s passionate about showing townspeople that God’s grace can be taken away in a flash. When a drunken parishioner in a tavern likens Edwards to Satan one night and is later publicly flogged for his remarks — one of the book’s most vivid scenes — Edwards warns that the pain the man feels “is but a fraction of what he will suffer for eternity if he doesn’t repent and repudiate his crime.”

Others struggle with their own “impure” thoughts, including Sarah Edwards. On her knees scrubbing the floor one day, an exhausted Sarah imagines being away on a distant seashore with her children where “they would all eat clams and berries and never pray at all.” Quickly regretting this thought, she bends harder to her work until “she seemed to be floating in a sea of solace ... the bucket bobbing before her.”

Perseverance pays off

Though Stinson writes that she’s made “frequent leaps of imagination” in her novel, including creating fictional characters such as Saul, she’s also based it on many real events and people, like Joseph and Elisha Hawley, Edwards’ younger cousins. She drew on a wealth of letters between the two brothers for critical scenes in which Elisha is facing judgment from the town for impregnating a girl out of wedlock.

Another key historical figure is the British minister George Whitefield, a charismatic revivalist who came to the American colonies in 1739-40 and developed a rapport with the more reserved Edwards. He preaches in Northampton, helping to reignite flagging spirit there, then tours other towns in the region with Edwards; the two spark a huge outpouring of conversions across the Connecticut River Valley.

But, as in real life, Edwards eventually loses the support of his congregation, for a variety of reasons, including the grudges and animosities inherent in small-town life. Joseph Hawley, once enamored of Edwards — the Edwards family had secretly funded Hawley’s education at Yale College — helps lead the effort in 1750 to oust his old mentor from the church, and many residents no longer speak to or acknowledge Sarah Edwards.

Stinson, who’s done a number of public readings in the last several weeks, says she worked on and off for almost 10 years on “Spider in a Tree,” at one point putting it away when other publishers rejected her initial manuscript. But, much as Edwards persevered with his sermons, she eventually determined to finish it: “You do it because you love it and you want it to be as beautiful as it can be.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Susan Stinson will read from her “Spider in a Tree” Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. at Amherst Books


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