If you spend much time in Northampton, you may well have seen or met Susan Stinson. She doesn’t own a car, so she pedals her red trike around town. She’s also the writer-in-residence at the Forbes Library near downtown, a job which comes with interesting duties.
“It’s a really fun time,” Stinson said in a recent interview. “There’s a writing room on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in a little room on the mezzanine. Anyone can come. We write together for most of the time. There’s 15 minutes at the end and an option to read for up to five minutes. One thing I love is that writers at all levels can come. You’re not performing the rituals of critiquing and establishing legitimacy.”
In that role, Stinson also curates the Local History/Local Novelists series.
Stinson’s slower-paced travels about town have also tuned her in to the natural, timeless world, rather than just the hustle and bustle of Northampton’s street life. “I travel at the speed [early settlers] did,” she points out, “because I’m on a trike all the time. The town was laid out for horse and wagon and foot, not car. I see a lot.”
What she’s seen has been a large part of her way in to the Northampton of hundreds of years ago, the Northampton of one of its most famous former residents, Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards is often thought of as a dour and puritanical man, and in some respects, he seems to have been just that. As pastor of a Northampton congregation in the mid-1700s, Edwards preached what is probably the most famous sermon in American history. His “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” set the bar for pulpit scare tactics and Boschian visions of a fiery hell, demanding that future pastoral scaremongers resort to greater and greater hyperbole to even stand a chance at matching Edwards in scaring the daylights out of sinners.
In a famous passage, the sermon reads: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
Stinson’s writerly task of around a decade has been taking the Edwards who wrote those inflamed words and turning him into the protagonist of a novel. The result—which isn’t dour or puritanical at all—is Spider in a Tree, just published by Easthampton-based Small Beer Press.
For Stinson, Edwards started taking on a life beyond his prolific churchly philosophizing because of geography. “I live across from the Bridge Street cemetery,” Stinson says, “where a lot of people in his family are buried. I was writing and walking over there a lot, and I got fascinated by this story. It was literally the landscape that took me to Jonathan Edwards. I’d never read ‘Sinners’—I didn’t know his work. When I started reading him, I was surprised—I think he’s a brilliant writer. He’s lyrical and compelling and he goes right at the moral issues with everything he’s got.”
Though she admits that Edwards’ strict brand of Protestantism—he was a Calvinist—is “a pretty big barrier for a lot of people,” Stinson found in his writings another strain, too: “He argued with strong religious emotions of all kinds—hate and fear, but also joy.”
Her choice of historic personages to write about is intriguing in another light, too. Since Stinson is an out lesbian, it’s likely that Edwards would have considered the thread upon which she might dangle above a fiery fate particularly thin.
“I was a little bit scared to do it, to tell you the truth,” says Stinson. “I know that Edwards was an icon for the Religious Right, so I risked bringing myself and my work onto their sacred ground. One thing that I came to is that I’m not willing to cede that territory. His writing moves me and intrigues me—it’s my story, too.”
Stinson also says that her experiences trying to live a full life in the face of other people’s opinions has strengthened her desire to portray her characters in a way that she hopes is “true to their lives and how they lived them.”
She manages that in a few ways, but key to them all is her rich prose, with which she crafts a vision of life in colonial Northampton that’s fully realized and rooted in earthy and earthly concerns. When readers first meet the famous man himself, Edwards is indulging his apparently regular habit of writing in a tree: “Even in the tree, he was aloof and somber, but passersby craned their necks to enjoy the spectacle of him in his Geneva collar and second-best wig, writing furiously against a smooth place worn clean of bark.”
Stinson also offers several vantage points from which to view Edwards, writing from the viewpoints of family members and, intriguingly, a slave girl Edwards owned. Her plot thickens through Edwards’ wife’s remarkable religious experience, and a natural world so caught up in the religious one that insects (which are a regular presence) participate in their way.
In order to enter the same kind of world Edwards might have known, Stinson took on the habit of writing under trees. “There’s a particular tree in the cemetery that I spent a lot of time writing under,” Stinson says. “It was part of the research for me to examine the landscape as directly as I could—I was trying to fix the sensory information that we had in common. One thing that happened through that was encountering insects—if an insect showed up, I had to stop and observe and take notes. That—oh, my gosh—I miss that. It turned out to be a really meditative thing to do. They didn’t have Off [in the 1700s]—the insects would have been everywhere. They’re like emissaries from another time. There are references to spiders and insects in his work. They are a big presence [in the novel]. At a certain point, they preach.”
The portrait of Edwards that comes from Spider in a Tree is sometimes surprising, and some of the ways in which it surprises have a claim on historical accuracy. Stinson received, from the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, a copy of his will, listing all his possessions, even his clothes. “He was a bit of a dandy,” she says. “He had a cane. He would wear stockings.”
Vanity was considered so unseemly in his era that when Edwards gave his wife Sarah a necklace, Stinson says, “it was a scandal for months.”
Stinson prefers to keep her own religious beliefs to herself, but part of her task in writing about Edwards and those around him would be tough for anyone in the modern world, religious or not. Intense religious experience, the kind of thing we tend to consider lofty and outside the usual was, as is clear from Edwards’ writings, a common part of life in the Massachusetts of 1740.
“I did find it hard to write about,” says Stinson. “It’s kind of by nature ineffable. One of the things that made it easier was that Sarah said something so beautiful about lying in the bed and seeing the rays of sunshine come down, and the motes of dust were the light of Christ. And Edwards, too—they give you such specific and beautiful imagery. I was surprised how much I responded to it.
“But it is intense,” she continues. “I was really working to try to be respectful, and to describe these experiences in ways to help people see them but not to sensationalize them. That was a challenge. [They] were such a moment of bodily expression, and really changed rules in the midst of a really tightly controlled and hierarchical society.”
Being immersed for a decade in the religious Northampton of so long ago has, for Stinson, meant that old and new get connected, sometimes in decidedly practical ways. “When I’m heading up the hill to the library on my trike, I’m complaining about the Calvinist idea of the City on a Hill!”•
Susan Stinson reads from Spider in a Tree Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. at Amherst Books, 8 Main St., Amherst, (413) 542-8200.