Nimble Believing

Dickinson and the Unknown
James McIntosh
A groundbreaking exploration of the themes of faith and doubt in Emily Dickinson's poetry


Emily Dickinson's writing often expresses gratitude for mystery, for the ineffable and evanescent in nature, the human soul, and the divine. Nimble Believing explores Dickinson's poetry of faith and doubt concerning an unknown God, and also considers her preoccupation with the unknowns of nature, the afterlife, and the human soul. James McIntosh's highly original study is the first to focus on the centrality of this theme in Dickinson's poetry. It makes good use of a broad range of recent commentary, including feminist readings that treat Dickinson as a dynamic and intellectually experimental poet who opens her texts to the reader's interpretation.

James McIntosh is Professor of English and American Culture, University of Michigan.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . an impressive book that will win a place as the best book on its subject. Nobody reads Dickinson without asking how doubt and faith can be expressed so powerfully by the same poet. No critic has addressed this issue with such command of the material and such persuasive argument as McIntosh."
    —Robert Regan, University of Pennsylvania

  • "James McIntosh's study concerns the tension between faith and doubt in Emily Dickinson's poetry—not a new topic, but one that is crucial not only thematically within Dickinson's poems but also to her very vocation and practice as a poet. . . . The value of McIntosh's book lies in his steadily intelligent and knowledgeable anatomy of the conflicting and intersecting inclinations and responses in those endlessly fascinating and enigmatic poems. . . . This is a truly literary study in the largest, most humane, sense. Instead of subjecting poems to the distortions of theory, it brings biography, theology, psychology, and cultural history to bear on the intricacies of language, where all the issues of the poet's life and work converge, contend, and seek resolution."
    —Albert Gelpi, Stanford University, American Literature, March 2002

  • "Many of [Dickinson's[ poems express elements that are traditional to her faith. . . but many more are full of expressions of doubt, unbelief, and outright despair. Sometimes Dickinson both affirms and denies her spiritual belief in the same poem. McIntosh provides a thorough study of this phenomenon in Dickinson's life and writing, revealing her as a vital intellect who could see simultaneously contradictory sides of a single issue. That she cultivated this power and used it as a source of poetic inspiration is an aspect of her appeal to the modern mind. McIntosh offers insightful readings of many of Dickinson's difficult poems and finds an echo of her 'nimble believing' in other 19th-century writers—Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville. . . . [A] significant contribution to Dickinson studies for upper-division undergraduates and above."
    —P. J. Ferlazzo, Northern Arizona University, Choice, January 2001

  • "McIntosh skillfully weaves explication of individual poems (from the Johnson edition, for Franklin's was not yet available) into persuasive and plainly written exposition. . . . This is a strong and admirable book. . . ."
    —Benjamin Lease, Emeritus, Northeastern Illinois University, Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, November/December 2000

  • "McIntosh shows the power of Dickinson's religious quest in word, in verse, and in truth. He shows that she was much more than an ever-adolescent angry rebel trying to subvert the religious oppression of benighted Amherst neighbors. He demonstrates her conviction that 'life is fundamentally sacred'. I highly recommend Nimble Believing as a book that sheds further light for Dickinson studies, and I recommend the author as one of those 'very nimble Gentlemen'.
    Cynthia L. Hallen, Emily Dickinson Journal, 2001

  • "The most subtly intelligent discussion of Dickinson's spirituality."
    —Harold Bloom, Genius

  • ". . . readable, rewarding, and engaging."
    —Jerome Mazzaaro, Sewanee Review, Winter 2001

  • "In tracing the means by which Dickinson learned to thrive by contemplating the Unknown, McIntosh examines the paradoxical culture that produced her. . . . Nimble Believing is, for the most part, essentially an informed, direct treatment of Dickinson's poetry that abstains from participating in the main currents of critical speculation about Dickinson's work being generated these days—for example, debates about the textual integrity of her poems, her deployment of personae, her experimental approach to language. The book's cardinal virtues are, I think, its siting of Dickinson's poems within the broader context of mid-nineteenth-century religious doubt in America and its elucidation of Emerson's influence upon Dickinson."
    —James R. Guthrie, Wright State University, South Atlantic Review, October 2000

  • "McIntosh's study is exciting in its discussion of the unknown as a possible ground for (paradoxically) a belief of sorts. He builds a good argument through a carefully structured study...and provides helpful and at times refreshing readings of Dickinson's poetry."
    —Lynda Szabo, Christianity and Literature

Look Inside


Notes on texts     xi
1 Introduction: Nimble Believing     1
2 Varieties of Religion in Emily Dickinson     35
3 Bible Stories and Divine Encounters     81
4 The Unknown as Needed and Dreadful     123
Notes     161
Bibliography     183
Index of First Lines     189
Index     192

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 208pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2004
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03055-2

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  • $30.95 U.S.