Westmont Magazine The Faith and Doubts of Emily Dickinson
Literature can help readers think through issues in their lives, says Susan Van Zanten ’78, an English professor and literary scholar. “Fiction creates a world that allows you to explore ideas that affect your world,” she says. She encourages students and faculty alike to ponder what speaks to their lives.
Her latest book addresses a general audience, a departure from her scholarly publications. In “Mending a Tattered Faith” (Cascade Books, 2010) she reflects on 30 poems by Emily Dickinson and invites readers to mull over the poet’s struggle with faith and doubt. Anyone who has read Dickinson may be surprised to learn that some of her works affirm faith; anthologies tend to feature the doubting poems. Susan doesn’t see Dickinson as an atheist, describing her relationship with God as “intense but often troubled.”
The book’s introduction explains its purpose. “I hope that reading and thinking about Dickinson’s poems may provide you with a way of listening for God or naming your own spiritual doubts and fears. May her literary gifts facilitate both mending and treasuring.” The title comes from a line in a poem, “To mend each tattered Faith.”
At a difficult time in her life when she faced unexpected loss, Susan re-read Dickinson. Suddenly, the poetry spoke to her painful experience. As she grows older and encounters more situations in life, Susan unwraps new layers of meaning in Dickinson’s works. “She’s become my favorite poet,” Susan says.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to learn new things,” Susan notes. “I get interested in something and pursue it. That’s the advantage of an academic career: I can pick up a new interest, explore it and teach it.”
As a young professor in the 1980s, Susan had to teach something other than American literature, so she developed expertise in the work of South African writers. “The anti-Apartheid movement was in the news, and I grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, so I thought studying South African literature was a way to work toward justice,” she says. Harvard University Press published her book on J.M. Coetzee long before he won a Nobel Prize.
Susan also pursued an interest in faculty development. She helped establish the Center for Scholarship and Faculty Development at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) and directed it for eight years before returning to teaching last year. She enjoyed mentoring new faculty and helping them think through the integration of faith and scholarship. She also directed the college’s honors program. Susan chose Westmont because it’s a Christian college with a strong liberal arts program. “I anticipated a college where I could find people interested in talking about ideas,” she says. “Westmont gave that to me — and a good faculty.” Initially she double-majored in English and political science, thinking of law school. But she hated her internship with a legal aid society. Professor Arthur Lynip asked if she’d ever thought of going to graduate school and opened a new door in her life. She earned a master’s degree and doctorate in American literature at Emory University and taught at Covenant College and Calvin College before joining the faculty at SPU in 1993. Last year she taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson and assigned Dickinson in her freshman humanities course. “I want to pull students into poetry and help them see Dickinson less as a puzzle and more as a prompt,” she says.