Sunday, September 26, 2010

America's Forgotten Saint: Jones Very

The attitude of seriousness I was alluding to in my first post has rarely been more evident than in the face of American essayist, poet, and mystic, Jones Very. In a tip-of-the-cap to the Fates, Very was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1813, and probably would've been crucified hanged as a witch had he been born there 150 years earlier.

As Very was coming of age, American intellectuals were in the midst of an influx of ideas from Europe, mainly from Germany. In the early 19th century, most of the best intellectuals in the country still went through--and the best ideas came from--divinity schools. So when Very enrolled at Harvard in 1833, he was not only under the tutelage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also under the influence of scholar/theologians from the conservative Andrews Norton to the progressive Theodore Parker, who were all learning German and dealing with a newly historical vision of Jesus and early Christianity (see "Higher Criticism" for a notion of the German influence). Take away this: when Very threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies, he was entering an unsettled, contested, and wide-open field.

Virginia Commonwealth's page on Transcendentalism sums up Very's undergraduate exerpience in one incredible paragraph:
Very's religious monomania began to take shape in the waning days of his undergraduate career. He was never comfortable with women, and at this point he decided to eschew their society entirely. Unable to deal with the temptation, Very decided that the best course of action was to avoid the temptation. This, however, was only the first stage. During this period he purchased his ticket to the ascetic train which was to carry him to the end of line, the eventual obliteration of self and immersion in the will of God.
Sorry, what was that last part?--you read it correctly: immersion in the will of God, or so Very claimed. How did it get to this outlying point? This part fascinates me. Scholars speculate: Very hardly knew his father, and his mother smothered him with overprotective love. Okaaaaay. What else? In 1836, he read and heavily annotated Emerson's "Nature," and deeply appreciated Emerson's soaring notion that an individual could become a vessel of the divine. Hmmm. Bipolar disorder? Possibly. But still, none of this seems to satisfactorily account for Very's motivation on the day (September 16, 1938) that he told Elizabeth Peabody, "I come to baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire," and then, "I am the Second Coming."

Needless to say, Very was committed to a mental asylum shortly thereafter. He recovered quickly, and was released a month later. On October 29th, Emerson, who had Very stay with him shortly after Very left the asylum, wrote in his journal: "J. Very charmed us all by telling us he hated us all." Emerson seems to have kept Very at a comfortable distance, but must have been pleased to see a student of Transcendentalism actually, well, transcend!

Later that year, Amos Brownson Alcott visited with Very, and afterwards wrote this note to a friend:
I received a letter on Monday of this week from Jones Very of Salem, formerly Tutor in Greek at Harvard College — which institution he left, a few weeks since, being deemed insane by the Faculty. A few weeks ago he visited me....He is a remarkable man. His influence at Cambridge on the best young men was very fine. His talents are of a high order....Is he insane? If so, there yet linger glimpses of wisdom in his memory. He is insane with God — diswitted in the contemplation of the holiness of Divinity. He distrusts intellect... Living, not thinking, he regards as the worship meet for the soul. This is mysticism in its highest form.
Very's later life was unremarkable. He was a writer of above-average poetry, and a schoolteacher. He died more than 40 years later after declaring himself the Second Coming. With no apostles or disciples... yet. It'd probably be better to conclude this history lesson with Emily Dickinson's "Much Madness is Divinest Sense," but I have a special respect for Very, who seems to have gone too far for even the most "spiritual" of those pragmatic 19th century Americans to follow; I've even considered starting a book project on him. So I'll let him finish for himself; here's my favorite of Very's sonnets:
The Dead

I see them, crowd on crowd they walk the earth,
Dry leafless trees no autumn wind laid bare;
And in their nakedness find cause for mirth,
And all unclad would winter's rudeness dare;
No sap doth through their clattering branches flow,
Whence springing leaves and blossoms bright appear;
Their hearts the living God have ceased to know,
Who gives the springtime to th' expectant year.
They mimic life, as if from him to steal
His glow of health to paint the livid cheek;
They borrow words for thoughts they cannot feel,
That with a seeming heart their tongue may speak;
And in their show of life more dead they live
Than those that to the earth with many tears they give.


  1. Withes in Salem were hung not crucified. You probably knew that though.

  2. Oh I knew that--but weirdly enough, I didn't notice that I typed "crucified." Hmph. Weird.