God's Scrivener: The Madness and Meaning of Jones Very
A biography of a long-forgotten but vital American Transcendentalist poet.
In September of 1838, a few months after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his controversial Divinity School address, a twenty-five-year-old tutor and divinity student at Harvard named Jones Very stood before his beginning Greek class and proclaimed himself “the second coming.” Over the next twenty months, despite a brief confinement in a mental hospital, he would write more than three hundred sonnets, many of them in the voice of a prophet such as John the Baptist or even of Christ himself—all, he was quick to claim, dictated to him by the Holy Spirit.
Befriended by the major figures of the Transcendentalist movement, Very strove to convert, among others, Elizabeth and Sophia Peabody, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and most significantly, Emerson himself. Though shocking to some, his message was simple: by renouncing the individual will, anyone can become a “son of God” and thereby usher in a millennialist heaven on earth. Clark Davis’s masterful biography shows how Very came to embody both the full radicalism of Emersonian ideals and the trap of isolation and emptiness that lay in wait for those who sought complete transcendence.
God’s Scrivener tells the story of Very’s life, work, and influence in depth, recovering the startling story of a forgotten American prophet, a “brave saint” whose life and work are central to the development of poetry and spirituality in America.
Praise for God's Scrivener: The Madness and Meaning of Jones Very
“In God’s Scrivener: The Madness and Meaning of Jones Very, Clark Davis doesn’t spend much time on his subject’s spectacular breakdown. Instead, relying on new research, he painstakingly reconstructs everything that came before and after. . . . Mr. Davis wonders, at the end of his fine biography, if the world really needs ‘the strange purity’ of Very’s voice. But if you like your poems plain and unfussy, written as if every word mattered and were meant for you and no one else, give Very’s poetry a try. You will even get the occasional piece of useful life advice. Feeling too wrapped up in your own concerns? ‘Open thy window, gaze abroad / Go forth and walk an hour.’”
— Wall Street Journal
“Davis . . . enthusiastically argues for a ‘reevaluation of the existing biographical evidence’ in his sympathetic God’s Scrivener. . . . To Davis, Very in the end is a kind of hero devoted to his vision and voice, a maverick committed to something like the beatitudes. He emerges as a kind of protomodern figure, resolute and true, who casts ‘a strong light on the compromises and half-truths of others.’”
— New York Review of Books
“God’s Scrivener is a thoughtful, moving, and deeply researched portrait of the otherworldly mystic and poet Jones Very. Clark Davis reveals that, far from being the punchline of an old joke, the unjustly forgotten Very was nothing less than the stillness at the heart of Transcendentalism, joining Thoreau and Whitman as one of the era’s great poet-prophets who articulated a powerful and innovative response to the pressures of modernity. Davis’s biography radically deepens our understanding of the movement’s potential and its limits, a message with surprising resonance today. This is essential reading for anyone who cares about Transcendentalism, the poetry of faith and doubt, or the place of Christian mysticism at the heart of America’s longing for a better world.”
— Laura Dassow Walls, author of "Henry David Thoreau: A Life"
“Massively well researched and well argued, God’s Scrivener benefits from Clark Davis’s informed attention to a trove of documents not available fifty-six years ago when the last biography of Jones Very was published. By showing how the life, times, and works illuminate each other, Davis restores to us an author once considered one of the best sonnet writers in the language. Even as he establishes Very’s historical importance, Davis clearly explores both the strengths and dangers of his example.”
— Robert Daly, author of "God’s Altar: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry"
“Jones Very has been the lost Transcendentalist for decades, but Clark Davis has recovered him as a superb poet and penetrating spiritual mind in his remarkable God’s Scrivener. This is the story of a moving and enlightening life, artfully told.”
— David M. Robinson, author of "Natural Life: Thoreau’s Worldly Transcendentalism"
“God’s Scrivener, the first biography of the enigmatic and fascinating Transcendentalist poet Jones Very in more than half a century, is a masterful revaluation of both Very’s life and work. Davis’s careful analysis of Very’s sometimes ecstatic poetry and surviving accounts of his unconventional behavior help to make sense of Very’s state of mind during the period when he came to public attention in the intellectual, religious, and literary circles of Salem and the greater Boston area. Mining the poet’s neglected ‘commonplace books’ to great effect, Davis builds the most complete picture yet of the poet’s intellectual and spiritual development in his formative years.”
— Helen R. Deese, editor, "Jones Very: The Complete Poems"