Posted: March 1, 2010
arilynne Robinson is an anomaly in American fiction; has any writer had a stranger career? When her first novel, Housekeeping, appeared in 1980, she was hailed as the next great American female regionalist writer, a Willa Cather or Sarah Orne Jewett. Her book was quickly deemed a modern classic, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Robinson went from prestigious perch to prestigious perch as a visiting professor and writer-in-residence at numerous colleges, finally landing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1989, where eager critics hoped she'd finally produce a second novel.
But like her heroine Ruth Stone, the teenage drifter in Housekeeping, Robinson is an incurable wanderer, and she soon abandoned the planned second novel. Instead, she embarked on a series of ferociously polemical and deeply contrarian essays: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), an exposé of the nuclear power industry in Britain; and The Death of Adam(1998), a defense of Calvinism against modern thought.
Then, in her sixties, having been written off as a one-hit wonder, Robinson finally published her second novel. Gilead (2004) was as complete a departure from her previous work as one could imagine. Whereas Housekeeping was a dark coming-of-age tale about two orphaned sisters, Gilead was a sweet-tempered, almost sentimental novel, the last testament of an Iowa minister to his young son. In 2005, it won the Pulitzer Prize, in what was assumed to be the crown of a distinguished, if unusual, career. But Robinson had yet another surprise in store, and a mere four years later Home, a companion novel to Gilead, appeared.
Both Gilead and Home concern the doings of two preachers, lifelong friends, who are dying together in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, during the late 1950s. Gilead takes the form of a letter; its writer is the younger of the two men, the 76-year-old Rev. John Ames. Ames has married late in life, and, troubled by an ailing heart, expects soon to leave behind his young family. So he begins a long letter to his not-quite-seven-year-old son detailing the family history (his "begats," as Ames calls them) over a century. Home covers many of the same events as Gilead, but focuses on the house of Ames's closest friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton. Boughton is near death, and his youngest daughter, Glory, has come home to care for him. The two friends spend their last days peacefully, playing checkers and debating politics and theology, until Boughton's wayward son and Ames's godson, Jack, unexpectedly returns to Gilead, seeking his father's blessing.
The two novels have met with considerable praise; the London Times declared Robinson no less than "the world's best writer of prose." If that weren't enough, the enthusiastic reviewer went on to say, "I'm not saying that you're actually dead if you haven't read Marilynne Robinson, but I honestly couldn't say you're fully alive." Few reviewers would quibble with that assessment: Robinson's writing has been touted as "luminous," "lyrical," even "Melvillean." "Robinson has few rivals at the sentence level," wrote one admiring critic.
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These laurels are well merited. Robinson's language is as lovely as its admirers say—sparse yet concentrated, rich in metaphor and allusion, and suffused with a sad tenderness. At times, her prose approaches a kind of pastoral plainsong. Consider this representative passage from Gilead with Robinson in full Melvillean mode:
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know all this is mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity, this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
What might have been cursory moments in other novels are similarly transformed by Robinson's art, imbued with both beauty and insight. Here, in one of the loveliest sections of Home, Glory recalls an old oak tree on the Boughton property:
[It] flung its imponderable branches out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa.
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As celebrated as Robinson's style is, her choice of subjects has provoked a certain critical befuddlement. "A Reverend, recounting his life?" lit blogger Emily Cook asked skeptically of Gilead, "the topic sounds utterly boring." Cook was not alone. Many reviewers felt the need to reassure their readers that neither novel, despite the focus on as homely a subject as two Midwestern ministers' lives—lives which intersect with such events as the American Civil War and the civil rights movement—was dull. "This book [Home] is the opposite of slow or suffocating," raved Ann Hulbert in Slate, while n+1, the hipper-than-thou journal of the young literati, was almost apologetic for praising a novelist who writes about "country bumpkins"—and, worse still, believing Christians. But rest assured, wrote n+1, "you don't have to be Christian to appreciate Robinson." Nor is her "this-worldly" religion your typical Christianity: "one branch as crazy as the other, at best merely different brands of ineffective analgesic for the afterlife, whose specific worldly demands more often cover for intolerance than rise to an even basic level of morality." Still another critic—this one in the Atlantic—wondered aloud why "intelligent Iowa preacher" seems like an "oxymoron to contemporary ears."
To these baffled reviewers, Robinson might say the blame lies with our contemporary ears. She has called Gilead a corrective to our "cultural amnesia," and all her work seeks to recover and reclaim the forgotten. How sad it is, she writes, "that a society with a history of hope and intention can forget that anything bold or generous, anything of interest, ever happened there." In Gilead and Home, she takes the Midwest of the 1950s—a place we think unintellectual and provincial; an era we consider stultifying and complacent—and finds a lost history. She presents us with clergymen who, far from being simple "country bumpkins," discuss Feuerbach, Sartre, Gide, and Karl Barth. In tracing Ames's "begats," she shows us a Midwest which is historically central, even revolutionary—committed to the causes of abolitionism, social reform, and liberal education. She recalls too a time when "the link between popular religion and high intellectual achievement, between religious enthusiasm and generous and transformative change" was yet unbroken. As Ames reminds us, Iowa was once known as "the shining star of radicalism"; its early settlers—among them Ames's grandfather—compelled by religious conviction to leave their comfortable homes in the East and brave the frontier in hopes of checking the spread of slavery and establishing way-stations along the Underground Railroad.
The past has much to teach us—that might be the constant refrain of Robinson's work. In The Death of Adam she writes that "we have taken too high a hand" with the past, approaching it with either "hostility" or "ill-informed condescension." This imperious attitude proceeds from an idea of moral progress Robinson rejects: "It is a dangerous error," she writes, "to imagine that opinion had to have been more benighted in 1835 than it was in 1935." In tracing the Midwest's forgotten history in Gilead, she points us to the region's small liberal arts colleges—Knox, Antioch, and Oberlin—which admitted African-Americans and women long before the Civil War. (Most of these colleges were founded, as Robinson wryly noted in a 2007 speech, by a "clutch of fiery preachers...based on the assumption, which proved true, that the populations that also found their way to the prairie would have an interest in Latin and Greek, mathematics and logic.") In Gilead, Glory recalls finding in Gilead's various households "hidden cellars or cabinets" meant to hide fugitive slaves—a tangible reminder of the town's radical roots. Gilead itself was once racially integrated, but its small black community moved on after their church burned down. Our ancestors, Robinson insists, were more "advanced" than we give them credit for—often much more "advanced" than we.
Gilead and Home are each deeply concerned with the transmission of ideas and values from one generation to the next. In both, there is a rift between generations: Ames and Boughton are each divided from their sons. Ames will not live to see his boy grow into a man, and Boughton has only recently been reunited with his estranged son Jack after his disappearance 20 years ago.
These rifts are deepened by the political and social context in which their story plays out—it's no accident that the two novels take place on the cusp of the 1960s. Ames seems to sense the coming cataclysm; in Gilead, his first words to his son suggest the distance between them. He is old, he tells him, and his son (who will be college-aged just as the Cultural Revolution is getting underway) will likely lead "a very different life" from his own. Indeed, the reader never learns the son's name, leaving open the question whether he will continue the family tradition as another Rev. John Ames, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him.
Already, Ames sees how the old ways are coming under attack. Even in sleepy Gilead, his young parishioners are reading Sartre and Gide and come to him demanding "proofs" of Christianity's truth. He refuses—"nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense" —in part because he fears that the two generations can no longer communicate with each other: "I have thought about that very often—how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next." His grandfather, a fiery abolitionist and preacher, brings the first settlers to Gilead after seeing a vision of Christ commanding him to aid the anti-slavery cause in Kansas. But when the old man recounts this experience years later at the town's Fourth of July celebration, it is greeted with "laughter of the kind you hear when the outlandishness of a thing is being generally agreed on." Ames's religion is much more this-worldly than his grandfather's—he never experiences such a visitation—and yet he fears it will seem just as outlandish to his son.
What Ames fears is not uncertainty or doubt: "The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it," he tells his son. He grudgingly respects the principled atheism of his older brother, Edward, and even the disbelief of Jack, who, he appreciatively notes, can quote from Scripture as readily as his father, Boughton. What troubles him is the dismissiveness, the disregard with which the younger generation treats the past. Their skepticism, he thinks, is more a pose than an honest wrestling of the soul—"the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment." He yearns to strip away these "accretions of smugness and pretense and triviality."
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As gentle and mild as Gilead and Home are in tone, the critique of American culture within is as fierce as anything in Robinson's more polemical essays. Both books are a challenge to what Robinson calls the "American salvation myth": "Americans," she writes, "never think of themselves as sharing fully in the human condition, and therefore beset as all humankind is beset." The town of Gilead, with its Biblical namesake—one common in 19th-century America, Robinson notes—belies these utopian aspirations: its first settlers wanted "to create a place where there was balm," where "the pain of other civilizations would be answered."
Yet bold and generous as such intentions may have been—and Robinson has great admiration for these hardy souls—our best efforts will always be wanting: "Gross error survives every attempt at perfection, and flourishes." Robinson may call herself a liberal Protestant, but it's not for nothing that she says "my heart is with the Puritans"—no novelist working today has a deeper understanding of original sin. For Robinson, discontent is our natural condition. "There is a wound in the flesh of human life that scars when it heals and often enough seems never to heal at all," Ames reflects in Gilead. Glory too wonders "how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home." But such a restoration cannot be achieved: "[W]e are the Ishmael of species...while we belong in the world, we have no place in the world." We are never at home.
Robinson allows that this might seem a "harsh doctrine," but it has proven far kindlier than the belief that we can "reason our way to a code of behavior that is consistent with our survival, not to mention our dignity or our self-love." Ever the student of history, Robinson asks, "what could have been more brutal than these schemes to create happy and virtuous societies?" It is our desire to remake the world "without strain and conflict," she reminds us, that has "made most of the barbarity of our century seem to a great many people a higher philanthropy." By contrast, "the belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness." As Glory recalls of her father's sermons: "He did mention sin, but it was rarefied in his understanding of it, a matter of acts and omissions so commonplace that no one could be wholly innocent of them or especially alarmed by them, either."
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It's a common complaint of Robinson's novels that not much happens, and both Gilead and Home are, to some extent, novels about the insufficiency of human action. The restoration sought is ultimately thwarted: the prodigal son, Jack, returns, only to be lost again; father and son go unreconciled; the homecoming "yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries." Yet neither Gilead nor Home is a bleak book—there is ultimately balm in Gilead, even if it cannot make the wounded whole.
"Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family," Robinson writes in The Death of Adam, "and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life." That, very simply, is the action of both Gilead and Home. In the arms of the family, in their unconditional acceptance, does the failed and disgraced son find comfort and solace.
The family as a sacrament of redeeming grace—that is the essence of Robinson's Christianity. Or as Ames, pondering his old sermons, suddenly realizes: "The Prodigal Son as the Gospel text." In each, there is the "absolute disjunction between our Father's love and our deserving." The parable of the Prodigal Son, like the Gospel, emphasizes grace over forgiveness—the father remains the father, without condition. "The grace of God is sufficient to any transgression," Ames repeatedly tells his parishioners. But grace, as Ames knows, is a mystery, one difficult for us to understand, much less practice. Ames himself admits to being "irritate[d]" by "this same disjunction between human parents and children." He cannot put aside his anger at his godson Jack—"a wound in his father's heart"—although he knows that if Boughton "could be himself, he would utterly pardon every transgression, past, present, and to come.... He would be that extravagant." Such extravagance of love is natural to, and inseparable from, the parent-child bond. Ames, unable to forgive Jack his wrongdoing, can assure his own son that "I hope you are an excellent man, and I will love you absolutely if you are not." When Jack leaves his father on his deathbed, Ames is enraged: "It was the kind of thing only his father would forgive him for."
"It is in family that we most often feel the grace of God, His faithfulness," Boughton tells Ames. This is no mere platitude for Robinson. For it is only among family that we can escape our "uniformly conditional relationships," that we can hope or expect to be loved in spite of our disgrace and our failure. As she writes in The Death of Adam:
I think the biological family is especially compelling to us because it is, in fact, very arbitrary in its composition.... And that is the charm and the genius of the institution. It implies that help and kindness and loyalty are owed where they are perhaps by no means merited. Owed, that is, even to ourselves. It implies that we are in some few circumstances excused from the degrading need to judge others' claims on us, excused from the struggle to keep our thumb off the scales of reciprocity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Home, where family is presented as mutual service. The Boughtons and the Ameses grieve together, but more often they bake pies or fold laundry for one another. Home abounds in these "rituals of the ordinary" transfigured by familial love into "acts of faith." Thus, Glory, preparing dinner, wonders to herself: "How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant." Or watching Jack kneel to unlace their father's shoes: "His father regarding him with such sad tenderness that she wished she could will herself out of existence, herself and every word she had ever said."
Moments like these are examples of what Robinson in her earlier novel, Housekeeping, calls "the resurrection of the ordinary." As he unties his father's shoes, Jack is revealed to Boughton and Glory—they can see in that moment what God sees "when His regard fell upon any of us." It's what Ames sees when Jack comes to him, ready to leave Gilead and seeking his blessing: "He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is." He recognizes it as a moment of grace, "a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials." All experience has this visionary quality, Robinson tells us, but for now, we see through a glass, darkly.