Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Gilead, is not a book to be read. It is a song to be heard, a hymn rising off the page. Listen to the book’s very first words: I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.
Hand in hand, father and son go gently. The song may sound strange to our ears but Robinson, whom The New York Times calls the “moralist of the midwest,” has her ancestry in George Herbert and John Donne, men who spoke not of God, but to God, who knew that divinity takes no path other than the most intimate, personal, and direct one to the soul. Thus, Herbert wrote circa 1633:Yet when the houre of thy designe
To answer these fine things shall come;
Speak not at large; say, I am thine:
And then they have their answer home.
Personal revelation requires no public discourse, not even in America, not even in our current moment of ecstatic public religiosity. Speak not at large. But do speak, says Robinson. Whisper if you must, but directly into my ear. And she does, in an unusual register. Gilead at its core is a spiritual exercise, an astonishing, quiet, meditative book that reminds us that we are each alone in our struggle toward providence, and when it comes to humanity’s shared experience of the divine, all we have ever had, and all we ever will have, is the word.
Words are ethereal, invisible, massless, intangible, and unsatisfactory things that we have given the impossible task of describing the wisdom transferred from the mind of God to the spirit of mankind, and, as in Gilead, from the hand of a dying father to his son. No wonder, then, that art depicts the soul escaping not through the eyes, but the lips, and that the eyes of dying men and women are always wide with wonder and awe. It is at that moment, Robinson seems to say, that all public proclamations of faith fall away, leaving only personal conviction—and still we are amazed by the Mystery.
Or that’s how it should be. But the power of Mystery to make us meek is fading. In our current obsession with the national conversation about God, we seem to have forgotten that, in truth, there can be no national conversation, only a deeply personal one that we can attempt to share. So the national conversation becomes dominated by the mythology of American spiritualism, the apotheosis of religiosity itself.
Yet American religious thought, like the nation, is not a monolith. There have always been voices calling out from the wilderness for a greater, gentler introspection in American spirituality, for shifting the focus back to the individual effort required to rejoice in both the sorrows and the marvels of this world, seen and unseen. And among these voices, Marilynne Robinson’s is unique and eloquent.
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Robinson was raised Presbyterian in Idaho but now attends a Congregationalist church in Iowa, where she teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At 61, she has published four books in 24 years, the first in 1980 when she was 37. The novel, Housekeeping, won the PEN/Faulkner Award, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and was followed by two nonfiction works: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989), about the Sellafield plutonium reprocessing plant in Great Britain, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), a series of essays reclaiming the reputation of Puritan culture and John Calvin. In November 2004, 24 years after Housekeeping, Robinson published Gilead, her second novel. Gilead has won both the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Robinson has been described variously by critics and reviewers as radical, revolutionary, stern, severe, impatient, curious, contrarian, high-minded, high-handed, striking, reflective, a genius, an idealist, an individualist. Above all, she is a rarity in American literature: she admits that her religious faith compels her to write. “I felt God as a presence before I had a name for him,” she writes in The Death of Adam. She feels the push to explain the “great given” of the world. Great and given, maybe, to her—Robinson’s moral certitude and propensity for biblical pronouncement have attracted some harsh criticism, especially for her nonfiction. But such is the miracle of her fiction that Gilead and Housekeeping have both been widely hailed as modern American classics.
Housekeeping landed in 1980 like a bolt from the blue. In a nation that had just elected Ronald Reagan and witnessed the formation of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, readers were mesmerized by this profoundly metaphysical novel, steeped in Old Testament imagery and Melvillian metaphor. The guiding hand of an unseen, incalculable God throws the female characters out of the Eden of childhood and into a cold, dark, lonely world where transcendence is granted only to that which perishes.
Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, two young girls who are moved from Seattle to the small town of Fingerbone, Idaho, in the upper reaches of the Rocky Mountains. They do not know their father. Their mother has drowned herself in the glacial lake that borders the town, a creature-character unto itself that also took their grandfather in the spectacular train accident that opens the narrative: “The engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”
Water, black and biblical, is everywhere in Housekeeping—not a baptismal font, but a darker medium of cyclic death and rebirth. The water is inescapable. The wind smells of it. The ground exhales it when furrowed. Housekeeping is a story of women lost in an underwater world, grasping in the dark, submerged, literally, when the lake floods the girls’ house, and metaphorically, as Ruth, narrating the novel, struggles against the social, spiritual, and psychological currents that toy with her and carry her away.
Ruth’s aunt Sylvie comes to Fingerbone to care for the girls, but the former transient has trouble taking root in her old hometown. She eats in the dark, leaves them alone for days, thinks nothing of collecting hundreds of empty tin cans and arranging them in the kitchen. Yet to these three, the strange cave that their house becomes whispers the comforting hush of a womb. One night, when Lucille pops on the kitchen bulb, light brings sight and the rush of unwanted truth:The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness. We saw that we ate from plates that came in detergent boxes, and we drank from jelly glasses . . . A great shadow of soot loomed up the wall and across the ceiling above the stove . . . Most dispiriting, perhaps, was the curtain on Lucille’s side of the table, which had been half consumed by fire once when a birthday cake had been set too close to it.
Lucille rebels against this disintegration of spiritual order, and against the unanswered yearning for their lost childhood, by asserting control over her life. But this is an allegory overseen by an Old Testament God with seeming disdain for a naive youngster’s attempt to exercise her own free will. The faster she holds to the notion of a proper girlhood, the farther the family drifts.
Housekeeping carries readers straight into the central impasse over the question of fate. For those who resist, as does Lucille, there is only loss, anger, isolation. For those who give themselves up to fate, like Ruth, who float on whatever wind Providence supplies, there is also loss, bewilderment, isolation. The family falls apart, and Ruth ultimately flees with Sylvie to take up the drifter’s life. At night, they cross the bridge over the lake and out of Fingerbone:The terrors of the crossing were considerable. Twice I stumbled and fell. And a wind came up from the north, so that the push of the wind and the pull of the current were the same, and it seemed as though they were not to be resisted. And then it was so dark.
Robinson controls her prose with such precision, her metaphors bloom with such disturbing loveliness, that following the inevitable alienation of Sylvie, Ruth, and Lucille is like witnessing a tragedy unfold in slow motion. We may object to the girls’ arbitrary fates. We may demand to know why their hand was so cruelly dealt. We may want to know what it all means. But Robinson, like Melville (Moby Dick is one of her favorite books), provides no answers. Her metaphors aim to help us recognize the mystery, but not to solve it. Robinson has been asked again and again to explain Housekeeping’s central meaning. Her only answer is appropriately enigmatic: “This book is not about reality.”
But that did not stop her newly sprung legion of fans from trying to divine all manner of meaning in Housekeeping’s metaphorical runes. The book was put on hundreds of university reading lists, made the subject of many dissertations. Her fans wanted more, but Robinson seemed to go silent, and critics invoked Harper Lee and talked of yet another one-hit wonder. She ignored them. Fans of her fiction were left to wander the desert without her for 24 years. Meanwhile, she wrote two nonfiction books—strange departures for a literary writer, but perfectly suited for a mind both theological and fiercely independent—in which she attacked moralists on both the left and the right for waving the bloody shirt without knowing whose shirt and whose blood they had seized. There is nothing right at all, Robinson asserted, about righteousness devoid of thought.
In 1989, Robinson published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution. Framed as an expos´ of the United Kingdom’s Sellafield nuclear facility, it is a fiery broadside against both the British government and Greenpeace for what she deems a massive perversion of social justice. One of the world’s largest plutonium disposal and reprocessing facilities, the Sellafield complex has, for almost 50 years, received vast quantities of international nuclear waste. Owned by the British government—plutonium for the people—the plant has a long and troubled history, including the pumping of massive quantities of waste into coastal waters and an enormous core fire, the largest until Chernobyl. Robinson pointedly asks why the government of a nation supposedly committed to social and economic justice would have even allowed the facility to exist in the first place. Her answer: Britain’s moral vacuity runs so deep that it exploits the sham of modern socialist thought to perpetrate a crime against not only its own people but the world:I know Sellafield will be dismissed, if it can be, on the grounds that Britain is a mild and decent society, and that while the plant developed and assumed its economic role, Britain claimed to be a socialist society. Oddly, these notions are potent enough in the minds of many people to mitigate the offense, as if ferocious plutonium, when it is the off-scourings of a government-owned factory pouring into the environment of a virtuous and public-spirited nation, takes on the character of its surroundings and becomes rose-hip tea.
Her argument is not principally about science or public health, nor is it grounded exclusively in political history. It is unabashed moralism. In Robinson’s view, Sellafield was the product of cultural amnesia and the deliberate devaluation of the true moral underpinnings of British society (as conceived largely by progressive religious thinkers), and this was the embodiment of justice miscarried. This was, after all, the Britain that swept away the legacy of Donne (“No man is an island, entire of itself”) for Margaret Thatcher (“There’s no such thing as society”).
You can hear in Robinson’s voice frustration and anger directed explicitly at people who should have known better—academics, politicians, religious leaders, activists. With equal vigor she excoriates Greenpeace for claiming environmental victories while not pursuing the Sellafield case and for deliberately withholding what it did know from the public: “If it is a tactic or strategy to select and ration the truth, in order to direct public reaction toward ends the organization considers desirable, then they have violated the most basic tenets of democracy.”
(Robinson’s polemics did not go unnoticed. Soon after Mother Country was published, Greenpeace sued her for libel. The book is still banned in Britain.)
Mother Country is a case study of moral failure, Robinson’s exploration of how profoundly a society can damage itself when the core values of justice and truth are replaced by venal lip service to an idealized notion of the most noble aspects of the nation: “The appearance of enlightenment and benign engagement is the protective coloration for behavior that is marked in an extraordinary degree by the absence of both.” In their place comes personal and political cowardice.
So, if not the government or the activists, what can protect the greater good? Robinson’s answer is courage, an individual awakening transmuted into collective enterprise. She entreats anyone who will listen to act: “We have to walk away from this road show, consult with our souls, and find the courage, in ourselves, to see, and perceive, and hear, and understand.” Personal courage, moral conviction, public salvation—subjects that Robinson, moving in her unhurried thinker’s rhythm, would years later combine to near perfect resonance in Gilead. But first there would be another nine years of silence and another nonfiction book.
In 1998 came The Death of Adam, a book James Wood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called “remarkable, deeply unfashionable.” Quite right. A book of radically contrarian essays on Darwinism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, and Marguerite de Navarre, among others, is not long for the chain-bookstore display rack. Nor is a book that sternly admonishes the reader for not having an intimate familiarity with the original texts of Darwin, Malthus, Calvin, Barth, et al. Yet here is Robinson, arguing passionately that she is on a “campaign of revisionism, because contemporary discourse feels to me empty and false.” Refusing to choose between scientific secularism and religious reductivism, Robinson instead casts back into the ignored past in order to reinvigorate the power of mystery. “We are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it,” she writes. “Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means. If truth in this sense is essentially inaccessible in any case, that should only confirm us in humility and awe.”
The essays are difficult and remarkable, and they too feel like staging grounds for themes that reach maturity in Gilead. Some, such as her attack on Darwinism, are hard to digest. Others, such as her exploration of the purpose of family in modern life, are extremely moving. Still others, such as her rehabilitation of Calvin, crackle with controlled rage at the “cultural amnesia” that has swept the nation. For Robinson, the Puritan father was not the harbinger of hellfire dividing the saved from the damned, but rather a deliberately misread challenger to the state who dared to bring a “nonhierarchical metaphysics” to his doctrine and who stressed the equality of every human spirit. Not knowing this, Robinson asserts, makes Americans numb to the deeply humane impulse coursing through historical Puritanism.
It is the numbness, the cultural amnesia, that I think disturbs Robinson the most. A nation so enthralled with its present and future self is bound to cut loose the burden of inconvenient history. The country has lost its capacity for critical thought, she claims, and for this she holds responsible the academy, political and religious leaders, and possibly modernity itself. With this loss comes a culture collapsing under the weight of its own moral presumption, which has replaced its lost history. The nation seeks not truth but mere self-validation.
A society so vain is ultimately self-destructive, Robinson seems to say. In The Death of Adam she demands that we think for ourselves. Sweeping away all casually accepted capital-letter collective wisdom—Science, Religion, Reality—Robinson writes that what really matters is how an individual soul accounts for itself in light of all that it cannot comprehend.
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So then came November 2004, and the end of a year in which public religiosity became the de facto medium for common discourse. There was a national election. The rise of the “moral values voter.” The country riven into red and blue. Marilynne Robinson seemed to have been preparing for just this moment, waiting for 24 years to introduce us to the Reverend John Ames of Gilead, Iowa.
Ames is an old preacher in a small town. He is at the end of his life and thus is marvelously overwhelmed by the mysteries of this life, of the lives he has touched, of the very fact of life itself. He feels the limits of language, and frustrates himself within them, but knows that when he writes about grace being “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,” people know what he’s talking about. Robinson chooses this plain man to narrate the story, and through the reverend’s voice we have a devotional work so stunning in its spiritual force, so restrained in its proselytizing, that it feels astounding, even radical in its calm.
It is 1956 and Ames is 76. He has been diagnosed with angina pectoris (“which has a theological sound”) and believes he will soon die. Toward that end, he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son, the miracle of a late marriage to a much younger woman. That letter—“your begats,” as Ames calls it—is the novel. He tells the story of his grandfather, also named John Ames and also a preacher, and how he, following a vision of Christ, moved from Maine to Kansas in the 1830s and took up arms in the abolitionist movement, lost an eye in the Civil War, and preached in his church with a gun tucked in his belt. He knew John Brown, and even after his death the radical elder Ames casts a long shadow over the family. The question of the validity of violence in the cause of social justice remains unanswered, as does the rift between grandfather Ames and his son, the narrator’s father, another John Ames and an avowed pacifist.
This is a book about fathers and sons, about the Father and the Son. The narrator Ames returns repeatedly to the parable of the prodigal son, and to his awe that even when the ties that bind are so harshly broken, all is forgiven. He salves his own agitated soul with the thought that, upon entering Heaven, his tiny son will forgive him for leaving so soon.
And there is another son—his namesake, though not of his blood. Jack (John Ames) Boughton is the wayward son of Ames’s good friend. The troubled man, now in middle age, returns to Gilead for spiritual counsel. He has hurt his family and his friends in the past and has done grievous harm to others; watching him wrestle with his own angels tests Ames’s capacity to forgive. But forgive he does, despite his own jealousy and his fear of the threat that Jack may pose to his wife and son. At the moment of forgiveness, Ames sees a touch of grace in the shape of Jack Boughton: “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.”
Though published more than two decades apart, Gilead is the bright twin of Housekeeping. Read together, they provide the two halves of Robinson’s complete picture of those mysteries our “mortal life describes.” Housekeeping dwells in the relationships of women, Gilead in fathers and sons. The first book is awash in watery Old Testament metaphor, the second suffused with the light of New Testament teaching. God in Gilead is not an arbiter but a guide, and the old reverend sees Jesus’ human struggles reflected in the quotidian lives of his Iowa flock. To Ames, the town itself “seems rather Christlike . . . as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.” Robinson’s novel feels revolutionary in part because it is the Jesus of Revelation that’s in vogue now, the muscular, vengeful one who returns to Earth on a coursing river of blood. The Christ at work in Gilead, however, is not only the Son of God but the Son of Man, the One who wept.
Above all, where Housekeeping is a story about the strong, unyielding hand of fate, Gilead is a book about spiritual choice. It shows us the things we can do in this life. If for 20 years, in Mother Country and The Death of Adam, Robinson was identifying and exploring all that goes wrong when men and women give up on mystery, when societies go weak with moral failure, in Gilead she offers a deeply hopeful suggestion about how to set things right. Robinson has been calling for personal courage. Finally, she gives us an example to follow: the seemingly insignificant life of John Ames.
“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined,” Ames narrates. Here he is, a man at the end of his life, still baffled by all he cannot understand, yet who still feels the power to act within the mystery. He finds the strength to forgive Jack Boughton for an unforgivable deed. His love for his son burns brighter as he gets closer to death. He looks not for answers to his own inconsistencies and imperfections, but for confirmation that though his life has been small, it has been good. He sees how, in doing so, something much like heaven can be had here on Earth: “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.”
Robinson tells this story slowly. Reading Gilead takes patience. But that patience is rewarded, because with each page her prose glows brighter, more meditative. Herbert and Donne are mulled over. So are Emerson, Thoreau, even Feuerbach. There are passages of sheer descriptive beauty: “It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulder the way a cat lies on your lap.”
Of contemplation:It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this.
Of metaphysical incandescence:There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?
It feels close to perfect that this book is written in the form of a long letter from a father to a son. It is as personal and incomplete as any man. Gilead ends with no absolute answers; Robinson doesn’t ply that trade. There is much that is left unsaid. We do not know what happens to Jack Boughton after he leaves Gilead. We do not know what becomes of the small, dying Iowa town. Nor do we know what happens to Ames’s wife and child. We do not know because Ames can never know, and neither can we in our own lives and loves. So Robinson has the old reverend end his letter with one last hopeful lesson, one last prayer: Be useful, my son. Be brave.
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Every religion has had its major writers, but the field is sparse in modern secular fiction for writers who treat religion personally and plainly. Robinson is wholly unlike Updike with his aloof Protestants, or Greene with his hypocritical Catholics. She is an anachronism in our age of absolutism.
The new Pontificate of Benedict XVI points to the scourge of secular relativism as the great threat of the 21st century. The religious right and its constituent political haymakers look upon the American judiciary as public enemy number one. Democrats, smelling what they think is the stench of anti-secularism, hold their noses when approaching religious groups. There is a whole lot of certainty, even more righteous moral clarity. But what Robinson calls for is courage. The courage to act independently. The courage to know our limits. The courage to presume no absolutes and to subordinate ourselves to mystery. The courage to accept that for both the believer and the skeptic our greatest duty is “to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”
Speak not at large. For therein lies the power and the glory—not in providence, real or imagined, but in the stirring miracle and mystery that is our belief itself.