Second Glance: Marilynne Robinson’s Psalms and Prophecy
|Marilynne Robinson began her novel Housekeeping while completing a dissertation on Shakespeare as a graduate student. Initially she wrote what now form the book’s preliminary scenes as exercises in extended metaphors. Evoking her childhood home of Sandpoint, Idaho, a lake town in the panhandle of the state (in the book she renames it Fingerbone) and remotely drawing off her ancestors, Robinson simply wanted to see if she could still write something other than scholastic essays. Also, she has said, she wanted to impress her friends.|
The mosaic appearance resulting from the fusion of these “exercises” is preserved in the early pages of Housekeeping, and the fleeting and imagistic passages give the start its memorable strangeness. Ruth, the reminiscing narrator, begins by describing her grandfather’s paintings of mountains; this is followed almost immediately by his death in a train derailment; we are given a brief rhapsody on the subsequent loneliness and serenity felt by Ruth’s grandmother; we are then introduced to Ruth’s mother and aunts as children; they grow up and move out and are replaced by ghosts who intensify the grandmother’s solitude; seven years later Ruth’s mother returns to drop off Ruth and her sister Lucille; she promptly – and purposefully – drives off a cliff into the lake This brings us to page twenty-three.
Just as the opening sequences of Housekeeping slip past like cloud formations and can be difficult to make sense of, Robinson’s writing initially requires special care and attention from the reader. It can only be glancingly apprehended on first view because the mind needs time to prepare for its allusive form of expression. A passage like the following is designed to be read twice:
For five years my grandmother cared for us very well. She cared for us like someone reliving a long day in a dream. Though she seemed abstracted, I think that, like one dreaming, she felt more the urgency of present business, her attention heightened and at the same time baffled by an awareness that this present had passed already and had its consequence.
The first time through we can only glean impressions of this scene, which are as spectral and dream-like as the world of the grandmother. But on second reading we learn to arrange the metaphorical language into concrete meaning: the grandmother has already raised children and feels like she is reliving time passed by doing it again.
An entire novel of impressionistic metaphors, no matter how beautiful, would be difficult to read – would, in all likelihood, vanish from memory like a dream upon waking. But two things give Housekeeping the ballast to, if not ground it, suspend it in a graceful levitation. For one thing, perhaps at some germinal stage in the early scenes, Robinson conceived of a plot, which, unadorned as plots go, gives the reader a stabilizing sense of direction amid the elliptical exposition. The story is formulated from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, Ruth of course representing her namesake. Lucille is the sister Orpah and the girls’ aunt Sylvie, a transient who hops the train into Fingerbone from the west and becomes their guardian, is Naomi. As in the scripture, Ruth will ultimately join Sylvie in her transience and Lucille will stay behind, keeping a normal life and losing her family.
Housekeeping moves faithfully to this end, but does so deliberately, and its pacing gives Robinson more chances to blend and braid her themes of transience, ghosts and memory, and life as a dream. Maybe even more importantly, she has the narrative freedom to unstintingly engage her gifts for language, for this is the second thing that rivets our attention to the book. As much as any writer of our time, Robinson exults in the rich possibilities of the English language. She is one of the few devoted torchbearers to the great tradition of the mot juste. Though clearly inspired by the word-bounties of Shakespeare (like him, who allegedly never blotted a line, Robinson does not revise in her fiction), she crafts a tauter – and likewise narrower – weft of prose that, in its many compact units, reads very much like a collection of thematically linked poems.
Here is a representative passage from a chapter in which Ruth and Sylvie become lost in the lake that holds Ruth’s mother and grandfather (this passage occurs on an island in the lake):
I sat down on the grass, which was stiff with the cold, and I put my hands over my face, and I let my skin tighten, and let the chills run in ripples, like breezy water, between my shoulder blades and up my neck. I let the numbing grass touch my ankles. I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them, if only to see them, even if they turned away from me. If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.
It is like a psalm, a prayer to be released from sadness but also an exaltation of sadness through the glories of language and song. Housekeeping is dominated by loneliness and lament (as are the Psalms, as Jesus knew when he quoted them while dying), but because those sensations are molded in such loving and lyrical detail they yield the same richness as any joy. When we put the book aside we realize that we have read an ode, as it were, to sorrow, and we feel we should reckon our own sorrow dearer as a consequence.
When Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, came out in 2004, critics made much of the extremely long interim separating it from Housekeeping, and only perhaps mentioned as an aside that she had written two books of nonfiction in between. But this showed a mistaken understanding of her development; far from being discursions or time-biding projects, these two book – Mother Country: Britain, The Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989, now out of print) and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998, republished in 2005) – are of central importance to the body of work that Robinson has given us.
Mother Country seems to have originated as adventitiously as Housekeeping. While on a fellowship in England, Robinson learned about the existence of a nuclear facility called Sellafield in the northern Lake District, the famous home of Wordsworth and Coleridge. One of Sellafield’s functions, apart from producing atomic energy, is waste disposal: every year it pipes tons of radioactive waste, both Britain’s and that of other nations, into the Irish Sea. Sellafield’s existence, compounded by the quiescence with which it was accepted by the public, the media, and even environmental protection groups, shocked Robinson profoundly and this gash of outrage was the flashpoint for a book that is nearly as different from Housekeeping as it would be possible to write.
Yet Mother Country is only partially about nuclear pollution. Robinson thinks that Sellafield’s dumping is a crime so massive and self-evident to any thinking person that she does not even need to go into why it’s wrong. “To the objection that I know very little about plutonium,” she writes, “I can reply that I know better than to pour it into the environment.” Nuclear waste, as nearly everyone knows, kills life and destroys the Earth; therefore, anyone who has played a role in the birth and propagation of Sellafield and its brethren “have sold – for employment, or for some notion of national interest – the well-being of their descendants, which was never theirs to sell, and in the short or medium term, the well-being of the descendants of every mote of life that stirs on the face of the earth.”
Because the crime is plain, Robinson instead dwells on the cultural values that not only tolerate but minister to such a crime. Sellafield, she thinks, can only be explained by a long-bred “acculturated blindness” to the brutal treatment of the masses, and in particular the poor, at the hands of the powerful. She thus begins her study with the first manifestation of the Poor Law, the Ordinance of Labourers, from 1349 under Edward III, and traces her way forward to Margaret Thatcher and what was the present time.
“The key to interpreting British behavior,” she asserts, “is always economic.” So one by one the monarchs and lords and clergymen and manufacturers concerned with their own prosperity fall under the blade of her pen. Her expert prose still does not waste a word, and just as Housekeeping needed less than 30 pages to span over 30 years, Mother Country uses the same for 400, summarizing the aristocratic efforts to shore up and consolidate feudalism by 1) restricting the movement of laborers in the name of stamping out vagrancy and 2) restricting charity in the name of discouraging idleness. All of these laws, characterized by their makers as efforts to aid the lower class, are simply “to assure that the poor remain poor.”
But it is the thinkers and lawmakers who arose during and after the industrial revolution who most capture Robinson’s imagination and, generally, her ire. Her argument is that the ideas of Britain’s vaunted reformers are, far from enlightened, exactly aligned with the notions from the medieval age we agree to be barbaric. Daniel Defoe, admired for the proto-feminism of Roxana, proposed a welfare plan that would bind the industrial laborer tightly to the workhouse, since too much freedom would lead to drunkenness and sloth. The same strictures are echoed by Beatrice Webb (as well as Stalin-admiring George Bernard Shaw), co-founder of the famous Fabian Society, who explained that philanthropy is “socially destructive, because ‘if we help a man to exist without work, we demoralize the individual and encourage the growth of a parasitic or pauper class.’” The result is an impoverished people locked into grim servitude and told that it is for their own good. And how, Robinson asks, does this differ from the tenets of feudalism? Only Karl Marx and Adam Smith, it is explained, understood that fair wages and a decent quality of life would not corrupt the poor but allow them to live honestly and autonomously, off the bread of their own labor; but these men have been falsely polarized into irrelevancy as the Fathers of Communism and Capitalism, and now no one actually bothers to read them.
Social Darwinism, then, as articulated in the theories of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer, is nothing to Robinson’s eyes but a tendentious attempt to rationalize an unjust economic status quo in biological and sociological terms. The Social Darwinists were not merely concerned with the monetary value of human life, but presumed to set the question to the epistemological level by debating what use a poor person could have according to nature. Robinson’s scorn for this movement is so tremendous that it spills over into The Death of Adam, in the blistering essay “Darwinism.” And in every sense is The Death of Adam an extension of all that is most exhilarating in Mother Country, not less so because with its heterodoxies it too can provoke the reader to howls of disagreement.
“Darwinism” takes the position that Darwin’s evolutionary theory has come down to us concomitant with a social theory apotheosized but by no means restricted to the now discredited creed of Social Darwinism. The social theory, explicating and guiding our conduct towards one another, is essentially an article of faith; beginning after the Romantic Era and continuing through the twentieth century to the present this faith has “supplanted” religious faith. And what is the upshot of the usurpation? What Robinson wishes to makes us see is that the faith of Darwinism has installed the values of progress, competition, and “the survival of the fittest” (Herbert Spencer’s term that Darwin borrowed) in the place of a Judeo-Christian system of ethics that promotes charity and holds all humans equal under God’s eye. Religious ethics may have been much abused and ignored while ascendant, but at least they were a noble standard. The faith of Darwinism, in contrast, explains human actions as the product of biological necessity and ascribes earthly success or failure to predetermined genetics. Hence, people are not responsible or accountable for themselves or their neighbors. This faith, then, inculcates no ethics at all: the primacy of economics leaps into the void: crimes such as Sellafield become de rigueur. Robinson thinks this is business as usual in Great Britain, but it is a new turn for the United States. She then proceeds to isolate paragraphs from the writing of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, and other men whose legacies are at the essence of modern thought, and link their words with the actual abominations of the twentieth century, the campaigns of mass extermination.
|The essay is at once chilling and chafing. We are often shocked into protest against what seem like exaggerations or obfuscations of thinkers we admire; yet at the same time, there we see Darwin, from The Descent of Man, airily reflecting that “with savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination…No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” And we must concede that, considering modern man’s penchant for purges and genocides, Robinson is right to be outraged by a thought system unquestioningly predicated on notions such as these. Furthermore, if we have wearily expected the traditional assault on Charles Darwin and evolution we are rudely awakened, for Robinson’s perspective seems to be set along a bias that few others share, and her arguments are compellingly original.|
“Darwinism” and the bristling introduction that precedes it inflict a scorch that may put us in the mind of the thrilling first two chapters of Walden, before Thoreau slows from his sprint to a stroll. It is quickly clear that the essay form in The Death of Adam is better suited to a thinker whose interests are so ranging and mercurial. Robinson is a scholar who has little patience for the very practical aspects of her topics and as ambitious as Mother Country is, it rather remarkably fails to address the one question that all its sympathetic readers must have: What should we do about our nuclear waste? The Death of Adam, too, sometimes suffers from academic diffuseness and for the first time the prose becomes turbid with “isms” and other jargon – but it is a book explicitly about modern thought and to some extent these hazards come with the territory.
Near the end of “Darwinism,” Robinson, anxious to disabuse readers of the prejudice that she merely hates all things modern, gives a kind of summary of her aim in writing these essays:
Surely it is fair to say that science is to the “science” [i.e., the social applications of Darwinism] that inspired exterminations as Christianity is to the “Christianity” that inspired Crusades. In both cases the human genius for finding pretexts seized upon the most prestigious institution of the culture and appropriated a great part of its language and resources and legitimacy. In the case of religion, the best and the worst of it have been discredited together. In the case of science, neither has been discredited. The failure in both instances to distinguish best from worst means that both science and religion are effectively lost to us in terms of disciplining or enlarging our thinking.
The essay I have focused on is concerned with discrediting what is worst in science; most of the others in The Death of Adam are attempts to resuscitate what, to Robinson, is best in Christianity, and in particular Protestantism, the predominant source for mores, ethics, and intellectual concentration in America until roughly early in the twentieth century. (The symbolic finalization of this change in the national paradigm may be the Scopes Trial, which Robinson discusses.) For she believes that “we have taken too high a hand” with our past: we discard it too peremptorily as a superstitious and repressive era epitomized by witch-hunts and slavery. How have we managed to blind ourselves to all that is good and instructive from our heritage? Very simply, we avoid reading any books from that time. We can boil down Jefferson to a parochial racist because we don’t read anything he wrote or said. We can portray Jonathan Edwards as a wrathful hurler of brimstone because we don’t read his sermons. We anathematize John Calvin as a grim, scrooge-like propounder of predestination when we have not only neglected to read his theology, we may not even know what country he came from or what century he lived.
In fact, Robinson insists, our dismissive assumptions are by and large wrong. The essays on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the McGuffey Readers, American Puritanism, and John Calvin are intended to revise the prevailing fallacies on the subjects. Robinson (who is a practicing Congregationalist in Iowa) devotes the most effort to restoring Calvin’s reputation in a two-part essay she titles “Marguerite de Navarre,” so certain is she that we will avoid anything bearing her true subject’s name. (As an added measure she refers to Calvin by his French name, Jean Cauvin.) Calvin, in these essays, does indeed appear as we should not have guessed, a Northern Renaissance thinker who moved in the same orbit as Rabelais and whose ideas would strongly influence John Locke and, by the same token, the founders of our country. Her effective essay “Puritans and Prigs” continues this chronology (although it is unfortunately located before the Calvin essays) to parry our generally contemptuous feelings toward Calvinism in America and to compare the teachings of that age to the environment of snobbery, political correctness, and moral abdication that characterize our own time.
These subsequent essays are written in the same vein as “Darwinism” and Mother Country and, above and beyond their ostensible subjects, they confront the reader with an unyieldingly severe and frequently acrimonious criticism of modern culture. It is this excess of archness that proves to be the most significant limitation of Robinson’s nonfiction. “McGuffey and the Abolitionists” is a good example of an essay inhibited in its power by the constant irruptions of anger that shoot up throughout it. Robinson has said that she admires the American abolitionists as much as any group of people in history; her admiration, however, is smothered by her interludes of reproach. The McGuffey Readers were Christian-oriented schoolbooks popular in the South and Midwest for a few decades before the Civil War. They contained poems, didactic tales, and, apparently, Scripture, along with the standard lessons in grammar and pronunciation and the like. Speaking for myself, I had not heard of these books before, much less did I know they were objects of contemporary opprobrium, which Robinson must lengthily refute. Her angry rebuttals are therefore nonplussing. And if we have come to The Death of Adam hoping to learn things, we are sometimes irritated by a tone that suggests the author is getting tired of having to explain everything in the climate of ignorance we create for her. Even when she means to praise, she’s unable to put down her cudgel.
There is an irony here too, of course, since Robinson is in part trying to change the common perception of Calvinists as severe and censorious in disposition.
But having pointed out this limitation, I am eager to account for it. Robinson knows very well that she is being harsh. Prose poetry, not formal exposition, is her language for praise, as we saw in Housekeeping and as we shall see again in Gilead. Frequently she will preface an attack with a line like, “I will make, at this point, a rude suggestion.” Her nonfiction is intentionally contrarian, an organized assault on the moral bankruptcy of privileged cultures and the pharisaical complacency of their citizens. For this she has no shortage of precedent, and the hovering proximity of Scripture to her essays makes it clear that she is consciously modeling her writing on the great post-exile prophets of the Old Testament, in particular First Isaiah and Jeremiah.
There is nothing grandiloquent in this comparison. Writing in the Viking Portable World Bible, Robert O. Ballou said of the Hebrew prophets, “Perhaps it would be more accurate to call them sociologists and religious truth-tellers.” Everyone knows that Jeremiah is famous for his bitterness and lamentation, but fewer consider exactly what he was lamenting. (Robinson calls the Old Testament “another unread classic” and she is surely correct. When we do read Jeremiah we find his reputation to some extent overstated; leavening his travail are numerous passages of comforting hopefulness, which, given the nature of the Babylonian conquest, demonstrate an impressive faith and optimism.) Contrary to our expectations, Jeremiah rails at the sin of idolatry very rarely. The kind of rebellion he invokes is almost always a form of social injustice joined with hypocrisy: “Moreover, on your garments is found / The lifeblood of the innocent poor – / You did not catch them breaking in. [Meaning they gave no one a reason to kill them] / Yet, despite all these things, / You say, ‘I have been acquitted; / Surely, His anger has turned away from me.’ / Lo, I will bring you to judgment / For saying, ‘I have not sinned.’”
To Jeremiah, a civilization’s worth is gauged by its humility and its treatment of the poor and vulnerable in its midst. This is at the very root of Robinson’s message. What right do we have to be smug and content with our intellectual progress and our renunciation of old ways, she asks, when poverty has worsened, genocide has become routine, and the potential for a real apocalypse has drawn nearer than ever, either through nuclear war or our own casual backyard contamination? Here again is what Jeremiah said about such a society:
Ha! he who builds his house with unfairness
And his upper chambers with injustice,
Who makes his fellow man work without pay
And does not give him his wages,
Who thinks: I will build me a vast palace
With spacious upper chambers,
Provided with windows,
Paneled in cedar
Painted with vermilion!
Do you think you are more a king
Because you compete in cedar?
Your father ate and drank
And dispensed justice and equity –
Then all went well with him.
He upheld the rights of the poor and needy –
Then all was well.
That is truly heeding me.
Mother Country and The Death of Adam can at times be trying reads. Robinson’s bias, however refreshing, is still of course a bias, and we often sense that she has done a certain amount of stacking the deck in her argumentation. (A fair case could be made, for example, that she has demonized Charles Darwin in the same way she accuses others of having demonized John Calvin.) But these books are jeremiads and are not meant to go down gently. Jeremiad is a word used as a pejorative, but I mean it respectfully, in its original terms. In this nonfiction, where the sins of modern day Judah are “inscribed with a stylus of iron,” we find that rare combination of committed research, unique insight, and a deep devotion to justice.
* * *
Gilead, published to warm critical and popular reception in 2004, and eventually the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, springs directly from The Death of Adam and is a counterpoint to it. In her essays Robinson attempted to blueprint a value system she believes is failing; in Gilead she attempts to characterize one that, while imperfect, might well be recognizable as a stronger model than our own. Where she was austere, now she is forgiving; where she abjured, now she affirms; where she dismantled, now she creates.
Robinson once called Housekeeping “a foundling story”; in contrast, Gilead seems to have been more intentional, more planned (which is not any less an organic process). Given all of these considerations, then, in addition to the long-suspended expectations created from Housekeeping, and whatever pressures her nonfiction created (people usually like to see a Jeremiah stumble), Gilead must be considered a remarkable achievement.
It is set in the high plains of western Iowa during the 1950s and takes the form of a journal written by John Ames, an aging Congregationalist minister. Ames has remarried late in life and fathered a son (his first wife died with their baby in childbirth), but now his heart is failing: the journal is for his son, who will have to grow up without him.
In this setting, because Ames wants to tell his son of his ancestry – his “begats” – Robinson can bring to life at least a sliver of the Midwestern abolitionist movement she so loves, in a wonderful story about a stranger falling into the secret tunneling system built by Iowans to shelter runaway slaves. More, the feud Ames relates that existed between his father and grandfather gives touching insight into the religious dilemma posed by slavery and the Civil War. Ames’ grandfather (a very memorable creation) was a radical minister who lived, to his wife’s exasperation, in “a kind of holy poverty,” always giving away whatever he had. (In The Death of Adam, Robinson briefly twits the fundamentalists who tout the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy yet never seem to pay attention to the commandment, “To him who asks, give.”) He was also a visionary who felt singled out by God to fight and he once delivered a sermon in a bloodstained shirt wearing a sidearm. Ames’ father, however, was a pacifist who preached turning the other cheek: and the difference would divide the two men irreparably. This was a time when theology and sociology were effectively the same thing.
But it is the quiet John Ames who is the psychic and moral force of Gilead. In the essay “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson wrote, “Rather than trying to reform others, moral people seem to me especially eager to offer pardon in the hope of receiving pardon, to forgo judgment in the hope of escaping judgment”: She could have had Ames in mind. He has lived all his life in Gilead, mostly by himself, tending to a tiny flock. If the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor and oppressed, Ames is pretty sure he won’t create much fanfare when and if he goes there. His interaction with the world has been passionate, but in this isolation almost entirely spiritual and intellectual. He’s a great reader (through him Robinson can slyly recommend authors to us: Emerson, Herbert, Karl Barth, and of course Calvin) and, though no one, least of all him, would expect it from an unobtrusive country pastor, after forty years of sermons he can leave to the world thousands of pages of his writing, all of it studied and heartfelt. Ames is dying and so feels the details of life with keener appreciation, but we sense that he has always lived with an observant joy in simple things. The words “beautiful,” “blessing,” and “joy” come up again and again in his reflections and never feel insistent or histrionic. Even the sensation of recollection takes on a sacramental power: for Ames, a vivid memory carries the dignity and happiness of an epiphany. And his struggle, as the novel builds its conflict, is by no means about coping with the bleakness of death, but instead is about re-teaching himself to forgive and to love.
Ames is a splendid conduit for the delights of Robinson’s prose and there is no paucity here of descriptions like “the sweet and irrefragable daylight pouring in through the window.” We learned in her nonfiction that she has a great interest in etymology and we sense now how that learning gives her what is like a motherly affinity for language. Other writers whom we associate with the mot juste, like Babel and Flaubert, honed their sentences through repeated and ruthless editing. But we recall Robinson’s claim that she does not revise, and sometimes in her lovely and unexpected descriptors we find that instead of the word perfectly suiting the image, the image has actually adapted to the word, which has a rich history of its own. Because Gilead is in Ames’ voice the writing is less intricate and structurally psalm-like than in Housekeeping. It is more evocative of a pastoral plainsong:
You and Tobias are hopping around in the sprinkler. The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare. When I was in seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river. It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair. It did look like a birth or a resurrection. For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection. I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.
I have imputed a lot of motive to Gilead, but little of this is felt when we begin to read it: its terrain feels organic and true. Yet, despite its many excellencies, Gilead is not entirely satisfying as a novel; in the second half especially its spell begins to flicker.
One reason for this is that the book hangs on a very hesitant plot. Around the time that Ames has completed relating his son’s begats, Jack Boughton, the son of another local pastor and long-time friend, returns to Gilead. Boughton is a prodigal, an atheist, and potentially “not a man of the highest character,” and as he befriends Ames’ wife and son, Ames has a fear that Boughton’s bad influence will persist when he’s no longer around to counteract it. The rapprochement of these two men now takes over the novel. We understand that Boughton is uneasily like a son to Ames – indeed, he is his godson and namesake – and in Boughton’s dangerous cleverness and disbelief Ames is forced down a hard path of prayer and study towards forgiveness.
Although we see that Boughton is portrayed as a kind of agent who may tempt Ames into sin, Robinson does not demonize him. Fiction is in many ways more stringent regarding truth than nonfiction and Robinson is too much the artist to ever give us a facile character. But as a result of softening Boughton’s edges, she leaves him too shapeless. He, with Ames’ mysterious wife, is never fully realized, and we cannot connect with him, try as we will. When we learn after a number of his visits that he is forty-three we are extremely surprised; he had seemed like a playful, mildly impertinent man in his twenties. It is impossible to emotionally grasp just what is so threatening about him. And when we learn, in a fairly deadpan monologue that is one of the climactic final passages of the book, that Boughton is married to a black woman in St. Louis we know even less what to think. We feel very much that we need to experience some scenes of this marriage, instead of only hearing about it secondhand through Ames, if we are going to believe it.
Things are going on here; issues are being raised – race in mid-century America, the role of the church in social and political conflicts, the struggle of the contemporary unbeliever, the reaction of the faithful to the modern spread of faithlessness. In striking contrast to her nonfiction, Robinson is now treating these issues very delicately, even to the point of diffidence. Housekeeping certainly had a serious moral grounding, but that book was an idyll, its world more evanescent than real (though no less indelible for it). Now politics and sociology are entering the prairie idyll of Gilead, two subjects about which we know Robinson has a great deal to say. Yet we are unable hear her. While we sense that there is something tutelary in Boughton’s predicament, we can’t quite make out what it is.
Gilead is a fine book and its weaknesses underscore how great a challenge it is in literature to synthesize aesthetics with, to use a vulgarly broad word, politics – or rather, to join objective beauty with subjective values. A great challenge and risk, but no doubt a worthy one, for the success of this synthesis is one of the main criterion by which we know to esteem our most important artists. No one can imagine our best writers without having a pretty clear picture from their fiction what their views were about the world in their time, whether they said their piece openly, like Dickens and Tolstoy, or subtextually, like Woolf and Hemingway. Nor have great contemporary novelists, such as Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann, omitted to impose their moral and political paradigms into their fictional worlds. And of course, in the mighty Ur-influences of Shakespeare and the Bible, beauty and wisdom coexist seamlessly and act as a whetstone to the other.
Robinson’s challenge is all the greater because, unlike somewhat coarse stylists like Powers and Vollmann, her art is one of poetic distillation. But what remarkable things are born when a writer with her intelligence and talent sets out to unabashedly speak her mind while telling a story. We are reminded of how good she can be at the end of Gilead, when Boughton has left the novel and Ames is again free to tenderly and expressively love the world he will shortly lose, that of family dinners and prairie dawns, of solitude and study and thought. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he says, “every one of them sufficient.”
It has now been announced that Robinson’s next novel, for the moment titled Home, will be published in the autumn of 2008, which is rather miraculous news to readers who had steeled themselves to another long hiatus. Home will purportedly cover much of the same ground as Gilead, and involve some of the same characters. The hanging question of the novel is certainly to what extent Robinson will opt to dramatize the criticism and arguments made in her nonfiction (she has been a particularly vocal presence in magazines over the past two years). But whether the forthcoming novel is professedly topical, as I hope, or not, if we have learned anything from Robinson’s books, we will show a little faith in what is to come and a lot of gratitude for what we already have.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.