Homing Patterns: Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction

Homing Patterns: Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction

Homing Patterns: Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction

Marilynne Robinson’s new novel explores faith, loneliness and the national passion play of race.


Adrian BellesguardMarilynne Robinson

Four years ago, Marilynne Robinson broke one of the longest creative silences in American fiction. Twenty-four years had elapsed since the publication of her ferocious first novel, the bone-hard, lake-cold, moon-lonely Housekeeping. People wondered if there would be a second. But Robinson is not one to let herself be rushed. Besides, new ideas were finding room in her imagination. When the second novel finally came–it was Gilead, as sweet-tempered a book as one can imagine–it was all but unrecognizable as the work of the same author. Now comes a third that manages to bridge the gulf between its predecessors. Home is set in the same Iowa town that gives Gilead its name, and amid the same circle of Protestant ministers’ families, but it tests that world of piety and stability by forcing it to come to terms with a sense of existential orphanhood as absolute as any that haunts Housekeeping.

Robinson’s first work, to my mind, is still her greatest. The novel unfolds as a single thought, impelled by a poetic intensity of language and vision. “Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time”; “Where the snow receded, they might see the ruins of a porcupine, teeth here, tail there.” The syntax is as pitiless as the sentiments. Each sentence seems scoured to rock by a thousand years of wind and rain, and the whole appears to emanate from a mind as large and impartial as nature itself. Robinson, who grew up amid the novel’s bleak north Idaho landscape and an equally austere Presbyterianism, has come to be known as a Christian writer. Gilead is the testament of a dying Congregational minister. The Death of Adam, which preceded it by six years, is a collection of polemics in depreciation of modern thought and defense of Calvinism. But Robinson has acknowledged that the spiritual intuitions of her childhood, her awareness “to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” had as yet no doctrinal form, that her “archaic self might have been nothing other than a latter-day pagan.” Whatever her personal practices by the time she wrote Housekeeping–Robinson turned 37 the year it came out–the novel still bespeaks the spirit of that tormented, pupal soul. The novel’s intimations of loneliness and loss, its sense of the undertow of transience that draws the living ineluctably down toward the dead, are too unconsoled to be denominated Christian.

The metaphysics at work in Housekeeping does indeed resemble a form of paganism–a gloomy, Northern paganism. Divinity is immanent in nature but perfectly indifferent to human fate. Life is but a shadow on the surface of the past, and when we die we don’t go up to a jubilant heaven but down to the dark to join “the dance of bones.” The social world, all gibbering aunts and meddlesome neighbors, is a kind of joke, a delusion of safety and permanence. Religion is no exception: “When the bells rang the lady would come out with a shawl over her head and she would pray, and the parrot would pray with her, the woman’s voice and the parrot’s voice, on and on.” The novel’s title is heavily ironic; there is no keeping of houses, or anything else. By the end, both the story and its narrator have slipped into a realm of allegory where the flimsy construct the rest of us call reality, or realism, is no more than a memory. The narrator’s name is Ruth Foster–the biblical exile, the home that is no home–and her final gesture enacts an escape from the human world and a dispersal into nature that are as unrepentant as they are terrifying.

When asked several years ago to name a living American writer she admires, Robinson offered Annie Dillard. Though the two are of an age, Dillard saw print first, and one can imagine Robinson poring over Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek and Holy the Firm during the years she was writing Housekeeping. The three books share a stringency of utterance, an inspired simplicity of metaphor, a force of idiosyncratic vision–above all, a sense of nature as aflame with divine beauty. But in the years after Housekeeping, new influences began to make themselves felt. Robinson taught at Amherst, then moved, in 1989, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Both relocations left their mark. An insatiable reader and profound student of the past, Robinson has written of trying to “piece together…a prehistory of the postmodern world” by immersing herself while at Amherst in the literature of political economy–Smith, Malthus, Carlyle, Marx–a course of instruction in the merciless self-justifications of modern capitalism. The center of her response, her ethical counterweight to materialism and social Darwinism, is Calvinism–not, in her account, the repressive theology of popular myth but a humane and humanistic philosophy of conscience. However nameless her religious emotions may have been when she was a child, Robinson has found in the tradition of her upbringing (both the Presbyterianism in which she was raised and the Congregationalism to which she has migrated are Calvinist churches) a highly articulated spiritual culture.

But it was not until she got to Iowa that Robinson discovered her imaginative home. For it was there that she began to excavate the history of the Midwest, “a highly distinctive and crucial region,” she writes in The Death of Adam, “which is very generally assumed to have neither culture nor history.” The history she uncovered is the region’s colonization, in the decades preceding the Civil War and under the impetus of the Second Great Awakening, by a cadre of Northeastern Calvinist abolitionists–Lyman Beecher and his family, Josiah Grinnell, John Brown and many others–who saw themselves as re-enacting the settlement of New England by their Puritan forebears. They preached, taught and fought; built towns, seminaries, schools and colleges; wrote sermons, pamphlets and books. In short, they stood and suffered for the very values Robinson holds most dear: justice, equality, freedom, intellect, learning. “There is no group in history,” she writes, “that I admire more.”

To judge from the essays in The Death of Adam and elsewhere, the abolitionists stand for Robinson at the apex of a larger history, a history of the rise and fall of the ideals of democratic government and humane culture. The narrative begins in the Middle Ages, with the “relative republicanism and autonomy” of “the great urban civilization of southern France and northern Italy” as well as the “popular, anti-hierarchical religious radicalism” epitomized by the Catharist heresy that flourished at the time in Languedoc. It then moves to sixteenth-century Catholic humanism–typified for Robinson by Marguerite de Navarre, the great writer, thinker and patroness who was queen to Henry of Navarre and sister to the king of France–the milieu from which Calvin sprang. In Marguerite and Calvin, Robinson detects the emergence of the modern self, with its absolute moral seriousness and intensively cultivated inwardness. From Calvin we go to John Milton, the great Puritan poet, and Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan theologian. (Robinson may well see in Edwards and the First Great Awakening, with its democratic radicalism, the seeds of the revolution that followed a few decades later, though I know of nowhere where she makes that argument.) Then comes abolition, culminating in the Civil War–and then disaster. The horrors of the war led most abolitionists to moderate their egalitarian commitments, and modern thought, under the leadership of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, fell under the spell of, and remains to this day in thrall to, the pernicious doctrines of social Darwinism.

There is much to recommend this line of thinking, however uncongenial it may appear, especially to secular eyes. Robinson is right to insist, as she repeatedly does, that we take the time to find out what Calvin actually said and what his followers actually did rather than continuing to assent to the sound-bite stereotypes typically used to dismiss them. (She says the same about Jefferson and Thoreau, among others.) If we view the Puritan influence on American history as malign, she adds, all the more reason to educate ourselves about what it really involved. She is also right to call our attention to overlooked continuities in the history of progressive thought, and in particular to the Continental lineages of American culture. We really must stop being the world’s biggest island. Finally–though this seems to be no part of her purpose–we should be grateful to anyone who can help nurture the nascent rapprochement between religious and secular progressivism, even at the cost in self-love that may be involved in acknowledging the origins of the second in the first. “Join or die” (to quote another Puritan) is a slogan worth reviving.

But Robinson’s narrative will finally not do. Her own biases force her to omit too much. I will pass over her neglect of Enlightenment and Romantic progressivism, of Voltaire and Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth and Shelley. I will also pass over the injustice of reducing all of modern thought to the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, and the further injustice of reducing the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud–especially the enormously complex and varied thought of the last two–to their social Darwinist elements. More important is her distortion of American history. For one thing, one would scarcely guess from Robinson’s writing that there has ever been in the United States such a thing as a Catholic or a Jew, that the country has been home to vast populations of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (let alone other parts of the world) or that those groups have made any contribution to the nation’s political and intellectual life. In fact, stray remarks suggest a kind of Anglo-Saxon tribalism on Robinson’s part, connected, though not pardonably, with her profound attachment to the English language. She says of a particular word of uncertain etymology that it is “fetched from the deep anonymous heart of English generations” (as opposed, presumably, to words like “chutzpah” and “blarney,” with their mongrel bloodlines) and remarks elsewhere that the “British dialect” is “no language of flatterers, in fact a reservoir of painful truth”–which would have come as a surprise to Swift, Orwell and pretty much every other satirist in the history of British letters.

That Robinson has lived most of her life, physically and imaginatively, in Idaho and Iowa, two of the least diverse states in the Union, is not enough to explain this omission. It can be seen instead as part of a larger one: the whole of American history after Reconstruction. The great tide of immigration is missing from Robinson’s narrative, and so are two presidents named Roosevelt. Progressivism is missing. Liberalism is missing. Trustbusting, Social Security and the Voting Rights Act are missing. The revival of the ideal of equality by new generations, the heirs of both Lincoln and Marx; the vast growth of a broadly distributed prosperity during the middle decades of the twentieth century; the gradual social enfranchisement of African-Americans and female Americans, the very groups whose defense by the abolitionists Robinson is most keen to emphasize–all these are missing. Finally, the continuity of progressive ideals across American history: that is what is missing.

It is not hard to see why. Democratic, humane, enlightened ideals were not extinguished after the Civil War, by social Darwinism or anything else, but they did largely pass into secular hands. This is a fact that Robinson appears to be as comfortable thinking about as an atheist would be contemplating the virtues of John Calvin. It is one thing to believe that religion is a moral force in the world, quite another to believe that it is the only one. Robinson seems complicit in that common article of religious faith, at once a form of vanity and a kind of faulty syllogism, the idea that only religion can make people be good. In order to sustain it, she has had to avert her eyes from a very great deal indeed.

Gilead emerged directly from Robinson’s new historical understandings and religious commitments. It is a story of Iowa, and Calvinism, and abolition. John Ames, the narrator, is offered as a kind of Congregational paragon, a living argument for the virtues, perhaps the supremacy, of Robinson’s faith. He is pious, serious, studious and wise; loyal, loving, gentle and kind; broad-minded and largehearted, self-sacrificing and self-effacing. Perfect, in that he is not too perfect–he is flawed, but he wrestles with his flaws. Yet the effect is neither saccharine nor didactic. In this splendidly realized novel, Robinson meets one of the most difficult challenges of narrative art: she not only makes goodness believable; she also makes it interesting. The novel is framed as a letter to Ames’s young son, and we follow the old pastor’s deeply informed and responsible thinking as it shapes itself on the page. Here is a man who has spent his life turning things over in his mind, mixing experience, Scripture, memory, poetry, philosophy and feeling, in an endless conversation with himself. That he is dying only makes the world more lovely; that he has had to wait so long for love only makes life sweeter. Save for their emotional complexity and virtuosic consistency of tone, the mood and language could not be more different from that in Housekeeping. From the vertical extremes of Idaho we go to Iowa’s broad, fertile plain. The passage from one novel to the next gives the sense of a hunted spirit that has found its rest in the peace of the Lord.

Still, there are shadows in this paradise. One is cast by Ames’s grandfather, a ferocious abolitionist who made the pilgrimage from Maine after receiving a vision of Christ in chains. The Civil War did nothing to dampen his zeal, and the old man lived on into Ames’s childhood (the novel is set in 1956), a standing rebuke to the damp spirits of latter days. The past, for Robinson, is always pressing in on the present. But the real snake in the garden is Jack Boughton, John Ames Boughton, Ames’s namesake and godson and the son of his best friend, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. Jack, a wicked boy, has returned after twenty years of self-imposed exile–he had fathered and abandoned a child, now dead–and Ames grows increasingly nervous as Jack works his way into his son’s and young wife’s affections. Jack, who calls him Papa, is the son or self Ames doesn’t want to own, and his presence continually wrong-foots him into jealousy and discourtesy. But Ames’s biggest transgression is his misreading of Jack’s motives. Jack hasn’t returned to Gilead to take Ames’s wife and child after he is gone but because he has a new child of his own, by a black mother, and he wants to find out whether the town, which was founded as an abolitionist redoubt in the struggle for Kansas, would give them welcome. Ames’s reluctant admission that it probably wouldn’t constitutes Robinson’s most damning indictment of Gilead’s–and, by implication, America’s–moral decline.

Home extends Robinson’s exploration of Gilead’s moral universe. The action is concurrent with that of the earlier novel, but the scene shifts to the Boughton home, the focus to Jack’s relationship with his father and younger sister Glory, who has returned to Gilead after their mother’s death to care for their father in his dotage. It is Jack who brings to the novel the same current of existential loneliness that blows through Housekeeping. The sins of his youth, it turns out, proceeded from a sense of dispossession imposed on him at birth. He simply never felt loved, never felt wanted, never even felt present–not in his large, boisterous family, not in the universe. In a novel as saturated with religion as this one is–the family’s music of choice is the Presbyterian hymnal, characters quote Scripture with precision and wit, Jack is imaged by turns as the prodigal son, Esau and Lazarus–the circumstance inevitably raises theological questions. Home generally avoids replaying scenes from Gilead, but the one it does revisit–in fact, with considerable amplification–is a long argument between Jack and Ames over the doctrine of predestination. Why was Jack saddled at birth with a feeling of estrangement from God, a sense of ineradicable uncleanliness, that precludes him from communion with family, home, the human community? One of Housekeeping‘s most persistent images is that of a lighted window seen from the outside, an image not of comfort but of exclusion. Here, Jack says of the house in which he grew up, “When I was a kid I used to wish I lived here. I used to wish I could just walk in the door like the rest of you.”

Needless to say, the idea of home comes under as much pressure here as does the idea of housekeeping in the earlier novel. “Home,” the novel reminds us, is an adverb as well as a noun. It means “at home” (“He won’t be home much longer”) and “just arrived at home” (“He’s home!”). Both meanings, and many more, are forcefully active throughout the novel, especially since the story deals with adult children, for whom the idea of home is always fraught with ambivalences and ambiguities. “All of them call it home,” old Boughton says of his many children, “but they never stay.” Glory does her best to take her mother’s place, but the alchemy of cooking smells and loyalty with which she tries to domesticate the heavy rooms into a semblance of remembered comfort never manages to come off. Besides, it’s all she can do to make her brother feel like he even deserves to be there. In Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man,” the farmer famously says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in,” but his wife replies, “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve,” and the two definitions serve pretty well to express the attitudes of Jack and Glory, respectively.

For this is Glory’s novel as much as it is her brother’s–more so, in a sense, since it is told from her perspective. Glory, too, has been out in the world and has returned, at 38, with thwarted intentions and a bruised heart. In explaining the genesis of Gilead, Robinson has said that for a long time she was trying to write a novel about a woman “abraded” by her experience of the world, until a peripheral character, Ames, took over, and that original story seems, more or less, to have been Glory’s. Now it is paired with Jack’s, and one of the novel’s principal achievements is the subtlety and precision with which it choreographs their slow dance toward intimacy: the burden of grief and caution with which Glory approaches the brother she never really knew; her sense of bewilderment as she tries to comprehend his long experience of skid rows and self-betrayal; Jack’s evasiveness and fragility; the self-deprecating charm that’s become his habitual strategy of defense, apology and seduction. All evidence suggests that Robinson is a fiercely solitary soul, and one of the reasons she cites for having abandoned the earlier project is that she found herself trapped in an isolated voice like the one in Housekeeping. Here she uses a third-person narrator for the first time, and while it costs her the immediacy and verbal intensity that made her previous novels so compelling–the language of Home, except in dialogue, is relatively flat, its mode of psychological portraiture analytic rather than imagistic–it enables her to render relationships with a new depth. As the characters circle one another, the story moves from moment to moment of direct, gathered feeling.

The novel’s most fraught relationship is Jack’s with his father. As much as Jack tested Ames’s commitment to the cardinal Christian principles of forgiveness and love, that is nothing compared with what he does to Boughton. The old man is so full of love, and so equally full of rage, that even his sweetest words of comfort twist helplessly back toward rebuke. There’s an emotional carelessness about him that makes a minefield of every moment. Jack accepts it all as no more than his due, but the two just can’t seem to get anywhere with each other. The past is simply too big to dislodge. Jack has changed too little, and Boughton must forget too much. The prodigal returns, and his father folds his arms; Lazarus rises, but the odor of his cerements offends. A huge sadness fills the novel: the widowed old man, dying in confusion and bitterness, and the two failed children, solacing each other with small acts of kindness because the big losses can’t be assuaged. There may be balm in Gilead, but there is none here. “She wished it mattered more,” the narrator says of Glory, “that the three of them loved one another.” The allusion is to Christ’s commandment “that you love one another,” and the point is not, of course, to mock it but to remind us that it isn’t ever easy, and isn’t done often enough.

Finally, surrounding the domestic drama, there’s the national passion play of race. It is 1956; Jack watches coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott, which his father dismisses as a lot of bad behavior. (“You can’t have people running around the streets like that.”) Another failure of Christian charity. But Robinson’s engagement with the question ultimately seems halfhearted or, at least, truncated. The bus boycott, for her, seems to have more to do with the betrayal of abolition, ninety years earlier, than with the civil rights movement, of which it was an opening chapter. That movement was to become a signal example of interdenominational, indeed interreligious and religious-secular, common cause, but as we know, such things are not dreamt of in her philosophy. As an essayist, Robinson is brilliant in her areas of expertise, but she has taken little interest in contemporary American culture and displayed surprising ignorance about contemporary American society. “It seems to me,” she writes in The Death of Adam, “we have almost stopped using the word [‘democracy’] in a positive sense, preferring ‘capitalism.'” This is nonsense, of course; “democracy” is still a universally professed ideal, and “capitalism” was long ago euphemized to “the free market.” To judge from Ruth’s age at the novel’s conclusion and the fact that she seems to be Robinson’s contemporary, Housekeeping also ends around 1956. Robinson’s imagination appears to have advanced no further. This is fine, of course, as long as she follows her own advice and doesn’t try to speak about what she doesn’t know. But however uneven she is as an essayist–by turns magnificent and obtuse–she rules her fictional domain with absolute authority. Of the soul, and its wanderings, and its struggles to find a way home, she is a modern master.

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