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The Epistolary Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It is widely regarded as a modern classic, and for good reason: its luminous prose and detailed descriptions of the physical and psychic landscape of a young girl's coming of age in Fingerbone, Idaho, feel more like a nineteenth-century novel than a contemporary one. Marilynne Robinson

Her next novel, Gilead, arrived twenty-four years later, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and by now, her talent and intellect have won her a devoted readership worldwide. Set in 1956, Gilead is a letter from the elderly Reverend John Ames to his much younger son. Ames has lived all of his life in Gilead, Iowa, and the novel delves deeply into the history of the area through the characters of Ames's father and grandfather, also ministers, but deeply divided on ideas such as pacifism, duty, and the abolitionist movement. And eventually, when John Ames Boughton (nicknamed Jack), Ames's namesake and godson, returns to Gilead, he brings up old tensions and sets events in motion that disturb Ames's formerly peaceful last days.

In between the two novels, Robinson has written nonfiction: Mother Country, which was banned for a time in England, and The Death of Adam, a deeply intelligent and provocative collection of essays on history, theology and American culture. The Death of Adam takes a hard look at essential texts from Darwin to Calvin, and examines subjects as diverse as nineteenth-century children's primers to our current obsessions with illness and anxiety.

Gilead garnered nearly unanimous praise from reviewers; Anna Godbersen of Esquire marveled, "[N]early every sentence demands to be savored....There has been much talk lately about a religious divide in this country. Gilead, then, may be the perfect book at the perfect time: a deeply empathetic and complex picture of a religious person that is also gorgeously written, and fascinating."

Jill: How did you begin Gilead? What was its genesis?

Marilynne Robinson: It had a long genesis because it came as a result of my interest in theology, and also the fact of my having moved into the Middle West and becoming interested in the history of the Middle West. I read a lot of things that were written in the nineteenth century. Then, for whatever reason, a character came into my mind, or more specifically, a voice, and a lot of things that I'd been thinking about and reading about precipitated themselves as a novel. Who knows why? I was very pleased. I enjoyed writing the novel.

Jill: I was curious how much research you had to do, in terms of the history of the area, for example, and the abolitionists. You have an essay in The Death of Adam about William McGuffey and the abolitionists, which seems historically related.

Robinson: Yes, it was related. That came from a fairly early period. I have this way of reading things that people talk about, and measuring the distance between what they've said and what is apparent when you look at the page. You know?

Jill: What the text actually said.

Robinson: Yes, exactly. And one of the things that I had heard of as being one of the great formative influences in American culture and specifically Middle Western culture was the McGuffey readers. Then I started seeing them around in used furniture stores and the like, where they're the book that makes the bookcase look a little more respectable.

Jill: We may have some early editions in our Rare Book Room.

Robinson: They were apparently used so long by so many children in one family that they tended to be worn to death. But I started collecting them—I have, I suppose, about eight or ten of them at this point—and reading them. They're completely different from the way they're described by people who really ought to have looked at them before they wrote about them, frankly. That was one of the things that opened the question for me of what the early period in the Middle West would have been like, in any case.

But that was research I was doing simply because I'm curious. Whenever something strikes me as being something about which opinion has hardened, or settled, then I want to look at it, because I have deep doubts about the correctness of consensus in almost every case. So I became very interested in the subject and read a good deal before I had any intention of writing anything about it.

When I actually started writing Gilead, there were specific things that I wanted to do. I went to old periodicals to find out what John Ames would have been reading. The recipe [in Gilead] for Jell-O Salad is a real recipe that is actually face-to-face with that 1948 Ladies' Home Journal article, "God and the American People," that Ames discusses. I also knew that he was interested in baseball—that was just one of the givens of his character. I had a graduate student at that time who never appeared anywhere without a baseball cap, a very talented youth, and I hired him to do research on early baseball for me, so that I would know at what levels it was played, and so on. It was very interesting; it was like a national obsession at that time. The railroads were very highly elaborated then, and the leagues could move around freely for the first time, with one team in Iowa and another in Colorado and so on. It's quite amazing.

Jill: I think Dave (who's a huge baseball fan) would be happy to do that kind of research.

Robinson: Yes, it was a good job for that fellow. He enjoyed it. In any case, I did other reading in periodicals that Ames would have read, like the Nation and Christian Century. And I read a lot of Charles Sanders Peirce. I don't know why that was important to me at the time except that the voice of Peirce is very interesting. He's an American philosopher of that period, and with his philosophy, I think, "Yes, yes. Okay. Got it," and then he goes off into mathematics and I'm totally lost. But there is a nice wry quality in his voice, a sort of unpretentious elegance in the way that he uses ideas, and I think it was important to me, for that reason, to read him.

Jill: I think "unpretentious elegance" is an apt way to describe Ames's voice, as well.

Robinson: Well, thank you.

Jill: I recently read Helen Vendler's new book, Invisible Listeners, which examines George Herbert, Walt Whitman, and John Ashbery. She discusses Herbert's relationship to God in his poetry, his forms of address to something beyond himself, something supernatural. There may be some parallels with Ames there: he's speaking to his son, but to his son in the future, as an adult.

Robinson: That sounds like an interesting book.

Jill: It's lovely: brief but fascinating. And of course, Ames discusses Herbert's poetry in Gilead, as well. So Ames's voice first came to you as an epistolary voice?

Robinson: When I initially thought of it, the first image that I had was of an old man at a desk writing to a child who's playing on the floor beside him, but writing as if to him as an adult. The idea that he cannot speak directly, that he has to speak to a future person whom he does not know—that was essential to the way I originally thought of it. So it had to be epistolary. I've never loved epistolary novels; I was surprised to find myself writing one.

Jill: A phrase Ames often repeats, throughout the novel, is "That's a remarkable thing to consider." And the structure of the book reflects that, in a way: a memory, or an action, and then Ames's reflection on that action. Was that conscious, that alternating between a physical thing and then consideration of it?

Robinson: There is that certain line from William Carlos Williams that I love: "No ideas but in things." I think that when ideas lose their roots in experience, they begin to falsify themselves. From the point of view of Ames, from the point of view of his intellectual and religious background, experience is something that's given to you to interpret. You have to be respectful of the fact that you are continuously given new experiences. And the authenticity of your thought depends on how scrupulously you are in fact responding to what you have been given to experience.

Jill: That parallels, in a way, what you were saying about going back to original texts, original sources.

Robinson: Yes, indeed.

Jill: In both Housekeeping and Gilead, water plays an important thematic role. In Gilead, Ames talks about water as the perfect substance for baptism or blessing, as a pure, clarifying agent. Whereas in Housekeeping, it seems to have a much darker role. There's a train wreck into the lake, several deaths by drowning, floods—water in that book seems to take on a kind of mortal inevitability.

Robinson: Well, they're very different books, of course. But I think that one of the things that's very striking about baptism as an idea, in terms of the language in which it is dealt with biblically, is that it's a baptism into death. The meaning of it being that in a certain sense you take on mortality by identification. So that the idea of blessing and the acknowledgement of the fact of mortality are very implicit together.

Jill: Both Ames's current wife, Lila, and his grandfather are such interesting characters in opposite ways. His grandfather is a scene-stealer, with his missing eye and his stern, dramatic life, whereas Lila is something of an enigma. She's shown up in Gilead alone, she's obviously suffered, she's younger than Ames, and uneducated. Did you imagine a full backstory for her character?

Robinson: Certain things I think we can know are true of her, that her life has been difficult, and probably—as John Ames himself has said—very different from the life she has now. She makes an improbable minister's wife. One of the things that governed the writing of this book, from the point of view of being faithful to the voice, is that Ames is a gentleman and a clergyman; he's writing about a woman that he loves very profoundly; and he's writing to his son about his mother. And all of these things would require tact ?

Jill: Delicacy.

Robinson: Exactly. I think it's perfectly clear and would not be surprising to anyone who knew her that she had had a difficult life. But it would not be becoming to him perhaps to—well, in the first place, clearly her backstory doesn't matter to Ames, it's nothing essential as far as he's concerned.

Jill: Ames says at some point that his wife has earned her innocence. Ames's grandfather as well has a different kind of innocence.

Robinson: Yes.

Jill: I love that he takes the idea of charity so literally that he gives everything away, even things his own family needs, so that they have to hide money in jars of sugar and lard...

Robinson: [Laughs]

Jill:And his young son has his own kind of innocence as well. So there are many varieties of innocence in the novel.

Robinson: Yes, I think that's true. I want that to be true, at least.

Jill: There are also many parallels between John Ames's life and Jack's, but John is very suspicious of Jack, when he first comes back to Gilead. Do you think John is a reliable narrator when it comes to Jack?

Robinson: There are limits to how reliable he can be because he doesn't know what to think. He is in a special position, because he feels his anxiety is justified. He might not be as anxious—he might not think about Jack in the same way if it were only himself at stake, but here he's beginning to lose his grip on life at the same time that he sees something that he considers threatening to him and to his family. A lot of the time he really is thinking, "Am I thinking about this reasonably?" or, "What should I do about it?" and he doesn't know Jack well enough to know. He doesn't see the situation clearly enough to be reliable, in that sense, even for his own purposes.

Jill: In your essay, "Psalm Eight," in The Death of Adam, you write, "So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes....With all respect to heaven, the scene of the miracle is here, among us." That seems to me to be the business that Ames is engaged in: watching the miracles of the everyday, and being humbled by gratitude for them.

Robinson: I think that's accurate. And what I said there, I absolutely mean. The world, the phenomenology of experience itself is so profound, so amazing, that I don't know why people have spent their time speculating about the world beyond. As if the enchantment of this world were just some sort of distraction, illusion.

Jill: You referred earlier to William Carlos Williams, and in Gilead, Ames often references or quotes George Herbert and John Donne. Your prose is often described as being poetic, as well; it employs a lot of poetic devices, and it is also remarkably clear and direct. Does poetry have a strong influence on your prose?

Robinson: I think it certainly has had. I would have written poetry, if I could, but I can't. But Wallace Stevens I think is probably as great a single influence as any. I just love his poetry. I've taught his poetry. And William Carlos Williams, and Emily Dickinson. Talk about the phenomenology of daily life! She's simply unbelievable. When you look at the older writers like Melville, and Thoreau, and Emerson, who were very influential for me in the way they use metaphor—and William Faulkner also is a very good example of the same thing—this deep, integral use of metaphor as a way of accessing experience. That's the thing that I've really admired, and I suppose if admiration yields influence, then I've been influenced by it.

Jill: Who are you reading lately?

Robinson: I don't really keep up with my contemporaries terribly well. I tend to read nonfiction. Who have I been reading lately? Background work for a nonfiction book that I'm starting and I don't want to talk about yet. [Laughs] I was reading The Master, Colm Tóibín's book, but then I got busy with other things and didn't finish it. Before that I read and enjoyed The Book Against God.

Jill: James Wood. I liked that book very much. I was also wondering: who are some twentieth-century theologians you'd recommend?

Robinson: Kart Barth is the great theologian of the twentieth century, or of many centuries. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer is wonderful. They're my two favorites. They're very classical, in the sense of speaking out of a very large conception of reality, in part because of their circumstance, as they were both anti-Hitler people in Germany. All kinds of ethical issues are very sharp for both of them, which is something that I really appreciate. They're not feel-good theologians.

Jill: More incisive than feel-good, it sounds like.

Robinson: Oh yes. Karl Barth particularly. You have to be patient with him.

Marilynne Robinson spoke with me at the Heathman Hotel on January 19th, before her reading for Portland Arts and Lectures.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Mother Country New Trade Paper $22.00
  2. Housekeeping
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern... New Trade Paper $16.00
  4. Gilead
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy... Used Hardcover $9.95
  6. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern... New Trade Paper $16.00
  7. Mother Country New Trade Paper $22.00
  8. Housekeeping
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

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