Marilynne Robinson's Small, Rich Body of Work


The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has written only seven books over the course of her career, but her slow care is part of what makes her great.


Since her first novel,1980's Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson has written just six books: two novels—Gilead (2004) and Home (2008)—and fourworks of non-fiction, Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam(1998 ), Absence of Mind (2010), and this year's When I Was A Child I Read Books.

Can a novelist who produces only three works of fiction in 32 years be considered great? Can an essayist whose primary concerns—the compatibility of Christian dogma with science, the liberal origins of Calvinism—are far outside mainstream American thought be considered great?

Robinson is an American original. In How Fiction Works, James Wood tracks some possible literary antecedents: "There is a familiar American simplicity, which is Puritan and colloquial in origin, 'a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essential'," as Robinson has it in Gilead. We recognize it in the Puritan sermon, in Jonathan Edwards, in Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs, in Mark Twain, in Willa Cather, in Hemingway."(Almost as if in reply, Robinson writes in When I Was A Child, "I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway.")

But though Robinson might share certain sensibilities with other writers, it's difficult to detect more than a faint association between her work and that of any previous author. As a novelist, her territory, the Western Plains, is also that of Willa Cather. (Robinson grew up in Idaho.) And in Gilead or Home, her pair of novels about two Iowa ministers, she seems to find a kindred spirit in Georges Bernanos of Diary of a Country Priest, but no direct influence.

As a thinker, I suspect Robinson might find the Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton an agreeable dinner companion. (I'm also guessing she might empathize with Chesterton's notion of a respect for tradition as "the democracy of the dead.") And I would love to hear a symposium with Robinson and Garry Wills. (Six years ago the two were featured together in an edition of The American Scholar under the subject of "The Other Christianity.")

One thing she certainly shared with both Chesterton and Wills is an absolute lack of interest in the fashionable. She has been described as having a cult following, but I think that is misleading. Let's just say that despite an interest in themes and subjects shared by almost no other American writer, she has gathered a substantial readership—one that, despite a Pulitzer nomination for Housekeeping, a Pulitzer for Gilead,an Orange Prize (the prestigious U.K. award for women writers) for Home, and a lovely film version of Housekeeping by Scottish director Bill Forsythe in 1987—has never threatened to spill over into the realm of mass-market fiction.

Rhetoric is heard, John Stuart Mill said, and poetry is overheard. Robinson, I expect, writes to be overheard. I would say Marilynne Robinson has been overheard by more people than any other current American writer.

THE SUCCESS OF Gilead and Home has sent many readers back to Housekeeping, a novel that, more than three decades after its publication, remains fascinating and elusive.

In When I Was A Child, Robinson writes that for her,fiction is an attempt "to stimulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense." (That's a mouthful, but it's hard to get a sense of what Robinson is saying without quoting her at length.)

Housekeeping, she writes,"is meant as sort of demonstration of the intellectual culture of my childhood. It was my intention to make only those allusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me, at her age more or less."

Housekeeping is set in the early 1950s in the town of Fingerbone, Idaho: "never an impressive town. It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere"—except for a spectacular accident a generation before the story takes place in which a train and its passengers slid off a long trestle bridge outside Fingerbone and disappeared forever into a deep mountain lake.

The tragedy haunts the town; the grandfather of two young sisters, Ruthie and Lucille, was on the train and their mother, for reasons the girls can't fathom, commits suicide by plunging her car into the same lake. To Ruthie, the older of the sisters and the narrator, her mother is a constant presence."She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind," Robinson writes.

Housekeeping is a novel about women. There are practically no men in Ruthie's world. Her grandfather died before she was born, and her long-gone father isn't even a memory. In a reverie that sounds more like an intrusion of the author than a mediation by Ruthie, Robinson writes of the grandmother, "She could feel that sharp loneliness she had felt every long evening since she was a child. It was the kind of loneliness that made clocks seem slow and loud and made voices sound like voices across water."

After their grandmother's death, two great aunts come to take over the household but soon long to escape Fingerbone and return to Seattle. Then, Sylvie, Ruthie's aunt, returns to the gothic house she grew up in to take care of the girls, who are now teenagers. At first Ruthie and Lucille, who see in Sylvie a sort of return of their mother, are ecstatic. She sings nostalgic songs like "Irene" and "What'll I Do When You Are Far Away?" and imposes no strictures on them. The girls choose to skip school and take long hikes in the woods.

But Lucille is at first irritated and then alarmed by Sylvie's growing eccentricity. She washes tin cans and stacks them in the kitchen and collects newspapers for no apparent reason, putting them in stacks in the living and dining rooms. Desperate to escape her family's shattered history and to join the middleclass, Lucille leaves the house and takes shelter with one of her teachers.

Ruthie, though, is gradually drawn towards Sylvie's rootlessness. She finds the past a burden: "Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it."When local authorities threaten to take custody of the girls, Ruthie and Sylvie leave town for a life of drifting. Some day, she muses, "When I am feeling presentable, I will go into Fingerbone and make inquiries. I must do it soon for such days are rare now."

I find myself struggling to put words to what I love about Housekeeping. After rereading it, I realize I'm touched by the way that nothing in Robinson's world is inconsequential. The sisters, who skip school a lot, enjoy taking long walks at dawn. On one walk, they are joined in the road

By a fat old bitch with a naked black belly and circles of white around her eyes. She was called Crip, because as a puppy she had favored one leg and now that she was an elderly dog she favored three. She tottered after us briskly, a companionable gleam in her better eye. I describe her at length because a mile or so from town she disappeared into the woods as if following a scent and never appeared again. She was a dog of no special consequence, and she passed from the world unlamented. Yet something of the somberness with which Lucille and I remembered this outing had to do with our last glimpse of her fat haunches and her palsied, upright tail as she clamored up the rocks and into the dusky dark of the woods.

Crip passed from the world unlamented except by Marilynne Robinson.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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