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."