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.

This sense of the importance of things permeates Housekeeping. Inanimate objects that fill their house have significance, "For even things lost in a house abide, like forgotten sorrows and incipient dreams ... like the dim coil of thick hair, saved from my grandmother's girlhood."

THE FAINT WHIFF of nihilism that exists in Housekeepingmay seem surprising to those who discovered Robinson through Gilead and Home, with their reverence for tradition. Set in Iowa, the two novels center around the families of a Congregationalist minister named John Ames and his lifelong friend, a Presbyterian minister named Robert Boughton. There is no way to make that plot description sound timely, relevant, or contemporary to avid readers of Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith; you'll simply have to trust an avid reader of Franzen and Smith when he tells you how Gilead and Home can draw you in. One might also trust James Wood, who wrote about Gilead (and would, I think, extend the same praise to Home) that it "achieves an almost holy simplicity."

Events in Home revolve primarily around the Reverend Boughtonand his prodigal son Jack, who has lived the life of a drifter—one wonders if he somewhere on the road his path crossed Sylvie and Ruthie's. Jack has spent time in jail and fathered a child with a black woman, the latter of which does not appall his family so much as puzzle them. The happiness stirred by his return home is mitigated by the unspoken knowledge that he cannot stay and ultimately cannot find peace in his father's religion.

Reverend Boughton is almost unique in stories about religious patriarchs in that he has virtually no ego and does not preach to his children. He is also unaware of nearly all social and political changes that have occurred since he was a boy. Like so many otherwise good men, he believes that the way things were when he was a young manare the way the world is supposed to be. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, which intrigues Jack so much, is unfathomable to him.

If Robinson werea lesser novelist, one writing to warm our hearts, she would lead us down a path through which Jack and his father could reconcile. But the final pages of Home linger in the reader's mind like an open wound of the heart.

The sister left behind to care for their father reflects on Jack and the son she didn't know he had, "She knew it would have answered a longing of Jack's if he could even imagine that their spirits had passed through that strange old house. Just the thought of it might bring him back, and the place would seem changed, to him and to her. As if all that saving and keeping their father had done was providence indeed, and new love would transform all the old love and make its relics wonderful." As a novelist Robinson illuminates the souls of people who live lives of quiet desperation.

I mean souls in exactly the same way Robinson does in When I Was A Child:

Having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me that this astonishing nexus of the will, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes 'soul' would do nicely.

AFTER HOUSEKEEPING, Robinson turned to non-fiction, which, If I'm reading her correctly, has served as an outward expression of her primary concerns before they were filtered and reshaped in her fiction.

Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, published in 1989, is an extraordinary and little-read book—many of Robinson's fans have never even heard of it. I did not know of it myself until I saw a copy at my local library book sale and was astonished to find that the author of Housekeeping had written a book on nuclear pollution.

I didn't think anyone was capable of getting me to read a book on this subject, but I was riveted from the first sentence: "The largest producer of plutonium in the world and the largest source, by far, of radioactive contamination of the world's environment is Great Britain."Plutonium dumped into the sea from the notorious government-owned Sellafield Plant "has already been found in Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium." It is "perhaps not irrelevant to note ... that Britain leads the world in lung cancer deaths."

This is scary stuff, written by a writer not given to hyperbole. "My attack," she says,"will seem ill-tempered and eccentric, a veering toward anarchy, the unsettling emergence as lady novelist as petroleuse." (I'm sorry to interrupt this eloquent diatribe, but I have to point out the use of the magnificent word "petroleuse," which, after 30 minutes of frantic research, I discovered is the name for the women of the Paris Commune of 1871 who are accused of burning down a big chunk of Paris.) "I am angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured while we were all bemused by supposed monuments of self and intellect, vaults of bogus cultural riches ... The grief come home to others while I and my kind have been occupied lies on my conscience like a crime."

With a passion and clarity missing from most political journalists, she strips away myths about British and American histories of social responsibility.Her conviction that the US's commitment to social justice is considerably greater—considerably greater—than the UK's is eye-popping. For instance, the relative state of government support for its citizens: "Why do the Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, and the GI Bill, three distributions of wealth to the public on a scale never contemplated in Britain, have no status among political events when the dreary traffic in pittances institutionalized as the British Welfare State is hailed as the advance of socialism?"

Contrary to the fears of American conservatives that the US is veering towards a British-type socialism, "Almost no one in the West spends as little on health care as the British, despite the fact that they lead the world in death rates from heart disease and lung cancer."

The bedrock British political assumption, she finds, "is that absolutely nothing belongs to the general public inalienably by the logic of collective interests or by right ... public ownership of a bridge, a tunnel, or a river is for them a departure from the natural order of things." It's hard for an American to read these words nearly a quarter of a century later without a shudder as we recognize a similar attitude taking hold here. And with it comes an arrogance that rationalizes the right of the powerful to pollute what belongs to all of us: "It is a very comfortable thing," she concludes, "to think that the greatest threat to the world is a decision still to be made, which may never be made—that is, the decision to engage in nuclear warfare. Sadly, the truth is quite otherwise. The earth has been under attack for almost half a century." And by now, for nearly three-quarters of a century. It's impossible to read Mother Country without wishing that Robinson would update the story.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought and Absence of Mind, The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self (the paperback edition of which was released this year) are not arguments for the existence of God or the validity of Christianity in the mode of, say, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity or G.K. Chesterton's Catholic apologia Orthodoxy.She doesn't go in for turf wars; there are no battles with secular liberals or right-wing evangelicals. She cites popular atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens only in passing.

There are two main themes to these books. The first is that the liberal conscience of Christianity traces back to the Old Testament or, as she puts itin The Death of Adam, "The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor." She also believes, fervently, that the origins of modern Protestant liberality, the kind that possessed the mid-19th century abolitionists, are to be found in Calvinism. Both theses came as surprise to me, though I will have to wait until I can find a large chunk of reading time before I can give assent.

Her other and perhaps larger concern is that there is no essential divide between religion and science. "What I wish to question," she writes in Absence of Mind, "are not the methods of science, but the methods of a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished." Science can tell us nothing about the purpose of life, nor can it even tell us about the origins of scientific principles, she says. Rather, she writes, "scientific phenomena often demonstrate, as physics and cosmology tend to do, that the strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations."

THIS IS PERHAPS a starting point for a dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. Robinson's sentiments, after all, aren't greatly different on this matter from those of Albert Camus, who wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry ... So that science that was supposed to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis."

Robinson, of course, is not a skeptic like Camus. She merely wishes to suggest, as she does in When I Was A Child, that:

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, rigorous as ever, that if a thing can be 'explained,' associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the 'physical' in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial.

Robinson regards When I Was A Child as "an archeology of my own thinking," and the essays it contains are pointed to both secularists and fundamentalists. To the former she notes, "The contempt of a writer such as H.L.Mencken for popular religion is simultaneous and identical with his contempt for women's rights and his melancholy belief in the futility of efforts to improve the status of black people." To the latter, "In my Bible, Jesus does not say 'I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free market principles.'"

I know little about Calvinism or the beauty of Protestant hymns or many other concerns that animate Robinson's work. Before I sat down to read and reread her entire oeuvre I hadn't realized how someone whose background and outlook were so different from my own could lead me to see things in a different way—to understand that "We live on a little island of the articulable which we tend to mistake for reality itself." To read Robinson it to feel both outrage at the abuse of our planet while also caring about a dog of no special consequence.

I 'm not saying I want to see Marilynne Robinson sitting next to Grover Norquist on Bill Maher's Real Time, where her voice might sound merely rhetorical. But it's a voice that I want to hear—or overhear—more often, one that reveals a soul which burns with ahard gem-like flame and needs to be added to our national dialogue.