Gilead's Balm

Marilynne Robinson talks about her long-awaited second novel and the holiness of the everyday

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by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
256 pages, $23.00

The landscape between Des Moines and Omaha is simple and uniform, fields of corn and soybeans rolling on for hundreds of miles. It is here, in the southwest Iowa town of Gilead, that the Reverend John Ames lives, loves, preaches, and prepares himself for death.

Although Ames is the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Gilead, it seems a stretch to call him its protagonist, since so little of the action takes place outside of his own mind. The seventy-five-year-old clergyman reflects on his ancestors, shares his thoughts about religion, describes the taste of a honeysuckle blossom. He and his surroundings are thoroughly American, but Robinson's storytelling brings to mind Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or Eric Rohmer's film cycle Six Moral Tales—slow-paced French narratives that concern themselves almost exclusively with their characters' inner worlds.

Gilead is written as a letter to Reverend Ames's young son, whom we see leaping through sprinklers and making crayon drawings in a patch of sunlight. The boy, growing up in the 1950s, seems blithely unaware that he comes from a long line of morally-burdened clergymen, all named John Ames. Reverend Ames's grandfather was an abolitionist who moved from Maine to the Midwest to help stem the spread of slavery. His son, Reverend Ames's father, was a pacifist who despised the older man for helping to ignite the Civil War. Throughout the text, Reverend Ames ponders the philosophies of his forefathers—along with Christian theology, European existentialism, and his own intensely personal experiences.

The Reverend tells his son that he has written 67,500 pages of sermons in his lifetime, and whole sections of Gilead read like excerpts from those sermons. Some passages deal directly with biblical stories; others find religious symbolism in everyday events, like a young couple playfully shaking water from a wet tree branch. The few scenes of interpersonal drama center on Reverend Ames's complicated relationship with John Ames Boughton, his best friend's black sheep son, who forces him to confront the murkier sides of his own nature.

Much has been made of the fact that Gilead is Robinson's first work of fiction since her debut novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981. As a story, Housekeeping is far more turbulent. Its central characters are two orphaned sisters undergoing a painful adolescence, living with an eccentric aunt who would rather be jumping railway cars and subsisting on canned sardines. With this new tale of a gentle Iowa preacher, Robinson does not resume her fiction career where Housekeeping left off. Instead, Gilead seems to follow naturally from Robinson's 1999 essay collection, The Death of Adam, in which she defends the Puritans, questions Darwinism, and declares: "I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes."

Like the author who created him, Reverend Ames is interested in worldly matters—the father-son relationship, the history of race relations in America. But the earthly things in Gilead seem almost transparent, stained-glass panels made luminous by the prospect of eternity. As the Reverend writes to his little boy:

There's a shimmer on a child's hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They're in the petals of flowers, and they're on a child's skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair.... All that is fine, but it's your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I'm about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

Marilynne Robinson lives in Iowa City, where she is a teacher at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. I spoke to her by telephone on November 4.

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Marilynne Robinson


I had to look up Gilead on the map. It's a real town in southwest Iowa, but the name also has biblical significance.

The biblical resonances of the name Gilead were certainly in my mind.

I remember that Jacob fled with the idols to Gilead. And Elijah was from Gilead.

Yes, and Gilead comes up in Jeremiah 8:22: "Is there no balm in Gilead?" It also comes up in Obadiah. The biblical Gilead has a very complex history. It's a town that's criticized for being rich and hard-hearted; it's lamented because it's been destroyed; and it's also used as a symbol of what can be restored, what can be hoped for. I like the name because it has various histories and meanings.

I grew up quite close to Iowa City, and one of the things that really struck me about Gilead was its peaceful, pastoral atmosphere. Housekeeping, on the other hand was set in wild mountain scenery, and the story itself was much more turbulent. How much do physical surroundings influence the events and characters in your stories?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Blood and Justice" (May 18, 2000)
A collection of articles from 1861 to 1922 commemorates Nat Turner and John Brown—two men who came to symbolize the radical struggle against slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War.

I think quite a bit. Landscape is very important to me in that I see people's lives as being inevitably colored by the landscape. And as domesticated as it looks, one of the things I've enjoyed while reading about the Middle West is finding out what a dramatic history it has. One of the interesting things I learned is that John Brown prepared for Harper's Ferry just outside of Iowa City, near West Branch, where Herbert Hoover was born.

All of the characters in Gilead are white, but African Americans play a major offstage role. What is the significance of all those references—the Civil War-era abolitionist flashbacks, the burning of the black church, the interracial family that appears at the end?

Iowa had a very gallant history in the Civil War. I read that it lost a larger percentage of its soldiers than many other states. It was a very active abolitionist state, and it always had black students in its universities. And yet, all those things being true, the passion for equality that was so strong in the early settlements was forgotten. Iowa fell into the pattern of other states. In essential ways, its heritage didn't fade. For example, no law against intermarriage ever made it onto the books in Iowa. Nevertheless there was a kind of social conservatism that suppressed that history.

One of the things I'm interested in and very struck by is the fact that the abolitionists understood equality, and they integrated their institutions from the beginning. They integrated their churches, they integrated their town governments. They did all these things before the Civil War. And then something happened in the culture that not only made all this recede, but made people forget that it ever happened. It's an amazing thing, and quite a frightening thing, that a culture could be capable of amnesia in such a drastic form.

There's one pivotal scene where John Ames's father, who opposes the Civil War, goes to "sit with the Quakers." Could you explain the significance of that?

The Quakers were pacifists. They were active pacifists—very helpful to the Underground Railroad. A lot of the early settlers moved to the Middle West so that the area wouldn't become slave holding. The Quakers were split. In the South, they were not anti-slavery. But in the North, they positioned themselves so that they did not, on the one hand, practice or endorse violence, but they did, on the other hand, oppose slavery. That would make them very attractive to someone like the older John Ames who was disgusted by the War.

Is there an implication in Gilead that slavery could have been ended through peaceful protest?

Historically speaking, I don't think there's any reason to believe that could have happened. Slavery was too pervasive. When Lincoln observed that a country couldn't be half slave and half free, he was talking about the fact that slavery penetrated into the North and that basic civil rights were lost. In the period before the war, the Fugitive Slave Act was enforced, which meant that anyone who came into the North looking for slaves could arrest a person without evidence. The Northern states lost the right to protect their own citizens.

I don't think that there was any alternative to war, unfortunately. At the same time, it's historically true and understandable that people were absolutely appalled by that war. Having something like 500,000 people killed on their own soil and seeing these skeletal men returning from Andersonville was so disturbing that many people wouldn't talk about it for decades.

Reverend Ames is an interesting character. I don't think I've ever come across anyone like him in the modern world. He's too rural and religious to be taken seriously by today's intellectuals but, at the same time, he's very educated and worldly in his way. Why does "intelligent Iowa preacher" sound like an oxymoron to contemporary ears?

I don't know. That's another thing that I was really struck by when I was reading up on early settlers in Iowa. A lot of them were highly educated people from Yale and Andover. They came out here to found colleges like Grinnell. So there's been a very ambitious intellectual culture in the Midwest from the beginning. It's a shame that people don't think about it in this way. When you look at all the schools out here, there's a long list of very fine old colleges.

In Gilead, you use a few religious motifs in unconventional ways—the Eucharist, for example. There's a scene where Reverend Ames's father feeds him a burned biscuit, and a later scene where Reverend Ames feeds his own son casseroles off his plate. In both cases, there's an implication that something holy is being transmitted.

That certainly is the feeling behind those scenes. In a way, Communion itself expresses the holiness of nurturing. It's sort of the ultimate emblematic signifier of the holiness of giving and receiving sustenance.

If those events do happen in everyday life, as they do in the book, what's the value of formalizing them in a church setting?

One of the things that I think churches do—one of the reasons people sustain them over thousands of years—is they make visible the things that are sacred in life. They bless babies, they bury elders, they sanctify marriages. Anything that might have a transcendent meaning is something that is reenacted ritually in a church. So in a certain way, they're simply raising up and making visible the fact of the holiness of life.

So when Reverend Ames sees that couple walking under a tree branch and watches the water come showering down on them, is he more attuned to the sacredness of that moment because he has performed so many baptisms?

I think he is, yes.

Reverend Ames reflects at one point that, to Calvin, God must have been a Frenchman, and that for himself, God is a Midwesterner. This brings up the question of culture and religious identity. If Reverend Ames had been born in a Buddhist society and lived his life as a Tibetan lama, could he have enjoyed the same kinds of revelations?

In a way, John Ames, with his intense scholarship and inwardness, is a type of religious figure that crosses cultures. His meditation on every aspect of life as transcendentally significant is something that many cultures have analogues for.

Maybe I'm reading into it, but I couldn't help noticing an Ishmael and Isaac theme in Gilead. Jack Boughton, Reverend Ames's best friend's son, is like an older son to Ames, a child he has to send out into the wilderness. Is the younger boy meant to resemble Isaac somehow?

I know the Bible well enough that it does infiltrate my thinking. It's surprising to have people point out every once in a while what would seem to be an obvious borrowing, although I hadn't thought of it at the time. But I would not want to extend it in a schematic way.

I understand that when you were sitting down to write this novel, Reverend Ames was a secondary character in the book. It was only later that you realized he was the voice you wanted to speak with. What role was he originally going to play in the story?

I hadn't really settled on him. There was a scene that I'd actually like to find. I have a way of scattering things behind me as I lose interest in them. He's sitting on a bench, watching people pass him on the street, and the light is very horizontal and very strong. He writes a little poem. I just kept two lines from it: "Open the scroll of conch and find the text / That lies behind the priestly susurrus." I put those lines in Gilead largely because I felt as if I owed it to that earlier John Ames character.

Reverend Ames makes some pointed comments about the state of religion in 1956. He discusses the idea that American Christianity waits for the real thinking to be done elsewhere. Do you think American Christianity has become more or less of a thinking culture during the past fifty years?

From the archives:

"A Man On a Gray Horse" (September 2002)
The mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr may have gotten a lot of things wrong—but we could use a thinker like him today. By David Brooks

The two dominant American theologians in 1956 were Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. They're still considered to be preeminent theologians. And I don't think American Christianity has advanced from that period.

Even though Reverend Ames is a devout Christian, he's read Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea and Andre Gide's Immoralist. Why do you make a point of mentioning that he's familiar with these very non-Christian works?

John Ames doesn't belong to an intellectual tradition that would forbid him to read anything. He would read it because he's basically defending Christianity from the assaults and criticisms that are made on it during this period, at least defending it within his own mind. So he reads them and ponders them, folds them into his worldview.

Along the same lines, Reverend Ames admits that part of him is still trying to win the approval of his brother Edward, an academically-minded atheist, even though Edward hasn't been in his life for years. Why is it important for someone like him to be respected by an unbeliever?

Well, Edward is his brother. He's someone he grew up admiring. One of the things that has often been characteristic is that intellectualism is conceded to the side of atheism. John Ames doesn't want to do that. He's a religious intellectual. He wants his thinking to bear scrutiny—as much as his brother's thinking seems to him to bear scrutiny—rather than to escape into some sort of irrationalism.

Not that long ago, there was a real culture of writers like G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis who were deeply respected as intellectuals but, at the same time, very clearly had Christian beliefs. Why do you think that doesn't seem to be a part of our culture anymore?

You know, in my personal experience, I have found that many writers are religious or very respectful of religion. I don't think it's at all unusual to find that they're actually quite conversant in scripture. But there's a social prohibition that has influenced the way people write things for publication, simply because of the way that the culture developed. Religion is too often associated with judgmentalism and obscurantism. It's a delicate thing to avoid those kinds of associations. I think people skirt the issue so they don't have to deal with that.

Ever since the last election, religion seems to be especially on people's minds. A lot of Americans are wishing we could just keep religion out of politics altogether and never let the candidates mention God.

I don't think it's realistic to think that could happen. For people who are religious, religion is so interior to their thinking that even if they told themselves they weren't being motivated by it, I don't think they could help themselves. These people that I've been talking about, the abolitionists and so on, were very religious people. They knew scripture inside out. And they were very aware of the fact that the great burden of scripture is the call for justice, the call for openhandedness toward the poor and the alien. It's amazing, but I don't know if anyone's even reading the text anymore. It's been boiled down to two or three verses that are used basically to make other people feel bad.

Housekeeping is less overtly religious than Gilead, but the story has a lot to do with a poem by Emily Dickinson—the transient aunt and her unkempt house become a living embodiment of those words, "I dwell in possibility / A fairer house than prose." Do you consider literature like Dickinson's to be as holy as, say, the theological writings of John Calvin or Karl Barth?

Oh, certainly. Definitely. There's no question about it. I think that beautiful literature ranks with theology always.

All of Gilead is written as a letter to Reverend Ames's son, but I don't remember him ever mentioning the boy's name. Why is that?

It seemed right to me. A lot of my decisions are just on the basis of what feels right. One reason is that I didn't want to be judging whether the boy would or would not be another John Ames, like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him.

Gilead takes place at a very innocent time, when television is first becoming popular and the worst violence in movies is a western-style shoot-out. Reverend Ames will presumably die before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, but his son will be college age by then, possibly right in the thick of it. Do you think his son will be able to translate his father's Christian values into a more complex, secularized world?

I wonder about that little boy. One of the questions, of course, is how his mother will be able to cope with it. I have great fondness for that woman. Obviously she will be a determining figure. But I don't project forward into my characters' later lives.

I know you're active in a church yourself. In another existence, do you think you could have been happy as a Reverend Ames, living in a small town and writing an attic-full of sermons?

I think I would've been happier doing that than doing most things! Giving a sermon is a very interesting thing to do. But sermons are brief, and it's hard for me to do anything brief. Basically you have about 25 minutes and something very complicated to deal with. If I could do it over a series of weeks, if I could spread out my delivery a little, I think I would find it more satisfying.

I'm sure you're aware that your way of thinking and writing are quite unique today. Modern fiction is so often edgy and cynical, or it ends on a heavy, unresolved note. Your book has an unusual radiance and innocence. How have you managed to maintain that kind of voice?

I think cynicism is self-protective. It closes on itself. It can't learn. And that kind of self-protection is encouraged in people so persistently that they don't realize that they're doing it. Basically, what you have to do is break out of that. I have written non-fiction that is, I guess, acerbic. At least that's how people sometimes respond to it. But as far as my fiction is concerned, I have to love my characters. And I have to, in a way, make the best case for them. So even as a fictional method, I can't include cynicism.

You're in contact with young writers all the time as a teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Do you think there are going to be any more Whitmans or Dickinsons, or do you think the time for euphoric, spiritually-inspired American writing is over?

Nothing is ever over. I teach that kind of literature. I'm teaching Faulkner now, whom I consider to be a great writer in the tradition of Melville and Whitman. I'm sorry that he's disparaged by people. I think he was a very enlightened man, a very generous spirit. The largeness and the beauty of thinking on that scale is moving to people, and I think particularly to young people. People who can write that way are rare in any generation, but I don't think there's any reason to believe we won't get our one or two. There are brilliant young people here who can think and observe and imagine, and I don't think there's any inevitable constraint on them. They only need permission to be what they are.