Divine Invention

Photo by George Duncan

Twenty-five years ago, Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping, a strange and beautiful novel about orphan sisters living with their eccentric, possibly schizophrenic aunt on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Helene in Idaho. Housekeeping was a literary phenomenon that has been re-read, compulsively, by countless creative-writing students in the country, then and since. Yet for all of Housekeeping’s loveliness and success, its author did not rush to follow up with another novel. Instead came rumors of her studying . . . history? Then, in 1989, Robinson published Mother Country, a book-length investigative essay about the British government’s gross mismanagement of a large nuclear reprocessing plant. Nine years later brought The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, and it is in these essays that we glimpse certain themes that animate Robinson’s long-hoped-for (if, by now, completely unexpected) second novel, Gilead. In it, she explores her ongoing interests in abolitionism and radical Midwestern ministries, the nature of family and the shifting winds of 20th-century liberal Christianity.

Gilead takes the form of a letter written in 1956 by 77-year-old Reverend John Ames to the adult man his very young son will become. The letter is elegiac in tone — Ames’ heart is giving out — and in it he tells family stories and struggles with death, all with quiet humor, intelligent self-reflection and much tenderness toward the living world.

Robinson spoke to the Weekly via e-mail from Iowa City, where she teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

L.A. WEEKLY: When you were away from fiction for all those many years, didn’t you yearn for it?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I am always engrossed in whatever I am doing. If a novel, a voice and a circumstance had not engaged my attention, I would have been absorbed by nonfiction and by teaching. I am glad to have written Gilead. It was an interesting experience, very important to me. But that intervening time was also good and important.

What was the beginning of Gilead, the seed, the idea? Did the epistolary structure come to you as part of the original idea?

Years ago I saw the sun set as a full moon rose. This stayed with me. The voice and the epistolary form occurred to me together. The thought of an old man writing to a grown son he does not know but loves profoundly, and who, as a child, is lying on his belly in the sunlight drawing pictures as the old man writes — I could feel a novel implicit in that situation.

Where did the rich, elegiac voice come from? Did you have, as some critics have suggested, a literary model for this novel?

Voice is a mystery. The way I wrote it is simply the way it sounded in my mind. I had no literary model, particularly. There are plenty of literary clergy, as the narrator is well aware — Donne and Herbert and Watts, for example. The Diary of a Country Priest is really very different from Gilead, though the old reverend sees something of himself in it.

What were the challenges in writing about a religious man, a good man?

I had no problem writing about a religious man. I know preachers are conventionally represented as frauds or scoundrels, hypocrites at best. In general, I try to steer clear of conventions. I know good characters are supposed to be uninteresting. That must be a very recent discovery. There are plenty of good people in literature. For one thing, they make reliable and scrupulous narrators. For another, they convey ethical and emotional nuance. Goodness, after all, requires a disciplined attention to other people. Ishmael is good, Nick Adams is good, many of James’ characters are very good. If the word "good" implies narrowness, judgmentalism or hypocrisy, then "good" has become a synonym for "bad," nothing a writer would wish to explore sympathetically. But if goodness implies the attempt to be a positive presence in the world, a good father or mother, a good friend, or simply an honest human being — that requires a great deal of sensitivity and attention, as everyone knows who has tried it. People are not good statically. They are good situationally. They can fail at any moment, and they know it. And they usually know when they do fail, because they want to know. This is a very active and complex experience of consciousness. Self-seeking is dull and monistic by comparison. In any case, making my narrator both religious and good (though blind to some essential things as well) allowed me to give him a large, active, reflective mind.

There are three generations of ministers in this book, starting with John Ames’ radical grandfather, who is impassioned, touched, conversant with God, political, willing to shed blood for his beliefs. Where did he come from?

There were actually a good many radical ministers who came out into the Middle West before the Civil War. Some of them were indeed armed, and did fight in the war when it came. And many of them were moved to their radicalism by visions of Christ. As the reverend’s father says, it was the times. These same people founded any number of fine little colleges, promoted women’s rights, established integrated churches and communities. They were highly educated and unbelievably energetic and resourceful. Now they are forgotten. The grandfather has lived long enough to see their labors sliding away, Jim Crow setting in.

John Ames’ father is a pacifist and far more reserved than his abolitionist father — in reaction, no doubt — and John Ames seems even more inward, self-reflective, contemplative. Some of their differences are temperamental, of course, but others are generational and reflect the historical contexts of their times. Can you explain some of the history and theological shifts you see in these successive generations?

There was a vast reaction after the Civil War, partly because the war was horrible (as wars are) and partly because certain "scientific" ideas gained currency — polygeny, or the theory that the different races were different species, and a version of evolution which claimed that the different races manifested different stages of human evolution. Both authorized invidious judgments of non-Europeans. They could, with minor adjustments, be turned against other disfavored groups, such as the poor, the deformed, the retarded and so on. This "science" carried the day. It persuaded a great many people that abolition and the reforms associated with it were fanatical, irrational. So, on one hand, there was a loss of conviction, or at least courage, on the part of the religious traditions that had spearheaded abolition, and on the other hand, there was an embrace of pacifism, which many Christians have always felt their faith required. This heightened their aversion to the memory of the war and all that had led to it. I don’t wish to suggest that my characters exemplify these things, but they live in a changing terrain of awareness and belief, and they show effects of these changes.

Still . . .

Still, there is the church. A church is as particular and as mysterious as any other household. To generalize as I have just done is not really possible. In my experience, people love their churches, and take much more from them than the churches seem to an objective eye to provide. The mere fact of a church, or a synagogue or mosque, is a metaphysical statement. To walk into one is to say, I am mortal, I am one among countless human generations, the passages of whose lives and the passing of whose time on Earth have shape and meaning and sacredness. Little else in contemporary culture seems to affirm these things. Yet there is a strong element of religion in American culture, much of it singularly generous and humane, much of it lived out in these perdurable little communities of faith. So for many of us these things are very powerfully affirmed, though this is almost never reckoned among the features of contemporary experience.

You’re so interested in Christian theology. Did you ever consider going into the ministry?

Christian theology has interested me for as long as I have known what it is. I really can’t remember when I began to think about it. I have learned about it by reading it, by listening to sermons, by talking it over with friends. I considered divinity school after college, but gender was still an issue then — women were much marginalized even in the liberal churches — and I didn’t want to deal with all that. I have never thought I would make a good pastor, but I would have liked teaching theology.

Who might be preaching in Gilead, Iowa, today?

The present pastor in Gilead might well be a woman. She might, out of the goodness of her heart and for token pay, also be serving another church in another town a long drive away, since these little congregations are the heart and soul of such places, and are essential to keeping them on the map.

Marilynne Robinson will read from Gilead on Thursday, January 20, 7 p.m., at the Armand Hammer Museum, 10889 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; (310) 413-7000.

GILEAD | By MARILYNNE ROBINSON | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 247 pages | $23 hardcover

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >