A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
By Howard Anglin (Sept. 2006)
Marilynne Robinson. Gilead: A Novel. Picador (paperback reprint). 256 pages. $23.00.
Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer prize winning novel Gilead has evoked comparisons to Melville, Flaubert, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, George Herbert, and even Hemingway. This is privileged company and each comparison is deserved, if necessarily inadequate. Robinson’s voice in Gilead is hers alone – and what a pure, unselfconscious and achingly beautiful voice it is. Her only other novel, Housekeeping, published more than two decades ago, is a remarkable work in its own right and justified Robinson’s reputation before Gilead, but the latter is simply a different class of achievement.
Re-reading Housekeeping after Gilead is an awkward pleasure. Stylistically, the two novels are so different that superficial comparisons are unhelpful. Housekeeping is the more self-conscious novel; its prose is mannered and, in its occasional floridity, has a writerly, work-shopped feel. Water is everywhere in Housekeeping and the damp seeps into the prose. Gilead, by contrast, is bone dry and its stark language, though meticulously crafted, achieves a genuine artlessness. There is more poetry in Gilead than in a dozen volumes by most contemporary poets, more common sense and good advice than most parents ever convey to their children, and more insight into man’s relationship with the world and the divine than in a year of sermons.
Gilead is a single, episodic letter written over several months in 1956 by the Reverend John Ames, a 76-year old Congregationalist minister who has lived his entire life in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. Ames’s letter is addressed to his seven-year old son (who is never named), the product of a late second marriage to a much younger wife (also unnamed), who appeared in his church while he was preaching on Pentecost Sunday nine years earlier. Ames has a failing heart and knows that his letter will be his paternal legacy. His letter is thus an autobiography, a family history, and a lifetime’s worth of fatherly wisdom intended to be read many years after his death.
Though a devout man of God, Ames knows and loves the world too much to welcome death. His digressions on baseball, fried-egg sandwiches (a staple of his bachelor years), and his parishioners’ casseroles are at once dryly funny and acutely poignant. “Oh, I will miss the world!” he exclaims at one point, not rebuffing the divine but embracing creation. Ames’s observation anent a long-lost tapestry that “Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. There are some I dearly wish might be spared” is not blasphemy. It is not a rejection of a greater life beyond, but an acknowledgment of the beauty within, this perishable world.
Several times Ames speculates as to the nature of the next life, once invoking Isaac Watts’s great hymn, “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past”:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone . . .
No doubt that is true. Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.
Even read out of context, this brief passage conveys something of the cumulative, elegiac effect of Robinson’s prose. Simple, direct, and pared to the quick, but purified rather than diminished by the reduction.
To say that Gilead is a religious book is both accurate and misleading. The narrator is a third generation minister (at least – Ames speculates that preaching runs further back in his family than the limits of his genealogical knowledge) and his life has been lived in the shadow and in the light of scripture, allusions and references to which fall on every page of his text. He wears his Protestant faith and learning like a second skin, and moves effortlessly within it even as it defines, limits, and protects him. His life’s work – 2,250 rigorously composed and researched sermons (he has kept up his Hebrew and his Greek) – has been a critical engagement with Christian text and scholarship.
Ames’s two great spiritual influences have been the believer Barth and the skeptic Feuerbach, and his casual reflections on biblical text scattered throughout his letter – Ishmael and Hagar in the wilderness; the placement of the Fifth Commandment – are as illuminating as any sermon. But Ames’s faith is not only, or even primarily, intellectual. Dry prairie earth, dark small-town streets, the worn floorboards of an empty church, even human suffering, are sweet and essential creations of an incomprehensible but intimately known and felt God. Ames’s insight, repeatedly and evocatively expressed, is expressed in Hopkins’s declaration that “[t]he world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Gilead resonates with a living and lived faith.
One of the stated goals of Ames’s letter is to provide his son with his “begats,” his family tree. The history thereby recounted imbues the narrative with an atavistic gravity, a sense of the past at once personal and universal. It is also the occasion for introducing us to the memorable character of Ames’s grandfather, a fire-and-brimstone orator and veteran of bleeding Kansas, who preached from the pulpit with a pistol in his belt in a shirt bloodied from riding with John Brown’s murderous gang.
“Osawatomie” John Brown, of whom Emerson said “he made the gallows as glorious as the cross,” Hawthorne famously demurred “[n]obody was ever more justly hanged,” and whose body still “lies a-moulderin’ in the grave,” was a fanatical abolitionist, whose antinomian zeal first led him to renounce the constraints of law and ultimately drove him to spurn morality itself. Ames’s grandfather was Brown’s soul mate. There is nothing equivocal about the old Reverend: he is a man of a single blazing eye, Blakean visions, and a seismic temper. It is easy to imagine him thundering those terrible, prophetic words of John Brown to his cowed congregation: “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Other than the narrator himself, the old Reverend is the most vividly realized character in the book – like John Brown, either a saint or a devil, and, either way, hardly of this world.
The old Reverend is a fierce and haunting presence for our Reverend Ames, as he had been in Ames’s father’s house and conscience, which rebelled and found solace in an equally uncompromising pacifism. This pacifism, tested and affirmed by the First World War, was passed down to our narrator, who accepts it, more or less, but with one eye turned always to his grandfather’s contrary spirit. This family progression, which encompasses the Civil War, the great drought of 1892, the dust bowl of the Depression, and two World Wars, is the novel’s broad story, in which the history of one Iowa town, and one man’s life are tangled subplots. One reviewer actually faulted Robinson for her “bland, placid story line.” It is true that not much happens in Gilead, if one ignores the arc of American history, murder, death, birth, marriage, drought, family betrayal, and the countless, exquisite insights of an examined life.
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient,” Ames tells his son. There may not be quite that many reasons to read Gilead, but there are many, every one of them sufficient.
Howard Anglin is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.
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