Robinson as professor and defender of ‘America’s best idea’
Steve Gronert Ellerhoff and Kathryn E. Engebretson
For a quarter century, Marilynne Robinson taught creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As such, she holds a significant place in the storied lineage of that institution and to the production of workshop writing. This essay will contextualise Robinson’s tenure as a professor and reflect on her opinions on the course of American education. Combined with testimony from former students, the essay covers aspects of her working life that reveal how indivisible it was from her work as a writer. Much of the advice she gave to her students shows an instructor aware of the bigger picture of American education, while maintaining an interpersonal and small-group insistence upon drawing out complexity, emotional truth, and the vulnerable reaches of her pupils’ imaginations.
This essay juxtaposes the inheritance of transcendentalism found in Marilynne Robinson’s novels and essays with the philosophical retrieval of Emerson and Thoreau in Stanley Cavell’s work. Focusing on questions of the ordinary, inwardness, and scepticism, it argues for productive affinities between Robinson and Cavell, characterised by their reactivation of transcendentalist modes. Exploring solipsistic currents in Housekeeping alongside questions of acknowledgement in the Gilead trilogy, this essay contrasts Robinson’s foregrounding of a mysterious, numinous ordinary with the sceptical discovery of the ordinary traced by Cavell. Both Robinson and Cavell give a decisive voice to transcendentalism in this conversation of the ordinary – Cavell’s claims for the philosophical precision of Emerson and Thoreau’s responses to scepticism consonant with Robinson’s admiration for the ‘rigor with which they fasten on problems of language, of consciousness’.
Bereavement, time, and home spaces in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Home
This essay focuses on the depictions of intimate grief that are at the core of two of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. It examines the author’s dense metaphorical representations of the sanctity of human loss through the interaction of her characters with houses, shelters, shacks, and barns. Drawing in particular on work from cultural geography and ritual studies, this essay presents a set of analyses of domestic spaces and domestic rituals in Housekeeping and Home to argue that Robinson’s houses are sacred ‘timespaces’ in which tiny, daily gestures function as metaphoric enactments of the sublimity of loss. It also explores her representations of homelessness as equally potent metaphors for the prolonged suffering of grief.
The home is a central fixture in the cultural imaginary of the United States. In Home, Marilynne Robinson utilises the affects and feelings that circulate in and through a mid-twentieth century Iowan home to probe the relations between memory, race, and nation. This essay argues that Home shifts the Gilead novels to a dominant tone of sadness and melancholy and that the centrality of feeling in Robinson’s novel has decidedly political ends. The sadness that moves within the Boughton home when Jack, the ‘prodigal son’, returns from many years away, agitates the family and community from forgetting, or side-lining, familial and national concerns. The home-spaces of Robinson’s novel therefore require the reader to dwell on twentieth-century America as it is ruptured and troubled from within. In this way, Home quietly and emotively disturbs domestic and public spaces.
A little different every time' - Accumulation and repetition in Jack
This essay closes the collection by considering what Robinson’s fourth Gilead novel, Jack, adds to the quartet. Returning to the same characters in four temporally and spatially limited stories, the Gilead novels work by a process of repetition and slow accumulation, adding meaning through slight changes in voice, perspective, and the gradual revelation of detail. Jack alters this thesis only slightly, retelling the much-discussed life of Jack ‘John Ames’ Boughton from a third-person perspective more closely aligned with his psyche and finally covering the period before Gilead when he began his relationship with Della Miles. Yet, adding more detail to the already well-trodden story of Jack and his inter-racial relationship with Della demonstrates major gaps in how Jack – and, indeed, Robinson – perceives his impact on others. This essay therefore ends the collection by questioning the centrality of whiteness to the Gilead novels and asking who, in these novels, gets the privilege of second, third, or fourth chances.
Civil rights, civil war, and radical transformation in Home and Gilead
This chapter argues that race and racial equality are a central, stand-alone, and defining preoccupation in Robinson’s oeuvre. This essay argues that Gilead and Home constitute two of the most radical novels on the subject of race and civil rights in America. They have far more in common with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992) than they do with novels by other white authors that similarly invoke the racial politics of the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas for Philip Roth or Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, racial difference and racial ‘mixing’ exist predominantly as useful metaphors, for Robinson race ‘as race’ is an unresolved conflict at the heart of her project. In this she is allied – to some extent – with William Faulkner, and most closely with the radical writers of the nineteenth-century such as Herman Melville and Mark Twain, as this essay concludes.
This essay considers how Robinson uses the figure of the orphan to explore the tension between American self-reliance and a feminist ethic-of-care. It argues that in repositioning the concept of care outside of the home, Robinson rewrites the terms of domesticity in order to embrace the idea of the interdependence of the human and natural worlds. Despite being separate works written 30 years apart, Housekeeping and Lila call for a comparative reading because of their central female protagonists and their shared thematic concern with women’s transience. In both novels there is a strong link between the orphan's isolation and the natural world, as Robinson explores an Emersonian model of self-reliance, of finding an individual, nonconformist connection to the American landscape. Indeed, through her use of the female orphan trope, Robinson asks whether it is possible to reconcile the separation of the landscape from the American home: to maintain a solitary connection to nature, while also embracing the relationships of care central to domesticity. Like the nineteenth-century women writers before her, she both challenges the domestic ideal and extends its message of interdependence, framing this within the contemporary context of environmentalism.
Rachel Sykes, Jennifer Daly, and Anna Maguire Elliot
The introduction to New Perspectives on Marilynne Robinson highlights the new and varied contemporary and critical contexts in which this noted author might be read. Introducing how we might read Robinson as an author of the ‘now’, the editors discuss her fiction’s reimagining of rural histories through constructions of race, gender, and the failures of white allyship, and her nonfiction’s focus on the conservative politics of the neoliberal university, nuclear power and the governmental dumping of nuclear waste, issues of American democracy and the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, and the state of political thought in the contemporary United States.
Archive fever and the Gilead novels of Marilynne Robinson
Daniel Robert King
This essay draws on critical debates around archives to examine the creation and destruction of written histories in the work of Marilynne Robinson. Using the critical work of Jacques Derrida, Helen Freshwater, and Janine Utell, the essay examines what Derrida would term Ames's mal d'archive, his archive fever. If Gilead is a letter that John Ames writes as ‘a reasonably candid testament to [his] better self’, it is also a way to be remembered by his son. Yet over the course of Gilead, letters, sermons, and books are burned, buried, and destroyed by flood. Focusing primarily on Ames in Gilead, this essay argues that what Ames fears, what motivates his decision to write his long letter, is the deadening, totalising force of the archive, as he struggles to maintain his own identity against the inevitability of being remembered.
Best known for a trilogy of historical novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, Marilynne Robinson is a prolific essayist, teacher, and public speaker, routinely celebrated as a singular author of contemporary American fiction. This collection intervenes in the author’s growing critical reputation, pointing to new and exciting links between the author, the historical settings of her novels, and the contemporary themes of her fictional, educational, and theoretical work. Touching on ongoing debates in race, gender, and environmental politics, as well as education, democracy, and the state of critical theory, New Perspectives on Marilynne Robinson demonstrates the wider secular and popular impact of the author’s work, building on the largely theological focus of previous criticism to suggest new and innovative interpretations of her oeuvre. The collection’s four sections are dedicated to: Robinson’s use of form and style; her exploration of the relationship between gender and the environment; her use of history and the intersection of race, rights, and religion in her work; and a discussion of Robinson and her contemporaries. As such, the collection argues for a reconsideration of Robinson within the field of American and English Studies, by bringing together 16 new, vibrant, and undoubtedly contemporary analyses of her work. Authors include: Bridget Bennett, Richard King, Sarah Churchwell, Jack Baker, Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo, Daniel King, Anna Maguire Elliott, Makayla Steiner, Lucy Clarke, Christopher Lloyd, Tessa Roynon, Alexander Engebretson, Emily Hammerton-Barry, Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, Kathryn E. Engebretson, Paul Jenner, and Rachel Sykes."