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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.

in Marilynne Robinson
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.

in Marilynne Robinson
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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."

Disturbance of the epistemological conventions of the marriage plot in Lila
Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo

The relationship between epistemology and power is one that underlies much of the quintessential form of the female Bildungsroman: the marriage plot. Drawing on theorists from Michel Foucault to Miranda Fricker, this essay argues that Robinson’s third Gilead novel, Lila, challenges epistemic injustice, a challenge rooted in the generic conventions of the androcentric American Bildungsroman tradition, as well as the transcendentalist philosophy that informs it. Indeed, this essay reads Lila as a novel primarily about epistemology and power, arguing that the relationship between Lila and Ames dramatises the tension between his recognised, reified form of academic, book-bound learning, and her marginalised, discredited, and life-learnt knowledge. The exchanges they have throughout the novel not only highlight how these forms of knowledge are linked to power, class, and gender, but also question and undermine such a hierarchy.

in Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s essays and the crisis of mainline Protestantism
Alex Engebretson

This essay examines Robinson’s imagination of American church history and her interventions into current church politics. In her view, recent American church history is defined by the tension between the Protestant mainline and evangelicalism. The two key essays for the expression of this view – “Onward Christian Liberals” and “Credo” – are both defences of liberal Protestantism, with its spirituality of uncertainty and its political emphasis on social justice, and critical of the evangelical focus on personal conversion and neoliberal political associations. In The Death of Adam and, more recently, The Givenness of Things, Robinson worries over ‘the effect of marginalising the liberal churches and elevating fundamentalism to the status of essential Christianity’, curiously blaming the Protestant mainline for the decline of the mainline itself. This essay therefore foregrounds Robinson’s questioning of the relationship between liberal churches and their congregation, asking questions about the history and politics of the American church to shed light on its centrality to Robinson’s political imagination.

in Marilynne Robinson
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The spectre of race in Gilead and Home
Emily Hammerton-Barry

Building on the ideas of Jacques Derrida, this essay explores how the unseen haunts the landscape of Robinson’s novels, Gilead and Home, making the reader bear witness to a politics of absence figured as racial. The negotiation between the visible and invisible, the material and the metaphysical enables Robinson to construct a radical reimagining of the history of the Midwestern landscape in her narratives. Drawing on an original, unpublished interview with Robinson, this chapter argues that what is at stake in reimagining the landscape of Iowa in the Civil War from the perspective of those on the cusp of the civil rights movement is the ability to remember and learn from history. For Jack, in particular, the landscape of Gilead is inscribed with his personal hopes and desires for his loved ones writ large in the history of his hometown and region; his alienation is one that stems in part from a struggle to feel at home in a nation that denies them existential value.

in Marilynne Robinson
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A critical conversation

These three, short contributions read Marilynne Robinson in her historical and contemporary contexts. Sarah Churchwell considers key concepts of justice and charity in relation to the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Richard H. King draws on Robinson’s theological and philosophical ideas – particularly goodness and grace – linking Robinson to fellow Christian writer, Flannery O’Connor. Bridget Bennett finally discusses the home in Home and its varied iterations throughout Robinson’s work.

in Marilynne Robinson
Jack Baker

Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction essays have sometimes been criticised for their doctrinaire certainty, as a juridical lexis and distinctly latinate syntax precipitate rhetorical closures at the expense of even-handedness. Yet, Robinson’s fiction adopts an entirely different register, in which highly stylised and visionary passages reveal coherences as much aesthetic as conceptual. This essay argues that the patterns of sense and suggestion in her novels emerge from the dense poetic textures of her prose. In this way, Robinson’s prose is ‘poetic’ not only in the vaguer senses of conjuring vivid images, or being pleasing to the ear. Housekeeping, for example, has several pivotal scenes in audible metrical cadences, lending a suppressed emotive charge to ostensibly routine occurrences. These local effects have broader implications for the structure of Robinson’s works. As this essay argues, rhythm, both at the level of the sentence, and in episodic narrative patterns, is central to Robinson’s fiction, as she shows how whole lives can be shaped by a simple object, a casual gesture, or a turn of phrase.

in Marilynne Robinson
Enacting feminine alterity in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping
Makayla C. Steiner

Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping is a novel about women that is frequently read as a feminist version of the American male Bildungsroman. Beginning with its very title, it highlights various methods by which feminine alterity may function to welcome the lonely and make the home a place of refuge, while also illuminating its theoretical limits. This essay argues that Robinson’s adult women characters both support and complicate the lived efficacy of feminine alterity as they attempt to create a welcoming home for two young orphans. It also demonstrates how Robinson’s aesthetic is the most successful enactment of feminine alterity because it makes ethical behaviour – what Levinas sometimes calls holiness – possible.

in Marilynne Robinson
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Questioning the classics
Domenico Lovascio

The conclusion briefly focuses on the recurrence of allusions to the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius in a number of plays in the canon as exemplifying Fletcher’s overall approach to classical texts, paradigms, and values as illustrated throughout the book, thereby rehearsing the main claims advanced in the previous chapters. It is argued that Fletcher’s predilection for the writings of the historians of Late Antiquity is decisive in shaping his bleak Roman world. The pessimistic vision of a disoriented imperial Rome that Fletcher offers in his dramatic works brings his Roman plays close to the Trauerspiel as described by Walter Benjamin, especially their grim depiction of a history devoid of purpose and transcendent meaning. Fletcher thus emerges as a more profound historical and political thinker than is traditionally acknowledged in scholarship. The conclusion also explores Fletcher’s irreverent classicism and his penchant for combining classical and contemporary texts and translations – as well as his fondness for using recently published books ¬– and how his approach to classical sources is connected with his broader attitude towards Roman exempla, especially as regards the women of classical antiquity, whose exemplarity he is not inclined to take at face value. Fletcher’s scepticism as to the passivity of the Roman women who populate his plays is also mirrored in his overall rejection of the precepts of stoicism, while his consistent de-solemnizing approach to the classics is even more excitingly exemplified by his treatment of Shakespeare as to all intents and purposes a classic.

in John Fletcher’s Rome