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."
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.
Marilynne Robinson’s essays and the crisis of mainline Protestantism
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.
The chapter opens by contemplating the Victorian debate as to whether Shakespeare’s grave should be opened in order to ascertain not merely the presence of his body but also the conformation of his skull. The significance of that skull is outlined with reference to Wilkie Collins’s novella Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, which emphasises the role that the bust of the dramatist in the parish church of Stratford-on-Avon plays in the myth of Shakespeare’s genius. Other portraits of the Bard are then highlighted as the focus of phrenological speculation, and the connections between physiognomy, phrenology and genius are made further with reference to the actual exhumation of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, during which an authorised cast of his skull was taken specifically for phrenological analysis. Having established the presence of phrenology in a popular culture that proceeds far beyond medicine, the remainder of the chapter outlines the basic tenets of the pseudoscience, identifies the central protagonists of its early years in Britain and describes the chapters which follow.
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.
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.
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.