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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.

in Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson and Stanley Cavell
Paul Jenner

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’.

in Marilynne Robinson
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William Hughes

The book ends with a coda which illustrates and analyses the enduring presence of phrenological imagery within a culture that retains little memory of the theory itself. Towards the close of his presidency, Donald Trump was on several occasions mocked by political cartoonists who purported to analyse and explain his behaviour and aspirations by mapping these out upon a recognisable phrenological map of his profile. The implications of this act demonstrate the continued presence of phrenology in a contemporary culture very different to that in which the pseudoscience originated.

in The dome of thought
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William Hughes

The concluding chapter examines the persistence of phrenology into the twentieth century, and the relative success of a small number of practitioners in Britain who maintained not merely a programme of instruction but also continued to offer consultations and cranial analysis. The chapter contemplates the significance of the British Phrenological Society which was founded by Lorenzo Fowler in 1886 and which survived until 1967. The activities, pedagogical programme and publications of the society are acknowledged, as is the ostensible value of the endorsement it provided to practitioners through the status of membership or fellowship signified by postnomial letters. The effective cessation of phrenological practice in the decades that followed the society’s dissolution is noted.

in The dome of thought
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Phrenology and the nineteenth-century popular imagination
Author: William Hughes

The dome of thought examines how phrenology and phrenologists were represented in British daily newspapers, popular magazines and serious journals from the opening of the nineteenth century to its conclusion, before tracing the residual influence of the pseudoscience across the twentieth century and, surprisingly, into the second decade of the twenty-first century. The book opens with a consideration of how phrenology was deployed to explain literary celebrity in the Victorian period with particular attention being directed to the interpretation of the skulls of William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. The book then continues by recalling the manner in which the doctrine of phrenology was introduced to British culture in the early nineteenth century, and the manner in which the Continental activities of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Gasper Spurzheim were reported. The lecture tour of Britain and Ireland subsequently undertaken by Spurzheim is discussed, and the book reassess the controversy which surrounded his encounter with the Scottish medical establishment in 1816. Spurzheim’s influence upon George Combe, the Scottish lawyer who was the popular face of British phrenology for much of the century, is then considered, as is the interface of phrenological thought with mesmerism in the work of John Elliotson. The final chapter of the book surveys the declining years of speculative and theoretical phrenology and its transformation into a primarily commercial activity under the particular influence of the American Fowler brothers. The conclusion surveys phrenology in the twentieth century, and its resurgence in political satires directed against Donald Trump.

Bereavement, time, and home spaces in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Home
Lucy Clarke

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.

in Marilynne Robinson
Christopher Lloyd

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.

in Marilynne Robinson
Phrenology in Britain during the first decade of the nineteenth century
William Hughes

The origins of phrenology are Continental rather than British. The opening chapter therefore surveys the earliest theories of an identifiable phrenology – those formulated by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall in Vienna – as they were reported in the British press. The religious controversy surrounding Gall’s studies, which were ostensibly associated with a form of secularism incompatible with Roman Catholic spirituality, is noted for its prominence in British popular reportage, where authors were quick to avail themselves of the opportunity to enjoin in xenophobic mockery. Gall’s extensive tour of Europe, which followed the apparently hostile reception by the Austrian authorities, is then considered, and hitherto unreprinted reports of the doctor’s earliest phrenological experiments are quoted and analysed. These include both favourable accounts and others which dismissed phrenology as a fad already in decline, and thus not likely to attract any following in Britain. The possibility of Gall travelling to Britain, and of his analysing the crania of the upper classes, was similarly the subject of mocking journalism. The chapter reproduces some of the earliest graphic images of the phrenological model of the skull and discusses and explains the significance of the earliest tabulation of the phrenological organs to appear in the English language. Notably, the fluid and developing nature of the phrenological map of character is acknowledged, and the debate about the function and location of different organs is played out in the popular press. This is an important chapter as it outlines the earliest incarnation of phrenology in anglophone culture.

in The dome of thought
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A little different every time' - Accumulation and repetition in Jack
Rachel Sykes

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.

in Marilynne Robinson
Civil rights, civil war, and radical transformation in Home and Gilead
Tessa Roynon

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.

in Marilynne Robinson