By Will Joyner
Long ago, at a university well known for allowing an undergraduate great freedom in plotting an academic trajectory, I resided as a major in two departments rather than one. Actually, “resided” is the wrong word, because I felt at home in neither department—American history or religious studies—and instead presented myself in class after class as an outside agitator for the one true cause, literature.
My reasoning—or rationalization—went something like this:
American history, to the dismay of even most of my history professors, was then in thrall to cliometrics, represented most notoriously by Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross, a book that used statistical analysis to claim that American slavery had, in fact, been an economically sound institution. And religious studies, in a parallel way, was then broadly under the influence of the “philosophy of religion,” which had the odd effect of transforming religion students into faux mathematicians, sketching hieroglyphic-like proofs.
Why not, I half-consciously said to myself, work at gaining the academic skills emphasized by those two distinguished departments, while insinuating what I believed to be the more valid artistic truths of fiction and poetry? At the same time, I figured, I could also take courses in English and comparative literature without having to be indoctrinated officially into the brotherhood of what was then a baffling, transitional mishmash of New Criticism and semiotics.
The results of this over-ambitious plan were various and certainly not all embarrassing. I did graduate—better equipped than I realized at the time—with the interpretive and research savvy needed to forge ahead in professional life. On the other hand, I did also go through my junior and senior years as a natural target for the barbs of certain of my undergraduate colleagues. These were the kind of future doctoral candidates who, in search of historical truth, sniffed at giving, for example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the same consideration as a cache of yellowed documents—or, in the case of religious studies, tended to shrug at the works of Herbert, Blake, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner as being “great” perhaps, but too fabricated, too emotional to be of much use as artifacts of knowledge.
I have long since realized that although those pedantic classmates of mine were sadly oblivious to the insight to be found within lyrical beauty, my position was as unstable as theirs. If one is very lucky, truth—to be believed and lived by—will be found, but it darts elusively across the moral, spiritual, social, political, cultural, and, yes, academic categories. Literature is no more the only place to go looking for it than science or everyday experience is.
All of that said, I have lately felt some of my old undergraduate defensiveness on the part of fiction—especially fiction explicitly tied to religion—as I’ve read and re-read reactions to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, which has just won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Since it appeared last fall, the book has provoked one of the oddest combinations of critical adulation and downright puzzlement that I can recall—from a talented bunch of reviewers not often thrown off guard. Simply put, practically everybody agrees that Gilead is a wonderful, even classic literary creation—like Robinson’s Housekeeping of 25 years ago—but practically no one feels fully comfortable with the new book’s status as both a novel and a genuine (real) expression of spiritual understanding, spiritual belief, spiritual truth. And that critical uncertainty—or embarrassment—is worth exploring, if only to fill out the questions we will all continue to have about what’s crucial to read and why.
As many of you will already know, Gilead is a first-person testament, set down by an ailing 76-year-old Congregationalist minister, John Ames. This testament—on the wonders and woes of life, and on how well or not Ames has lived as a Christian—is framed as a meandering future-letter-from-the-grave for his young son, the child of a late second marriage. The time is 1956; the setting is Gilead, Iowa, a small town near the Kansas border that in the 1850s served as a haven for the marauding abolitionist John Brown. Ranging back into John Ames’s vivid memory, the cast of characters includes the long-departed: his pastor grandfather, a fervent, even ruthless member of Brown’s band; his pastor father, an equally fervent pacifist; his first wife and child, who perished in childbirth. And amid Ames’s spiritual accounting, in lovely sidelong observations of the transient everyday, the cast also includes: his second wife, Lila, who is some 30 years younger than he; their adored 7-year-old son; Ames’s lifelong best friend, Boughton, a Presbyterian minister also in the process of dying; and Boughton’s prodigal son, John Ames Boughton, a namesake baptized by Ames but never liked by him, who blows into town after years away, bringing to Gilead its small measure of traditional fictive tension.
The least conflicted of the reviews of Gilead seem to accept Ames’s spiritual journey—and a spiritual way of being in the world in a novel—as natural, and concentrate on Robinson’s deceptively simple language and her achievement in making Ames’s voice such an original portrayal of human perception. “If he begins simply passing on advice and family history,” writes Thomas Gardner in Books & Culture, “he ends having passed on a sense of consciousness itself, its power and its limits, its strange, almost wordless exhilarations.” And Michael Dirda in The Washington Post: Gilead is “written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.”
In contrast, despite having just as much praise for Robinson and her work—and while continuing to prove himself probably the most astute literary critic in regard to religion—James Wood, writing in The New York Times Book Review, sounds vaguely put out with Gilead. Its religious imagery and ideas and tone of authentic Christian witness are fine with him, but he’s wary of considering it a true novel. On one tack, he displays this unease in a humorous vein: “Those who, like this reader, feel that novels—especially novels about clergymen—are best when secular, comic and social, may need a few pages to get over the lack of these elements.” More important, he goes on to estimate Robinson very highly as theologian as much as novelist, and posits that Gilead is more in line with her 1998 book of essays, The Death of Adam, than with Housekeeping. “It is a mind,” Wood writes of Robinson’s, “as religious as it is literary—perhaps more religious than literary—in which silence is itself a quality, and in which the space around words may be full of noises.”
To his credit, it doesn’t much matter for Wood in the end that Gilead doesn’t fit squarely into his novel cubbyhole. The book is, for him, a worthy accomplishment as poetic expression in the tradition of Herbert and Donne, or as inspired, metaphysical, bounds-crossing prose in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville. For the novelist Mona Simpson, writing in The Atlantic, however, it matters a great deal. Clearly not as comfortable as Wood with religious language or a religious stance, she is very bothered that she can’t finally consider Gilead truly a novel, especially so in comparison with Housekeeping. “Marilynne Robinson obviously can write an extraordinary novel,” Simpson writes. “Gilead raises the question of whether she really still wishes to. One hesitates to define Gilead exactly as a novel. It is a beautiful book of ideas.”
As an estimable novelist herself, Simpson sounds as if, above all, she misses Robinson as a comrade-in-craft. “It is as if Robinson has lost the taste for plot,” she writes at one point. And, at another point, she says of Gilead: “Because it lacks the mess of life poking up from the bottom, one is also left without the urgency of fiction.”
I would strongly disagree that Gilead lacks the “mess of life,” plot, or, certainly, “the urgency of fiction.” My best guess is that Simpson is so distrustful of Ames’s voice as a still-searching believer, rather than one falsely propped by certainty, that she can’t quite hear the urgency that’s there in virtually each sentence, or want to admit that his indirect commentary on the small dramas around him constitute sufficient engagement for Fiction with a capital F.
What she refers to as Ames’s “abstract theological rumination” is exactly what I would say Ames’s spiritual reflections are not; instead, he consistently tries to indicate how his hard-won theological wisdom is, indeed, life wisdom, accessible but always mysterious to all. Here he is on baptism, for example: “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. . . . The sensation of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.”
Like Simpson, Lee Siegel, writing in New York, praises Robinson’s prose, but finds the characters in Gilead too good, too loving and forgiving, to be believable. “Which is to say,” Siegel writes, “that these people finally seem sprung from some moral vanity, some secret disdain for their flesh-and-blood particularity. They are not even convincing as saints, since neither they nor the world suffer on account of their saintliness.” Again, this sort of judgment appears to fly, bafflingly, in the face of what’s on the pages of Gilead. No character is portrayed as a saint; all suffer, albeit it in the deep, often-quiet ways of time passing year by year. And John Ames, the primary character joins the best first-person narrators of American literature—Ishmael, Huck Finn, Nick Carraway, and Holden Caulfield—in revealing an active part in the world’s suffering. “I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became,” Ames says, “laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”
Siegel goes the furthest of Gilead‘s reviewers in drawing a provocative line in the sand in regard to fiction writing and religious belief. “You can appreciate and admire Marilynne Robinson’s beautifully evoked novel if you don’t share her religious beliefs,” Siegel writes. “You can even be moved by it. But unless you are a believing Christian with strong fundamentalist leanings, you cannot truly understand Gilead.”
These words, more than any others written about Gilead, summoned back into consciousness my immature college politicking for literature as a cause or belief system. The worst mistake I made back then was not to expect too much of literature. Quite to the contrary, it was to expect too little, to delimit literature—and to delimit history, or religious studies, or science, as realms of truth-seeking. Siegel’s statement above is wrong on many levels—”fundamentalist,” for instance, is just plain misused. It is most importantly wrong, however, because it presumes to understand what “understand” means for believer and nonbeliever alike, and therefore to rob belief and nonbelief alike of their rich, complicated humanness.
But John Ames of Gilead—Christian, unpredictable Christian—should have the last word on this point: “In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
Will Joyner is editor of the Bulletin.