Illuminating the Promise and the Paradox of the American Story

On The Enduring Resonance of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead series

In awaiting the publication of Jack, the latest novel in Marilynne Robinson’s beloved Gilead series, we asked some of FSG’s younger writers to say a few words about how Marilynne’s fiction has resonated in their own lives and work. The depth and acuity of their responses testify to the power of Marilynne’s vision to illuminate the dilemmas and promise of this moment, seen against the background of the paradoxes that have always been fundamental to the American story.
Jonathan Galassi, President of FSG and Marilynne Robinson’s editor

Revelation & Grief

I sat at a table with Marilynne Robinson once, at the National Book Awards in 2014, but I didn’t speak to her. The only sounds I’d have been likely to make were some sort of howl. I clamped my mouth shut, thinking about the many lost weirdos who’d surely, over the years, chased Robinson down and confessed to her their urge to paddle sinking boats, inhabit ghost towns, and nest in dead libraries. Like Robinson, I’m from Idaho, and the thought that someone else from Idaho had miraculously published a novel in which women lived lives of domestic ambivalence and glittering transience was catalyzing. I’d read a lot of books in which men’s lives were poetically fine-toothed, but books about women that reckoned with the lure of the lonesome, the temptations of discomfort and departure? Not so much.

I’d read a lot of books in which men’s lives were poetically fine-toothed, but books about women that reckoned with the lure of the lonesome, the temptations of discomfort and departure? Not so much.

The Gilead books, though set in Iowa, feel as Idahoan to me as Housekeeping does. If you’re from Idaho, you know that trees and trains will try to take you away from even well-kept houses, that there are always going to be disputes, whether they involve property borders or the borders between good and evil. A wry resignation to the dig—into details, landmasses, or information—is part of the Idaho character, for better or worse. The Gilead novels, though very different from Housekeeping, and published in a different time, over the first two decades of the 21st century, reflect the perils of refusing, as a culture, to acknowledge the brutal complexity of American history. It isn’t possible to achieve comfort and peace—or it shouldn’t be—when there is, still, neither equality nor justice in a society. Many of Robinson’s characters roam in discomfort or abide in loneliness, despite significant efforts to reckon with their souls. Robinson’s fiction has always been about the mandate to examine: to revel in and grieve for the world: dust, fog, bones, and blood. Gilead was embraced as a meditative and restorative novel, but as the quartet expands, we can see that one man’s meditation, and even goodness, can easily be another’s estrangement and crisis. Here we are, in the America of 2020, hopefully learning some of the lessons Robinson’s been teaching for forty years.

—Maria Dahvana Headley, author of Beowulf: A New Translation

Past & Present

In Marilynne Robinson’s novels, I see truths that are familiar to me as a son of Latin American immigrants. The Midwestern communities where the Gilead trilogy unfolds are defined by the sorrows of poverty, and the hopes of migration and reinvention. So, we’re not really that different, after all, we Americans. We’re all shaped by the violence and the resistance in our histories, and by the “sacred mysteries” of our pain: this is as true in rural Kansas as it is in East Los Angeles or The Bronx. I marvel at her ability to create so many lyrical and transcendent moments from the lives of her characters, and at the deep spirituality and emotional richness of those lives. Her work begins in a seemingly forgotten past, but speaks so powerfully to the here and now of our divided country.

—Héctor Tobar, author of The Last Great Road Bum

The Private & The Planetary

There is a particular passage in Gilead—“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life”—that strikes me as central to Marilynne Robinson’s project. The importance—the artistic, human, and spiritual importance—of that silent and invisible life. Perhaps it is this slice of existence that is Robinson’s specialty. The gradual-yet-transformative movements of a consciousness over time. The private ripples that can remake a heart. With the much-anticipated arrival of Jack, the Gilead project now spans four novels, creating a landscape that is planetary in scope and depth. The Gilead novels have allowed us an uncommonly sensitive and perceptive window into the silent and invisible lives of this community’s inhabitants, their joys and anguishes and longings, their corruptions and graces. Faulkner once made a case for writers concerning themselves with “the old verities and truths of the heart,” a mandate Robinson has fulfilled again and again with these novels, writing as she does in the direction of the everlasting, the eternal.

—Laura van den Berg, author of I Hold a Wolf by the Ears

Devotion & Doubt

John Ames, the narrator of Gilead, the first installment in Robinson’s soon-to-be quartet, is my favorite approximation for what it must be like to believe in God, or at least to the way I might like to believe. In the church of John Ames’s mind, there’s room for devotion, confusion, loss, doubt, a felicity for quoting Augustine. It’s because of his faith, I think, that he’s able to write so breezily in the face of death, composing a letter for the seven year-old son he’ll leave behind. That said, I’ve always recognized more of myself in his counterpoint, the neglectful, prodigal Jack.

We’ve armored ourselves against the worst. And who could blame us, after the year we’ve had? It would seem the time is ripe for us Jacks.

In other words, I love the Gilead series for precisely those reasons it was first hailed as an anomaly back in 2004, qualities (sincerity, religiosity, domesticity, a flare for archetypes) that make it even more anomalous today, when the most salient elements of contemporary fiction are self-awareness and shock and disaster, especially self-awareness in the face of disaster. We’ve armored ourselves against the worst. And who could blame us, after the year we’ve had? It would seem the time is ripe for us Jacks.

—Jessi Jezewska Stevens, author of The Exhibition of Persephone Q

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Jack, Lila, Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and the nonfiction books, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.