At 'Home' With the Past
In Life and In Her Novels, Marilynne Robinson Looks Back to Find Meaning

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

IOWA CITY

If you want to understand how different Marilynne Robinson is from other contemporary novelists -- how different, in fact, from most contemporary human beings -- all you need to do is walk into her dining room.

"These are my favorite books in here," says the author of "Housekeeping," "Gilead" and the recently published "Home" as she motions toward the bookcase that fills one end of the small space. "See, look: Calvin, Calvin, Calvin."

Sure enough, here are the multivolume "Commentaries" of the great 16th-century Protestant theologian, whom Robinson considers one of the most falsely caricatured figures in history. Here are the two volumes of Calvin's "Institutes of the Christian Religion," without which she thinks you can't understand Herman Melville. Surrounding these are a multitude of other theological and educational works, few less than a century old.

"Look at this," she says, flipping through the pages of a densely illustrated family Bible picked up in an antiques store. She points to a clutch of McGuffey Readers, then to "one of my treasures," a 19th-century biographical encyclopedia filled with "people that have dropped out of history."

There's not a modern novel in sight, though if you were to wander into the living room, you'd find a few on the coffee table. Robinson hasn't read them.

"I'm always reading all this other crazy stuff."

As a constant reader growing up in Idaho in the 1940s and '50s, she was obsessed with, among other things, the works of Edgar Allan Poe. "You can't believe how much Poe poetry I can recite to this day," she says now.

A demonstration is requested. She responds with the opening lines of "Alone":

From childhood's hour I have not been

As others were; I have not seen

As others saw; I could not bring

My passions from the common spring.

Poe wrote these lines in 1830. But they could just as easily have been written by Marilynne Robinson in 2008.

* * *

She doesn't look like a fiercely determined person who declines to play by the rules of the modern world, literary or otherwise. But appearances here -- as with Robinson's modest-seeming but deeply original fiction -- are deceiving.

A tall woman of 64 with a handsome, lined face, she curls forward on the living room couch, an unusually calm poodle at her side. She smiles often and laughs easily, frequently at her own expense.

"I'm not the right person to be driving a car," she says, explaining why she doesn't. "My mind wanders, shall we say." Laughter. A bit later, she's asked about the relative importance in her work of voice and character, as opposed to plot.

"Plot. Not a word I use," she says. "Some people think it's not a concept I have."

This is not entirely true, of course. She managed to work suicide, a train wreck, adolescent rebellion and a climactic fire into "Housekeeping," the now-classic novel that introduced her to the world in 1981, though to list the elements that way is to misrepresent the book's eerie quietness. And in "Gilead," the Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel Robinson published in 2004 -- more later on that two-decade gap -- she grafted a violent branch of the 19th-century conflict over slavery onto what was otherwise a small-town story set in the 1950s.

"One feels touched with grace just to read it," wrote Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. "Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction," wrote James Wood in the New York Times.

Her new book, which last week was named a finalist for the National Book Award, is quietly unusual as well.

Set in precisely the same time and locale as "Gilead," it revisits characters the author found herself unwilling to give up. Yet it is not a sequel. With different people's stories moved to center stage, "Home" manages to be both intertwined with its predecessor and a work that stands alone.

Speaking of unusual: Try to imagine another 21st-century writer beginning a crucial scene in each of two novels by having a character say: "Reverend Ames, I'd like to know your views on the doctrine of predestination."

"I think that's a very thorny problem!" Robinson says, and laughs.

In Christian theology, predestination is the idea -- not universally accepted -- that God has foreordained all human fates, including damnation and salvation. The obvious problem with it is that it undermines the concept of free will. But "the problem with any other construct," as Robinson explains, "is that it limits the power of God."

No easy answers here -- and never mind the difficulty of making compelling fiction out of theological argument.

Which somehow Robinson does.

The Rev. John Ames, a Congregational minister, is the narrator of "Gilead." The word that most easily describes him is "good." The man who asks the predestination question is another matter entirely.

Jack Boughton is the wayward, drunken son of Ames's closest friend. Jack's lifelong alienation from his devout parents and good-citizen siblings, all of whom love him dearly, dominates the narrative in "Home." At the time he asks his question, he has returned after a 20-year absence: worn, guilt-ridden, desperate for redemption.

The question hangs in the air awhile. Bluntly, Jack rephrases it: "My question is, are there people who are simply born evil, live evil lives, and then go to hell?"

"Scripture," Ames says, "is not really clear on that point."

Helpful.

But Robinson's novel is about more than just Jack. It is also the story of his quiet sister, Glory, herself returned home after "failing to take hold in the world." Seemingly invisible to Ames and her own father, she may be the strongest character in the book.

"I think of her as a very strong character," Robinson says, noting that women in mid-20th-century America had to "create a positive existence out of circumstances that didn't always make it easy."

Glory is 38 when the action of "Home" takes place. Robinson was 37 when she published "Housekeeping." Their life stories are very different. Still, it's possible to hear a hint of autobiography in Robinson's words.

'My Own Dialect'

One time when she was around 4 years old, Robinson was sitting on her father's knee, listening to someone praise her older brother for something. "My father said, 'Marilynne can do that, too,' " she recalls. "And whoever it was said, 'Yeah, but David's really exceptional.' And my father said, 'She can do anything she sets her mind to.' "

She thought, "Oh -- what interesting news!"

This was in Idaho, where her father worked for a lumber company. They lived in "quite an unpopulated place" near Lake Pend Oreille, a model for the lake that figures strongly in "Housekeeping." She and her brother used to sleep sometimes on an open porch at her grandparents' house, where "there was nothing around us but mountains and woods. Nothing. No other sound, no other light, nothing.

"The way that mountains sound in a wind, you know, it's impossible not to feel that you are surrounded by deeply living things."

In this wild isolation, she read whatever she could get her hands on: popular novels as well as Poe, Dickens, Twain and Shakespeare. "Especially in bad weather, I would sneak away and write something about 'The Tempest.' "

In college at Pembroke, then the women's arm of Brown, a roommate dared her to take a writing class from postmodernist John Hawkes. "She did me a big favor," Robinson says, because Hawkes proved an encouraging reader of her distinctly pre-modern writing.

Later she flirted with the idea of divinity school. But to a woman, in those days, that looked like "the royal road to marginalization," so she stuck to literature. At the University of Washington, she wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare's early history plays and started playing around with fiction.

Entirely on her own terms.

"I wrote 'Housekeeping' thinking that I was writing an unpublishable book, and that gave me an enormous amount of latitude," she says. "And I was just interested in things like what can you do with an extended metaphor, you know?"

She wanted to "step outside what seemed to me to be the conventional language and the conventional posture of contemporary books." She wrote from the landscape she knew, where "I could make weather and vegetation and so on into my own dialect."

After all, "there was nobody else in those woods."

After grad school, married, with two sons, Robinson found herself in western Massachusetts, where her husband was teaching. She asked a writer friend named John Clayton to look at a manuscript.

Clayton assumed it would be an amateur job. But what he read, he says, was "this incredible book" unlike any modern novel he knew. He sent it to his agent, Ellen Levine.

"I remember reading it and sort of catching my breath," Levine recalls. She sold it to Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

"I think they published 3,000 copies of the first edition," Robinson says. But a rave by then-New York Times critic Anatole Broyard gave it a boost, and a paperback sale kept it in print. "Housekeeping" is still selling today.

There wouldn't be another Robinson novel for 23 years.

What happened? Well, there was motherhood, a divorce, a steady job. (In 1989, Robinson accepted a teaching position at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She's still there.) There was at least one false start on a novel. And there were two nonfiction books, each as unusual as Robinson's fiction.

Living for a time in England, she found herself "angry to the depths of my soul" to learn that a nuclear complex there had turned the Irish Sea into a dumping ground for plutonium. In "Mother Country," she asked how this came to be.

"If I could have written only one book in my life," she says, "that would be the book."

Next came "The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought," though essays against modern thought is what they really are. It was here that Robinson undertook to refute the caricature of Calvin as a gloomy, intolerant fanatic.

But the root cause of the two-decade fiction gap may be that Robinson -- having found a unique voice for "Housekeeping" -- had trouble escaping it. "I didn't want to be one voice," she says. Yet she didn't want to sound like her contemporaries, either.

Her solution was to read herself out of modernity.

"I read about the Albigensians, everything in the world," she says, referring to a persecuted sect in medieval France, "simply to create another sort of ecology in my brain." Meanwhile, after moving to Iowa, she started reading about the Midwest. "I can't stand to be in a place that I don't feel I know a history about," she says.

One day, while writing something she wasn't happy with, she found herself channeling an old minister. Finally, she had a novel on her hands. She set it in a town she called Gilead.

Her reading supplied a model: a sleepy southwest Iowa community with a buried, fiery past.

A 'Mythic Home'

Drive toward Tabor, Iowa, on a fine September day and you'll pass rolling fields of corn with golden highlights brought out by the morning sun. In town, you'll notice a bar called Glory Daze on a main street that has seen better times. A few blocks away sits a tiny old white house where Wanda Ewalt, keeper of Tabor's history, is waiting to show you around.

The house belonged to the Rev. John Todd, who helped found Tabor in 1853. A Congregational minister, he was accompanied by other settlers from Oberlin, Ohio, a hotbed of abolitionist fervor. Ewalt points to a portrait of the white-bearded Todd and to an unappetizing lump of hardtack he brought back from his Civil War service.

Then she takes you down to the dirt-floored, cobweb-filled basement where Todd stashed 200 Sharps rifles intended for use by anti-slavery forces in Kansas.

Robinson never took a Todd House tour. One of her sons drove her to Tabor, but she didn't manage to hook up with Ewalt. What she remembers is "the sand that blows across the road and the New England-style green in front of Todd's house and the kind of sleepy, forgotten town that lives on top of all this archaeology of radicalism."

Literally on top: At a convenience store, someone told her about the tunnels built to move escaping slaves from building to building as they passed through Tabor on the underground railroad.

Robinson admires the abolitionists as much as any people in history, and in "Gilead" she created a fictional version of Todd. "Home," by contrast, appears to downplay the struggle for racial justice as a theme. It seems more focused on individual human frailty of the kind personified by Jack Boughton, with his fear that damnation, for him, might be predestined.

Yet here's where the lost "archaeology of radicalism" comes in.

For Jack has fathered a child with a black woman he truly loves. He rests his fading hopes on reconnecting with them. But the specifics of these hopes would so disturb his loving, Christian father -- who also happens to be a classic 1950s Northern racist -- that Jack can't confide in him.

"Oh, it's terrible to interpret your own writing," Robinson says, then proceeds to do just that.

"If Jack could come home and be home, it would mean that in a certain way he would have experienced a restoration of himself." Instead, "this mythic home for him is one that excludes his own family."

Given the town's history, this should not be true. But the idealism of its founders -- who believed not just in ending slavery but in creating a society where the races were truly equal -- is gone. That's a social failure, not a personal one, and it lends the Obama sign in Robinson's window a bit more resonance than it might have for a voter less immersed in the past.

What's next for Robinson?

Well, there's a series of lectures on "how we talk about the mind" to be given this spring at Yale. There's a book about the Old Testament that she put aside to write "Home." If an idea for a new novel should strike her, she will write it.

If and when she does, there's one thing you can be sure of: She won't bring it from any common spring.

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