Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.
As a writer and a thinker, Marilynne Robinson sticks out for multiple reasons. First of all, there is the fact that she published her first book, Housekeeping, at 37 years of age (in 1980), and then did not publish another novel for 24 years. In today’s careerist publishing climate, those are in themselves noteworthy choices. The bespeak an author who doesn’t write until she wants to, who is moved not be considerations of fame or status but only by what she must say. In other words, a serious thinker.
Perhaps equally interesting is the fact that in the span between her novels she published two serious works of nonfiction, and, indeed, I would be sympathetic to the argument that in due time she may be seen as a better essayist than a novelist (which is not to slight her fiction). Needless to say, it is rare to see a writer who can so deeply master the competing aesthetics of the two forms, and whose mind is supple enough for its thoughts to fit equally well in different containers.
Robinson is also noteworthy because she loves to stick up for unfashionable intellectuals. She is perhaps the leading (and maybe only?) living proponent of the thought of John Calvin. She is a forceful advocate for the American Transcendentalists. She writes compelling essays about obscure books that probably no one other than Marilynne Robinson has read, and she makes you feel that you must read them. More broadly, she is passionately religious at a time when few liberal intellectuals are. Her writing seems almost custom made to cut against the received ideas of our era, yet she destroys this common wisdom in a way that is as calm as it is forceful, profound, and nearly impossible to argue with. She deeply and energetically believes in the humanist tradition, the gifts of the Enlightenment, the place of wonder (true wonder) in the human experience, and the dignity of all people.
Although I do believe an argument can be made for her essays as her greatest work, I am choosing her first novel, Housekeeping, as my pillar from her.
I happened to read Housekeeping at a time when I needed a book just like this, a book that could show me a different way of viewing the world than I had been viewing it. A book that wold refresh my perspective. Without knowing it, what I wanted was someone like Robinson to be a role model, and to embody another way of being. And reading Housekeeping, that was precisely what I got. Rarely does such a powerful book come along just when you need it, and so it was able to shape my thinking very deeply, and it has remained with me in the years since I first read it.
One of the things I like best about Marilynne Robinson is that as a novelist she talks about an America that exists—or maybe existed—but that is very little-known. It is an America that is conversant with our deepest traditions, our important intellectuals, our artists, the political doctrines we have contributed to civilization, the unique rights and ideals we as a people hold dear—yet, it is also a part of the country that was not widely known even in its time (the 1920s and ’30s), that knew very little of the United States beyond its own parochial limits, and that is all but forgotten now. Somehow, this obscure part of America that Robinson writes about delves into some of the most core aspects of what makes America a nation—that is, those things that transcend the competing and often irreconcilable ideologies, interest groups, and ethnicities that always seem to be on the verge of tearing this nation apart. The people in Housekeeping’s rural village, Fingerbone, feel profoundly American, despite the fact that they are marginalized, even forgotten, and have very little commerce with anything we might recognize as historic or important about the period. They are American characters, expertly drawn by a master with the pen.
In Housekeeping (as in all her work), Robinson talks about religion, but not in the sense of particulars so much as in the sense of the wonder, authority, beliefs, and values that make it an essential part of human society. Robinson’s depiction of religion is always pluralistic, even though her characters have very distinct religious beliefs and are not necessarily pluralistic themselves. She has an effortless way of showing how religion figures into everyday life, how it becomes part of the fabric of human character and social endeavor. In Housekeeping you see how it has crafted and informed human society, why it is essential—and inescapable—even for those who do not believe, or who have found other systems to take the place of religion in their lives. To read Robinson is to see where the practice of religion overlaps with the need for spirituality.
To an extent, these first two things exist in all of Robinson’s novels (although I would say they receive their best treatment here), and the thing that I would say is most particular to Housekeeping is its depiction of feminine difference. The book has women as its main characters, and in particular it centers on two women who will not fit in to society in the ways that women are expected to do so—and who ultimately pay the price for their behavior. In seeing how Robinson constructs their characters, the virtues and ambitions that animate their lives, their shortcomings, fears, needs, you see an image of femininity that stands not just apart from masculinity but also apart from prevalent ideas of what is female and even human. In short, it proposes an alternative, and it makes that alternative compelling and alive on the page. Of course, this vision of difference ties in to the title and the book’s key metaphor—housekeeping—just what it means to you and I, and what it could mean to us, and what it does mean to these strange individuals who see things otherwise that the rest of us.
We can talk about these things, and I do think they are the book’s originalities, but then there is simply the prose, which is unlike anything Marilynne Robinson—or probably anyone else—has ever written. Much of the book reads like a vision, a breathtaking performance that Robinson was destined to only produce once in her lifetime. It feels like a book from another period entirely—if you gave it to someone to read who did not know where it came from, they certainly would not guess the 1980s. There is nothing at all to date it other than the writing, and that itself, with its combinations of the Biblical and the modernist and the pastoral, with its currents of thought from all throughout Western history, is undatable.