October 10, 2020

THE CULTURE WARS ARE A ROUT:

Marilynne Robinson's Essential American Stories: The author of "Housekeeping," "Gilead," and, now, "Jack" looks to history not just for the origins of America's ailments but for their remedy, too. (Casey Cep, September 25, 2020, The New Yorker)

It is the only one left. A hundred years ago, Robert Frost bought a ninety-acre farm near South Shaftsbury, Vermont; it came with an old stone house and a pair of barns, but he also wanted an orchard, so he planted hundreds of apple trees. Time and wind and winter storms have had their way with them, and today only one remains.

Earlier this summer, Marilynne Robinson followed a path through the fallow field that used to be Frost's orchard, then looked for a long time at the last of his plantings. She does not generally like visiting the houses of writers gone from this world. "They feel like mausoleums," she says. "I prefer to think of my favorite writers off somewhere writing." Because of the pandemic, though, it had been months since she had left her summer house, by a lake in Saratoga Springs, so she was open to an adventure. She ambled around the farmhouse and its grounds, looking at Frost's books and through his windows, studying his barns, recalling her grandfather's flower gardens while photographing the poet's, and admiring a bronze statue of Frost before posing obligingly beside it.

But it was the apple tree that seemed particularly charged in Robinson's presence. More trunk than tree, barren except for a single branch with a few withered attempts at fruit, its shadow was barely longer than hers. As a writer, Robinson is a direct descendant of Frost, carrying on his tradition of careful, democratic observations of this country's landscapes and its people, perpetually keeping one eye on the eternal and the other on the everyday. As a Calvinist, she has spent a lot of her life thinking about apple trees.

This one seemed very far from Eden, but Robinson is accustomed to tending gardens that others have forsaken. She has devoted her life to reconsidering figures whom history has seen fit to forget or malign, and recovering ideas long misinterpreted or neglected. Her writing is best understood as a grand project of restoration, aesthetic as well as political, which she has undertaken in the past four decades in six works of nonfiction and five novels, including a new one this fall. "Jack" is the fourth novel in Robinson's Gilead series, an intergenerational saga of race, religion, family, and forgiveness centered on a small Iowa town. But it is not accurate to call it a sequel or a prequel. Rather, this book and the others--"Gilead," "Home," and "Lila"--are more like the Gospels, telling the same story four different ways.

Although Robinson began her career by writing a book she believed was unpublishable, and has persisted in writing books she believes are unfashionable, she has earned the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, the praise of Presidents and archbishops, and an audience as devoted to her work as mystics are to visions. At seventy-six, she is still trying to convince the rest of us that her habit of looking backward isn't retrograde but radical, and that this country's history, so often seen now as the source of our discontents, contains their remedy, too.

Hardly surprising that the greatest living American novelist is a Puritan.

Posted by at October 10, 2020 8:05 AM

  

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