a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Love them while you can: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 31st, 2009

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

— from “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

“Gilead” is that all too rare thing — a beautifully written, absorbing work of fiction written in the voice of a genuinely and believably good man.  The narrator is John Ames, a preacher in the town of Gilead, Iowa, in the late 1950s; though nearing seventy, he has married late and has one young child, to whom he dedicates a journal of what he suspects are his final months of life.

As the passage above suggests, Ames’s writings are also more than that: a vessel for reflection on what matters in life.  The “balm of Gilead” is a biblical reference that even I’m aware of, but it isn’t necessary to be immersed in Christian lore per se, or even to be a casual believer, to be moved to reflection and emotion by Robinson’s writing and Ames’s character.

I write “per se” above because this nation’s own particular “Troy Tale”, the Civil War, also looms throughout the memoir, (many of Ames’s recollections revolve around the John Brown-like figure of his grandfather, who fights in Kansas and later loses an eye in the war itself), and I join writers from Noll to Lincoln in locating an American theology derived from that.  The narrator explains and frames his father’s views here:

My father said when he walked into his father’s church after they came back from the army the first thing he saw was a piece of needlework hanging on the wall above the communion table.  It was very beautifully done, flowers and flames surrounding the words “The Lord Our God Is a Purifying Fire.”  I suppose that’s why I always think of my grandfather’s church as the one struck by lightning.  As in fact it was.

My father said it was that banner that had sent him off to sit with the Quakers.  He said the very last word he would have applied to war, once he had had a good look at it, was “purifying,” and the thought that those women could believe the world was in any way purer for the loss of their own sons and husbands was appalling to him.  He stood there looking at it, visibly displeased by it, apparently, because one of the women said to him, “It’s just a bit of Scripture.”

He said, “I beg your pardon, ma’am.  No that is not Scripture.”

“Well,” she said, “then it certainly ought to be.”

It occurs to me, not for the first time, how an appalling cataclysm like the Civil War may have quite driven all appreciation for abolitionism and radicalism out of much of American thinking in the years that followed.  I may finally read David Blight’s Race and Reunion and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering as I think about this more.

The Veteran in a New Field — Winslow Homer, 1865.   Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As a novel, “Gilead” is unusual in developing a discernible plot only fairly late in the story.  But Robinson’s writing and the old man’s development as a memoirist is worthwhile enough from early on that I successfully suspended impatience  — nicely (prophylactically?) described as a form of anger, and thus to be avoided — until that plot developed in the fullness of the book.

Mainly, it’s the getting there that’s good — the plainly elegant, purified writing and thinking of a man and an author who both want to impart something of what they’ve learned.  (The book was only Robinson’s second novel — after an interval of more than 20 years.)  In a fine review of the book (“Acts of Devotion,” New York Times, November 28, 2004), James Wood writes:

Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it’s hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer’s prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in ”Gilead.” It’s not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page: the description of the one-eyed grandfather, who ”could make me feel as though he had poked me with a stick, just by looking at me,” or one of a cat held by Ames’s little son, eager to escape, its ears flattened back and its tail twitching and its eyes ”patiently furious.” It isn’t just the care with which Robinson can relax the style to a Midwestern colloquialism: ”But one afternoon a storm came up and a gust of wind hit the henhouse and lifted the roof right off, and hens came flying out, sucked after it, I suppose, and also just acting like hens.” (How deceptively easy that little coda is — ”and also just acting like hens” — but how much it conveys.) […]

In ordinary, secular fiction, a writer who ”takes things down to essentials” is reducing language to increase the amount of secular meaning (or sometimes, alas, to decrease it). When Robinson reduces her language, it’s because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning. Robinson, who loves Melville and Emerson, cannot rid herself of the religious habit of using metaphor as a form of revelation.

Recalling the passage on impatience also reminds me that one effect of a work of art — a movie, a symphony, a book — can be to make one aspire to be a better person, or at least to illuminate how far short of that one falls.  I read “Gilead” while on vacation in Maine — and while there I fell rather miserably short of John Ames’s example in ways I won’t go into here.  As I begin to join John Ames in running out of time in the big things and not just the small ones, I must do better, and vow to do better.

Ames’s narrative is his introduction of himself to the adult son he thinks he’ll never know.  While he is a religious man, and his thoughts frequently turn to eternity and life as he imagines the hereafter, every page is also about appreciating and loving the people and world around him.  As another group of latter day prophets once sang,

Each day just goes so fast, I turn around – it’s past…

A lifetime is so short
A new one can’t be bought
And what you’ve got means such a lot to me.

I can imagine John Ames thinking the same thing.

EDIT, 9/18: “all too rare thing” for “rarest of things”

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