Understanding Marilynne Robinson
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107 pages

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A comprehensive study of the award-winning Midwestern author of fiction and nonfiction

Alex Engebretson offers the first comprehensive study of Marilynne Robinson's fiction and essays to date, providing an overview of the author's life, themes, and literary and religious influences. Understanding Marilynne Robinson examines this author of three highly acclaimed novels and recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Orange Prize for fiction, and the National Humanities Medal. Through close readings of the novels and essay collections, Engebretson uncovers the unifying elements of Robinson's work: a dialogue with liberal Protestantism, an emphasis on regional settings, the marked influence of nineteenth-century American literature, and the theme of home.

The study begins with Housekeeping, Robinson's haunting debut novel, which undertakes a feminist revision of the Western genre. Twenty-four years later Robinson began a literary project that would bring her national recognition, three novels set in a small, rural Iowa town. The first was Gilead, which took up the major American themes of race, the legacy of the Civil War, and the tensions between secular and religious lives. Two more Gilead novels followed, Home and Lila, both of which display Robinson's gift for capturing the mysterious dynamics of sin and grace.

In Understanding Marilynne Robinson, Engebretson also reviews her substantial body of non-fiction, which demonstrates a dazzling intellectual range, from the contemporary science-religion debates, to Shakespeare, to the fate of liberal democracy. Throughout this study Engebretson makes the argument for Marilynne Robinson as an essential, deeply unfashionable, visionary presence within today's literary scene.



Publié par
Date de parution 06 novembre 2017
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781611178036
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1000€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Matthew J. Bruccoli, Founding Editor
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
Alex Engebretson

The University of South Carolina Press
2017 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press
Columbia, South Carolina 29208
26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data can be found at http://catalog.loc.gov/
ISBN 978-1-61117-802-9 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-61117-803-6 (ebook)
Front cover photograph: Ulf Andersen
For Julie
Series Editor s Preface
Chapter 1 Understanding Marilynne Robinson
Chapter 2 Housekeeping
Chapter 3 Gilead
Chapter 4 Home
Chapter 5 Lila
Chapter 6 The Essays
Selected Bibliography
The Understanding Contemporary American Literature series was founded by the estimable Matthew J. Bruccoli (1931-2008), who envisioned these volumes as guides or companions for students as well as good nonacademic readers, a legacy that will continue as new volumes are developed to fill in gaps among the nearly one hundred series volumes published to date and to embrace a host of new writers only now making their marks on our literature.
As Professor Bruccoli explained in his preface to the volumes he edited, because much influential contemporary literature makes special demands, the word understanding in the titles was chosen deliberately. Many willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed. Aimed at fostering this understanding of good literature and good writers, the criticism and analysis in the series provide instruction in how to read certain contemporary writers-explicating their material, language, structures, themes, and perspectives-and facilitate a more profitable experience of the works under discussion.
In the twenty-first century Professor Bruccoli s prescience gives us an avenue to publish expert critiques of significant contemporary American writing. The series continues to map the literary landscape and to provide both instruction and enjoyment. Future volumes will seek to introduce new voices alongside canonized favorites, to chronicle the changing literature of our times, and to remain, as Professor Bruccoli conceived, contemporary in the best sense of the word.
Linda Wagner-Martin, Series Editor
I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to the following individuals and institutions: Cornel Bonca, Gerhard Joseph, Anne Humpherys, Nico Israel, Ryan Pederson, the Baylor English Department, Baylor University s Office of the Provost and the Summer Sabbatical Program committee, Debbie and Roger Engebretson, Ben and Darlene Engebretson, Mike and Josie Permenter, and Linda Permenter. Most of all, I would like to thank my wife, Julie, for her love, hope, and humor from the beginning to the end of this project.
Understanding Marilynne Robinson
Nowadays, wrote the critic James Wood, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it s hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer s prose. Yet there is something remarkable about the writing in Gilead ( Acts of Devotion ). There is the grandfather who could make me feel as though he had poked me with the stick, just by looking at me (29). And the cat, trying to escape the embrace of a boy, whose eyes are described as patiently furious (90). Wood concludes these stylistic notes with a claim that Robinson s words have a spiritual force that s very rare in contemporary fiction ( Acts of Devotion ).
Perhaps James Wood-and perhaps he alone-would enjoy a volume entirely devoted to the analysis of Marilynne Robinson s style. Such a volume might be justified from the perspective Wood suggests, namely that her words are the source of her value, the spiritual force many readers have found in her writing. The link between style and value may be true. Indeed, it is my belief that the relative popularity of Robinson s fiction has much to do with the music of her prose, what today s fiction writers are apt to call voice. It is arguable that she has done more than any American writer since Hemingway to realize the expressive potential of ordinary words. Yet a volume on style alone is undesirable for obvious reasons; it would be tedious and would exclude much of what is original and interesting in Robinson. In the pages ahead, there will be occasions to notice stylistic features, in particular the evolution of her style from Housekeeping to the later Gilead novels, but these will be brief vistas on our tour through Robinson s complete works.
The theme for now is Robinson s originality, her difference from other authors of the contemporary moment. Such a topic requires us to leave style behind and shift into the realm of ideas. It is in cultural history, biography, politics, aesthetics, and religion that we can begin to uncover the sources of Robinson s most distinctive qualities.
The words unfashionable and contrarian are often applied to Robinson, and it is easy to see why. No matter one s political, religious, or aesthetic persuasion, one is likely to find something disagreeable about her opinions and attitudes: she is a woman critical of feminist scholarship; a political progressive and cultural traditionalist; a liberal Protestant who admires John Calvin; an environmentalist who was sued by Greenpeace; a celebrated novelist who has published more essays than fiction; a domestic novelist and novelist of ideas; a critic of modernism and a champion of the American nineteenth century. She once described her archaic self as nothing other than a latter-day pagan whose intuitions were not altogether at odds with, as it happened, Presbyterianism, and so were simply polished to that shape ( Adam 229). The critic Cathleen Schine put it simply: Marilynne Robinson really is not like any other writer. She really isn t ( A Triumph ).
A Life, from Idaho to Iowa
She was born Marilynne Summers, in the far-west town of Sandpoint, Idaho. Her father, John J. Summers, worked in the lumber industry along the Idaho-Washington border, moving the family often to follow the work, through towns like Coolin, Sagle, and Talache. Since her father was away for long stretches of time, Marilynne spent much of her childhood in the company of her mother, Ellen, and her precocious older brother, David.
By her own admission, she was an introverted and bookish child, attempting her first reading of Moby Dick at age nine. Despite the provincialism of her upbringing, she acquired a good education at the public high school in Coeur d Alene, Idaho, which she would later characterize as the acquisition of odds and ends-Dido pining on her flaming couch, Lewis and Clark mapping the wilderness ( When I Was 87), as well as encounters with Emily Dickinson, Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and, most crucially, the Bible. She wrote poetry as a young girl, mainly of the melancholy variety. When I was a girl too young to give the matter any thought at all, I used to be overcome by the need to write poetry whenever there was a good storm, that is, heavy rain and wind enough to make the house smell like the woods ( The World 121). Although her family was Presbyterian, religion was more an inherited intuition than an actual fact (Fay). Her upbringing and education in the West would mark her as an outsider once she left for the East, where she would discover that the hardest work in the world-it may in fact be impossible-is to persuade easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling ( When I Was 86).
After graduating from high school in 1962, she followed her brother to Rhode Island, where she attended the women s college Pembroke, now part of Brown University. She studied English, with an emphasis on nineteenth-century American literature, and absorbed the authors who would profoundly influence her: Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman. She had an epiphany in the library one day, which she would later call her escape :
When I was a sophomore in college, taking a course in American philosophy, I went to the library and read an assigned text, Jonathan Edwards s Doctrine of Original Sin Defended . There is a long footnote in this daunting treatise that discusses the light of the moon, and how the apparent continuity of the moon s light is a consequence of its reflecting light that is in fact continuously renewed. This was Edwards s analogy for the continuous renewal of the world by the will of God, which creates, to our eyes, seeming lawfulness and identity, but which is in fact a continuous free act of God. Edwards s footnote was my first, best introduction to epistemology and ontology, and my escape-and what a rescue it was-from the contending, tedious determinisms that seem to be all that was on offer to me then. ( Credo 27)
The liberation she experienced through Edwards set her on a journey toward something quite different: an artistic vision she would call a democratic esthetic and an intellectual vision she would refer to as a religious belief in intellectual openness ( Credo 27).
In addition to pursuing literary studies, she took her first writing workshop with John Hawkes, who, despite his own experimental preferences, gave her favorable feedback and encouraged her to continue writing. After graduating with her B.A. in 1966, she returned to the Pacific Northwest and enrolled in a Ph.D.

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