James Wood on Marilynne Robinson’s religion

In the New Yorker, James Wood uses the occasion of the release of Marilyn Robinson’s new novel Home (a sequel to Gilead) to thoroughly examine Robinson’s religiosity, and the ways in which her largely secular-minded audience might fall short of fully embracing the old-fashioned Calvinist strains in her writing. Robinson’s work, Woods writes, is “theologically tense and verbally lush in a manner that is almost extinct in modern literary discourse,” something closer to akin to what we might expect from Melville than from a contemporary writer. Wood goes on:

But Robinson is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, its great proponent, into an obscure, moralizing bigot.

I’ve wondered a bit about the enormous popularity of Gilead myself—the book makes for a very unusual literary bestseller, given that much of its length is given over to serious theological inquiry of a sort that I wouldn’t think would resonate with the secular liberals who make up much of the audience for literary fiction. I fit in that category, and though I admire Robinson’s prose very much, and found myself intermittently fascinated by the father-son conflict in Gilead, I definitely did struggle with connecting to the book’s religious content. So: I’d imagine Wood’s probably right that at least some readers had a similar experience with Gilead—but then again, its sheer popularity would suggest that many other readers did not encounter similar problems. Perhaps Wood is underestimating the curiosity of Robinson’s secular readers—or maybe he’s underestimating the number of religious readers who’ve been drawn to Robinson’s work.

Wood does have many positive things to say about Home—which covers many of the same events as Gilead, but from different perspectives. I’m torn as to whether I’ll pick this one up or not—I do think Robinson’s Housekeeping is a terrific book, but I’m uncertain that Home will have any more to offer me than Gilead. I’ll be curious to watch the reactions of other readers and critics over the coming weeks.

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