Mother Country, 1989
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, 1998
Rarely has any novel, let alone a first novel, attracted such serious critical acclaim as did Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which won the Ernest Hemingway First Novel Award for 1982 as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. The short novel, which has generally been described as “lyrical” and “poetic,” incorporates a number of provocative issues, including American cultural and social myths and women’s issues. A reasonably solid film adaptation, directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Christine Lahti, appeared in 1987.
Robinson is in the fourth generation of her father’s family and the third of her mother’s to have lived in northern Idaho, where her great-grandfather homesteaded. Her father worked in the timber industry; her mother, whom she describes in a 1992 interview as “very verbal and witty,” often read to her and her older brother, and she claims to hear her mother’s voice in her own writing. Elsewhere Robinson has written that Idaho “has had the profoundest impact on my family, but we have not reciprocated.”
Her novel, Housekeeping, can in some ways be regarded as her reciprocation, though it is not a traditional example of “regional” writing. The lake in the novel is not named, but it does have the features of the deep Lake Pend Oreille, which, prior to the construction of dams on nearby streams in the 1950’s, occasionally flooded the town of Sandpoint (which is named Fingerbone in the novel). Camps of “hobos” were common there until late in the twentieth century near the railroad tracks that run through the town north-south and east-west, and the railroad bridge that figures so prominently in the novel may be a composite of two bridges that cross portions of Lake Pend Oreille. Moreover, a train wreck in 1959 may be the source for the one mentioned early in the novel. The only direct reference to Robinson’s home state, however, occurs when Ruth remembers her grandmother’s scanning the shores “to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho.”
After Robinson graduated from high school in Coeur d’Alene, where she describes herself as bookish and unsocial, she followed her older brother to Brown University in 1962, where she received her B.A. in American literature and took her first creative writing course from the novelist John Hawkes, whom she credits with having encouraged her to pursue her own syntactically rich and metaphorically dense style at a time when spareness in the Hemingway mode was popular. She was married and the mother of two sons before she resumed her formal education at the University of Washington, where in 1977 she received a Ph.D. for her dissertation on the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. At the same time, while living in France, Robinson was writing Housekeeping, which she says she wrote very quickly.
How much of Marilynne Robinson herself is invested in the odd, nonconforming protagonist of the novel is impossible to tell, but in an interview she suggests that she does see some connection. She has written of herself, “I myself must have been a charmless and forgettable creature, because no one seems to remember that I was ever there.” The sentiment sounds like one that either Sylvie or Ruth might have uttered. Noting that she spent much of her childhood in Coeur d’Alene, Robinson adds, “It’s better to be invisible than to be virtually invisible–do not look for me among the prom queens.” These sentiments certainly reflect the perspective of the novel’s unsocial, though not antisocial, protagonist.
Robinson lived mostly in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the 1980’s. A brief time spent in England in 1985 led to Mother Country, which has been variously described as a “powerful, eloquent, and elucidating essay” and a “polemical diatribe.” In this work Robinson assails the mishandling of nuclear wastes at the Sellafield plant, which is run by the British government. The disturbing environmental message has been likened to that of Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962), and there was talk of legal action against Robinson and her publishers when the book first appeared.
Robinson wrote several journalistic essays on language and other subjects for The New York Times Book Review and Harper’s magazine during the middle and late 1980’s. After divorcing her husband she began teaching at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1990. In 1998 she issued a collection of essays under the title The Death of Adam, composed for various occasions and publications; all of them, she accurately notes, are “contrarian in method and spirit”; they often explore the disparity between primary texts that have had significant social impact (such as Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871) and what subsequent generations have claimed as the meanings of those texts. Robinson’s topics range from religion, science, economics, education, and the environment to the sweep of history in the Western world. She is particularly adept at making connections between attitudes and events and between the myths to which society clings and the realities of survival that are at stake if these myths are not reexamined.