Illustration by Bob AulW.H.Audenfamouslysaid,"Poetry makes nothing happen," but it's hard to imagine he really meant it. Yes, we're long past the days when poetry—or even the novel, which is supposed to be a public art form—can help make for social or political change, the kind Dickens could effect with novels about child labor or Harriet Beecher Stowe inspired with UncleTom'sCabin.("So," Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe, "you're the little lady who helped make this big war.") Still, Auden knew the words that really matter work in mysterious ways, subterraneanly; that the seeds of a good book's power, burrowing into our minds in ways we can neither predict nor control, can bear fruit to nourish personal transformations that, in turn, sometimes lead to new social and political convictions. Art's effects travel a long, winding road.
I thought about this as I read Marilynne Robinson's long-awaited, serenely incandescent new novel, Gilead.I finished it the day George W. Bush gave the first State of the Union Address of his new term—an address I couldn't listen to because I still can't believe we elected him again. The country's stark divides—the red state/blue state thing and, more to the point here, the deep suspicions Christian fundamentalists and urban secularists harbor for each other—seem ever-widening and so brutally unbridgeable it wouldn't surprise me if this country were setting itself up for another 1968. A few years back, Todd Gitlin wrote a book called the TwilightofCommonDreams,and now it seems as if Americans not only have lost their common hopes, but also barely share the same language. There isn't any balm in Gileadthat will heal any immediate national wound—poetry makes nothing happen quickly—butit does offer up a language of reconciliation, a tone of understanding and commonality between the religious and the secular that people on either side could profit from. I'm not holding my breath or anything, but here's a book the kids at Calvary Chapel and the lefty lit profs at UC Irvine should both be able to love.
The novel is simple and luminous, written with a quiet reverence for the shy astonishments of the everyday. Twenty years separate Gileadfrom Robinson's only other novel (the small classic Housekeeping),and though she's written two books of nonfiction in the interim, Gilead'spitch-perfect tone feels like the product of two decades' rumination and frankly heroic toil about how to get a live human being onto paper.
The book takes the form of a long letter a 76-year-old Iowa preacher is writing to his seven-year-old son in 1956. The Reverend Ames has a bum heart, knows his days are numbered, and decides to tell the son he'll never see grow up as much as he can about himself, his painful family history going back to the Civil War, those everyday astonishments that keep appearing, and the God he fervently believes has rendered up all this tragic beauty. Ames' prose—Robinson's prose—is shot through with earnest humility, an utterly credible and lived-in piety, great tenderness and graceful comedy, and the crepuscular fireworks that illuminate the sky of the God-intoxicated man who dearly loves the life he is about to lose. Ames is fundamentalist, all right—his faith is traditional and unshakable (instead of saying, "I'm going to die soon," he says, "I'm about to put on imperishability")—and a Republican, too (he's voting for Eisenhower), but he understands doubt, suffers uncondescendingly for those outside the faith and wrestles like Jacob with the sorrowful history he has to tell. That history is his family's, but it's also the country's, involving fugitive slaves and the white men who either helped or hindered them, a civil war that tore families asunder, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1917, and two spiritually disastrous world wars. That the staunchness of his faith—and the credibility of his prose—survives the confusion and suffering he describes is a testament to the sublime solidity of Robinson's conception of Ames' character—really, of her all-embracing love for him and the world she's given birth to in the novel.
But it's not just history that Ames is up to in his long missive to his little boy. He's writing to express his regret that he's about to leave his young wife and son with little money to support and protect them after his death. He's writing to explain how it came to be that an old man of 69, after nearly half a century of loneliness and grief over an early marriage that ended when his first wife and child died during childbirth, could in his last years be graced with a new wife and child who leave him reeling with joy. And he's writing, finally, in order to come to terms with the one great blight on his spiritual record: his inability to forgive, his inability to love, the son of his best friend. This son, now grown, abandoned his father and mother, threw over women and left bastard children in his wake, gave himself over to great bouts of lust and sloth, and has come back to Gilead a prodigal son—perhaps to move in on Ames' wife and son after he dies. The scene where Ames and this man have their final encounter, though the one place where Robinson seems to be straining for drama, high significance and closure, is nonetheless moving, taking up the thread of the racial theme that filigrees the novel in a powerful and resonant way.