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Robinson, Marilynne 1944–

Robinson, Marilynne 1944–

PERSONAL: Born in Sandpoint, ID, in 1944 (one source says 1943; another, 1947); married; children: two sons. Education: Brown University, B.A.; University of Washington, M.A., Ph.D.

ADDRESSES: Home—Massachusetts. Office—c/o Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 19 Union Square W., New York, NY 10003.

CAREER: Writer.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel from PEN American Center, Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, PEN/ Faulkner fiction award nomination, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, all 1982, all for Housekeeping; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 2004, National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, 2004, PEN/ Faulkner Award nomination, 2005, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 2005, all for Gilead.

WRITINGS:

Housekeeping (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1981.

Mother Country: Britain, the Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998.

Puritans and Prigs, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

Gilead, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor of stories and articles to periodicals, including the New York Times Book Review and Harper's; a chapter from Housekeeping was published under the title "Loss" as a poem in Quarto magazine.

ADAPTATIONS: Housekeeping was adapted by Bill Forsyth into a film and released by Columbia in 1987.

SIDELIGHTS: Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping earned its author the 1982 Ernest Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel, a 1982 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. It has garnered praise from numerous literary critics, such as Marc Granetz, who in New Republic deemed Housekeeping "a beautiful and unusual novel about transience and durability [that] revolves around familiar objects, details of everyday life…. Every sentence of Housekeeping is well written. And, as if that isn't remarkable enough, this is Marilynne Robinson's first novel." Paul Gray of Time remarked of Housekeeping that "this first novel does much more than show promise; it brilliantly portrays the impermanence of all things, especially beauty and happiness, and the struggle to keep what can never be owned." And, in Anatole Broyard's assessment in the New York Times, Housekeeping is "a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself…. You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt…. Miss Robinson works with light, dark, water, heat, cold, textures, sounds and smells…. Though her ambition is tall, she remains down to earth, where the best novels happen."

In Housekeeping Robinson follows the lives of two adolescent girls through several guardianship changes. The story begins as a woman named Helen returns to her childhood home in Fingerbone, a small community isolated in the mountains of Idaho. With her, she brings her two daughters, Ruth and Lucille, and she leaves them on the porch of their grandmother's home. Helen then drives a car into the nearby lake, where her father drowned when she was a child. After Helen's suicidal drowning, Ruth and Lucille fall under the care of their grandmother, who attempts to restore normalcy to their lives through daily routine. After Ruth and Lucille's grandmother dies, the girls are cared for by two maiden great-aunts who also try to use unchanging daily routine to provide reassurance and stability in life. But the aunts, set in their habits, cannot adapt to the changing needs of children and so, leaving the girls, return to their former residence and the orderly lifestyle that they prefer.

The girls' next guardian is their mother's sister Sylvie, an eccentric drifter whose idea of housekeeping is "a merging of love and squalor," explained Julie Kavanagh in her Times Literary Supplement review of Housekeeping. Characteristic of this merging are Sylvie's collection of scraps, newspapers, and emptied food containers and her willingness to allow the outside to come inside the house in the form of animals and dead leaves. According to Kavanagh, Sylvie's housekeeping habits signify the novel's main theme—"an acceptance of transience, an acceptance which Sylvie embodies."

This acceptance of transience is tied to the idea that "memory and loss can paradoxically be a reminder of an eternal reunion to come," Kavanagh commented. And Housekeeping shows one of the girls, Ruth, discovering and adopting Sylvie's way of viewing life and death. Suzanne O'Malley reaffirmed this interpretation of Sylvie's perspective in Ms. magazine, stating that "Sylvie's peculiar brand of housekeeping included letting leaves gather in the corners. Ruth speculates that Sylvie actually took care not to disturb the leaves…. The point is not that Sylvie and her nieces lived in squalor—though that may be true enough—but that those who expect the past to leap to life at any minute consider 'accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.'"

While Ruth accompanies Sylvie in her nighttime boat excursions on the lake where Sylvie's sister and father drowned and watches her strange aunt meditate in the dark on the past and come to terms with change, the other girl, Lucille, becomes increasingly alienated from her sister and aunt. Lucille dislikes being different from other adolescents, wants to fit in, be a part of Finger-bone society, and live a normal life. So she leaves her sister with Sylvie and moves in with one of her school teachers. From this point on, noted Art Seidenbaum in the Los Angeles Times, Sylvie and Ruth become "more like each other … less like their immediate neighbors [and] less like any people who must do rather than drift."

Eventually the residents of Fingerbone decide that Ruth's living with Sylvie is detrimental to the girl, and that they must take Ruth away from Sylvie. To prevent this, Ruth and Sylvie burn down their house, leave Fingerbone via the railway bridge over the lake, and take up a life of drifting. The novel's narrative begins to reflect this drifting, mingling the thoughts, dreams, and perceptions of Ruth, the narrator of Housekeeping. And, according to Le Anne Schreiber in the New York Times Book Review, "these distinctions break down utterly" as Ruth feels the pressure from the town to conform or split from Sylvie and realizes that they must leave Fin-gerbone. "The controlled lyricism of Ruth's language, which had been anchored in sensuous detail, becomes unmoored." The novel, like Ruth, then becomes "fevered and hallucinatory," concluded Schreiber. Kavanagh similarly noted the change in Housekeeping's style once Ruth and Sylvie decide to leave home: "The previously realistic narrative now begins to mirror the drifters' new freedom and to take the form of arcane, meandering reflections. That the pair have symbolically transcended the mundane by crossing the bridge is reiterated by a free … prose-style." Anne Morddel, a contributor to Contemporary Novelists, observed that "Robinson's style itself is evocative of drifting and drifters' tales, with long, often poetic descriptions that suddenly snap back to the original point or deflect to a new, unrelated one."

Several critics considered Housekeeping to be a sort of long prose poem. According to Schreiber, Housekeeping "reads as slowly as poetry—and for the same reason: The language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn't want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience." Kavanagh likewise remarked, "It is a complex work, and as such should be read slowly and carefully." But, Kavanagh concluded, "this is not to say that it is impenetrable or over-intense. The author's control of plot, her eye for eccentricity, her clarity, quiet humour and delicate touch, invest the book with a lightness that successfully counterbalances the density of thought." Morddel saw some faults in the novel, such as some angry outbursts from Ruth that seem out of character. However, she emphasized that "these are small flaws in a book that is so rich with thought and feeling that it compels the reader to slow down and truly read."

After Housekeeping Robinson published a couple of nonfiction works, Mother Country: Britain, the Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. The former is a passionate denunciation of the British government's management of the Sellafield nuclear processing plant. "The documentation behind the essay is exhaustive; the selective bibliography takes up twenty-two pages," noted Thomas Schaub in a Contemporary Literature profile of Robinson. "Throughout, Robinson's analysis of Sell-afield is driven by a twin outrage: not only at the tons of nuclear waste being dumped into the sea each day, but also at the fact that a government which makes claims for the moralism of its acts is superintending this degradation of the earth." Robinson told Schaub the Sellafield situation represented "a profound abuse of the environment in an enormously, densely populated part of the world. And unless everything they've told us about radioactive contamination was some kind of a malicious fairy tale, there can only be very grievous consequences, and nothing was done to make us aware of this at all." She did not spare environmental organizations from her criticism; in her interview with Schaub, she asserted that they have "an enormous amount of information … that is never, ever communicated to people in this country." New York Times Book Review contributor Len Ackland, however, found a shortage of useful information in Robinson's book. Her "clear and justified passion unfortunately exceeds the evidence she brings to bear," he wrote, saying "the reader will search in vain for facts" that back up her arguments. He also thought she spent too much time on other subjects before dealing with Sellafield; he wished for "a rigorous short essay instead of this lengthy polemic."

Numerous essays on a plethora of topics are collected in The Death of Adam. Subjects include theologian John Calvin, the relationship of the McGuffey reader to nineteenth-century American social reform movements, and Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. In a review for Christian Century, Kathleen Norris described the collection as "rigorous but invigorating … a bracing book of truly contrarian essays." Norris observed, "With a novelist's sharp eye, Robinson exposes our bland acceptance of capitalist brutalities, our addiction to anxiety, our idolization of success, and our attendant loss of the ability to comprehend the significance of events…. While Robinson sometimes rants, as a contrarian is wont to do, her book is large in spirit." Norris particularly praised Robinson's handling of religion: "A rigorous thinker, blessedly conscious of history, Robinson makes a frontal assault on the easy, dismissive stereotypes of religion that abound in our culture." Similarly, Roger Kimball commented in the New York Times Book Review, "One would have to search far and wide to find another contemporary novelist writing articulate essays defending the theology of John Calvin or the moral and social lives of the Puritans. We all know that Puritans were dour, sex-hating, joy-abominating folk—except that, as Robinson shows, this widely embraced caricature is a calumny." A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted the large role Robinson's essays give to morality and reported that "for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity." Kimball perceived a "current of high moral seriousness" in the book and averred that "one of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity." Norris concluded, "Ideologues of all stripes are likely to be enraged by this book—which seems like poetic justice to me. But if readers are willing to engage a book that may chip away at their ignorance and challenge their most dearly held assumptions and stereotypes, then Robinson's book will do its work."

In 2004, Robinson published Gilead, her first novel since Housekeeping. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, James Woods introduced his review of the novel by commenting, "To bloom only every twenty years would make, you would think, for anxious or vainglorious flowerings. But Marilynne Robinson … seems to have the kind of sensibility that is sanguine about intermittence." Woods went on to observe that Robinson' apparent draught in producing a second novel was not at all due to suffering from writer's block, rather the author was simply "moving at her own speed." By doing so, the critic felt Gilead had turned out a "fiercely calm … beautiful work." Many reviewers of the work focused on Robinson's lack of hurry in producing a follow-up novel to her successful Housekeeping. In his review of the book, Thomas Meaney, writing for Commentary, stated: "Robinson is not ambitious in the ordinary sense. She has written one highly regarded novel … but no more fiction until now … she also achieves moments of near-Melvillean grandeur and dazzling lucidity, where her meandering syntax reaches for metaphors that are not only vessels of her religious faith but also an invitation to engage it."

The novel is religious in its topic in that, told from the point of view of a preacher reflecting on the meaning of life, it deals with humanity's inability to fully grasp God and the many questions that are raised in the attempt to attain godliness. However, while the religious looms over the book, it is personalized in the narrative, which takes shape around a father attempting to pass his life's knowledge to his son. Simon Baker summarized the book for Spectator by saying, "Set in 1956, it takes the form of a long letter from John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old Iowa preacher who is dying of heart disease, to his only son, who is six. The letter is Ames's attempt to bequeath to his son a distillation of a lifetime's quiet reflection and, in doing so, present a picture of his family's history." Baker regarded the novel as a success and stated that Robinson "has ended a quarter-century's silence with a masterly study of the dying of the light." In addition, Malcolm Jones, reviewing the novel for Newsweek concluded, "Good novels about spiritual life are rare. This is one of the best." Indeed, acclaim for Robinson's work was widespread, as Gilead earned both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 25, Thomson Gale, 1983.

Contemporary Novelists, St. James, 1996.

PERIODICALS

Atlantic Monthly, December, 2004, Mona Simpson, "The Minister's Tale: Marilynne Ronbinson's Long-Awaited Second Novel Is an Almost Otherworldly Book—and Reveals Robinson as a Somewhat Otherworldly Figure Herself," review of Gilead, p. 135.

Christian Century, November 18, 1998, Kathleen Norris, review of The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, p. 1101.

Commentary, August 16, 2005, Thomas Meaney, "In God's Creation," review of Gilead, p. 81.

Contemporary Literature, summer, 1994, Thomas Schaub, interview and review of Mother Country: Britain, the Nuclear State, and Nuclear Pollution, p. VI.

Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1981, Art Seidenbaum, review of Housekeeping.

Ms., April, 1981, Suzanne O'Malley, review of Housekeeping.

New Republic, February 21, 1981, Marc Granetz, review of Housekeeping.

Newsweek, December 6, 2004, Malcolm Jones, "Wrestling with Angels; 'Housekeeping' Author Returns with a Keeper," review of Gilead, p. 87.

New York Times, January 7, 1981, Anatole Broyard, review of Housekeeping.

New York Times Book Review, February 8, 1981, Le Anne Schreiber, review of Housekeeping; July 16, 1989, Len Ackland, review of Mother Country, p. 7; February 7, 1999, Roger Kimball, review of The Death of Adam; November 28, 2004, James Wood, "Acts of Devotion," review of Gilead, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly, July 27, 1998, review of The Death of Adam, p. 60.

Spectator, April 16, 2005, Simon Baker, "Looking Back Without Anger," review of Gilead, p. 47.

Time, February 2, 1981, Paul Gray, review of Housekeeping.

Times Literary Supplement, April 3, 1981, Julie Kavanagh, review of Housekeeping.

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