2008 Lifetime Achievement Award
Text of Citation of Award
The following remarks were made by John D. Cox of Hope College on the presentation of the award to Marilynne Robinson on December 29 in San Francisco, California.
In the preface C. S. Lewis wrote to a new edition of Screwtape Letters in 1961, he regretted that he had not written a companion to one of his most popular books. Instead of letters from a senior devil to a junior one, detailing the psychology of temptation, spiritual distraction, and moral self-deception, the book Lewis says he should have written would have been a series of letters from an archangel to a guardian angel, detailing the angelic support of faith, the counsel of charity, and the encouragement of hope. He did not write the book, Lewis says, because the task of doing so is beyond human capacity. The spiritual heights are too high, he says, even if a writer could find what Lewis calls an "answering style." The phrase about style is Milton's, of course, in reference to his daring to imagine heaven, as Dante had before him. "Mere advice would be no good," Lewis says of the book he never wrote, "every sentence would have to smell of heaven."
I thought of Lewis's comment when I read Marilynne Robinson's novel, Gilead, four years ago, and I have thought about it as I reread Housekeeping from 1983 and Home, published just this year. Robinson wisely does not try to write about heaven, any more than Lewis did, but her sentences sometimes smell of it, as in that remarkable scene in Gilead when John Ames recalls his glimpse of the child Jack Boughton had seduced and abandoned to poverty, playing with her baby in the shallows of a river:
After a while the baby cupped her hands and poured water on her mother's arm and laughed, so her mother cupped her hands and poured water on the baby's belly, and the baby laughed and threw water on her mother with both hands, and the little girl threw water back, enough so that the baby whimpered, and the little girl said, "Now don't you go crying! What do you expect when you act like that?" And she put her arms around her and settled her into her lap, kneeling there in the water, and set about repairing the dam with her free hand. The baby made a conversational sound and her mother said, "That's a leaf. A leaf off a tree. Leaf," and gave it into the baby's hand. And the sun was shining as well as it could into that shadowy river, a good part of the shine being caught in the trees. And the cicadas were chanting, and the willows were straggling their tresses in the water, and the cottonwood and the ash were making that late summer hush, that susurrus.
After a while we went on back to the car and came home. Glory said, "I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one."
Though Marilynne Robinson does not write about heaven, she consistently writes about goodness-one of the greatest challenges for a writer in a postmodern world-and she does it, remarkably, without sentimentality-the easiest trap for a writer about goodness to fall into. In Housekeeping and Gilead, goodness is often accompanied by the imagery of light, as in the passage I just read. Blundering about in the pitch-black, flooded kitchen in Housekeeping, the narrator Ruth is relieved by the sight of her Aunt Sylvie's face, suddenly illuminated as she "lifted a lid from the [wood-burning cook] stove, and dim, warm light shone on her face and hands and across the ceiling." This is ciaroscuro in prose, with the adult's face as clearly outlined in the darkness as the face of the penitent Magdalen or the aged St. Joseph in paintings by Georges de la Tour. The counterpart is Sylvie's over-zealous bonfire near the end of the story, when she burns all the collected magazines, newspapers, and books in the house-including a book Ruth had borrowed from the library: "Sylvie was all alight and around her the shadows leaped from behind the trees. A few more shovels of earth and fewer sparks flew and Sylvie stood in a duller light. Another shovelful and Sylvie and the orchard were extinguished." Even in the dark, Sylvie remains Ruth's friend and protector-the last remnant of family devotion when everything else is gone. The comfort is meager, but Sylvie's daft and zany faithfulness strikes me as the unmistakable scent of goodness.
Robinson's exposé of the British nuclear industry in Mother Country-incongruously classified by the Library of Congress among books on chemistry-is really about justice, one of the four classical virtues, which reappears in the reflections on abolitionism in The Death of Adam, with their fictionalized counterpart in John Ames's fierce old grandfather in Gilead. But for me the most potent form of goodness in Marilynne Robinson's fiction is what she calls "the resurrection of the ordinary" in Housekeeping. Ruth remembers her grandmother hanging out newly washed sheets to dry in the stiff breeze of the Idaho springtime, "performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith."
Robinson has an uncanny ability to make the ordinary leap into miraculous clarity, so that we see it in something like what I can only call its created goodness, as in the young mother's interaction with her baby in Gilead. The imagery of light is subdued in Home, Robinson's latest novel, but goodness is not, and it often appears in the resurrection of the ordinary. Let me illustrate what I mean, in conclusion, with two paragraphs from Home, in which Robinson describes the point-of-view character, Glory, cutting her aged father's hair:
So she brought her father into the kitchen, sat him down, wrapped a towel around his shoulders and tucked it close around his neck. She got a comb and the pair of shears and went to work. His hair had vanished, or was on the point of vanishing, not through ordinary loss but by a process of rarification. It was so fine, so white and weightless, that it eddied into soft curls. Wafted, she thought. She hated to cut it off, since there seemed very little chance that it could grow back again as it was. It was like cutting a young child's hair. But her father claimed to be irked by the prettiness of it. Fauntleroy in his dotage, he said.
So she clicked and trimmed, making more work of it than it was in order to satisfy him that some change had been accomplished, combing it down a little with water so he could feel sleek and trim. The nape of his neck, the back of his ears. The visible strain of holding the great human head upright for decades and decades. Some ancient said it was what makes us different from the beasts, that our eyes are not turned downward to the earth. Most of the time. It was Ovid. At the end of so much effort, the neck seemed frail, but the head was still lifted up, and the ears stood there, still shaped for attention, soft as they were. She'd have left all the lovely hair, which looked like gentle bewilderment, just as the lifted head and the ears looked like waiting grown old, like trust grown old.