The Great Awakening

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Portrait of Scott Sidham by Shelby Lee Adams
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Portrait of Scott
Sidham 1993 by Shelby Lee Adams.

Gilead is a novel by Marilynne Robinson. This is the story of the Congregationalist minister John Ames, age 76, as he writes a letter to his young son Robert. I’m writing your begats, he explains. I’m telling you all the things you’ll need to know when I’ll no longer be around to tell you.

For example, the history of Gilead and its brief shining moment as a bastion against slavery. The history of the Ames family, three generations strong who’ve been called to the ministry. About faith and forgiveness, love and grace. About what a blessing it is for John Ames to find love and family at this stage in his life.

My eyebrows are white, too, and quite thick. I mean the hairs grow long and spiral off in every direction. […] Yesterday you stood by my chair and toyed with my eyebrow, pulling the hairs out to their full length and watching them curl back again. You thought it was funny, and it is.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (Picador 2004)

Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead.

Revival Tent

John Ames grows up in Gilead. Aside from a few years at seminary, he never leaves. He knows Gilead’s history. He’s heard about the sermons his grandfather used to preach, roaring down hell and perdition onto the heads of slave owners, slave traders and all who turn a blind eye to the state of slavery. John Ames wants his son to know there was a time when Gilead built tunnels and hidden rooms to form the westernmost outpost of the Underground Railroad.

These are the days of the Second Great Awakening. Itinerant preachers roam the countryside. Their gatherings are often impromptu, outdoors, limited only by the reaches of their white tents.

The Second Great Awakening had an enormous effect on American society, changing the way Americans worshiped and preached, inspiring social reform, and converting thousands to Christianity. Its emphasis on equality of spirit, regardless of race, led to alliances between black leaders in northern cities and white abolitionists.

The Faith Project, “This Far By Faith: 1776-1865: from Bondage to Holy War”, PBS (2003)

But all this lies in the forgotten past. By the time John Ames sits down to compose this letter to his son, Gilead is utterly forgettable.

There must have been a hundred towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who have lived here long enough to know better.

Gilead

Gilead is a name that comes from the Bible, denoting a mountainous region near the River Jordan. The word might be translated as hill of testimony. That would make Gilead a fitting title indeed for a town crowded with churches, all Protestant, some grand and others in shambles, from the Methodists who sing down by the river to the Negro Baptists who leave town after their church is burned down.

Gospel

For John Ames, writing has always felt like prayer, even when I wasn’t writing prayers. The same seems to be true of Robinson. Prayer is not an act reserved for Sundays. She gets prickly when asked binary questions like whether she’s religious or not.

I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not. 

Marilynne Robinson interviewed by Sarah Fay, “The Art of Fiction No. 198” in The Paris Review (Fall 2008)

That deep sense of God’s centrality to life drew many readers to Robinson. Gilead seemed to show a world filled with grace. Others became accidental readers like the then junior senator from Illinois who picked up a copy of Gilead to read on the campaign trail. Thus was the friendship between Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson born.

Since the publication of Gilead in 2004, Robinson has written three more novels set in Gilead. Home tells the story of Ames’ childhood friend Robert Boughton and the troubles caused by his prodigal son, Jack. Lila gives us the perspective of John Ames’ young wife. This year, we’ll learn more about the black sheep of Gilead in Robinson’s latest novel Jack. Casey Cep describes this novel quartet as the Gospels, telling the same story four different ways. Robinson herself shies away from such a comparison. She describes Gilead as an ecosystem in which each novel must be symbiotic with the rest.

Preacher

Gilead was born when Robinson heard the voice of a minister, an old man, with a child playing at his feet.

“I don’t mean that I was ever seized, or that what I experienced was a vision,” she says, “but I felt engaged by the character — his voice, his mind. I like listening to him. He was such good company that I missed him when I had finished writing.

Marilynne Robinson as interviewed by Casey Cep, “Book of Revelation” in The New Yorker, 5 Oct 2020

I liked listening to Ames, too. His speech is careful, measured, as befits the shepherd of an unruly flock. His writing can sometimes turn pulpitish though he tries to resist the temptation. He reaches for the perfect sentence.

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.

Gilead

Robinson is an occasional preacher, as gifted and fiery and thought-provoking as any of the Ames men. I heard her preach once (or so it seemed to me) on a rainy evening in November. She had come to Amsterdam, thinking to promote her latest essay collection. The audience came armed with copies of Lila. But the topic that night was neither books nor book promotion. It was about the terrorist attacks that had taken place the evening before in Paris.

It soon became obvious that Robinson is blindingly intelligent, omnivorous in her reading, impatient with fools. Her desire in life is to seek the humanity in every individual. Her goal as a writer seems to be one and the same. Robinson draws a distinction between authors who know what their characters will say or do and a writer who can feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own.

This is the gift Robinson bestows in Gilead. John Ames may have been called to the ministry but he is first and foremost a man. He sees beauty in a soap bubble and a threat in the form of Jack Boughton as he strikes up a friendship with Ames’ young wife. He sees miracles every day.

I had a dream once that Boughton and I were down at the river looking around in the shallows for something or other ⏤ when we were boys it would have been tadpoles ⏤ and my grandfather stalked out of the trees in that furious way he had, scooped his hat full of water, and threw it, so a sheet of water came sailing toward us, billowing in the air like a veil, and fell down over us. Then he put his hat back on his head and stalked off into the trees again and left us standing there in that glistening river, amazed at ourselves and shining like apostles.

Gilead
12 Oct 2020 | Karen Kao