Marilynne Robinson (2004) Gilead

Gilead was winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  I’m sure I’ve read it before. And I keep picking it up and re-reading bits because I don’t know where I left off reading. It’s a story in which nothing much happens but life. A dying man writing a letter to his young son, who’s is young enough to be his great-grandson. It’s 1956 and the narrator is pondering whether he should vote for Eisenhower. And in recalling how his life didn’t amount to much more than a bushel of corn – American history, prior to the Civil War springs into life. The bloom of wisdom is on every page. This is a book you could read backwards, sideways or upside down and it would still make sense.

‘I, John Ames, was born on the Year of Our Lord 1880, in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and seminary.’

He’s the preacher son of a preacher son of a preacher son. His view of life is thereby constricted or heightened. ‘One benefit of a religious vocation is it helps you concentrate.’

His grandfather, for example, was a kind of living saint, who carried a gun and fought against slavery in the Civil War.

‘When someone remarked in his hearing that he’d lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I’d kept one”.   

Jesus was more real to his grandfather that his own son or grandson.

‘My grandfather told me about a vision he’d had when he was still living in Maine, not yet sixteen. He’d fallen asleep at the fire, worn out from a day helping his father pull out stumps. Someone touched him on the shoulder, and when he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, ‘Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.”’

That’s why his grandfather became an abolitionist, not because Jesus told him to, but because Jesus showed him to. His grandson lacks that certainty and that fire. He burnt the best sermon he reckoned he ever wrote not because it wasn’t true, but because it might have offended some people and that might have been no good. His grandfather carried a gun and had no truck with not offending people, if God made that call.

Gilead’s narrator, as a kindness, does not speak about God’s wrath in the aftermath of the Spanish flu.

‘People don’t talk much about Spanish influenza, but that was a terrible thing, and it struck just at the time of the Great War, just when they were getting involved in it. It killed the soldiers by the thousands, healthy men in the prime of life, and then it spread to the rest of the population. It was like a war, it really was. One funeral after another, right here in Iowa. We lost so many of the people and we got off lightly. People came to the church wearing masks, if they came at all. They’d sit far from each other as they could. There was talk of the Germans had caused it with some sort of secret weapon, and I think people wanted to believe that…

The parents of these young soldiers would come and ask me how the Lord would allow such a thing.’

Reading that now, with its fake news and resonance of what is happening now, but with the much less virulent coronavirus it would make you think Robinson had a hotline to God. Great writers always sound as if they do and Marilynne Robinson doesn’t need to preach the point. She’s a writer of words that hymn in harmony. Read on.  

Colson Whitehead (2016) The Underground Railway.

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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway was a winner of The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017. There’s not a lot of room on the front cover for namedropping, but Barrack Obama describes the book as ‘Terrific’ and the New York Review of Books, ‘Dazzling’.

I guess it resonates for a number of reasons. In some ways the story of Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia in the nineteenth century, before the American Civil War is a Bildungsroman. It deals with her formative years and that of the American nation. A Hobbesian world in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.  It’s six years, for example, since her mother left, when the novel begins Cora’s narrative, which makes her around sixteen. Jokey, the oldest slave in the plantation, possibly the world, is fifty-two he said, but negroes birthdays aren’t kept track of, and it’s two years since she had been ‘seasoned’, which is another way of saying held down by young black bucks and gang raped. This isn’t a kind of black Jane Eyre, although issues of class are overwritten by issues of ethnicity and race which provide a kind of moral justification for actions. The white man was the devil, but the black man was the devil too.

‘This was a world there was no place to escape to, only places to flee from.’

The cotton crop was as important to the American South as oil is to Saudi Arabia and was built on the back of the genocide of the Indian nations and the labour of Africans stolen from across the seas. To be black was not to be a person, but a thing. There’s a cruel joke here that a black man is only treated a person when dead and his body sold to medical schools for student dissection. And Cora’s nemesis, the slave tracker, Ridgeway, never referred to a slave as a person but as an ‘it’.

Ridgeway’s eugenic ideology is the kind of the thing trumpeted by Trump supporters. Cora is a suitable test of his skills because she dared to escape, as her mother did before her. The only slave Ridgeway never returned to his master. The Fugitive Slave law allowed him to cross state lines and he had a legal right, much like bounty hunters and bond bailsmen have today, to return property to its owner. Where Cora ran, Ridgeway followed.

But here we have what a writer’s conceit, in that the Underground Railway that helped slaves escape from their brutal masters was not figurative, but actual. A railway network ran underneath the state lines of America, much like the subway system runs underneath London. We have moved from traditional narrative to something more surreal, bordering on science-fiction.

Lumbley’s words returned to her [Cora]: If you want to see what the nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.

Cora, like many of the hobos of 1920s and 1930s rode the lines, trying to find a better and more forgiving place. A utopian world, predating John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ were Okies could not make a living or find freedom and were black people were invisible.

This then is also a novel that holds a different kind of mirror up to America. Cora’s America is a place built on genocide and slavery which sells fear as a panacea and people as things. A free black man walks different from a slave. The distant pass isn’t that far whatever way you travel. Trump that?