With the publication of Housekeeping in 1980, Marilynne Robinson announced herself on the literary stage as a writer of singular fiction – and then proceeded to not publish another novel for more than 20 years. The subsequent gap between Housekeeping and the Robinson’s next foray into fiction with Gilead in 2004 established her reputation as a writer who would not be rushed. Since the publication of Gilead, however, Robinson has been relatively prolific in terms of her fiction, with Home and Lila appearing in quick succession. As respected as she is for her fiction, Robinson is also a noted intellectual, publishing a number of well-received essay collections. Indeed, it could be said that her star is in the ascendant at the moment with critics in almost universal agreement about the remarkable quality of her writing and depth of her thinking. She has been interviewed by President Obama, was awarded the National Humanities Medal, and has won the Pulitzer Prize as well as other notable book prizes. Possibly owing to the protracted gap between Housekeeping and Gilead, however, until recently there has been something of a dearth in academic analysis of Robinson’s writing. What little there was tended to concentrate, not unreasonably, on the theological bent present in Robinson’s thinking, resulting in an artificially limited body of criticism for a writer who addresses issues as varied as gender, social structures, family relationships, nuclear energy, environmental issues, complex scientific theory, and the nature of democracy and political institutions.
Mirroring Robinson’s own flurry of activity in recent years, a growing interest in Robinson – as both a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and as a public intellectual – has emerged in academic circles. 2016 saw the first international symposium dedicated solely to Robinson’s work. Held in Nottingham, it attracted delegates from all over the world and has proved to be a remarkably fruitful event in energising Robinson scholars to approach her work from previously unexplored angles. Arising from that event, an edited collection of essays offering new perspectives on Robinson’s writing is due for publication in 2018. Also inspired by the Nottingham symposium is this special issue of the Irish Journal of American Studies Online. Owing to the journal’s online, open access presence and the ability to make new work available relatively quickly, this special issue offers up new perspectives at a time when Robinson’s work has never been more popular. As such, this special issue represents a crucial intervention into the nascent field of Robinson studies.
The essays in this issue range across Robinson’s entire body of work, and present new and insightful readings of her fiction and non-fiction. Elizabeth Abele examines how the spectre of John Brown looms over Gilead, and the impact this has on three generations of the Ames family. Adrianna Smith analyses family lines in Gilead, and how traditionally vertical genealogical lines are rewritten. Daniel Muhlestein discusses the role of the author in the Gilead novels, while Rachel Sykes suggests that rather than reading the three novels as sequels they operate more as partner or “sibling” texts. Lisa Mendelman reframes Housekeeping as a work of “postmodern sentimentalism.” Reading Housekeeping in relation to Freud, Andrew Cunning analyses how Ruth attempts to overcome her lack of identity through language. Meanwhile, Tim Jelfs interrogates the nature of democracy as Robinson defines it in her non-fiction, arguing that it is too exceptionalist in its view of the United States as a global actor, and is often overlooked in the praise that Robinson’s style attracts. Also included here is an essay by Kelsie Donnelly which was highly commended by the judges of the 2016 Irish Association for American Studies W.T.M. Riches Essay Prize.
The recent announcement of a forthcoming collection of new essays by Robinson that examines “how America should talk about itself now” suggests that this special issue appears at a particularly fertile time for those interested in Robinson and her writing. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all of the authors for their hard work in bringing these essays to publication, and to the Editorial Board of the Irish Journal of American Studies Online for originally commissioning the issue.
Jennifer Daly, IJAS Online Guest Editor
Image credit: “Marilynne Robinson jpg” from BBC World Service is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.