The trail across the sky retraces periodically, for as a universal force, outside of history, Brown is an archetype or prototype, a meteor that recurs comet-like.
John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd (123)
In The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction 1962-2007, Sally Bachner notes Marilynne Robinson, unlike her contemporary novelists, presents a contratradition, as she avoids the usual American privileging of violence, producing instead “finely wrought novels of domestic manners and family agon” (144). However, while Robinson’s novels focus on the domestic sphere, with their setting in the West, they remain ever mindful of the violence that their communities are built on. In describing the goal of the new Western novel, Robinson argues that the landscape should “assert itself in the most interesting terms, so that the whole country must hear, and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually put aside and too readily forgotten” (“Western” 172). In her novel Gilead, the violent radicalism of John Brown in Kansas continually reasserts itself in the landscape of a quiet Iowa town, through the recurrences of a fiery patriarch who embodies the archetype of Brown. Brown’s dream refuses to be forgotten.
As the epistolary writing of an elderly minister to his young son, violence and passions may be the last thing to be expected from Gilead, yet the memoirist is haunted by the unrealized dreams and passions of his grandfather, as well by regrets over the work left undone by his own and his father’s quieter ministries. Ames’s rambling memoir chronicles three generations of Calvinist ministers, as well as their respective support of American ideologies from the 1850s-1950s. To reinforce the uneasy but inescapable connection between the generations, all three men are named “Rev. John Ames.” To further complicate the tale, the last Rev. John Ames is close friends with Rev. Robert Boughton – who named his son John Ames Boughton. Counting the godson, this makes four generations of John Ameses who have spent at least part of their lives in Gilead, Iowa. [I]
In Gilead, Robinson deliberately disturbs the domestic manners of respectable people like Rev. John Ames3 and his father2, critiquing their quiet service through the expectant eye of the patriarch John Ames1, a devoted apostle of the martyred John Brown. Like Brown, the elder Ames uprooted himself from the East, arriving in Kansas armed with a Bible and a gun. Unlike Brown, he survived the antebellum conflicts and the Civil War, bringing his unquenched fervor home to his son2 and grandson3: “That eye of his always seemed to be full of expectation and disappointment, both at once, and I began to dread the moments that it fell on me” (Gilead 174). As Ames3 pens his “begats” for his young son, it is these expectations and disappointments that drive his narrative, with his grandfather1 (who died when he3 was 12), emerging more fully drawn than his own father2.
Gilead is the first of three novels by Robinson that overlap in 1956 Gilead, Iowa. Home (2008) is from the perspective of Glory Boughton, daughter of Rev. Ames’s3 friend and colleague Rev. Boughton; Lila (2014) is the tale of Rev. Ames’s3 second wife, the itinerant, younger woman who disrupted his self-imposed sequestration after the death of his first wife and child. While Christopher Leise sees Robinson as celebrating the incandescent – the kinder, gentler potential of Calvin (362) – these novels instead seem to question the validity of the softer Calvinism of Boughton and the two younger John Ameses, as religious leaders of a peace without justice. Robinson’s Gilead uncovers the restless soul of John Brown – a martyr whose radical dreams of racial equality have yet to be realized.
Gilead is about an inherited duty that has been denied and buried, but refuses to be forgotten. This essay will establish the unique position of John Brown in the American memory, particularly as expressed in recent American fiction. The essay will then examine how Gilead uses the three generations of John Ameses to show the gradual disintegration of the American righteousness that brought John Brown/John Ames1 to Kansas; their disappointment remains a constant rebuke—not only to the dying John Ames3 but to America as a whole. Gilead chronicles a broken legacy based not only on blood but in faith and in the land.
The Uneasy Dream of John Brown
In the 1850s Kansas became the focus of Free-Stater violence, as epitomized by skirmishes led by Brown in Pottawatomie and Osawatomie, violence that frequently spilled over into neighboring western states. Though John Brown was a major figure of the American popular imagination from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, he may be unfamiliar to many Americans today. If known at all, it is for his martyrdom at Harper’s Ferry, commemorated in the song “John Brown’s Body.” Likewise, Kansas is remembered as the site of Aunt Em’s farm, not as Bleeding Kansas, an antecedent to the Civil War. However, despite his move into the nation’s subconscious, Brown remains an emblem of American passions – as well as of failed promises.
Brown was born into a family that was fervently patriotic and religious, which fueled his opposition to slavery. He moved between states and professions, while fathering twenty children, whom he enlisted in his mission. Brown’s life involved sustained associations with black individuals, including establishing a farm within a community of freed slaves, raising a black youth, and participating in active correspondence with black abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass. Understanding the Constitution and Bible as equally sacred texts which slavery violated, he embraced righteous violence in his quest for a just society.
Brown’s activism became more visible after five of his sons moved to the Kansas Territory, where the Free-Stater and pro-slavery factions were battling for control. John Brown Jr. wrote urging him to come and bring guns, which “we need more than we need bread” (qtd. in Abels 40-41). Once in Kansas, the senior Brown became frustrated at the passivity of the Free-Staters, and assumed the leadership of an anti-slavery militia. On May 24, 1856, he led an attack at Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas, murdering five men. He later led the raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, whose goal was to arm slaves so that they could free themselves. His trial and his hanging brought his deeds from the frontier to Eastern attention: Emerson, Thoreau and Melville wrote in praise of Brown’s fervent vision and commitment to abolition. However, this Eastern memorializing of Brown tends to avoid the material reality of the Kansas violence, as well as the ongoing reality of the people that he meant to free.
In 1988, two novels were published by prominent American authors that included John Brown: Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter. Smiley has said that she turned to 1850s Kansas after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma. Banks revealed that his impetus came from more than one late twentieth-century event:
The ghost of John Brown returned to haunt me. About the same time, events like Waco, Ruby Ridge, the militia movement, the radical anti-abortionists started making headlines—all of them invoking his name to justify violence. Certain parallels became pretty obvious to me and I realized how significantly he figures in the old American weave of violence, politics, religion, race. (qtd. by Faggan)
For Smiley and Banks, twentieth-century American radicals brought to mind the “intersection of violence and ideology in American life” (Smiley 455) as embodied by Brown, with the violence in Kansas more terrifying than Harper’s Ferry. Banks has called Brown “the last Puritan and the first modern terrorist” (qtd. in Connor 217). While Lincoln may have famously credited Harriet Beecher Stowe as “the little lady who started the war” with her fiction, Brown is the hero that history may prefer to forget, but whose soul remains a part of the fabric of the American identity.
Even when contemporary novels choose Brown as their subject, the authors use multiple layers to distance themselves from Brown’s blinding light. For example, in the novel Cloudsplitter, Banks recounts Brown’s life through his surviving son Owen, decades after his father’s execution—as recorded for a research assistant (though possibly not sent). Banks uses Owen’s physical and temporal distance from the events of John Brown’s life, as well as the agenda of the scholar and research assistant, as a filter for his narrative. As Banks explains, “You can’t stand too near the heat of a character like John Brown. It scalds you. To see him as other than an icon you need the distancing that a weaker character provides” (qtd. in Connor 205). Likewise, for the National Book Award winner Good Lord Bird (2013), James McBride chooses as his narrator for Brown’s sojourns a stolen slave boy masquerading as a girl—with the “manuscript” discovered decades later in a way that discounts its authenticity. Not only is McBride’s narrator an uneducated juvenile, he relates the events as a colorful storyteller, rather than as a conscientious witness—if he was even there! In the frame narrative that introduces their narrators, both Banks and McBride create multiple layers of deniability to their portraits, demonstrating that even more than 150 years later, a little bit of John Brown may be enough.
Smiley’s (like Robinson’s) novel dramatizes the ripples of violence caused by transplanting Eastern ideologies to Kansas. In Lidie Newton, Brown is the impetus for the main characters’ move to Kansas. Domesticity, ideology, and violence collide as the Newtons transport Sharp’s rifles on their honeymoon. Sharp’s rifles were nicknamed Beecher’s Bibles, after Henry Ward Beecher whose Brooklyn congregation funded some of these shipments; these same rifles were used by the Browns. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lidie also carries to Kansas A Treatise on Domestic Economy by Catherine E. Beecher, to learn how to be a proper wife to her idealistic husband. The Beecher siblings equally promoted domesticity, religion, and rifles to keep slavery out of Kansas. It is these intersections between American ideologies and violence that keep these authors coming back to Brown.
However, the most disturbing implication in these novels is that perhaps John Brown was right: perhaps the United States would have been a better place if more had shared his willingness to commit violence to realize the dream of full equality. This inescapable conclusion provides the subtext of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.
The Balm of Gilead
[John Brown’s] zeal for the cause was far greater than mine—it was the burning sun to my meteor light.
In his review of Good Lord Bird, Hector Tobar notes that John Brown is “one of the ghosts that haunt Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead,” even though Brown never directly appears in the novel. Robinson goes the farthest in distancing her narrative from Brown: she creates a literary double of Brown in the elder John Ames. Ames1 reflects Robinson’s description of the Western mythic tradition, a “Utopian impulse, the hope to create a model of a good human order, that seems to have arrived on the Mayflower” (“Western” 169). In these novels by Banks, McBride, Smiley, and Robinson, Brown’s fervor and actions haunt all these narratives through the survivors. Like Douglass, these surviving characters could not sustain Brown’s zeal, living to see the cause pass from the sky. In Gilead, this troubling presence of Brown’s passion is felt even by a narrator born after Brown’s hanging.
Robinson signals her novel’s relationship to Brown in the title of her novel. Though Gilead is ostensibly the name given to the Iowa town by Kansas settlers, it is also connected to the militant “League of Gileadites” that Brown created to prevent slaves’ recapture. In the Bible, Mount Gilead was the place where only the bravest of Israelites would gather together to face an invading enemy. Further, the literal roots of Gilead are directly tied to Brown, founded as “a dogged little outpost in the sand hills”:
It was a place John Brown and Jim Lane could fall back on when they needed to heal and rest. There must have been a hundred little towns like it, set up in the heat of an old urgency […], which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into them. (Gilead 234)
However, it appears that the twentieth-century citizens of Gilead have neither Brown’s commitment to black freedom nor the Israelites’ requirement of courage. African-Americans in 1950s Gilead remain invisible and oppressed, bearing the consequences of white failures to remember the dream. These Gileadites have devolved into “the sort of white racism that exists in the absence of other races and takes the form of indifference to the consequences of prejudice” (Petit 119). This racism by omission was evident likewise in the ministers of Gilead.
Ames3 is the end of a line of Calvinist ministers, whose roots go back to New England. He is particularly aware of how the legacies of his grandfather, father, and himself as ministers are ironically tied to the armed conflicts fought by their respective congregations, and with the family’s most shameful secrets in Kansas. As his own father2 advised: “Behold how much wood is kindled by how small a fire, and the tongue is a fire” (6); both had witnessed the power of words—both those said, and those withheld. His father2 urges him to avoid kindling fires, to use the power of his pulpit sparingly. Brown and Ames1 more likely would have taken the same slogan as a call to speak, to burn down injustice. Ames is troubled equally by his grandfather’s uncompromising fervor and that nothing in his own ministry has matched it. 100 years after John Brown, at the end of Ames’s3 own life, has anything worthwhile been accomplished? Ames3 literally has boxes of his weekly sermons stored in his rectory – did they have any impact on his congregation or Gilead? Were his words too careful to kindle a fire?
The 76 year-old John Ames3 turns to the pen in an attempt to salvage “what matters” for his little boy (102), the events of Brown and his grandfather hang over his memoir. As a young boy, Ames lived in awe of his grandfather, who came to live with them in the Gilead rectory of Rev. Ames2. Having two ministers under the same roof highlighted the dramatic differences in their vocations. Scott A. Kaukonen sees the conflict of two men who “equally claim a mantle born of spiritual blessing [but who] can arrive at such diametrically opposed conclusions—conclusions with severe and irreversible consequences” as the issue that the last minister3 of their line struggles to avoid (226). Echoing John Brown, the elder Ames1 had moved from Maine to Kansas to support Free Staters, after a vision spoke to him about the vital importance of abolition. Instead of feeling pride (or envy) that their patriarch had been directly touched by God, Ames’s father “never encouraged any talk about visions or miracles, except the ones in the Bible” (48). This Rev. Ames2 preferred to keep his distance from his father1, as well as from abolition and an intervening God.
When Ames1 follows the call back to Kansas and to preaching in 1892, he indirectly forces his son2 to remember Bleeding Kansas and to share these memories with his young son3, events Rev. Ames2 has worked to distance himself from physically and spiritually. The elder Ames1 leaves behind in Gilead bloody shirts, a gun, and his last sermon as a final message to his son2, yet “These things that my grandfather had left behind were just an offense to him” (79). After years of metaphorically burying this history, the narrator3 watches his father2 as he now literally buries, unburies, dismantles, and reburies these items, struggling to find the appropriate way to deal with them – as his father2 has been struggling to deal with the legacy of Kansas and the Civil War all his life. Even as a boy, the narrator3 recognized the frenzy and futility of his father’s2 actions. This struggle between destroying and respecting relics of the patriarch mirror the ambivalences of Gilead and the country with the legacies of abolitionist fervor.
After unsuccessfully trying to bury his father’s Kansas relics, Rev. Ames2 receives word that the old man had been buried in an unmarked grave. Again, a first burying is not sufficient. Ames’s father feels compelled to travel to Kansas, even though the family lacks the means to make the difficult journey safely. Father2 and son3 make the pilgrimage to the former sites of Free-State communities and violent raids. The patriarch’s body, which as in the song “John Brown’s Body” “lies a-mouldering in the grave,” still holds power over his son2 and grandson3, as they must witness the site of the Kansas conflicts, a landscape that—like its dream—has been abandoned.
It is on their trip to Kansas that Ames’s father confesses to him the full extent of his grandfather’s ideological fervor, which pushed his father2 in the opposite direction. Ames’s father shares with his 12 year-old son his own childhood memories that have haunted him, the legacy he had hoped they would escape in Iowa. The most troubling story his father shares is of a murder, possibly committed by his grandfather1 or possibly committed by John Brown. After having harbored Brown and his men in their church the night before, his father2 as a boy was scrubbing bloodstains from the church floor, when he was interrupted by a soldier on Brown’s trail. The weary man lamented to the boy that “decent folks” supported Brown, but would not give a soldier, who was merely doing what he was paid to do, a cup of coffee. Later, the boy saw his father1 carrying two bloody shirts, brandishing a gun. Ames3 writes, “My father hated to believe [the soldier] was the man my grandfather shot, but he did believe it” (107). The grandfather then made his young son2 an accomplice to the deed, asking him to lie about having met the soldier. The fact that he never had to tell the lie did not alter his complicity in his father’s1 violence—a secret the young Ames3 now shares. Tanner notes that overall Ames epistolary journal “gradually reveals the way in which he is implicated in the secrets that he’s kept” (227). While his grandfather’s secrets were dramatic, his father’s and his own may be more sins of silence.
Even though Ames’s young father2 was asked to conceal, his grandfather proclaimed the deed, preaching to his congregation while wearing the bloody shirt. Rev. Ames1
had preached his people into the war, saying while there was slavery there was no peace, but only a war of the armed and powerful against the captive and defenseless. He would say, Peace will come only when that war ends, so the God of peace calls upon us to end it. He said all this with that gun in his belt. And everyone there always shouted amen, even the littlest children. (118)
In this scene, violence is literally acclaimed and affirmed within the church, whether or not the elder Ames1 actually pulled the trigger.
Through these bloody shirts that the elder Ames wears and then preserves for decades as a relic, Robinson marks Ames1 as a surviving disciple of Brown, embodying many of the same charismatic and terrifying qualities, bordering on madness: Ames3 “was never really a practical man after that day” (108). In the poem “The Portent,” Melville’s final lines are “(Weird John Brown) / The meteor of war” (ln. 13-14). Neither Brown nor Ames were rational in their quest for justice. So the question hanging over Gilead is whether “weird” may have more political and social value than “practical.”
Robinson sets her action in the West because the vocations of Brown and Ames1 could not have flourished in New England soil. Throughout her 1993 essay “My Western Roots,” the seeds of Gilead are visible. Her description of the character fostered by the Western landscape fits Brown and Ames1: “it is not surprising that their heroes lived outside society” (170). Her connection of the Western hero to Biblical prophets – “Since the time of the Hebrew prophets it has been the role of the outsider to loosen these chains, or lengthen them, if only bringing the rumor of a life lived otherwise” (171) – echoes the way that Ames3 describes his grandfather: “I could imagine Jesus befriending my grandfather, too, frying up some breakfast for him […], and in fact, the old man did report several experiences of just that kind” (Gilead 30). Moving West to Kansas allowed Ames1 and Brown to move into the realm of holy men.
It is significant that Robinson traces the West’s utopian impulse to the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Puritans to New England, since Brown was directly descended from the Mayflower Puritans. Robinson directly explored her perspectives on Calvinism and American ideology in her collection The Death of Adam – so it makes sense for Robinson to examine the religious zeal of John Brown through the lens of a Congregationalist minister, with Congregationalism descended directly from the Puritans.  Leise notes that the year that Robinson chose as the setting for the novel is the year she posits that Puritanism died (352). As Todd Shy argues, “American culture shaped and nourished by a rich religious tradition, has, at best, ignored its own heritage or, at worst, shown contempt for it” (251-52). Robinson may be pointing out how the Gilead congregations in mid-century America (perhaps like Americans today) are too content with thinking themselves “good” rather than being as active in their service to God as their Puritan forefathers: “tightly knit communities in which members look to one another for identity, and to establish meaning and value, are disabled and often dangerous, however polished their veneer” (“Western” 169). As respectable a community as Gilead may seem in Robinson’s trilogy, this disability beneath the veneer may actually be her (reluctant) point, with forgetting the dream worse for Gilead than for a community than never embraced it.
As a martyr, Brown died with his hope of real change intact, fully supported by his large family. Perhaps less fortunately, the elder Ames1 lived to see the events that followed Harper’s Ferry. He survived to both fight in the Civil War and to witness the continuous disappointments of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction. Because of his age, he was advised to join a graybeard regiment of the Union Army that would not go into combat. Instead he used his Greek New Testament to join the regular army as a chaplain so that he would be on the frontlines of the conflict. When his son2 found him recovering at Mount Pleasant, he was speechless at seeing his father’s injuries, including the loss of an eye. However, his father saw this marking as an honor: “being blessed meant being bloodied” (46), drawing on the shared etymology of these words in English.
Yet the loss of his eye may have been the elder Ames’s last blessing. His son2 felt so uncomfortable with his father’s fervor that after the Civil War he sat with the Quakers—a group that not only promoted peace and brotherhood, but was also a non-Calvinist Christian denomination that questioned the authority of minister-leaders. Rev. Ames2 later regretted his pacifist defection as disrespectful to those who were mourning the deaths of their husbands and fathers. Yet he never regretted his choice enough to take up his father’s1 cause or passion. Though he2 eventually returned to the Calvinist path as a Congregational minister, he encouraged his congregation to forget injustice, past and present. Any talk of Kansas or the subsequent war was avoided:
All best forgotten, my father used to say. He didn’t like to mention those times, and that did cause some hard feelings between him and his father. I’ve read up on those times, and I decided my father was right. And that’s just as well because people have forgotten. (76, italics mine)
Though his father’s2 preference for pacifism may be understandable, he deliberately discarded the cause along with the regrettable means.
Robert Chodat sees the father and son ministers as representing different strains of Calvinism, with the elder1 as the “emblem of antebellum revivalism,” while his son2 moved toward rationalism and progressivism: leading to “a radical abolitionist and a radical pacifist” trying to live under the same roof (339-40). Yet despite his2 consistent commitment to peace, there is a sense of failure about father’s2 ministry. This disappointment is evident in the overly respectful way the two older Ames spoke to each other as they tried to co-exist:
“Well, Reverend1, I know you placed great faith in that War. My hopes are in peace, and I am not disappointed. Because peace is its own reward. Peace is its own justification.”
My grandfather says, “And that’s just what kills my heart, Reverend2.” (Gilead 84)
The fact that his son2 could be satisfied with peace is an insult to the elder Ames, as it would have been an insult to Brown. Ames3 says of his father2, “He acted from truthfulness as he saw it. But something in the way that he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me” (7). This “disappointment” is the sign of work left undone—or not even attempted.
However, Ames’s father2 may have been punished for this betrayal of elder Ames’s values. Four of his children died of disease, including another John Ames. Not only did the narrator’s older brother Edward break the family tradition by becoming a college professor and an atheist, he repudiated his lineage by changing his first name from “Edwards” (after Congregational revivalists Jonathan Edwards) and surname to “Ame”—disavowal is more severe and permanent than Ames2 sitting with Quakers. In the next generation, Ames3 suffered the loss of his first wife and child during childbirth. And though, like Abraham, God finally rewarded him with a son, his surviving son will barely remember him. While John Brown’s sons largely fought and died with him, the legacy of his comrade Rev. Ames1 is faint.
The elder Ames1 may have been as disappointed in Gilead as he was in his son. He abruptly left Gilead, returning to Kansas, after several events crystallized for him how little had been accomplished. The first event was a fire at the Negro Church. In his reminiscences, Ames3 continually downplays the event, as not being much of a fire—ignoring the sea change it represented in a town founded to support the Free Stater movement and to aid escaping slaves. When the elder Ames1 was asked to speak at a town anniversary, he wrote a sermon (largely unheard) in which he challenged the Gileadites: “The President, General Grant, once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism. But what is left here in Iowa? What is left here in Gilead? Dust. Dust and ashes” (176). About the same time, he took his grandson to a baseball game featuring Bud Fowler, the first professional black ballplayer. While his grandfather was very disappointed when Fowler did not get much play, Ames3 does not note the prominence of this player, nor the significance of this slight. Petit observes that “Gilead uses Fowler’s situation to encapsulate the failure of Reconstruction” (121). As Ames sums up his grandfather’s frustration, he “had nowhere to spend his courage, no way to feel it in himself” (47), yet it never seems to occur to Ames to take up his grandfather’s values, to see that courage could have been of value to his congregation or his own life.
It is not a coincidence that Ames’s3 age at the time of the pilgrimage to Kansas roughly coincides with the age of his father2 at the time of the incident with the soldier and the bloody shirts. This pilgrimage ties the generations together, easing Ames3 into the pattern of following in his father’s footsteps of least resistance. On the other hand, it may have also fertilized the seeds of doubt in his father2. For his mother’s health, his parents left Gilead for the Gulf Coast, permanently joining his older son Edward’s family. At the end, Ames’s father2 repudiated his own path, choosing life with his atheist son and encouraging his minister-son to likewise abandon his post, leaving Gilead for a “broader experience” (235). His3 vocation in Gilead is judged as narrow by the previous holder of the position.
In his writing to his young son, Ames may have intended to record what he and his father2 accomplished in their long service to Gilead, as he expresses few direct regrets. Yet he struggles to assert the value of his life. As Shy writes, “he both praises the world and unmasks it, hesitates and affirms” (258). Chodat writes of the depth of Ames’s3 failure, as his own record shows him complicit with some of the worst injustices of his day, as he “reneged on the broad-minded commitment of both his grandfather and father, and, by contrast, grown torpid and complacent, negligent in his single-minded emphasis on family, off-spring, and community” (343).
Of course, his worst failure was to abandon his grandfather’s commitment to the rights of African-Americans. Following the fire, the black citizens gradually leave Gilead, a migration that he does nothing to stop. When the black minister finally abandons Gilead, he gives Ames3 plants from his garden that had come from his father2: “He told me they were sorry to leave, because this town had once meant a great deal to them” (37, italics mine). While the minister knew Ames’s father and grandfather, he and Ames are largely unacquainted which, as two ministers in a small town, is significant. Petit writes that Ames3 “exhibits an unconscious and therefore unexamined racism and desire to forget what happened” (123). She further notes that Ames watches (white-only) baseball on television, never mentioning the absence of players like Fowler, nor coverage of civil rights protests in Birmingham the summer of 1956. While his grandfather suffered from being too aware of social injustice, Ames’s lack of awareness makes him complicit, particularly in his role as an ethical leader.
The failure of three generations of Ames ministers to foster real change is epitomized in John Ames Boughton, another son of a Calvinist minister. As his namesake and godson, Jack was the closest thing Ames3 had to a son for most of his life. Despite a natural charm, Jack has been a disappointment to both his minister-fathers, unable to settle down, in trouble with alcohol and the law. After years away in St. Louis, he returns to Gilead just as Ames begins his narrative; Jack admits to Ames that he has finally found stability, with a wife and child. However, because his wife is black, he has been unable to marry her legally, and as one half of a mixed-race couple, he has been unable to hold on to a job to support her. Discussing a magazine article on religion with Boughton and Ames (just before revealing his secret family to Ames), Jack challenges their lack of seriousness on race:
“I thought [the author] made the point in here somewhere that Americans’ treatment of the Negro indicated a lack of religious seriousness.”
Boughton said, “It is easy to judge.” (147)
Neither Rev. Boughton nor his friend Rev. Ames can defend their religious record (personal or collective) on the issue of race.
As much as Jack rebelled against his ministerial lineage, his wife is a minister’s daughter. Her reputable father grudgingly respects Jack for bearing the name of the elder John Ames1: “He said he knew people whose families came north from Missouri before the war, and apparently they told remarkable stories about him, about raids and ambushes” (227). Her father also had heard of the colored regiment from Gilead: he respects violence in service of the God of Peace. If the elder Ames1 and his descendants had not lost sight of John Brown’s mission in Kansas, Jack might be able to marry legally and to find housing where he could live with his family. The surviving Ames3 minister is unable to offer Jack any real advice or comfort, having followed his own father2 in ministering to a white-only community.
Though Ames never makes a direct connection between Jack’s situation and the goals of his grandfather1, he does seem to express more regret for his lack of reach after Jack reveals his secret. He acknowledges that Gilead’s past exceeds its present: “There have been heroes here, and saints and martyrs, and I want you to know that. Because that is the truth even if no one remembers it. […] The saints got old and the times have changed” (173). He admits that he contributed to dismissing these saints: “they just seemed like eccentrics and nuisances [….] I say it to my shame” (174). But knowing that his son is unlikely to be a minister or even to stay in Gilead, he prays his son may do more: “that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful” (247), perhaps more like his great-grandfather1 than like himself.
As his own father2 literally had struggled to dispose of the relics of violent abolitionism, the last of the three Rev. John Ames struggles with the appropriate way to pass on his “begats” to his son, in hopes that this young boy will escape the disillusionment and hopelessness of his godson Jack. Though The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton may have been sparked by terrorism, Jane Smiley gives another explanation for how the novel evolved:
The dilemma of black-white relations in America is the most intransigent question of American history. […] In the past generation our black writers, thinkers, and theorists have taken the lead in dictating the terms of the discussion, and I think one of the things that is happening now is that white writers of my generation have decided, under those terms, to take up the discussion again. (“Adventures”)
In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson takes up this discussion through the lens of a disappointed John Brown-surrogate, exploring the failures of moral people to choose active struggle over a peaceful, complacent community. It takes courage for “good people” to move from disappointment to actively working to make the world not just a better place, but a just place for all. In Gilead, Robinson calls us to be brave citizens in a brave country, calling on the best part of our Puritan forefathers—to remember and fully honor John Brown.
[I] To clarify the distinctions between these three men, I will refer to them by their chronology: John Ames1, John Ames2, and John Ames3, with the last the narrator of Gilead. As he is generally referred to in the novel, John Ames Boughton is “Jack.”
 The Calvinism of Presbyterians (and Rev. Boughton) came to the United States later with Scottish immigrants.
Abels, Jules. Man on Fire: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty. Macmillan, 1971.
Chodat, Robert. “That Horeb, That Kansas: Evolution and the Modernity of Marilynne Robinson.” American Literary History vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 328-61. Doi:10.1093/alh/ajw014.
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Image credit: Cropped “John Brown [front]” from Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.