The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

by Marilynne Robinson

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In these 10 essays, Marilynne Robinson brilliantly addresses subjects that have become the territory of specialists--religion, history, the state of society. The writing is "contrarian in method and spirit," as she states in her introduction, but "Who can imagine how the things we call ideas live in the world, or how they change, or how they perish, or how they can…  See more details below


In these 10 essays, Marilynne Robinson brilliantly addresses subjects that have become the territory of specialists--religion, history, the state of society. The writing is "contrarian in method and spirit," as she states in her introduction, but "Who can imagine how the things we call ideas live in the world, or how they change, or how they perish, or how they can be renewed?"

In the tradition of 19th-century novelists who turned to the essay, Marilynne Robinson offers a beautiful and authoritative approach to refining the ideas our culture has handed down to us. Whether considering how the McGuffey readers were inspired by Midwestern abolitionists; how Creationism, "long owned by the Religious Right," has spurred on contemporary Darwinism; or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's Continental origins, Robinson writes meticulously and with great conviction. Her essays are filled with the excitement of discovery.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in... John Calvin. If I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt that the average reader would have read this far." That's the introduction to one essay, but it could also apply to most of Robinson's (Housekeeping) first book in nearly a decade. Among the 10 essays here is one on the idea of wilderness and an intensely personal meditation on growing up Presbyterian, but these are essentially afterthoughts to an impassioned argument against America's contemporary social Darwinists cum free marketeers. And here's where Calvin comes in. She rebuts the characterization of Calvin as protocapitalist and the quick dismissal of his Puritan followers as prigs. Instead, she finds in their example a more fulfilling morality, one that substitutes personal responsibility for contemptuous condemnation of our fellows and a more personal, independent relationship with God and conscience. The corollary of the notion that "our unhappiness is caused by society, is that society can make us happy," she writes, adding, "Whatever else it is, morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself." Though there are occasional problems--for example, the argument "an important historical `proof' very current among us now is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence unconscious of the irony of the existence of slavery" is simply a straw man. But for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity, and rather than accepting received wisdom she hunts it out for herself among original texts. In the process, she revives founding beliefs as a possible solution for current ills.
Library Journal
Contrarian in method and spirit, this title fields a host of unapologetically demanding critical essays. From the introduction, reclaiming religion's role in culture, to the final essay, on civilization and wilderness, each bracing page compels response to a positively asserted and forcefully argued moral vision. Here passion and intellect are wed. Robinson assays our common cultural ore, exposing dross and rediscovering worth and truth. An uncommon critic, she delves into diverse material and does not deny her religious roots but taps into them as she examines how Midwestern abolitionists inspired the McGuffey Reader, how Creationism spurs on contemporary Darwinism, and what's kind about Calvin. -- John R. Leech, Brooklyn, New York
Kirkus Reviews
The author of Housekeeping (1980) and Mother Country (1989) challenges the accepted views of Calvin, Darwin, and others to invigorate intellectual discourse and, by extension, change our days and minds. As with her earlier works, Robinson's essays are marked by her uneasiness with the workings of society and human consciousness. Here she attempts to counter people's disturbingly easy acceptance of the "prevailing view of things" by taking a "contrarian" approach that assumes any side—in fact, each—may be wrong. Her aim is not to ridicule but to provide alternatives: "Put aside what we know, and it will start to speak to us again," she says. Her essays on John Calvin revisit his contributions to modern government and religion, disputing Max Weber's views of Protestantism and uncovering the influence of Renaissance writer Marguerite de Navarre. With the Mencken-inspired title "Puritans and Prigs" she traces the "generalized disapproval" of Puritanism to today's self-congratulatory priggish eating of fish and correcting of offensive diction. The book's title refers to the consequence of Darwinism, that is, the usurpation of God and human impulses by hard-wiring. As with all good philosophical essays, these pieces do more than shape thinking. They're about life as it's lived now. Like the 19th-century reformers she so appreciates in "McGuffey and the Abolitionists," the author wants to engender good faith. When what passes for social criticism these days is issue-bound journalism, and when intellectual debate is largely confined to ivy halls, Robinson's laboriously researched, inclusively presented opinions are welcome. They serve scholarship well, enlarging theaudience for dialogue on broad questions of how to live. Her dogged textual dissections (e.g., of Lord Acton and other critics of Calvin) illuminate her readings; her epigrammatic observations (e.g., "spiritual agoraphobes") vividly capture our states of mind. Set aside Robinson's occasional sober prolixity and find a moral gauntlet. This is a book written in hope.

The Boston Globe Jane Vanderburgh
American culture is enriched by having the whole range of Marilynne Robinson's work
Kathleen Norris
A valuable contribution to American life and letters.
Doris Lessing
A useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit.
Charles Baxter
Robinson's thinking is all in the service of humanity's survival, spiritually and environmentally.
The New York Times Book Review
One of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand. Her book is a goad to renewed curiosity.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.49(w) x 8.18(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

"These essays were written for various uses and occasions over a number of years. They have characteristic preoccupations—religion, history, the state of contemporary society—and they are, all of them, contrarian in method and spirit. They assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made."—from the Introduction

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