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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

Overview

In the tradition of nineteenth-century novelists who turned to the essay, 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, or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's continental origins, Robinson writes with great conviction.
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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

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Overview

In the tradition of nineteenth-century novelists who turned to the essay, 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, or how John Calvin, who was a Frenchman in Geneva, points to America's continental origins, Robinson writes with great conviction.
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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
Roger Kimball
One of Robinson's great merits as an essayist is her refusal to take her opinions secondhand...."Everything...always bears looking into"....Robinson is against that aspect that aspect of modern thought -- a large and immensely influential aspect -- that inculcates cynicism....Robinson encourages us to take another look. -- The New York Times Book Review
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.
From the Publisher

"American culture is enriched by having the whole range of Marilynne Robinson's work"--Jane Vanderburgh, The Boston Globe

"A valuable contribution to American life and letters."--Kathleen Norris

"A useful antidote to the increasingly crude and slogan-loving culture we inhabit."--Doris Lessing

"Robinson's thinking is all in the service of humanity's survival, spiritually and environmentally."--Charles Baxter

"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."--The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618002061
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 1/14/2000
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the modern classic Housekeeping--winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award--and two books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989) and The Death of Adam. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Biography

For someone who has labored long in the literary vineyard, Marilynne Robinson has produced a remarkably slim oeuvre. However, in this case, quality clearly trumps quantity. Her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, snagged the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Twenty-four years later, her follow-up novel, Gilead, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. And in between, her controversial extended essay Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989) was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Robinson is far from indolent. She teaches at several colleges and has written several articles for Harper's, Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Still, one wonders -- especially in the face of her great critical acclaim -- why she hasn't produced more full-length works. When asked about these extended periods of literary dormancy, Robinson told Barnes & Noble.com, "I feel as if I have to locate my own thinking landscape... I have to do that by reading -- basically trying to get outside the set of assumptions that sometimes seems so small or inappropriate to me." What that entails is working through various ideas that often don't develop because, as she says, "I couldn't love them."

Still, occasionally Robinson is able to salvage something important from the detritus -- for example, Gilead's central character, Reverend John Ames. "I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with," Robinson explains. "There was a character whom I intended as a minor character... he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different -- he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place."

This tendency of Robinson's to regard her characters as living, thinking beings may help to explain why her fictional output is so small. While some authors feel a deep compulsion to write daily, approaching writing as a job, Robinson depends on inspiration which often comes from the characters themselves. She explains, "I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do -- whose voice tells me how to write the novel."

As if to prove her point, in 2008, Robinson crafted the luminous novel Home around secondary characters from Gilead: John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his reprobate son Jack. Paying Robinson the ultimate compliment, Kirkus Reviews declared that the novel "[c]omes astonishingly close to matching its amazing predecessor in beauty and power."

However, the deeply spiritual Robinson is motivated by a more personal directive than the desire for critical praise or bestsellerdom. Like the writing of Willa Cather -- or, more contemporaneously, Annie Dillard -- her novels are suffused with themes of faith, atonement, and redemption. She equates writing to prayer because "it's exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you." To this sentiment, Robinson's many devoted fans can only add: Amen.

Good To Know

Robinson doesn't just address religion in her writing. She serves as a deacon at the Congregational Church to which she belongs.

One might think that winning a Pulitzer Prize could easily go to a writer's head, but Robinson continues to approach her work with surprising humility. In fact, her advice to aspiring writers is to always "assume your readers are smarter than you are."

Robinson is no stranger to controversy. Mother Country, her indictment of the destruction of the environment and those who feign to protect it, has raised the ire of Greenpeace, which attempted to sue her British publisher for libel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Iowa City, Iowa
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 26, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sandpoint, Idaho
    1. Education:
      B.A., Brown University, 1966

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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Table of Contents

Darwinism 28
Facing reality 76
Family 87
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 108
McGuffey and the abolitionists 126
Puritans and prigs 150
Marguerite de Navarre 174
Marguerite de Navarre, part II 207
Psalm Eight 227
Wilderness 245
The tyranny of petty coercion 255
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