In her introduction to THE DEATH OF ADAM: ESSAYS ON MODERN THOUGHT, Marilynne Robinson explains that these essays were composed for various occasions and publications during the several years before this book was written. All of them, she accurately notes, are “contrarian in method and spirit;” they assert that the prevailing view of things is often wrong and, further, that the opposite view of things is also usually wrong. The essays often explore the disparity between primary texts which have had significant social impact (such as Charles Darwin’s THE DESCENT OF MAN, 1871) and what subsequent generations have claimed as the meanings of the texts.
In this spirit of revisionism and demonstration that there are other ways of thinking than the commonly held opinions suggest, Robinson addresses a wide range of issues and topics: religion, science, economics, education, the environment, the sweep of history in the western world. She is particularly adept at making connections between attitudes and events and between the myths society clings to and the realities of survival that are at stake if these myths are not re-examined.
Robinson’s writing is stunning and compelling, never simplistic or mundane. The humanitarian vision which shapes each of the essays makes this a profound work at both the levels of individual self-understanding and of understanding contemporary culture. With a clear passion, Robinson argues for the need to re-conceptualize subjects thought to be already known or understood, and she presents a strong case for the need for sweeping cultural change.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCV, September 1, 1998, p. 63.
Boston Globe. September 13, 1998, p. C2.
The Christian Century. CXV, November 18, 1998, p. 1101.
Library Journal. CXXIII, September 15, 1998, p. 86.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 27, 1998, p. 60.
San Francisco Chronicle. October 4, 1998, p. REV5.
2 6 0 W A L 3 4 ( 2 ) SUMMER 1 9 9 9 philosophy,” which would also influence his final novel, Whistle (35). Carter has written a provocative study shedding light on an author gen erally dismissed as a mere war novelist. In fact, the self-educated writer was a serious thinker on many cultural and literary issues. However, the problem with Carter’s study lies on its overemphasis of the Eastern influence in Jones’s writing and its lack of relation to contemporary historical and social issues which are also important. The book concentrates on issues raised within the original dissertation and lacks the relevant investigation of other sources from archives located at Yale and the Harry Ransom Humanities Center at the University of Texas at Austin. A comprehensive analysis may reveal that the reincarnation theme was but one of many ideas the author examined throughout his entire literary career. Furthermore, the transcendental themes Carter finds active in Jones’s fiction may also originate from other literary sources the writer was also familiar with, most notably in Jack London’s fic tion Before Adam and Martin Eden. Carter has written an important book, however, one which challenges many misleading assumptions about the author, placing him within a critical tradition represented by Bongcheon Yu, Arthur Christy, and Frederick Ives Carpenter. It ought to stimulate further critical investigations into this unjustly neglected figure. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. By Marilynne Robinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 254 pages, $24-00. Reviewed by James H. Maguire Boise State University Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is one of the best novels of the 1980s, and now she has written a collection of essays, The Death of Adam, that could change the way we think about modern thought. In her intro duction, she says not only that her subjects include “religion, history, [and] the state of contemporary society” but also that her ten essays are “contrar ian in method and spirit” (1). Her essays attack some nineteenth- and twentieth-century intellectual giants, including Darwin and Freud, and she encourages us to reconsider the ideas of seventeeth-century theologian John Calvin. By using substantial passages from Calvin’s own writing, she reveals a thinker quite different from the Calvin depicted by writers such as Lord Acton, Roland H. Bainton, and Max Weber. She also praises thinkers as diverse as Margaret of Navarre, the McGuffeys, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because of Robinson’s incisiveness, keen logic, and fine style, reviewers have rightly praised The Death ofAdam as a book that everyone should read. In the book’s last essay, Robinson writes about imperiled wilderness. Like Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder, she says that our problem is not as much how to save some wilderness as it is how to change ourselves. She B o o k R e v i e w s 2 6 1 points out that in environmentalists’ self-satisfaction at having reached some of their environmental goals, such as saving the last few redwood trees, they may ignore a civilization eager to clear-cut any other unpro tected forests. Robinson’s view of wilderness comes not only from her think ing about contemporary environmental issues but also from her family’s western heritage. She writes: “I am an American of the kind whose family sought out wilderness generation after generation” (246). As western American literature develops in what Thomas J. Lyon and other critics say is its postfrontier phase, many western writers will continue to warn about our self-destructive civilization; as part of that prophesying, Robinson’s articulation of our self-endangerment may become a major force in changing our thinking. Consider how compellingly she can state the problem: One need not have an especially excitable or a particularly gloomy nature to be persuaded that we may be approaching the end of the day. For decades, environmentalists have concerned themselves with this spill and that encroachment, this depletion and that extinction, as if such phenomena were singular and exceptional. Our causes have even jostled for attention, each claiming a special urgency. This is, I think, like quarreling over which shadow brings evening. We are caught up in something much larger...