Between the Lines Book Club: Gilead and Transcendentalism

between the lines book club logoOur October book club selection is Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM on October 29, 2016.

Gilead is the story of Reverend Ames, his father, and his grandfather, and their approaches to war and civil rights. The book is profoundly influenced by transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism is a philosophical school of thought that developed in the late 1820s. It was made famous by, among other people, author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Other followers included Louisa May Alcott and her family, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau.

Transcendentalism was a movement that was influenced by Romanticism, as well as by Indian religions. Transcendentalists believed that all people are inherently good, that nature is inherently good, and that the more self-reliant people are, the better they are. The movement was notable as being American in origin, and most of its followers were Americans. It was also notable for sparking a literary movement that mirrored its philopophical aims. Emerson’s magazine, The Dial, was a home to many new essays and stories by American writers.

In an article for The New Inquiry titled “The New Transcendentalist” Susan Salter Reynolds says,

I like to think of Robinson as a member of a merry band I call the New Transcendentalists, a group that builds on the luminous work of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville, and others. The New Transcendentalists include, besides Robinson,  Wendell Berry, Thomas Merton, Mary Oliver, Rebecca Solnit, and others. I am sure that I have left names from both categories, New and Old, but the message is the same: belief in the human spirit and its capacity for community, generosity, and stewardship; in what Whitman called “radical uniqueness,” and in the vital connection to nature as a source of creativity and innovation. The effect is also the same: elevation, followed by freedom.

By tying her work, both consciously (Robinson is a big Emerson fan) and unconsciously to Transcendentalism, Robinson is able to explore the healing power of nature, the pros and cons of communities, and the role of faith in matters and large and small. She also gives her work a distinctly American feel by tying it to a rich legacy of American thought and American fiction.

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