- That Horeb, That Kansas:Evolution and the Modernity of Marilynne Robinson
The vast breadth of the natural world, the vast span of natural history: the recurrence of these themes in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980) makes it one of the least anthropocentric US novels of the last half century.1 “The terrain on which the town built itself,” says the narrator Ruth in the opening pages, speaking of Fingerbone, Idaho, “is relatively level, having once belonged to the lake. It seems there was a time when the dimensions of things modified themselves, leaving a number of puzzling margins, as between the mountains as they must have been and the mountains as they are now, or between the lake as it once was and the lake as it is now” (Housekeeping 4–5). Shortly after this, Ruth returns to this lake and surveys its contents level by level, age by age:
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. . . . At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.(8) [End Page 328]
A few chapters later, the power of such natural features and phenomena over the conscious deeds of human beings is powerfully dramatized, as several days of rain cause a flood so intense that “the houses and hutches and barns and sheds of Fingerbone were like so many spilled and foundered arks”—all further evidence, observes the narrator, that the town had always been “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather” (62).
Robinson began the novel while she was a student at the University of Washington, where she completed her doctorate in 1977.2 Critics have often seen it as a milestone in the women’s fiction of that decade and by extension in second-wave feminism.3 Robinson hasn’t discouraged such a reading: her “one great objection” to the figure of the American outsider hero, she has said, is that he is “inevitably male—in decayed forms egregiously male,” and the character of Sylvie in Housekeeping was designed in part as a corrective to that tradition (When I Was a Child 92). But the novel’s preoccupation with the sweeping canvases of natural history marks a less noted respect in which its publication was timely. For the years surrounding the composition of Housekeeping saw a surge of voices claiming that human civilization should be situated within the outsized landscapes, extravagant climates, and deep cycles of natural history. Just two years before Robinson finished her doctorate, and five years before her novel appeared, the American biologist E. O. Wilson had published Sociobiology (1975), which argued that all the things traditionally understood as distinctively human—religious practices, ritual, communication, altruism, ethics, aesthetics—make sense only by reference to the physical systems and behaviors that we share with other animals: hormonal responses, sensory systems, mating habits, family bonding, aggression, dominance systems, parental investment, and so on. And just a year after Sociobiology, the British biologist Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene (1976), which argued that what defines human life is what defines all biological life, great and small alike: the desire among genes to replicate and survive. From Dawkins’s perspective, the citizens of Fingerbone may have been hoping to protect their children and farm animals when constructing their houses and barns; but these hopes were themselves the product of unconscious prior impulses, of historically evolved imperatives among their genes to make it into the next generation.
Wilson and Dawkins generated a harsh backlash in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when biologists such as Richard...