Marilynne Robinson Accepts the 2004 Melcher Book Award
(Boston, November 14, 2005) The Unitarian Universalist Association's 2004 Melcher Book Award was on presented November 11th to Marilynne Robinson for her novel Gilead. The formal presentation of the award citation was followed by a reading and question and answer session with Robinson. Afterwards, Robinson signed books for a long line of fans. The special event was hosted by First Parish in Cambridge (UU) and auditotaped by Cambridge Forum for a future radio broadcast.
Gilead is the long-anticipated second novel by Robinson, whose first book, Housekeeping, launched her career when it was published to wide acclaim in 1980. During the quarter-century interval between these two major works, Robison has written several nonfiction books and taught a generation of aspiring authors at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
Set in the 1956, Gilead is the story of John Ames, an elderly Iowa minister who responds to his approaching death by describing his life in letters to his young son. Covering three generations, he reflects on his family's history as it intersected with the violent abolition movement and reached a crisis after the Civil War. John Ames' moving letters are by turns dramatic and humble, serving as meditations on community, love, and the mysteries of faith.
In her remarks, Robinson explained the importance of the geographical and historical setting of the work, noting, "The Midwest's role in the abolition movement is a forgotten history." She continued, describing the many small, integrated colleges that sprang up in the region in the decades before the Civil War, but closed soon afterwards: "It was a beautiful moment in history," Robinson cautioned. "So much could have been achieved, but those things have been lost. It's important for us to understand that what we are building now can be lost as well."
Gilead also received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature. The Melcher Award citation praised the novel for demonstrating "that the sacred is found not only in bustling cities and exotic, far-off places; it is found just as surely in small country churches and in the lives of those who love and keep them."
Established in 1964, the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award is given annually by the UUA to a work published in the United States during the past calendar year judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. Previous recipients include James Carroll, Richard Rodriguez, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Day, and Joseph Campbell.
The members of the Melcher Award committee are the Rev. Phyllis O'Connell, the Rev. Patrick O'Neill, Jonathan Fast and the Rev. Thomas Mikelson. UUA Executive Vice President Kathleen Montgomery is the staff liaison to the committee.
In her introduction to the Award, Kathleen Montgomery explored the values that Frederic Melcher hoped to honor: "In one sense, ‘religious liberalism' describes the willingness to examine our history and ourselves. We do this with the understanding that religious questions are ultimately human questions and that the questions themselves, the search itself, enriches us and helps us become more fully human."
Marilynne Robinson—master and teacher of the written word, intrepid explorer of the human spirit, herald of an unfinished Reformation, author of the acclaimed novel, Gilead:
Through the intricate art of the novel, you have opened hearts to hopes that many feared were nearly extinct. With humor and tenderness, you have escorted us into the inner temple of religious life. You have explored old dogmas without being dogmatic. You understand that theology is the poetry of human experience; and you have taught us, through your writing and your teaching in universities and churches, that human experience is the heart of theology. In this time of multicultural narrative, by looking close around you and training your attention on the corn and wheat fields of the Midwest, you have shown that the sacred is found not only in bustling cities and exotic, far-off places; it is found just as surely in small country churches and in the lives of those who love and keep them. New York and Paris were never more redemptive or engaging than the Gilead that you paint. Many of us, your readers, reached the last page of your novel filled with a fresh quality of mindfulness we had not experienced quite so intimately in a good while.
You are honest and patient with human nature, with Midwestern culture, with issues of time-worn theology, with the heartaches of love and family, and with the stubborn and difficult elements of relationship. Gilead is about much more than beautiful language, though the words sing eloquently. Gilead is truly an uplifting novel, we dare to claim a spiritual novel, that achieves its wonder not by calling attention to yourself, the writer, so much as to the lives of the people in your story, and thus to ourselves and our journeys as our lives are reflected in the depths of theirs.
We are Unitarian Universalists whose tradition blossomed early in nineteenth century New England, in fact right here in this city, as a protest against the very Calvin who is mentioned sensitively and with respect throughout your book. It was highly unlikely, therefore, that The Melcher Book Award Committee would select Gilead, out of the many books published in 2004, as the one, more than any other, that opens our liberal hearts. We are proud, Marilynne Robinson, to announce that you are the recipient of the Melcher Book Award for the year 2004. Congratulations and thank you for Gilead.