Marilynne Robinson’s epistolary novel Gilead takes place during the Civil Rights Movement when racial issues are at their apex. After realizing that he is dying of a heart condition, the main character John Ames writes an account of his life for his seven-year-old son, but chooses to avoid conversations about race. John spends time pondering over a number of subjects including family conflicts and theology, yet manages to overlook racial politics. Race, however, is still a significant but subtle theme in the novel. Issues of race have been surrounding John’s life from his grandfather’s fight for abolitionism to his godson’s marriage with a colored woman. Racial tensions are also an evident issue in John’s hometown of Gilead during the 1950s. Although John does sometimes acknowledge the topic of race, he seems largely apolitical and oblivious.
Early in the novel, John Ames mentions that “at this writing [he] has lived seventy-six years” which establishes the setting of the book as 1956, Gilead, Iowa (Robinson 9). The 1950s have been described by many historians as an era of conflict as the emerging African-American Civil Rights Movement exposed the underlying divisions in American society. Race was a national obsession during the 1950s, but that does not seem to concern John. He starts writing his letter only two years after the Brown v. Board of Education, which was a United States Supreme Court decision that reversed the policy of segregation and ordered the integration of African-Americans into all public schools. John, however, does not mention a single word about the incident, nor provides any information about the ongoing race issues to his son. He also starts writing his letter a year after Emmett Till’s tragic death, but ignores the incident, proving his unawareness in the world of politics. In addition, 1956 is a year that precedes the Montgomery Bus Boycott that inaugurated the Civil Rights Movement, which shows how heavily race issues are involved with John’s life period. Even the history of Iowa suggests how significant issues of race should be in John’s life. Ever since its creation in 1846, the state of Iowa has prohibited slavery and declared itself a free state. Iowa was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as seven years prior to John’s letter, the Iowa Supreme Court in the case of State v. Katz ruled it illegal to refuse service on the basis of race. In his letter, John chooses not to address any of the troubling issues during a period in history when racial tensions emerged as a national obsession, showing his obliviousness in racial politics.
Furthermore, John’s obliviousness becomes more evident when the history of his family is taken into account. John’s and his family’s fictional hometown Gilead was founded as a type of a garrison for militants fighting the spread of slavery. The town knows John’s grandfather as a national hero for his commitment to fight for abolitionism. His grandfather set up abolitionist camps and underground railroads prior to the Civil War in order to help African-Americans escape the plight of slavery. John even mentions that his grandfather “was an acquaintance of John Brown, and of Jim Lane,” two of the most prominent abolitionists in the nineteenth century (47). Along with John Brown and Jim Lane, his grandfather participated in a violent political quarrel known as Bleeding Kansas where he fought on the anti-slavery side. Knowing John’s grandfather’s history, it would seem that John himself would be an active advocate of civil rights for African Americans. John, however, seems to have moved away from that mentality much like his father. Both John and his father criticized grandfather’s visions where Christ asked him to join the fight for abolitionism, which sparked a multi-generational conflict. Father has moved away from his father’s ideology of attaining peace through rigid dedication, and John seems to share his father’s views. The differences in ideologies and mentalities have caused John to become apolitical in matters of race, and even when John’s time period is characterized by commitment and dedication to fight social issues, John remains unobtrusive and oblivious.
With John’s godson’s sudden appearance, he struggles to address the issues of race in his letter even more. Racial politics in Gilead do not seem like a topic of concern for John, but John’s godson Jack Boughton – who happens to have a family with a colored woman at a time when interracial marriage was criminalized by anti-miscegenation laws – wants to know what sort of role race plays in Gilead. When Jack attempts to start a conversation about race, John chooses to neglect whatever Jack says. Jack asks John about Iowa’s colored regiment, but John sees no purpose in talking about it. When Jack asks him about the fire at the Negro church that occurred in Iowa, John responds by stating how long ago it was and how “there was very little damage,” sounding dismissive of racial issues in Gilead (171). He refers to the incident as a “little nuisance fire” and makes the tragedy seem unimportant (231). Although John’s own godson is directly affected by racial tensions and the mistreatment of African-Americans in the United States, John still decides to remain unconcerned with issues of race.
Towards the end of the book, John begins to share his grandfather’s view of Gilead as a place of ruins, but does not acknowledge race relations as an issue that is evident in Gilead. President Ulysses S. Grant once called Iowa “the shining star of radicalism” for its active commitment to fight for abolitionism, but after almost a hundred years, John sees the state as “a dogged little outpost in the sand hills” (176, 234). He realizes how far Iowa has fallen from its founding spirit, but overlooks racial politics as part of the cause. John ends his letter with high hopes for his son and town. He references Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” about dreams and hopes drying away or exploding. He believes that “hope deferred is still hope,” and relies on it as a factor that will bring the state of Iowa back to its original status of a “shining star” (247). As Langston Hughes’s poem shows, however, a hope or a dream deferred does not lead to any resolution. The reference of the poem suggests that John is in fact aware of the race issues that Iowa is struggling with, but he chooses not to reflect on them. Ultimately, he shows his obliviousness and inactiveness by failing to address racial tensions as a problem in Iowa, and solely relying on hope to improve the state’s situation.
Although racial tensions were extremely prevalent in 1950s Iowa, John overlooks racial politics, which shows his obliviousness and disinterest in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Issues of race directly affect John’s family, as his grandfather follows his divine calling to fight for abolitionism and his godson gets married to a colored woman, but John remains oblivious and struggles to address race properly in his letter. John’s improper treatment of race in his writing suggests that Marilynne Robinson herself has issues with dealing with race in her novel. Robinson understands the significance of race during John’s life period and attempts to acknowledge it in her novel, but more often than not, leaves things unaddressed. Robinson excludes many incidents involving racial tensions that occurred in the 1950s and, in a way, reduces the importance of race within the context of the novel. Race plays a major role in her story, but she seems to be making it of secondary importance. Robinson herself has lived through the era of the Civil Rights Movement, but through her story of John Ames writing a letter to his son, pays little attention to the issues of race that were so important in that time period. Essentially, John’s unawareness and his inability to address race in his letter suggests that Robinson herself struggles to highlight the importance of racial politics in Gilead.
Works Cited Harris, Julian. “Open Access Journal Publishing and Amicus Curiae.” Amicus Curiae, vol. 2011, no. 87, Oct. 2012, doi:10.14296/ac.v2011i87.1526. Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. Picador, 2004. Sabin, Henry. “Iowa and Slavery.” Making of Iowa, Nabu Press, 2010, iagenweb.org/history/moi/moi30.htm. Scott, A. O. “Return of the Prodigal Son.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/books/review/Scott-t.html. Smith, Ali. “Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Apr. 2005, www.theguardian.com/books/2005/apr/16/fiction.alismith.