IN 1962, ON THE EVE of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin famously wrote:
This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it ... [I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime...
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish ... You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.
For Baldwin, moral failure lies with the silent, the innocent — the civil and benign majority that declines to cast judgment on itself, though history will.
Marilynne Robinson's fiction concerns these innocents. Her recent novels, Gilead and Home, are set in 1956 in Gilead, a small town based on Tabor, Iowa. Gilead has radical and abolitionist roots, having once offered refuge to John Brown and his brethren. Jack Boughton is the prodigal son who, having been away from Gilead for twenty years, finally returns. He houses a secret: his wife is black, and they have borne a child. She has defied her family to marry him; he wrestles with whether to tell his family — not least of which is his father, a Presbyterian pastor. With nowhere to go, and in spite of his guilt for abandoning his home, Jack has come back partly to see whether the town might offer a safe refuge for his wife and young son. He hopes for its blessing.
Back home, Jack encounters little reason to hope. "The colored people," his father says, "appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this — commotion. There's no reason for all this trouble. They bring it on themselves." In the living room, father and son watch the television broadcast of racial violence in Montgomery. Jack is distraught, but the Reverend says, "There's no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it."
Reverend Boughton is dying, but death does not bring him closer to understanding. The Reverend cannot recognize the historical moment, nor imagine why this moment might so anguish his son. The Reverend is perhaps too curious about his own pain — why did Jack leave, what took him so long to return? His love for his son has become indistinguishable from his pain. As his friend and the narrator of Gilead puts it, Jack is the "one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound." In the scene between son and father — the last time they will ever see one another — Jack offers the Reverend his hand; his father refuses it. "Tired of it!" he says. Jack never brings himself to tell his father of his marriage, and his father fails to comprehend his son's private grief. Thus failure occurs double-fold....read more