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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought Paperback – October 13, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in... John Calvin. If I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt that the average reader would have read this far." That's the introduction to one essay, but it could also apply to most of Robinson's (Housekeeping) first book in nearly a decade. Among the 10 essays here is one on the idea of wilderness and an intensely personal meditation on growing up Presbyterian, but these are essentially afterthoughts to an impassioned argument against America's contemporary social Darwinists cum free marketeers. And here's where Calvin comes in. She rebuts the characterization of Calvin as protocapitalist and the quick dismissal of his Puritan followers as prigs. Instead, she finds in their example a more fulfilling morality, one that substitutes personal responsibility for contemptuous condemnation of our fellows and a more personal, independent relationship with God and conscience. The corollary of the notion that "our unhappiness is caused by society, is that society can make us happy," she writes, adding, "Whatever else it is, morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself." Though there are occasional problems?for example, the argument "an important historical 'proof' very current among us now is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence unconscious of the irony of the existence of slavery" is simply a straw man. But for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity, and rather than accepting received wisdom she hunts it out for herself among original texts. In the process, she revives founding beliefs as a possible solution for current ills.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Contrarian in method and spirit, this title fields a host of unapologetically demanding critical essays. From the introduction, reclaiming religion's role in culture, to the final essay, on civilization and wilderness, each bracing page compels response to a positively asserted and forcefully argued moral vision. Here passion and intellect are wed. Robinson (Mother Country, LJ 5/1/89) assays our common cultural ore, exposing dross and rediscovering worth and truth. An uncommon critic, she delves into diverse material and does not deny her religious roots but taps into them as she examines how Midwestern abolitionists inspired the McGuffey Reader, how Creationism spurs on contemporary Darwinism, and what's kind about Calvin. Dense with literary references, this book sorely needs the footnotes and bibliography it evidently lacks. Nonetheless, it is recommended for public and academic libraries.?John R. Leech, Brooklyn, NY
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (November 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312425325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312425326
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #127,058 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the bestselling novels "Lila," "Home" (winner of the Orange Prize), "Gilead" (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and "Housekeeping" (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award).

She has also written four books of nonfiction, "When I Was a Child I Read Books," "Absence of Mind," "Mother Country" and "The Death of Adam." She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

She has been given honorary degrees from Brown University, the University of the South, Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Amherst, Skidmore, and Oxford University. She was also elected a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

177 of 188 people found the following review helpful By "catoblepas" on September 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a difficult review to write. I think very highly of Marilynne Robinson's work, and I would hate it if my wooden pedantries scared away even one prospective reader. As described here, the topics discussed in this book may seem dry, or irrelevant to your concerns, or unworthy of further discussion. In fact, "The Death of Adam" is not dry, but exhilarating; not irrelevant, but essential; and it represents a tradition of intelligent, fair-minded discourse that has not been an ideal, let alone a standard, in the 20th century.
It's informative, certainly--not as a collection of facts to be memorized, but as a sort of web of active information, the strands of which you can follow as far as you like. The writing is dazzling, with all the power of a language fully employed by a fully attending author. Her humor is devastating; better still, she uses it therapeutically, as a surgeon uses a scalpel. At its best, "The Death of Adam" makes one aspire to be as curious, thoughtful, compassionate, and honest as its author.
Chief among her concerns is that we treat the past as little more than a scapegoat for our era's problems. Important subjects on which people once failed, honestly, to reach agreement, we now fail even to recognize as important; and ideas of the past are contemptible except where they anticipate ideas of the present. It takes a bit of mental effort to remember that this attitude is not common to all times and places; it takes even more effort to realize what we're in danger of becoming by refusing to question its necessity. One of Ms. Robinson's most radical correctives is "to read major writers, and establish within rough limits what they did and did not say." A reasonable request, and yet...
Here I must bring up an earlier reviewer's remarks.
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91 of 99 people found the following review helpful By J. C. Woods on April 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was perusing the bargain table in a bookstore when this title leapt out at me. I boughtit (for the price what had I to lose?) and 24 hours later I had finished. Stunned, I think is the word. It is hard to believe, for one thing, that this is an actually a collection of essays. Such collections tend to be like your grandma's attic: a little bit of this, a little bit of that; connected only by the owners' (author's) singularity. This book, though the chapters are all on different subjects, describes a single argument, and each of the chapters -- er-- essays, increase the self-disclosure.
The author does admit to some deception (p. 174) in the table of contents, a subterfuge to cover where she is going, but it seems necessary. The book's aim is to subvert a world view, that of her readers. To do so requires an ambush. She has to get you with her, moving in her direction before you notice how far she had lead you away from the beaten track. The first essay is the most conventional and reads a bit like Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" (whose conclusion she probably resonates with, while doubting he goes far enough; and whose methods she probably thinks are complete and utter poppycock). The last are very personal and subjective.
She asks (and answers) disquieting questions. Why do we constantly go to prepackaged idea about our history when the original documents are readily available? Why is it that what passes for scholarship gives us opinions instead of knowledge? When we are drowning in information, why is public discourse so impoverished?
For the answers to these questions, she goes back to the 19th century and beyond. How did we get into this fix? What were things like before? Is our plight necessary?
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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Scott Olesen on January 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
My girlfriend loved Housekeeping (I never read it or even heard of it until recently) so I bought this to please her and because it looked interesting. I finished it two days ago, blown away, still reeling from the powerful intellect and moral arguments and passion Robinson brings to all her essays. She is at once fresh, direct, brilliant, dismissive of commonly accepted notions (and a helluva lot of other things), persuasive, thorough in her reasoning, a painter of dark times, and a light that shines through the dangerous triviality that pervades our global culture. I can't say enough about this book and, quite frankly, it's changing me even as I write this, as I know I need to react to it in an immediate way, but am as yet unsure how to do so. It's a highly "christian" book in many ways, at times heavily so, not in a doctrineaire way, but as the history of this country, the history of John Calvin (Jean Cauvin), the history of abolitionists and the opposition church of Nazi Germany, as moral/philosophical ethic. Her critique of "Darwinism" (and Nietzche and Freud) is both fascinating and chilling, and incredibly brilliant. (Her discussion of the Scopes trial is worth the price of the book alone.) Her dismissive put-downs of contemporary scholarship is witty, poignant and devastating, and when she gets too high on her high horse, she cuts herself down with a similarly poignant, self-depracating, remark. She often paints a bleak picture of today's world as it heads inevitably towards calamity and horrific climax, but the truth of her thought and writing creates just enough optimism so you don't end up feeling complete despair.Read more ›
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