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155 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy a dozen and give 'em out like candy
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...
Published on September 18, 2000 by catoblepas

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35 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Modern Jeremiad
This book could just as well have been entitled "Modern Jeremiad", as its tone is often bleak, accusatory, and angry, sure that the world, and America in particular, has taken a set of massively wrong turns in terms of both its thinking and its behavior. This is a book that marks modern thought as empty of spiritual meaning, and continually contrasts secular (mostly...
Published on December 27, 2009 by Thomas A. Wiebe


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155 of 162 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buy a dozen and give 'em out like candy, September 18, 2000
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. Certainly, everyone should be able to differentiate between fair-minded criticism, and snarls of half-bright belligerence; still, I can't let the remarks of "a reader"--undeserved honorific!--from Washington DC go unchallenged. We have here essays on subjects ranging from neo-Darwinism to Puritanism to market economics. Two fascinating pieces trace the influence of Marguerite de Navarre on John Calvin, another demonstrates the anti-slavery subtext of the McGuffey readers, and yet another discusses the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was executed by the Nazis. You'll notice, I hope, that "a reader" has nothing to say about Ms. Robinson's treatment of these subjects, offers no refutation of any of her statements, and suggests no other writer from whom the interested reader might seek better information. Instead, in his or her own inimitable style, "a reader" slaps her wrist for writing "poor prose." Personally, I tremble at daring even to praise so exquisite a prose writer as Ms. Robinson; one has to do it with words, after all!
I am not an academic, thank God, but I didn't find a single word she uses to be obscure. (And had I run into a word I didn't know, I would've appreciated the opportunity to look it up and find out what it meant. I don't think I'm alone in feeling that learning new things is an agreeable fringe benefit of reading books.) If her prose is poor, it's certainly no worse than that of Emerson, Chesterton, Sir Thomas Browne, Dickens, or Tolstoy, which is more than good enough for me.
Ms. Robinson obviously has no desire to baffle anybody; the entire point of this book is to affirm what we owe to ourselves and each other as civilized beings--foremost, perhaps, being the willingness to communicate honestly and in good faith.
But we are to put all this and more aside, so that we may consign Ms. Robinson to an arguably mythical class of environmentalist fanatics. This is a computer-like simulacrum of thought--if "expression of concern," then "diagnosis of hysteria." It's no wonder that so many people believe computers can be programmed to think. The chapter on "Wilderness" comprises barely ten pages out of 254; its historical claims are matters of public record, all perfectly verifiable. If any of its predictions are wrong, I would love to see the evidence (as, I'm sure, would Ms. Robinson). Far from focusing on "the plight of the koala," she mentions the animal once, as an example of how we concentrate on "environmental issues that photograph well."
Marilynne Robinson is also the author of the harrowing (and highly recommended) "Mother Country," the information in which could jaundice the sunniest of souls. And yet, despite having an unexcelled understanding of human cruelty and the drab postulates it thrives on, she's still engaged with the world--still passionate about the human capacity for feeling, knowing, and communicating things of transcendent value. If that's hysteria, I hope it's contagious!
To those who are already familiar with "Death of Adam," I heartily recommend a somewhat kindred book, also available from Amazon: Alan Garner's "The Voice That Thunders."
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78 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A call to obedience, April 27, 2000
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? She avoids conspiracies theories at the price of making her readers responsiblie for what they know. Without obedience, there is no faith. If you're just looking for information, you won't find it here. If you want, instead to be a person who is reponsible for what they know, this book is for you.
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52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still Reeling, January 22, 1999
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. I did find myself wishing she had written an essay or two of ideas on how to head out of our both individual and collective mess, if only because she comes across as so thoughtful, intelligent and possessive of grace that I would appreciate listening to them. I think, ultimately, any ideas about genuine alternative possibilities to the "global economic" cultural road we head down each and every day are tied up with her example - her approach to history, the directness, forcefulness and moral passion of her writing, and her belief in a moral ethic, Judeo-Christian or otherwise. An incredible book. Anyone who is remotely a serious thinker and wants some fresh ideas, buy this one. You may not be interested in all her topics, but you'll be in the grip of a terrific thinker, scholar and writer, and you will have discovered a real gem. I will reread this book and its various essays numerous times as I try to find a moral compass to guide myself in this world, and to give myself strength in facing our mass culture inanity as it spirals towards Lord knows where.
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33 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Apologia pro libris, December 13, 2004
By 
J. Knapp (Iowa City, IA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
How pretentious of me to think that I should defend someone as brilliant as Marilynne Robinson. Having sat under her masterful teaching at the University of Iowa, I can say with utter certitude that these negative reviews are not only wrong, they're downright pigheaded in their oblivion to Marilynne's topic and methods. Poor Mr. Conover of San Francisco seems never to have read anything other than the first chapter. And this deliberate blindness is matched perhaps only by his positively Martian ignorace of the existence of supply-side economists. The reviewer who recommends less Calvin and more Prozac obviously has never developed a taste for thoughtful writing, and thus sees obtuseness in a prose that only a century ago would have seemed deliberately humane and overtly accessible.

The pleasure of Marilynne's prose and thought is comparable perhaps only to the self-indulgence of chocolate. But this analogy fails when one considers the content--it's mostly a warning against priggish self-indulgence, a sharp reminder that we will only understand the problems of our time after we've recognised and owned up to our contributions to them. Marilynne is without doubt one of the few great mavericks of our time. If you read her even with the slight generosity you might show a common garden slug, you'll find yourself flat on your back, reeling from a solid wallop of sanity and--dare I say it?--human goodness.
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35 of 47 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Modern Jeremiad, December 27, 2009
This review is from: The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Paperback)
This book could just as well have been entitled "Modern Jeremiad", as its tone is often bleak, accusatory, and angry, sure that the world, and America in particular, has taken a set of massively wrong turns in terms of both its thinking and its behavior. This is a book that marks modern thought as empty of spiritual meaning, and continually contrasts secular (mostly failed) ideas and behaviors with Christianity's spirituality and ability to provide meaning and moral structure in a modern human's life. The essays are wildly uneven, and the variation in quality is quite wide; most are readable, but several are nigh on unreadable. If you were to read this book from back to front, you would, roughly speaking, be reading from the best essays to the worst.

The first essay, entitled Darwinism, is the biggest disappointment, particularly as it was the reason I bought the book. Here, unfortunately, the author is murky, imprecise, ill-informed and sometimes plainly misleading. She appears to be not very well acquainted with the subject, at least from the modern scientific point of view. It would appear that this essay's main theme is that materialism in ideas (science) and practice (acquisitiveness) is no substitute for moral and spiritual values; this is a strong idea, and has been argued in many ways by many people. This essay starts unraveling when the author chooses to use the term Darwinism in several different contexts without carefully distinguishing between them. Since the sub-title of the book is "Essays on Modern Thought", there is a strong implication that this subject would address evolutionary biology. However, Darwinism is used here to mean at least four different things: Modern evolutionary biological science, the historical progression of social and political ideas that followed from Darwin's writings, Social Darwinism in and of itself, and the pseudo-scientific ramblings of various people, to include some, but not all, of Dawkins' writings (some of Dawkins' work is legitimate evolutionary biological science, and some of it is atheistic crankiness). Each of these have some quite distinct elements, and by conflating them together the author displays some fairly flaccid thinking, much of it from old and long since discredited ideas, or ideas that are on the bleeding edge of scientific thinking, but which are treated by the author, as, well . . . scientific gospel. Certainly the essay struggles to be modern in the sense of being current, or having applied lessons learned.

The most modern and enduring thoughts that emanated from Darwin are expressed in evolutionary biological thinking, which attempts to describe a mechanism for the observed changes that occur in a biological organism's physical and genetic structure. The idea for natural selection came from the observations that: natural organisms vary in their physical traits, and seemingly small differences can keep one species from interbreeding with another; most species produce many, many more offspring than can possibly survive in their resource constrained environment, and so only those most fit for survival live long enough to reproduce and pass on their particular traits; the traits that confer higher fitness to surviving organisms can change over time, in part due to changing environmental pressures, providing a very slow mechanism for genetic and physical change of organisms. Robinson repeatedly turns the idea of natural selection on its head, talking about it as some agent that replaces God and is "killing off those who die", rather than as a description of the normal state of nature (in every generation most species normally produce more offspring than can survive, which is what Darwin was addressing). Nature works that way whether you believe its origins were from God's creation or you are trying to explain it as a working scientific theory.

There were many influences on Darwin that produced these seminal thoughts, among them the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who, during the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution, worried that the food supply would be outstripped by the exponentially expanding human population. This idea provided Darwin with another spur towards a natural selection mechanism for the evolution of life on earth: Competition for scarce resources amongst living organisms would promote traits that enhanced the ability of those organisms to successfully garner sufficient resources to survive. The author criticizes Malthus for the brutishness of his ideas, mocks him for the failure of his predictions to come true, and then makes a broad attempt to connect the whole of Malthus to Darwin's evolutionary model. What is missing here is first that Malthus' ideas were not inherently wrong nor brutish; it was and still is entirely possible for the human population to increase beyond their capacity to feed the entire population. What Malthus did not anticipate was the up-to-now remarkable technological approach to agronomy which engendered tremendous increases in the food supply sufficient to keep up with the still exponentially growing human population. Darwin, in any case, was not a full proponent of all of Malthus's ideas, rather a beneficiary of the astute observation regarding the limited availability of resources to support life on Earth, and the basic consequences of those limits. Just because some aspect of Malthus has influenced and is linked to modern evolutionary biology doesn't mean that all of Malthus' observations or conclusions apply to it, nor does it mean that every idea Darwin had has survived intact, either, although the author is not careful to make that important distinction.

Therein is one of the major problems of the Darwinism essay, and in the approach of other essays in this book: In the Introduction, the author describes a program for her essays, part of which is to read original works, and extract from them the truth of the author's ideas, rather than relying on later interpretations, and possible misinterpretations. This idea is as old as a freshman lecture in historiography, but even this powerful idea can be misapplied, as it often has been here. Taking ideas espoused 150 years ago, and treating them as if they represent the current thinking on the subject they initiated is rarely fruitful, and in this case, terminal. Ideas, not just organisms, evolve, and some portions or threads of useful ideas are discarded because they are wrong, or better ideas replace them, etc. The author sometimes seems to understand this rather obvious point, but in many instances, clearly does not. For example, as the author points out, Darwin indirectly influenced the Social Darwinism movement via his The Descent of Man, among other writings, and helped (unwittingly) to produce a framework for much mayhem. (Darwin himself was decidedly not a Social Darwinist.) The author uses this historical link to damn all Darwinism (via her conflation of Social Darwinism with modern evolutionary biology), in particular by her insistence that there is a clear intellectual chain from Malthus, Darwin, Social Darwinism, Nietzsche and Freud directly to the Nazi's racial theories, which of course, culminated in the Holocaust. Certainly there are real links there, but doesn't this conclusion seem awfully glib? The Holocaust had many influences, ignored here by the author, who goes further to say that while religion has been used for evil means, it has not been as evil as science, here specifically in the form of Social Darwinism (a very odd point in and of itself: Social Darwinism is not science, both science and religion have been used for good and for evil, etc.). Nothing I have read on the subject of the Holocaust pretends to know exactly all and how profound the influences were that produced this horrific behavior; all writers agree that evil is generally at root unknowable, but all allude to many influences. Ironically, given the author's constant comparison of Darwinism and Christianity, it has been argued in many instances that Christianity is the main intellectual and cultural cause of the Holocaust, evidenced by its long history of anti-Semitism, which included many past incidents of mass murder, albeit not on an industrial scale until the Holocaust. Martin Luther, for example, is called out by, among others, Lucy Davidowitz in her The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, as having been a prime historical influence on the Nazi's racial hatred and thereby on the Holocaust. Luther's On The Jews and Their Lies described the Jews as "the Devil's people", advocated destroying their property, expelling them from Germany, and said that "We are at fault in not slaying them". These words of Luther were regularly referenced in the violent Nazi party propaganda inciting the German populace against Jews. Be that as it may, the argument for the Holocaust's prime cause is weak for either Luther or Social Darwinism: Nazi evil lies in their deeds, their willingness to put imperial power and megalomaniacal ambitions above any love for their fellow human beings. Like many other power mad human beings, they seized upon the most convenient pretexts to further their ambitions. Unfortunately, here the author puts the cart before the horse, and does this is several other essays (substitute Darwin's Social Darwinism for Stalinism, Leninism, Mao, Castro, etc.)

The author also seems to at times understand the limits of science, but many other times asks of science something it isn't designed to do. As Chet Raymo said in Skeptics and True Believers, "Science is an effective, rational instrument for discerning (tentatively, partially, but progressively more accurately) the facts of the world." The keys here are tentativeness and rationality, both significant limits; science is not absolute truth, nor does it aspire to be. The author, in this and other essays, sometimes sees and acknowledges this clearly, but in this essay in particular, repeatedly misses this point, and calls science to task for being empty of meaning (in the spiritual or moral sense), or having supplanted religion - a moot point. Evolutionary biology makes no such claim, although a writer like Dawkins often does, and when he does, he is no longer representing science. The author has recognized this distinction in some of her other writings, but here she again conflates science with scientists who stray from science to make points about religion, or working scientists who make conclusions about religion under the guise of "science."

She also has occasion to make silly statements about science, as for example, "Cats and dogs are quite closely related, but a lifetime of studying dogs would not qualify anyone to speak with authority on the ways of cats. So with the whole earthly bestiary which has been recruited to the purposes of the proper study of mankind." This is at best, an overly broad point about the real differences between species, but comes across as deliberately ignorant. Those traits that are similar or the same between a cat and a dog allow science to study the traits in one organism and apply them to the other, not to mention are clearly useful in refining our understanding of what is not the same, and therefore providing distinguishing characteristics between the two species that makes them uniquely a cat or dog. The obvious extension to humans is that we have successfully used these similarities to study human diseases and work out cures for them using other animals, among many other things. Does the author really not understand this, or was she just, again, sloppy?

A more troubling example of the author's odd statements regarding science is: "Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses." It is hard to know where to begin with this statement, but I will limit it to two questions: 1. What does the judgment "harsh and crude" have to do with evolutionary biology? This a an emotionally loaded, subjective observation that is not usefully applied to hypotheses or theories, and one the author makes no attempt to justify. 2. How is it that scientific hypotheses are "respectable" or not? They are either testable, and add to a useful probabilistic model of the phenomenon being studied, or they are not. They can be well-established, meaning they are reliably predictive for the use they are put to, or they can be early and quite tentative and promising but not used by anyone, and can be discarded if the hypotheses was disproven or proved to have no predictive value or was superseded by an idea that worked better, etc. etc. etc.

There is much more that disappoints in this essay, and it seems no more than a nearly unreadable muddle - it clearly needed an editor.

Regarding the long Introduction, it does have some interesting ideas in it, for example, "Literacy became virtually universal in Western civilization when and where it began to seem essential for people to be able to read the Bible," which has stimulated me to look at this further. It, however, suffers from the same kinds of problems that the Darwinism essay does. In addition, there is another problem in the Introduction, on which can be found throughout the essays. The author calls historians to task for being too cynical, pouncing on every flaw or problem by way of writing off a subject being analyzed. There is a tendency in historical writing to do this, and it is sometimes serves to obscure important facts and interpretations, but . . . some of it is quite legitimate in bringing a seriously different understanding, rather than being just cheap criticism, and, oddly enough, the author herself does a good deal of this throughout the essays, some of which is new understanding, and some of which is nothing more than cheap shots towards something she objects to (as seen in the Darwinism essay).

A perfect example of this is found in the Introduction where the author chides historians for overemphasizing the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson for being a slave owner while espousing freedom for all men. She points out that Jefferson, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, included a passage that attacked slavery as a terrible crime, which was removed by others, and that Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, attacks slavery vehemently; yet even with this, historians still insist on beating up poor Jefferson for his hypocrisy, without acknowledging his accomplishments. Following the formula of her book in the first two points, we can examine the first draft of the Declaration (see American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence) and find that he speaks of the abomination of slavery that had been foisted upon us by King George! That is, Jefferson described the slave trade as just another in the long list of crimes that George III had committed against the Colonies that justified the revolution, and in no way does he or the nascent American states take responsibility for their own complicity, brutality and profit in buying, owning and selling slaves. In the Notes we find a few other things: 1. He never intended on publishing this work in America, but was forced to because the draft he sent to France was published there against his will. It is clear from the remainder of his behavior throughout his life, that he nearly always acted to preserve slavery and other Southern institutions regardless of what he said about slavery (see "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills; American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis; Thomas Jefferson, by R. B. Bernstein; and especially Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, by Henry Wiencek, and Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson by Paul Finkelman). 2. Although he called for the abolition of slavery, his moral repugnance centered on the effect slavery had on the morality of the masters, not on the tyranny and brutality imposed on the slaves; in any event, he suggested that it had to be done well in the future. The older Jefferson got, the more distant that time became. 3. He described blacks as inferior to whites, because they smelled bad, were ugly, and were less intelligent, and proposed that if the slaves were to be freed, they would have to be expelled from the United States, as they were not capable of being participating citizens, and leaving them in the U. S. would be dangerous, as they would seek to destroy their former masters. 4. One of the prime reasons for the founding of the Republican party in 1792 (which morphed into the Democratic-Republican party in 1824 and into the Democratic party in 1858) by Jefferson was to maintain states rights and the agrarian quality of the South (translate - protect slavery, which the Democratic party did with great fierceness). 5. Jefferson supported the 3/5 clause and the Fugitive Slave clause in the U. S. Constitution (from abroad), which is the single most powerful reason why the South held more power in the Federal government, in all three branches, all the way up to 1860. Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to Adams without the additional electoral college votes generated by counting slaves without representation. 6. Jefferson lived a life of luxury and privilege which was unsustainable without his ownership of a large slave population. Jefferson bred and sold hundreds of slaves after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to support his spendthrift ways, and at his death 50 years later, he had by then freed only a handful, and still had 135. Washington, on the other hand, freed all of his slaves at his death.

I would invite the author to visit Jefferson's Monticello, as I once did, and really inspect his home and grounds. Monticello was diabolically designed to keep slaves out of sight (this has been noted by other observers), either under the house, which is a warren of narrow, dark rooms and passages with dumbwaiters to support the home above, and the slave quarters are out of view; only the whitest of slaves served in the house, among them Sally Hemings, and some of his and Sally's children. Whatever his relationship with Sally, there was a strong element of coercion in it, and whatever else Jefferson accomplished, he was in a no way a friend of slaves, or any real kind of abolitionist. Robinson's opprobrium to the contrary, this is not an annoying and cynical point, but goes to the heart of Jefferson's attitudes and accomplishments, or lack thereof, regarding slavery, and his supposed support for the freedom of all men.

I found the best essays to be The Tyranny of Petty Coercion and Wilderness, which are tight and cogent pleas from the heart for the courage to act in the best interests of community, nation and humankind, against the cynicism of virulently partisan discourse and environmental exploitation, respectively. These are brave explications of thoughts routinely squelched in today's America via the worst kind of peer pressure. The author provides a spot on description of the failure of the political will of liberalism or progressivism as an antidote to the conservative shift of power and money to benefit a rapacious and selfish elite (not, as other critics would have it, the failure of liberalism itself- the author supports the instincts of liberalism to help the disadvantaged, for example).

Her essays on Psalm 8 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are also of high quality, and a welcome departure from the stiff and angry tone that permeates a good part of the book. Psalm 8 is a frank autobiographical account of the author's personal spiritual journey. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer essay is a capable exploration of one of the best examples of personal dedication to and sacrifice for one's principles, rare in any time and place, and particularly compelling in the person of Bonhoeffer. Luther, for all his fame as a man of courage ("Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders"), did not have the strength of resolve of Bonhoeffer; even while he was standing up to the Pope, in the face of being burned at the stake, he was actually already under the protection of German princes who had every political reason to use Luther as a way of removing the heavy economic hand of the Roman Catholic Church, and Luther knew this. When the peasants rose up against their feudal lords a few years later, stimulated in some part by Luther's call to independent interpretation of the Bible, and thereby some independence from authority, Luther's response was to tell the princes they had every right to destroy recalcitrant peasants (an inflammatory overreaction that only fanned the flames of the resulting violence; it is hard to avoid the thought that Luther's vitriol was self-protective and craven). Bonhoeffer had access to similar protections at several junctures in his ethical and bravely public battle with the Nazis (e.g. he was given permission to go, and went to NYC in 1939, and returned after a month to a situation that was clearly life-threatening), but chose to face the threats rather than retreat, and it shortened his life, as he was ultimately imprisoned, then murdered by the Nazis.

There are several on John Calvin, to include the two on Margaret of Navarre and Puritans and Prigs, which I won't comment much on here, but which I generally found interesting, as I knew little more than the basics regarding Calvin. However, I didn't buy her extended supposition, that because some of Calvin's works show him to be more benign than he is often described, some of the basic historical facts around Calvinism are quite wrong, such as the rigidity of the ascetic, controlled life and the theocratic style of Puritan communities. She is right to say these accounts can be exaggerated, and they often miss the richness and happiness of some of the lives of people in these communities, but she herself exaggerates in minimizing the real effects of this and other theocracies on those who do not strictly worship and follow the government-dictated religious rules. Thomas Jefferson's best contribution to America was his insistence on freedom of religion, a point of view he developed in part as a reaction to New England's theocratic history, and his agreement with Roger William's own insistence on freedom of religion, which insistence was precipitated by direct theocratic interference with William's ability to worship freely in Puritan Massachusetts, and his subsequent migration to and formation of Rhode Island.

If you are interested in her views on Darwinism, this book is not recommended, but if you are interested in some heartfelt discussions of the quality of modern life, and a more friendly view of our Puritan heritage, this book is recommended.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humbling, revolutionary and finally life-affirming, December 29, 1998
By A Customer
Robinson brings her formidable command of English together with an immense accumulation of knowledge to tackle the beliefs and assumptions and philosophies that dehumanize us, reducing Man and Nature alike to raw materials ripe for exploitation. She argues forcefully and convincingly for a return to compassion and morality, and, incidentally, to thorough, competent scholarship. The overarching goal of this far-reaching collection of essays is to assert that creation is indeed Good, that men and women are precious and beautiful in and of themselves. It's a brilliant work, full of hope.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required Reading For Adults, April 4, 2007
By 
John A. Van Devender "Gadfly" (Millersville, MD United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Paperback)
"The Death of Adam" is unapologetically written for folks who actually value the activity of thinking. Robinson's writing style, as with her novels, requires some adjusting. She actually expects us to hold a thought in our head as she rambles a bit as the muse of reflection gathers her thoughts, but her penetration is exquisite.

I am a Christian of conservative persuasion, though Robinson is not. There are points of departure in her thought that run counter to my own inclination. But Robinson's iron sharpened mine in distinct areas and I greatly profited by her thought. I have not found a better debunking of Darwinism (in contrast to evolution) written anywhere. Her insistence that people ought to actually read Calvin and Darwin and others before they ridicule or embrace them is refreshing in the extreme. Her winsome insistence that intellectual courage begins by standing against the "Petty Coercion" of faddish opinion takes the best thought that could be gleaned from Jean Paul Sartre (though she does not trace her thought there) and firmly takes it captive under a Christian banner. These essays are a reminder that people can think and a moral admonition that it is an activity we ought to undertake more often.

Warning: Robinson warns you up front that she will not stoop to using simplistic language when nuanced thought demands complex phrasing. If you are looking for "bumper sticker" philosophy you will not find it here. If you are up to the challenge of pondering what she says and why she says it as she does, the fruit is well worth the effort.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars saeva indignatio wrote these essays, December 16, 1998
By A Customer
Robinson's furious impatience with drivel and "priggishness" (her essay on Puritans and prigs occupied my students at Providence College for several days) may come from her position at Iowa, which obliges her to listen to bright young things who all think alike. These sentences are often white hot. Her essay into Calvin's thought may be more bold than tempered by long study of the historical problem of Puritanism, but the art with which she constructs the essay -- really a brace of essays -- redeems her purpose, which is to startle the reader out of cant. Lapidary takes on a new meaning when used to describe these pieces: they are not only cunningly arranged and precisely cut, they are hard as diamond.
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17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, April 23, 2003
By 
Hugh Roth (Merrick, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I found the book remarkable, and I am not now religiously observant in the least. Wonderful, clear prose. Sensible. Modulated. A word of caution:
Do NOT lend this book to anyone. You will never get it back.
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37 of 55 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Arrogant, resentful, and pointlessly polemical, November 23, 2008
By 
T. W. (Northeastern United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (Paperback)
This will be a very critical review, but it is an honest one, and I hope it can get a hearing here.

From reading these essays, I get the impression that I would very much enjoy a wide-ranging discussion of books, ideas, and religion with the author, subject to one condition outside my control--that she deemed me a worthy interlocutor rather than classing me with the mass of idiots and prigs she seems to consider just about all of her contemporaries in these pages. It's an unlikely condition, I judge from this book, where almost every point is made with irrelevant (and unwittingly unflattering to the author) polemics.

This is not the first time I've encountered a peculiar paradox that besets writers who drip contempt of those who, unlike themselves, have not discovered and appreciated the books that should compel our attention. Some readers will welcome such a jeremiad, of course, but many readers will wonder, "If I am the sort of person who picked up with great interest a book I had heard makes an untimely plea for the thought of John Calvin and the unappreciated Puritan legacy in the United States, why does she address me as if I were someone who could never consider these insights." Basically, the book will please those whose prejudices are flattered by being told that NO ONE ELSE! cares about the issues raised in its pages, that they have been silenced as impossible thoughts by political correctness--those who can buy the assertion that the Old Testament is an "unread classic," that Marguerite de Navarre is an obscure writer. Such a reader, especially if he has never read and will never read most of the texts discussed (and, it has to be pointed out, Robinson damns us all for not reading the books she's discovered, but she doesn't actually dispense any practical reading suggestions, as that would require a faith she lacks in your ability to pick up a book by John Calvin and to read it), might read this book and swallow a lot of what Robinson thinks he SHOULD think about these books. The glaring irony is that this is supposed to be the kind of reader Robinson contemns--but she serves better readers but poorly.

The introduction already sends out many signals of gratuitous hostility. Without naming any names, she insists that everyone (it's always this amorphous everyone based on the belief that everyone cannot compete with Robinson in literacy) thinks Jefferson was "unconscious of the irony of the existence of slaver in his land of equality" and takes him to task for this failing. But anyone with a passing serious interest in what Jefferson thought has picked up something like The Portable Thomas Jefferson and has read the deleted passage of the Declaration of Independence in which he called the slave trade an un-Christian "opprobrium." Amazon currently has "101 used and new copies starting at $0.47": hardly obscure material. (Likewise, anyone who's dipped far into Milton knows that Puritans' ideas about women and marriage are more complex than merely "puritanical.") Yes, there are a lot of people in this country who can't be bothered to seek out learning about anything or read books, and they are likely to have some caricature in their minds in place of information (most of them would probably be honest enough to admit that these caricatures are not in fact a reasonable approximation of the intellectual history of the 16th-18th centuries, so that maybe it would be better to teach them kindly than to attack them). Here's the point, though: Robinson's "gotcha" points about the world's ignorance mostly work best when measured against such lowest-information readers, and yet her ambition is to declare every gifted scholar from Max Weber to Simon Schama an idiot. As a reader who has read the Old Testament, and Max Weber, and who has held extracurricular discussions about the Chansons spirituelles of Marguerite de Navarre with a reader who managed to find them on her own, I find Robinson's condescension unbearable.

I would bear it if her polemical criticisms of everyone else were justified--then I would willingly place myself in the hands of a great intellect and gather up all the pearls she strewed as she lashed the 21st century's miserable literary sinners. Weber is a good case in point. She seems to believe that Weber had nothing better to offer in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism than the gut-intuition thesis that "Calvinists lack Gemütlichkeit." At the same time, Robinson proves herself the kind of superficial reader she hates, and asks her readers not to read a worthwhile book because of a superficial prejudice (precisely what keeps the world from discovering Calvin! she can be hanged by her own words, "drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf"). In the introduction, she cheerily indicates she will not bother to learn much more about the contemptible idiot Max Weber. Well, if she had read the single book she criticizes carefully and without prejudice, she would know that nothing is farther from truth than that "Weber's thought is not of a kind to grant significance to 'knowledge of God.'" Hogwash--Weber's whole point is to exalt the world-historical significance of such ethical forces as "knowledge of God," to do full justice to the world-changing potential that can derive from their spontaneous ethical power. Weber is the man who borrowed the term "charisma" from his contemporary theologians' discussions of the New Testament and gave it its modern meaning from that root. Robinson should read Weber's introduction to the Ethics of the World Religions and then try to repeat her silly charge that Weber had contempt for the religious force in man. Now, Weber is interested in how an original substantive idea at odds with mundane experience (Calvinist doctrine) became routinized in a world where the ethic became separated from the real theological force: you'd think Robinson, whose whole argument is that we have bastardized our Puritan inheritance, would be sympathetic to Weber's grim diagnosis, but, I'm sorry, she seems too intellectually bigoted to appreciate a book whose very title rubs her the wrong way. (That SHE calls Weber "polemical" is the height of irony.)

Again and again, it's that "everyone" is wrong. Everyone who has valued Bonhoeffer is wrong, because they didn't understand him right. It's not enough that Robinson has read McGuffey's readers and found something new there--everyone else must be berated. (It is interesting that McGuffey and his selections had such ties with radical reformers. But then, it is a bit romantic to claim that the eventual result is more than a pretty neutered version, if a recognizable version at all, of the air a reader would breathe in the morally foreceful writings of William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, or Thoreau.) Likewise some of the other positive theses that can be teased out of the book are very tentatively suggested. For example, the influence of democratic Congregationalism on American political mores is important, but Robinson has made no more than a quick start on any argument that the separation of powers owes more to Geneva's governing councils than to the Baron de Montesquieu!! I will not try to play Robinson's "gotcha" game with her, but her work is not solid enough to sustain it ("English agricultural workers did not thrive better than American slaves"?). A writer who aims only to be an essayist should do a better job seeking (even the informed) reader's sympathy in accompanying her on her flights of imaginative revisionism.

I regret the lack of a more positive book from Robinson. Her big beef (to simplify) is that Calvinist Presbyterians have been seen as cheerless haters of their fellow human beings. To prove this slander wrong, she has written a cheerless book in which she liberally dispenses hatred of her fellow thinkers, from Simon Schama to Henry Steele Commager to Max Weber. Did Robinson have the temperament to write a joyful celebration of "true" Calvinism, without attacking the innocent and undeserving objects of her condescension? Apparently not, and that's a pity. Instead, by using her shallow learning to try to blast undeserving victims, she exposes the likelihood that she is a lightweight, that she probably got her Augustine and Chrysostom from some more learned writer's footnotes, that she is certainly widely read in comparison to the boobs she says her contemporaries are, but not half so widely read as she pretends; I wouldn't care & would enjoy her essays if she didn't have to be so pretentious.

The book is not pleasant to read. I haven't really even tried to give the full measure of how dyspeptic and facilely dismissive Robinson can be. Perhaps the worst moment is where she makes an extended attack on American "prigs," by whom she means (she is quite specific) "water-drinking, fish-eating, Volvo-driving" politically correct people. In 2008 perhaps she would add Obama-volunteering or some such. For several pages she discusses (without details) an appalling example she saw of an old man who meant no harm given some meaningless linguistic PC correction. Too bad--I have no doubt the culprit was immature, with a narrow experience of people, perhaps even smug. But Robinson's prejudice is so entrenched that on p. 168, she states categorically that these people are never real reformers. What bigoted hogwash. Really, do none of them contrive ways to conserve the environment, or help house the homeless and feed the hungry? Going for a real stretch, might some of them even sometimes manage to love their neighbors in a humble and selfless way that would please Calvin? Do all of them, in Robinson's sermon, fat themselves on fish with nary a thought for the fatherless? If this kind of disgust with humanity is supposed to show that Calvinists have a "kindlier" view of their fellow sinners than we'd imagined heretofore, well, sorry, it doesn't. To return to my point again, I'd love to talk about early American Calvinists and the choicest passages of great books with Robinson, but somehow, even though I do eat beef and don't drive a Volvo (I have to confess, I do drink water from the tap, which satisfies my thirst), I wouldn't give myself great odds of escaping her blind contempt. And the book suggests that it must be quite difficult to get anything else out of her on the subject.
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The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought by Marilynne Robinson (Paperback - November 1, 2005)
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