The Common Ground of Worlds Apart Pittsburgh Native Gerald Stern Is a Globe-Trotting Poet; Marilynne Robinson, a Christian from America's Western Heartland. Their Essay Collections Make Beautiful Music Together

By Hoover, Bob | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Common Ground of Worlds Apart Pittsburgh Native Gerald Stern Is a Globe-Trotting Poet; Marilynne Robinson, a Christian from America's Western Heartland. Their Essay Collections Make Beautiful Music Together


Hoover, Bob, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


"STEALING HISTORY"

By Gerald Stern.

Trinity University Press ($24.95).

"WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS"

By Marilynne Robinson.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($24).

These aging American writers seem to have little in common, but after reading their recent collections of essays, I found they share similar concerns about American culture, especially religion.

Gerald Stern, 87, is an outspoken poet who endured -- and never forgave -- the anti-Semitism he found in his unforgiving Pittsburgh in the Depression.

The soft-spoken Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson, 68, grew up quietly in Idaho and writes fondly of her native territory in her novels as well as the title essay in her new collection.

Where Mr. Stern revels in the crowded jostling of Pittsburgh in its population heyday, the tight quarters of a Manhattan apartment or a spare Paris flat, Ms. Robinson remains "a girl of the Golden West":

"... how beautiful human society seems to me especially in those attenuated forms so characteristic of the West -- isolated towns and single houses which sometimes offer only the merest, barest amenities: light, warmth, supper, familiarity."

The title piece of her collection is a hymn of praise to the Idaho of her youth and a rebuke to critics of life in the wide-open spaces.

Ms. Robinson was reared in what she calls a time of "decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret and loneliness were high sentiments..." And she is in favor of loneliness, as she encountered it in the empty spaces of her youth. To her, it was a gift, "the kind of democratic privilege that comes with deserving" rather than a "pathology" accorded it by "modern culture" leading to "maladjustment and depression."

For her, a sense of lonesomeness teaches people their uniqueness, one's "greatest dignity and privilege" because "the cult of the individual is properly aesthetic and religious."

Mr. Stern embraces the image of the wilderness as well, inspired by his reading of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Contemplating the differences between the Jewish and Christian faiths, the poet recalls the time before and after the crucifixion of Jesus when "in a small coastal strip on the Mediterranean, strangely learned people were furiously arguing over the future. …

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