The way we speak and think of the Puritans seems to me a serviceable model for important aspects of the phenomenon we call Puritanism. Very simply, it is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry. I know from experience that if one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating. Unauthorized views are in effect punished by incomprehension, not intentionally and not to anyone’s benefit, but simply as a consequence of a hypertrophic instinct for consensus. This instinct is so powerful that I would suspect it had survival value, if history or current events gave me the least encouragement to believe we are equipped to survive.

– Marilynne Robinson, “Puritans and Prigs” (1996)

I’m re-reading Gilead now, in preparation for teaching it, and I am struck all over again by what an extraordinary book it is, what a gift it has been to so many readers — millions of them, maybe. (Promotional material for the book has long shouted A MILLION COPIES SOLD, but the count might be two million by now, and of course many thousands of people have read used and library copies.) Really, it’s some kind of miracle. The novels that have followed it are excellent novels indeed, but they aren’t miraculous. Gilead certainly is. 

But today, twenty years later, would Gilead even be published by a big trade house? As long as the author could say that she teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, probably. Would it be widely read and celebrated? Almost certainly not. The self-appointed cultural gatekeepers would denounce it as a project of white cis-het imperialism, and trepidatious reviewers would either ignore it or offer, at best, muted praise. And if it were a first novel, it might not get published at all — though perhaps an outfit like Belt Publishing would take it on.

As I read Gilead today it still feels like a great gift, but also an artifact of a lost era.