(Boston, November 14, 2005) The Unitarian Universalist Association's
2004 Melcher Book Award was on presented November 11th to Marilynne Robinson
for her novel Gilead. The formal presentation of the award citation was
followed by a reading and question and answer session with Robinson. Afterwards,
Robinson signed books for a long line of fans. The special event was hosted by
First Parish in Cambridge (UU) and auditotaped by Cambridge Forum for a future
Gilead is the long-anticipated second novel by Robinson,
whose first book, Housekeeping, launched her career when it was
published to wide acclaim in 1980. During the quarter-century interval between
these two major works, Robison has written several nonfiction books and taught a
generation of aspiring authors at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
Set in the 1956, Gilead is the story of John Ames, an elderly Iowa
minister who responds to his approaching death by describing his life in letters
to his young son. Covering three generations, he reflects on his family's
history as it intersected with the violent abolition movement and reached a
crisis after the Civil War. John Ames' moving letters are by turns dramatic and
humble, serving as meditations on community, love, and the mysteries of
In her remarks, Robinson explained the importance of the geographical and
historical setting of the work, noting, "The Midwest's role in the abolition
movement is a forgotten history." She continued, describing the many small,
integrated colleges that sprang up in the region in the decades before the Civil
War, but closed soon afterwards: "It was a beautiful moment in history,"
Robinson cautioned. "So much could have been achieved, but those things have
been lost. It's important for us to understand that what we are building now can
be lost as well."
Gilead also received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for
literature. The Melcher Award citation praised the novel for demonstrating "that
the sacred is found not only in bustling cities and exotic, far-off places; it
is found just as surely in small country churches and in the lives of those who
love and keep them."
Established in 1964, the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award is given annually by
the UUA to a work published in the United States during the past calendar year
judged to be the most significant contribution to religious liberalism. Previous
recipients include James Carroll, Richard Rodriguez, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Day,
and Joseph Campbell.
The members of the Melcher Award committee are the Rev. Phyllis O'Connell,
the Rev. Patrick O'Neill, Jonathan Fast and the Rev. Thomas Mikelson. UUA
Executive Vice President Kathleen Montgomery is the staff liaison to the
In her introduction to the Award, Kathleen Montgomery explored the values
that Frederic Melcher hoped to honor: "In one sense, ‘religious liberalism'
describes the willingness to examine our history and ourselves. We do this with
the understanding that religious questions are ultimately human questions and
that the questions themselves, the search itself, enriches us and helps us
become more fully human."
Marilynne Robinson—master and teacher of the written word, intrepid explorer
of the human spirit, herald of an unfinished Reformation, author of the
acclaimed novel, Gilead:
Through the intricate art of the novel, you have opened hearts to hopes that
many feared were nearly extinct. With humor and tenderness, you have escorted us
into the inner temple of religious life. You have explored old dogmas without
being dogmatic. You understand that theology is the poetry of human experience;
and you have taught us, through your writing and your teaching in universities
and churches, that human experience is the heart of theology. In this time of
multicultural narrative, by looking close around you and training your attention
on the corn and wheat fields of the Midwest, you have shown that the sacred is
found not only in bustling cities and exotic, far-off places; it is found just
as surely in small country churches and in the lives of those who love and keep
them. New York and Paris were never more redemptive or engaging than the
Gilead that you paint. Many of us, your readers, reached the last page
of your novel filled with a fresh quality of mindfulness we had not experienced
quite so intimately in a good while.
You are honest and patient with human nature, with Midwestern culture, with
issues of time-worn theology, with the heartaches of love and family, and with
the stubborn and difficult elements of relationship. Gilead is about
much more than beautiful language, though the words sing eloquently.
Gilead is truly an uplifting novel, we dare to claim a spiritual novel,
that achieves its wonder not by calling attention to yourself, the writer, so
much as to the lives of the people in your story, and thus to ourselves and our
journeys as our lives are reflected in the depths of theirs.
We are Unitarian Universalists whose tradition blossomed early in nineteenth
century New England, in fact right here in this city, as a protest against the
very Calvin who is mentioned sensitively and with respect throughout your book.
It was highly unlikely, therefore, that The Melcher Book Award Committee would
select Gilead, out of the many books published in 2004, as the one,
more than any other, that opens our liberal hearts. We are proud, Marilynne
Robinson, to announce that you are the recipient of the Melcher Book Award for
the year 2004. Congratulations and thank you for
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 3, 2012.
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