In 1980 Marilynne Robinson published “Housekeeping,’’ a novel of staggering depth and beauty. The story of two sisters raised by a procession of their female relatives, “Housekeeping’’ is simultaneously grand and intimate, mythic and grounded in the rituals of daily life, lingering on resonances between daily domesticity and broader spiritual well-being. The novel received unanimous praise and a Pulitzer nomination, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Then Marilynne Robinson stopped publishing fiction.
It’s a romantic assumption: Everyone has one novel in them. It would be more apt to say that most anyone can be induced by vanity or mania to produce a book-length manuscript. American literary history offers marquee support for this delusion, beloved books that seem solitary, brilliant flares. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,’’ Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ to name but two. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Robinson appeared destined to occupy a small, albeit ravishing, spot in American literature.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS: Essays
But Robinson was working. She began teaching at the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she still teaches. She contributed to magazines and newspapers, and she published two nonfiction books: “Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution,’’ a savage denunciation of the corruption that marbles British energy and welfare policy, and “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.’’ But as the years turned into decades, Robinson the novelist seemed to be done.
Then, 2 1/2 decades after “Housekeeping,’’ Robinson began publishing fiction again, novels that were, if anything, better. In 2004 the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead’’ appeared. Then 2008’s “Home.’’ These intimately linked novels are written with something like a meditative urgency. The intimations of faith threaded through “Housekeeping’’ flowered fully, becoming the center of gravity of Robinson’s fiction.
Robinson has been called a “liberal Calvinist,’’ with emphasis on the former term. Generosity and open-mindedness are paramount virtues, but in a rigorous, humanist manner generally lacking in current debates about religion and society. In a 2008 Paris Review interview, Robinson neatly summarized her faith, “Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression.’’ This is faith as invitation and exploration, not faith as a defensive barrier or aggressive judgment.
Now, in a climate increasingly averse to compassion and unappreciative of curiosity, Robinson has published “When I Was a Child I Read Books,’’ a glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics.
“When I Was a Child’’ is, in large part, a response to the obtuse certainty of contemporary political and intellectual discourse, the type of conversation that employs faith as a cudgel and mistakes scientism as sophistication. “Very often, perhaps typically,’’ Robinson writes, “the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example.’’
In light of Robinson’s method - her faith promotes human possibility over divine revelation - many of the commonplaces of contemporary America come to seem rather thoughtless. “When I Was a Child’’ is a brutally, beautifully intelligent jeremiad on the cynical state of American culture and politics, but Robinson is rare today in that she uses the language of faith to advance the most cultivated humanistic values all in an attempt to defend what she sees as an imperiled American greatness.
The trope that the genius and power of America can only be corrupted by the riot of factionalism, the persistent side effect of our democracy, boasts a deep lineage. The idea is the humble-brag of American exceptionalism, and many of our writers have ruminated on the peril of internal conflict. “When I Was a Child’’ serves as Robinson’s entry into this perennial debate. In the opening pages, Robinson writes, echoing Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas,’’ “we now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather,’’ an environment that threatens to undo much of what makes the nation admirable. “When I Was a Child’’ strives to burn off the blather and tame the wolfishness that currently bedevils our society. And since Robinson is large-hearted - and one of our most nuanced American exceptionalists - she finds in the American situation insights into preserving the integrity of humanity in our ever-callousing world.
Pause on this for a moment. We’re descending into what will be one of the most acrimonious, expensive political seasons in human history. If Robinson is right - and she is - most of us don’t even know what we’re thinking when we think. The “fate of ideas’’ is crooked, and obscured. Take, for instance, this passage from the essay “Austerity as Ideology,’’ on the evisceration of many American traditions, like land grant universities, in service to the neoliberal enchantment with “austerity’’:
“Suddenly anything public is ‘socialism,’ therefore a deviancy, inevitably second-rate, and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue. If I could find any gleam of intelligence or reflection in all of this, or any sign of successful education, I would be happy to admire it, so passionate are my loyalties [to America]. Failing this, I am left to ponder again the fact that . . . America has turned against its own culture and has seen cleavages in its own population that can only rejoice its most fervent ill wishers. This is an ideal atmosphere for the flourishing of Austerity, punitive yet salvific, patriotic in its contempt for the thought and the values of those of its countrymen who have doubts as to its wisdom . . .’’
Robinson isn’t hard to read, but such passages are hard to read quickly. Difficulty becomes its own virtue, but not in the overwrought academic sense. For Robinson - and this is as obvious as it is necessary to underscore - decelerated thought offers the only effective countermeasure to the thoughtlessness of rickety, contemporary political shibboleths like “austerity,’’ or blanket denunciations of a creeping socialism, or in other pieces in the collection the lazy equation of atheism with sophistication. “When I Was a Child’’ strives to clarify the obscurantism and rectify the intellectual disfigurements of ideology.
“Rationalism and reason are antonyms,’’ she writes, describing the most virulent form of contemporary ideology, “the first fixed and incurious, the second open and inductive. Rationalism is forever settling on one model of reality; reason tends toward an appraising interest in things as they come.’’ From persistently, yet mistakenly, locating the origins of Christian intolerance in the Old Testament, to the academy’s “wildly oversimple’’ anthropological understanding of human nature, which refuses to acknowledge the peculiarity of our species, Robinson finds rationalist thinking pervasive.
Taken as a whole, Robinson’s thinking, though always admirable, can’t be agreeable to everyone, even to her political sympathizers. She’s an arch-contrarian. But legitimate disagreements create dynamic tension, spur thoughtfulness. This may be Robinson’s most delicate faith, despite her belief that “history is a dialectic of bad and worse,’’ rests on the belief that reason can argue itself into prominence.
It’s difficult to quarrel with Robinson’s ambitions for all of us, but her reliance on the categories of faith, while tolerant, can obviously seem unnecessary. Richard Rorty, for one, articulated a compatible, faithless form of democratic participation and solidarity. But Rorty’s was a deliberate skepticism, in many respects similar to Robinson’s deliberate faith, vastly unlike the divisive caricatures of faith and skepticism in favor today. It’s hard to be deliberate when you’re certain, and that’s a large part of the problem.
“Certainty,’’ she writes, “is a relic, an atavism, a husk we ought to have outgrown.’’