PAGE 2 : Rachel Marie Stone on Marilynne Robinson
(This essay originally appeared in our print magazine, Advent 2014 issue. Are you a subscriber? Get more info and signup now!)
Robinson’s intellectual autobiography, though vastly different from my own, is shaped to a significant degree by her own efforts to liberate her thinking from the borders delineated by tradition and trends. Ironically, of her eight published books, the one that is hardest to find, and least known, is the very one that Robinson herself regards in some ways as her most important book, not least because researching and writing it involved—and set in motion—Robinson’s own considerable efforts at self-reeducation.
That book is Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, and while at first glance it may appear to have little in common with the rest of Robinson’s oeuvre, it is as useful an entry point into her body of work, and particularly her non-fiction, as any other.
Several years after publishing her first novel, Housekeeping, a book that she sincerely regarded as “unpublishable” but that went on to receive the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for first fiction, Robinson became aware that a government-owned nuclear reprocessing plant, Sellafield, in England’s Lake District, was accepting the nuclear waste of other countries—for a fee, of course—and dumping it into the sea. Rates of cancer, including and especially childhood leukemia, soared in the region, as did radioactivity in the flesh of sheep and lambs and the milk of cows. This information was available, Robinson suggests. So why weren’t more people outraged, as she was? “
People are always inclined to accept an idealized version of their country as its soul and essence,” she writes, noting also that if one follows the arc of English social history, the for-profit desecrations of Sellafield, at the expense of the health of the Lake District’s rural inhabitants, is nothing unexpected or unusual, nothing that anyone with a brief acquaintance with English Poor Law and the workhouse system would find terribly astonishing. Human beings, Robinson suggests, are too quick to accept certain reputations of countries, cultures, events and people without looking into things more deeply. Modern Britain is a “welfare state,” the United States is a capitalist country, and that tells us all we need to know.
Except that it doesn’t.
As Robinson remarked at a recent speaking engagement in Philadelphia, her experiences involving Sellafield and Mother Country (over which she was sued by Greenpeace for libel) set her off on a massive campaign of self-reeducation, during which, she was “the ideal student of no one.” And this after she completed a Ph.D. in English at the University of Washington—reading all the books that fit Mark Twain’s classic description of classics—books praised and referred to and yet rarely read: Marx and Freud and Adam Smith, John Calvin and Karl Barth and American abolitionist writers now too often ignored, including Lydia Maria Child, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, and more.
Robinson’s rigorous and sustained attention to theology in her reading and in her writing, seems also to be an answer to the questions and implications raised by Sellafield and other instances of the human tendency to destroy that which is most precious. In her 2012 collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, she insists,
“[T]he Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our mortal capacities. To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault.”
This is as good a gloss as any on how the much maligned doctrine of total depravity may be counterintuitively gracious, offering excellent grounds for self-forgiveness on one hand and graciousness on the other, as Robinson suggests elsewhere.
A self-described liberal Christian—Robinson worships at a Congregational church in Iowa City, where she lives and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—Robinson may seem an unlikely defender of John Calvin and his theological descendants, the American Puritans.
But this is again an example of how Robinson’s careful attention to primary texts—the actual writings of Calvin and John Winthrop and Jonathan Edwards—precludes the possibility of her making crude, reductionist assumptions about these thinkers of the kind that appear in college textbooks: that Calvin was dour and hateful and encouraged greed; Puritans were much the same, hating sex and the body; while John Winthrop was arrogant and Jonathan Edwards preached scary sermons about hell; and all of them took their inspiration from the hateful, illiberal Old Testament.
Robinson, however, has read all of these texts, and many others, with enough seriousness to not only debunk such caricatures but to invert them entirely, finding in Calvin and Edwards and Winthrop—and the law of Moses—the “origins of American liberalism,” claiming that,
“Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation, and this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament.”
That Robinson receives as much serious attention and admiration as she does—from believers and nonbelievers left, right and center in this age in which technology largely affords us insulation from ideas that do not confirm us in our own prejudices—would be surprising (given that her own views are contrarian and fit neatly into no one’s categories) were it not for the fact that Robinson is a humanist in the very best sense of the word, given to tirelessly extolling the wonder of human minds, of human beings: our tremendously complex brains, our utter uniqueness, our being made in the image of God and a little lower than the angels.
If Robinson is occasionally (though rarely) angry, as she was when she wrote Mother Country, it is because she, like the abolitionists she so admires, regards any disrespect or injustice to a human being as something on the order of blasphemy. Her deepest admiration seems to be for those people who, prophet-like, grasp and respond rightly (if imperfectly) to the presenting challenges of their own historical moment; in a word, thoughtful progressives. Once, in conversation with the editor and writer Paul Elie, she described her nonfiction as railing against the things that stand in the way of “deep human loveliness.”
And it is precisely that human loveliness, and Robinson’s reverence for it, that animates the novels for which she is widely known and deservedly admired, particularly the three novels she has published since 2004, all set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa: Gilead, Home, and, most recently, Lila.
These interrelated books instead offer a subtly beautiful, richly metaphysical and theological vision of what human existence—and human civilization— mean. The choice of the fictional town’s name, Gilead, is suggestive both of the prophet Jeremiah’s rueful longing—“Is there no balm in Gilead?”—and the traditional African American spiritual’s affirmation that there is, in fact, a balm in Gilead, a balm to heal sin-sick souls, to make the wounded whole. (Robinson herself remarked on this particular significance of the name Gilead in a conversation with a book group comprised of University of Iowa medical students.)
Similar themes tie Housekeeping to the later three novels, and to Robinson’s theological vision. We are not quite at home in the world, as the opening pages of Genesis suggest. We experience life to some degree as exiles, as wanderers, whether our habits come closer to those of Housekeeping’s transient Sylvia Foster or the Reverend John Ames, who leaves Gilead only to attend college and seminary, returning to pastor the church his father pastored before him, to die, eventually, in the same, dear, drafty house in which he was born. These contrasts by no means constitute judgment. Instead, they express something essential about existence: it is full of possibilities and irreducibly complex. Rev. Ames’s settled life is, for many long years, a lonely life, yet one that he looks back on—from the vantage point of a late marriage, with a child of his old age playing nearby— with sincere gratitude.
Reading for the Common Good
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