Marilynne Robinson and the Miraculous Privilege of Existence

By Albert Wu, Michelle KuoMay 22, 2012

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Home by Marilynne Robinson
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

IN 1962, ON THE EVE of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, James Baldwin famously wrote:

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it ... [I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime...

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish ... You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.

For Baldwin, moral failure lies with the silent, the innocent — the civil and benign majority that declines to cast judgment on itself, though history will.

Marilynne Robinson's fiction concerns these innocents. Her recent novels, Gilead and Home, are set in 1956 in Gilead, a small town based on Tabor, Iowa. Gilead has radical and abolitionist roots, having once offered refuge to John Brown and his brethren. Jack Boughton is the prodigal son who, having been away from Gilead for twenty years, finally returns. He houses a secret: his wife is black, and they have borne a child. She has defied her family to marry him; he wrestles with whether to tell his family — not least of which is his father, a Presbyterian pastor. With nowhere to go, and in spite of his guilt for abandoning his home, Jack has come back partly to see whether the town might offer a safe refuge for his wife and young son. He hopes for its blessing.

Back home, Jack encounters little reason to hope. "The colored people," his father says, "appear to me to be creating problems and obstacles for themselves with all this — commotion. There's no reason for all this trouble. They bring it on themselves." In the living room, father and son watch the television broadcast of racial violence in Montgomery. Jack is distraught, but the Reverend says, "There's no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it."

Reverend Boughton is dying, but death does not bring him closer to understanding. The Reverend cannot recognize the historical moment, nor imagine why this moment might so anguish his son. The Reverend is perhaps too curious about his own pain — why did Jack leave, what took him so long to return? His love for his son has become indistinguishable from his pain. As his friend and the narrator of Gilead puts it, Jack is the "one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound." In the scene between son and father — the last time they will ever see one another — Jack offers the Reverend his hand; his father refuses it. "Tired of it!" he says. Jack never brings himself to tell his father of his marriage, and his father fails to comprehend his son's private grief. Thus failure occurs double-fold.

In Robinson's newest collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, failure, perhaps of a different sort, once again occupies her heart. Robinson begins with a clarion call — the American political system, our democracy, our civic life, has failed its ideals. In the preface Robinson writes:

[W]e now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather. We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets.

This claim, of course, is not an unfamiliar one. Ever since the financial crash of 2008 — or rather, dating back to the early Pilgrims — observers of every political stripe have bemoaned the decline of American civilization. But here is where Robinson differs from most recent critics. Whereas they equate the decline of American civilization with the end of American hegemonic power, both industrially and geopolitically, for Robinson, America has forgotten its 19th century tradition of arts, music, and letters — the world of Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Dickinson. Robinson sees the current crisis of American civilization as one of language: "[T]he language of our public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory."

For Robinson, America has declined because of pervasive and corrosive ideologies that ascribe human motivation solely to self-interest. The culprits, for Robinson, are legion. These include materialist thinking, capitalist instrumentalism, and talk of "austerity" — all eviscerating the complexity of human experience, thought, imagination, and action.

And what is the prescription? Robinson posits that the cure is reading; reflecting; writing; recommitting our energies to a liberal arts education — none of which would offend most liberal, secular sensibilities. In this way, she is an old-fashioned humanist, professing faith in the institution of education's power to form and transform our consciousness. But then comes the provocative claim: the call to recover America's religious identity. For Robinson, the antidote to American civilization decline is to rediscover and re-read the ancient texts of the Bible. The highest ideals within the Judeo-Christian tradition are not forces that constrain, but are forces, rather, that liberate.

Robinson's argument for a collective return to our religious traditions sets her apart from secular humanists. She turns to history for justification. In two essays on Moses, "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism" and "The Fate of Ideas: Moses," Robinson seeks to revive a Calvinist interpretation of the Old Testament. Rejecting the pervasive view that the Old Testament is rife with backward primitive thinking, primal violence, and intolerance, she argues that careful readings of Deuteronomy and Leviticus will reveal "a sense of the absolute biblical imperative of respectful generosity toward the poor and the strange." This generosity, in turn, underpins fundamental ideas of American liberalism and our notion of the "good life." Part of Robinson's project is to rescue Moses, the Calvinists, and other religious thinkers from what the historian E. P. Thompson once called "the enormous condescension of posterity." Yet Robinson rejects the Christian fundamentalist desire to return to a Judeo-Christian state, and does not romanticize the cruelties of theocracy: "Since my own religious heroes tended to die gruesomely under these regimes, I have no nostalgia for the world before secularism, nor would many of these 'Christian nation' exponents, if they looked a little way into the history of their own traditions."

What's at stake, for Robinson, is something in fact much grander: these ancient religious texts lay the foundation for intellectual liberation, cultivation of wisdom, and the expansion of human empathy. "Science can give us knowledge," she writes, "but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again." In Robinson's view, human beings are not automatons, nor college education a mere utilitarian conduit for producing "workers." To recover our religious tradition, then, is to recover and deepen our view of the individual. Religious thought permits "a mystery in human nature and in human assertions of brilliance and intention." Robinson scoffs at politicized notions of "identity," which in her view has nothing to do with membership in a group — ethnic or religious or otherwise. Rather, she argues that at the core of identity is an acknowledgment "of the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being." Here is Robinson's cri de coeur, her philosophy illumined in one breath.

We see the appearance of such a "conscious being" in her novels, though Robinson — unlike most of her contemporaries — does not write extensively about fiction. (Elsewhere, when asked of her favorite living writer, she names Annie Dillard.) Like her previous nonfiction books, When I Was a Child is silent on the matter. Though she does mention her admiration of Hemingway, it's only to pay homage to the ancients: "Anyone can see my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway." We glean her attitude towards modern fiction through offhanded remarks about her students at the University of Iowa Writers' workshop. For instance, she writes about asking her students what they believe motivates human behavior. To this, they respond, "Self interest." This evokes the author's gentle pity. What afflicts her students — and, one infers, all modern fiction writers — is that characters contain "radically limited self-awareness" and live "in the moral twilight of ... essentially contentless decency." While she does not say which writers commit these literary errors, many of the characters populating the contemporary fiction of Updike, Roth, and Franzen, for example, seem susceptible to this critique. One may suspect that Robinson does not write about modern fiction because its characters do not interest her.

For Robinson, "true individuality" is not to pursue some other, repressed self, but rather a "meaningful inwardness," or the "ability to choose or appraise" one's own actions. These values would seem to constitute her "philosophy of fiction," though she is uninterested in defining anything of the sort. "Forget definition," she tells her students, "forget assumption, watch." Most of her contemporaries would agree that a writer must capture gesture, or "detail," but for Robinson this act of perception is imbued with rich theological consequence. The "locus of the human mystery," she writes, "is perception of this world." This perceptive capacity, in her view, is our moral substance — that is, the "soul," as she seeks to name it.

Watch Glory, the sister of Jack in Home, and you'll find Robinson a master of the phrase "as if" — the subjunctive, the deft placement of gestures within imaginative allusions. After Jack attempts suicide, Glory imagines a "cool hand" on his brow that would wake him "from his sweaty sleep, as if penance were swept aside by absolution." This "as if" is quintessentially Robinson — only Glory, raised in her Christian upbringing and helplessly attached to its stories, would imbue this human gesture with so lofty a narrative arc. In this hopeful light, Jack cannot be reduced to a wayward alcoholic, a debased man stuffing a sock in an exhaust pipe; he has been elevated, in Glory's perception, to embody the arc of the Christian tradition. Robinson's fiction suggests that perception requires imaginative leaps of mind — not only to observe another's gesture, but to then make sense of it through an ancient story of redemption and grace.

It is likely that Robinson is loath to define her fiction because she folds her philosophy of fiction into a larger philosophical agenda: the construction of a just society, the confession of moral failure. Robinson's vision for a better society is radical, in the sense of hungering to excavate the essence of humanity, the fundamental question of being in the world.

This metaphysical hunger is what makes Robinson's fiction so satisfying. We see characters struggling to make sense of what it means to exist — struggling to understand, struggling to comprehend, struggling to act morally. Above all, her fiction is an invitation to us: struggle alongside these characters, she seems to say; and in struggling you may yourself shine light into them, recognizing their desire to be more than what they are.

Thus, Robinson is at heart a mystic and a utopian idealist (though she might protest this description). For Robinson, human beings — and especially, readers — must collectively imagine humanity, because imagination creates moral communities. It is through language — silent, personal, and solitary experiences of language — that we engage in an "amazing human conversation," one that delivers us to "place[s] across millennia, through weal and woe." Instead of describing "imagined communities" as exclusionary and limited (in Benedict Anderson's famous definition of nationalism), Robinson defines community as "imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly."

These arguments expand on her previous nonfiction work, Absence of Mind, a collection of lectures delivered at Yale in 2010, as well as Death of Adam, a collected volume of essays published in 1998 that Robinson herself deemed "contrarian in method and spirit." In When I Was a Child Robinson's contrarianism is again on full display. She is not ideologically loyal to any party or creed in her criticism. Those caught in her crosshairs include: the new atheists, neo-Darwinists, religious conservatives ("the active pious"), neoclassical economists, religious liberals ("the passive pious"), Biblical scholars, and "self-described patriots."

The off-putting manner in which Robinson dismisses her opponents' arguments is the only dissonant note in this otherwise illuminating collection. For someone who argues so eloquently and soberly for the value of human mystery and human individuality, a remarkable viciousness lies beneath the veneer of reasonable academic argumentation — she does not take the claims of some of her opponents in true good faith, and tends to reduce their arguments to caricature.

Her most devastating and unforgiving essays attack works in historical anthropology and modern Biblical scholarship. Robinson claims that these disciplines seek to "primitize and demean the Old Testament," accusing contemporary cultural anthropologists in particular of an obsession with polytheism. ("Polytheism is as fashionable now," she writes, "as [...] fascism was in its prime.") According to Robinson, the anthropologists tend to "blame monotheism for intolerance and aggression and genocide" and assume that "polytheism must have been tolerant, pacific, and humane." But Robinson fails to recognize that the interest in polytheism among anthropologists is not merely a fad. Polytheism was of equal concern in the 1860s and 1870s among anthropologists, who regarded polytheistic societies as primitive. It was precisely the work of a new generation of anthropologists in the early 20th century who challenged a unilinear model of human evolution and viewed pre-historical societies as important entities to study in their own right, as mysteries requiring examination and, potentially, offering insight into reforming modern society. (For example, the work of the scholars Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Schmidt, and Franz Boas made great strides to overturn the dominant unilinear evolutionary paradigm that anthropological circles held in the mid 19th century.)

Robinson thus does not acknowledge the capacity of these academic disciplines to perform self-critique or self-reflection, or that her own work in many ways can be situated in this anthropological lineage. And this is the main frustration with Robinson's essays: she does not extend the same charitable readings of her opponents' texts, though reading charitably lies at the heart of her philosophy. Her essays read, at times, as if they're written from a bully pulpit, without the self-consciousness, self-doubt, and generosity that infuse the best of historical anthropology and history. In this way, her non-fiction persona starkly contrasts that of her fictional characters, who often probe their own fallibility.

What does ring true in When I Was a Child are the intimate notes. The title essay and "Wondrous Love" build upon several essays from Death of Adam. In the title essay, Robinson writes lovingly about her childhood encounter with solitude that attuned her to mystery. It is this repeated emphasis on mystery that most differentiates this set of essays. "When I see a man or a woman alone," writes Robinson, "he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly." Robinson's religious faith is learned and self-reflective, rooted in a lonesomeness that "allows one to experience ... radical singularity, one's greatest dignity and privilege." Robinson's form of religious faith requires relentless introspection and loneliness. It's a faith that rejects easy platitudes and easy answers.

This type of faith is, in a word, difficult.

Robinson's form of silent, meditative religious faith will frustrate religious conservatives and religious progressives alike. Progressivism and fundamentalism appeal to their constituents because moral certainty is accessible. Each articulates a clear enemy: personal sin for conservatives, social sin for progressives. But Robinson is elusive on defining sin — both personal and social. Conservatives will find her "tolerance" and calls for imaginative embrace of others too wishy-washy and relativistic, while progressives will find her focus on reflection too abstract, too indulgent, lacking the urgency necessary for inspiring concrete social change. What good is imagination, reflection, and meditative silence in the face of real social evils that oppress, harm, and injure? Is Robinson's reflection sufficient in the glare of Baldwin's moral accusation of the silent innocents?

While Robinson may not offer an explicit answer in her nonfiction, she offers a glimpse in her fiction at how imagination and reflection can repair social evil. If the men in her novel Home fail ultimately to confront injustice, it is the women, finally, who demonstrate moral courage. In the final and heartbreaking scene of the novel, a stranger comes to Reverend Boughton's home. From the point of view of Glory: "But the driver of the car was a black woman, and that was a curious thing. There were no colored people in Gilead." Glory has never met Della; Jack has never told Glory that the love of his life is black, nor that he married her. Yet Glory instinctively knows Della's identity. This is what Robinson would term "self-awareness," Glory's perceptive capacity at work. In When I Was A Child, Robinson describes this as "a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative." Della has risked the journey, and the list of whom and what she has defied is endless: her father and sister; the law's prohibition on interracial marriage; the social norms in both her community and others'. She has driven hundreds of miles, stopping only at nightfall because it is dangerous to travel without light.

Here, in these pages, the social evil is clear, and Robinson refuses to equivocate. Glory sees Gilead as this stranger must. Recalling her brother's words — "She has so much to forgive" — Glory asks, "And how would she forgive this, that she felt she had come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country?" None in Gilead has done the work of imagining this stranger in its midst. None has prepared her welcome. Her home has failed to rise to the moral task of invitation.

And so Glory invites Della in; Della demurs, because it is getting dark. Standing eye to eye on Glory's front porch, these two women study one another's faces, as if a face were like a book, deserving of interpretation. Their loneliness, their education, and their inwardness — their cultivation of these has prepared them for this moment. If moral courage does not compel Jack and his father, then Glory and Della demonstrate its possibility. Despite the social evils that ought to divide them, these two humans encounter one another on deeply personal terms, in a manner that is meditative, searching, and quietly radical.

LARB Contributors

Albert Wu (@albertowu) is an associate professor of history at the American University of Paris. His first book, From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press, 2016), examines Sino-European through the lens of missionaries.He has published in academic and popular journals, including American Historical Review, Commonweal, and The Point. With Michelle Kuo, he writes a weekly newsletter:
Michelle Kuo (@kuokuomich) is an associate professor at the American University of Paris. Her award-winning book, Reading with Patrick (Random House, 2017) combines memoir, reportage, and research on racial and economic inequality in rural Arkansas. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of BooksPublic BooksThe Point, and other publications. She has worked as an attorney for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and incarcerated people. With Albert Wu, she writes a weekly newsletter at


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