SEPTEMBER 5, 2020
TO READ MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S writing is to be transported into other worlds. The granularity of a graveyard clean-up in a barren Middle West in her novel Gilead and the metaphor of the elevated train bridge in her iconic debut Housekeeping — Robinson moves readers into systems of reality which can feel as peculiar as they do grounded in mundane details. Most of all, Robinson constructs worlds that seem real.
Her recent essay, “What Kind of Country Do We Want?” in The New York Review of Books presented something of an unpleasant shock. The world — a real one, no less — she produces in the essay feels neither bespoke nor particularly grounded in reality. Nominally, Robinson uses the essay to pose the simple questions which many of the rest of us share in the time of coronavirus: How did we get here, and what are we supposed to do now? Like many older White Americans, she wonders what’s happened to the essential goodness and competence of her country. Even the question “How did we get here?” presupposes a sense of loss, of a once great project now fallen into an abyss of incompetence, mendacity, and pestilence.
Like so many liberal White Americans, Robinson presumably considers the 2016 election of the United States’s 45th president to be the date when the American project came suddenly and grievously undone, never considering that the flaws in the American experiment have been there from the beginning, that a hideous present could not obscure a monstrous past. Robinson finds herself in good company in this brand of liberal White nostalgia. Former Vice President Joe Biden has constructed an entire presidential campaign around a series of loose rhetorical gestures to “restore the soul of America.” Restore: verb, to bring back (a previous right, practice, or custom); to reinstate.
Like a David Brooks column come to life, the Biden campaign pretends to recapture some past but essential American goodness, which presumably existed before November 2016. Like Robinson, just when and where would Joe Biden like to take us? And what was the condition of the American soul in the first place? American political discourse finds itself lost, like some washed-up high school quarterback, in the thrill of remembered triumphs, in some last shred of revanchist glory, in the imagined power of The Way We Were. How ironic to find Biden’s best ideological opposition — “Restore the Soul of America” — to the inanity and ahistoricism of “Make America Great Again” lies in yet another time trap. Restore what? How poor must our imaginations be to fool ourselves into believing the temporal fallacy that way back also presents the way forward.
In her essay’s first lines, Robinson writes romantically of this nostalgic America. She calls America a “magnificent country, a virtual heaven” though “[b]y no means as wonderful as it should have been,” offering passing reference to the “broad streaks of pain in its history.” She mourns a lost spirit of American optimism, writing: “Until recently it sustained a generally equitable, decent government that gave it plausible claims to answering to the ideals of democracy.”
Reading the opening movement of Robinson’s essay, I nearly spat out my coffee. What impartial analyst could credibly argue for the United States’s “generally equitable, decent government” at any point in its history? When had America — or Americans — made “plausible claims to answering the ideals of democracy”? I returned to the beginning of the sentence, where “Until recently” stood in all its nostalgic horror. Exactly which America has Robinson been living in? And to which imagined America does she wish we return?
Although Robinson’s essay arrived in the June 11 issue of The New York Review of Books, she wrote of the novel coronavirus’s morass, not the murder of George Floyd and the unfolding protests for justice. Like so many other unwitting conservatives with her eyes wistfully cast backward toward the past, she couldn’t have seen this possible future. She couldn’t even see the shape of her present. Like so many White Americans waking up to a country they never knew or saw rightly, Robinson might now be saying of police and policing, of Black triumph and Black struggle, a version of the familiar refrain: “I had no idea.” As it turns out, coronavirus is only one of the many possible ways to die at the hands of American inhumanity.
The virus of White nostalgia is itself dangerous, and Robinson, for all her precise vision as a fiction writer, doesn’t see the past as it happened, instead remembering some gauzy, nostalgic version of the truth. Here Whiteness emerges as a form of intellectual blindness. The public polling is definitive: White Americans generally believe the past was better than the present, that Black Americans have made enough progress; Black Americans generally express dismay over the slowness, the incompleteness of what is referred to in the polling data as “racial progress.” The battle for America’s soul emerges as a war over whether to use the past and future tense, whether we have done enough and may turn back to some essential goodness, or whether we have not yet begun to do the important work ahead. When Robinson writes, “How is it that we can be told, and believe, that we are the richest country in history, and at the same time that we cannot share benefits our grandparents enjoyed?,” even a casual student of American history might wonder what — and who — she means by “our” and “we”?
Many nonwhite Americans, despite the many rhetorical and actual crimes of the current administration, today enjoy rights which their grandparents did not, rights for which their grandparents fought, struggled, and, in some cases, died. That the present is itself tragic in no way exculpates the past. That this tradition of American social progress exists is in no way an excuse for its incompleteness or the many moral crimes in the death and suffering of those who ran out of time waiting for justice to arrive.
Robinson was born in 1943, meaning had she been born Black in the United States, her grandparents may well have been in the millions who fled the American South amid the racial terror at the end of Reconstruction. Her parents and grandparents would not have been guaranteed the right to vote, would have suffered grotesque redlining policies as they strived for the American Dream, and been at risk of police and state violence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Marilynne Robinson was 20 years old, a soon-to-be graduate of Pembroke College, the gender-segregated arm of Brown University, the year the Civil Rights Act passed, an act to which the country still fails to live up. It remains unclear which part of her grandparents’ history Robinson finds so appealing, or if her Whiteness inculcates the type of blinkered forgetting on which nostalgia necessarily relies. It is surely not a history of social activism to which Robinson refers when she wonders about the lost “benefits” of bygone generations. White nostalgia, to put it mildly, is a hell of a sedative.
This same history looks differently with the White nostalgic gauze removed. Novelist and critic Zadie Smith, in her essay “On Optimism and Despair,” which she wrote to accept the Welt Literature Prize in the fraught days after November 2016, articulates a different relationship to history. Smith observes:
I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others.
Smith here contrasts the pleasure and the horror of the past, suggesting the dueling systems of reality, to paraphrase James Baldwin, in which we endeavor to debate the fate of the nation. If we cannot remember our history together, or agree about its pleasurability or its horror, how can we hope to chart a path forward? For Robinson, the past is a balm; for Smith, it’s a trap. Smith states flatly in the same essay, “neither do I believe in time travel.” Many White Americans cannot say the same, believing in some possible transfiguration in the past, whether to respond to the crisis of racial violence or viral pandemic. The fantasy of White nostalgia, now fully bipartisan with the advent of Biden’s “restoration” pablum, has become one of America’s most damaging and powerful political forces.
Seen in the Financial Times in April, Arundhati Roy wrote an essay with better purchase than Robinson on the relationship of the coronavirus to history. She suggests the pandemic should not remind us of some Lost Greatness, but rather that it offers pathways forward. Writing about her home country of India — another one of those pluralistic nations with a long history of democracy, which has now slipped into the mixture of authoritarianism, violent racism, and crude market logics which may sound familiar to Americans — Roy calls the pandemic “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,” a pathway to some better imagining of the future.
In her typical deconstructive mode, Roy encourages readers to note the halt in the machine of global capital, “at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.” Destruction may hasten the deconstructionist project, and we might not like what we find in the workings of the machine. Unlike Robinson, Roy posits we must “break with the past and imagine [the] world anew.” Looking backward, Roy sees something different than Marilynne Robinson does. Roy rebukes “the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies.” Instead, she exhorts us to meet our historical moment, “lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.” Roy and Smith concur about the horrors of the past, and one wonders what it might be that lets Robinson skim so carelessly across the surface of American history that she might mistake its terrible lessons for a kind of goodness.
Scholar and theorist Saidiya Hartman, a historian by training, is another voice that should shape how we think about the future. In her seminal 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman fashions a new relationship to American history, to historical thinking itself. Confronting an archive of American racial history where the contributions and lives of Black Americans have been both left undocumented and been intentionally erased, Hartman suggests we must engage in what she calls “critical fabulation.” We must be willing to imagine histories which have been lost to us, to write stories that might have been.
In her imagined and subjunctive theory of history, Hartman responds to the trap of the past. How can we rightly remember when so much has been lost, when so much has been hidden from us? Remembering more rightly presents a pathway to freedom and national reckoning. In this sense, history can be a portal, too, provided we are willing to see and know its terror, to speculate how we might move forward given the incredible power of moving from “was” to “would,” from “were” to “might have been.” These backward-looking grammatical systems can be retrofitted to a subjunctive future. What would be the way forward, were we to have the courage to walk it?
Speaking at Harvard Divinity School for its bicentennial in 2017, Robinson mused, “We have impoverished ourselves of every sense of how, over time, a society emerged that we and most of the world have considered decent and fortunate. Could we save this good order from a present threat?” Part of the subheadline for her talk, “Old Souls, New World,” as published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, was “we need to give the Puritans their due.” A discriminating critic might wonder what she means by “good order” and how she might be defining the threats of the present. Or more simply, one might consider the very project of doing a revisionist reappraisal of Puritans as a political act in itself. Certainly, the luxury of thinking of the American experiment as “good order” may show us more about the identity of the writer than any dispassionate assessment of history. What America needs now is not more thinking about Puritanism, no matter what the revisionist religious scholars tell us.
While Robinson has every right to her romantic visions of the United States’s founding and history, we need not join her in the intellectual equivalent of a cardboard box with “time machine” written on the side. Such playtime is a dangerous illusion. This nostalgic past, and engaging with history so wistfully, is a profound act of entitlement. In the final paragraph of “What Kind of Country Do We Want?,” after paying another passing acknowledgment to “the crimes and injustices in our history,” Robinson is back to time traveling. “All this comes down to the need to recover and sharpen a functioning sense of justice,” she writes, leaning as heavily on “recover” as the Biden campaign does on the word “restore.” One wonders where in the past Robinson sees this functioning sense of justice, and why she cannot imagine finding a new, more equitable vision in the future. As far as “What Kind of Country Do We Want?,” we should assume we haven’t found it yet.
Author and activist Sonya Renee Taylor, writing on Instagram in the beginning of April put it best. “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends.”
White Americans must first acknowledge there is nothing to recover from this shipwreck, only the immediate logistics of human survival and the hope of some future rescue. White Americans must see the ways in which they ran the ship aground in the first place. Robinson may have her wistful dreams of the Mayflower, but the rest of us live in the shadow of the Middle Passage. In the wreckage of this project, we might find some things we can make useful in a different form for the journey ahead, but we also might find, in our moment of destruction, the opportunity to imagine anew. We might see the ship and its construction as inadequate, and we might even grow to see our survival as another layer of privilege and inequity. What right have we to live, when so many Black Americans have died in the dubious project of American history?
So what do we do now, us the survivors, the inheritors of a terrible history and an apocalyptic present?
Such imaginations and subjunctive futures will not be in the Biden or Trump campaigns, which in both cases might be thought of as different definitions of the word “backward,” but they may be happening in the literature of the protest. Great works of art are being made as I type this in the streets of America’s cities and towns. We are already seeing a new world emerging, full of uncertainty and possibility. Black Lives Matter is now a majority favorable position in public polling; calls to abolish the police have moved into the cultural mainstream; statues of hideous racists are being torn down and removed; humanities departments are reviewing and revising what histories and literature students learn. From the horrors of our present we might step beyond the trap of our past, to learn for the first time, as Robinson writes in the final line of her essay, “that humankind is fragile, and wonderful.”
In one of the most trenchant moments in Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, two characters must walk across the treacherous, elevated rail bridge out of town. The way is uncertain and dangerous, but the call of the future and the open road is too powerful to remain in place. We, too, totter here on the uneasy fulcrum of moving to somewhere and something else, the air below us confirming the stakes of our journey. The bridge is a portal; the way lies ahead. That sounds like a world to which we would all like to be transported, a world that isn’t now but might one day feel — and be — real.
Geoff Nelson is a culture writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in Buzzfeed, The Village Voice, Paste Magazine, and No Depression. He serves as the English Department Chair at the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, New York.
Featured image: “Santa Claus entering Seattle Christmas party, 1954” by Seattle Municipal Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0.