Marilynne Robinson and the Perception of the Ordinary

April 14, 2018

“You learn the value of things in losing them.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson is considered one of the defining writers of our time, a treasure in contemporary American literature, in both her fiction and her nonfiction. Her novels explore mid-20th century Midwestern life and faith; her essays roam the boundaries between faith and science. She is perhaps best known for her novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). Her newest collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, was published this year.

The Entitled Opinions conversation with Robert Harrison explores John Calvin's vision of an immanent God, Original Sin, and the influence of both ideas on Lincoln's national vision and also on foundational American writers such as Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe. Harrison and Robinson discuss grief, loss, history, science, Freudianism, and what it's like to live in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies.

In his introduction, Robert Harrison praises “her perception of ordinary reality, which is anything but ordinary when perception becomes truly attentive and thoughtful.” Then he cites her own words: “Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. … You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.”

“The absolute discovery we make is that we are radically solitary."

Marilynne Robinson is the author of four novels, Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Lila, as well as several nonfiction works, including When I Was a Child I Read Books, Absence of Mind, The Death of Adam, Mother Country, The Givenness of Things, and, most recently, What Are We Doing Here? (FSG, 2018).

Her work has has received many awards, including the as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2005), the 2012 National Humanities Medal, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In 2016, Robinson was named to Time Magazine's list of 100 most influential people. She was also awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction (2009), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (twice; 2005, 2014), as well as the Pen/Diamondstein-Spielvoel Award for the Art of the Essay (1999), and the Louisville Gravemeyer Award in Religion (2006).

She has been the F. Wendell Miller Professor of English and Creative Writing at the prestigious Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa since 1991. She retired in Spring 2016.