By John Freeman
Iowa City, Iowa—Marilynne Robinson’s teaching and writing—including the novels “Housekeeping,” “Gilead” and “Home”—have been crucial to a generation of writers. Now she has a few corrections to the record that she would like to make.
“One of the things that focuses me is simply coming across something and thinking: That can’t be right,” says the sixty-eight-year-old. Sitting on a couch, dressed entirely in black, before a table heaped with books, papers and two laptops, Robinson looks like an intellectual detective who has been on the case. She has been in this mode before. In her seminal 1998 essay collection, “The Death of Adam,” Robinson dismantled misreadings that had shrouded the teachings of John Calvin.
But the idea Robinson worries is now being misinterpreted is not a text, or a notion, but America itself. By America, Robinson means democracy, and by democracy, she refers to faith and respect in the power of community.
Our “culture is more abusive in certain ways than it has been in a long, long time,” she says. “Prisons that are run for profit and so on—you have to go back to the eighteenth century to find that.”
Robinson ought to know. For four decades, alongside her life as a fiction writer, she has been an Americanist, rooting around in the old documents to hear the story the nation tells itself: who is included, who is left out.
“When I Was a Child I Read Books,” her fourth book of nonfiction, is the result of some of her more recent errands in this vein. Its essays ruminate on the current global debt crisis, the role Moses has played in American political thought, her own Idaho childhood and the idea that generosity is essential to a community.
For a writer known for the twenty-four-year gap between her first and second novels, Robinson has been prolific of late. This is her second book of essays in three years. In this mode, Robinson is rigorous, starchy, a
throwback to the era when Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant and others lectured to packed halls.
Like Emerson and, more recently, Barry Lopez, she claims the soul as an essential part of intellectual life. “The way I use the word soul, I suppose I am describing what I’m taking to be an individual’s deepest experience of himself,” she says.
Rather than divide citizens, Robinson believes this experience of individuality—meditative, spiritual—can nurture empathy among us.
“Who could ever dispute that we are part and parcel of the universe? We didn’t come from anywhere else,” she says, practically quoting Walt Whitman. Robinson credits her rural childhood in the 1940s with fostering the habit of solitude. And through solitude she learned to pay attention.
She attended Pembroke College, the former women’s college of Brown University, when, as she writes in these essays, a woman became educated so as to better reflect upon her husband.
The climate of academia has changed over fifty years, but Robinson still believes women need to speak up: “Over my life as a teacher, women have been too quiet. I’m quiet myself. I don’t think I said three words the whole of graduate school.”
This did not stop her from becoming a teacher, a task she calls “a very ancient, beautiful engagement between people.” She has been at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for more than twenty-five years. Her ex-students are a veritable who’s who of young writers: from Nathan Englander to Justin Torres to Chinelo Okparanta.
Her work with them has been rigorous and time-consuming, but she would never trade it for another novel with her name on it.
“I’ve learned a lot about writing from listening to my students talk,” she says. “It’s sensitizing. It can remind you of really important things. I’ve probably written less but I’ve probably written better than I would’ve otherwise.”
“Gilead” won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. “Home,” which continues the stories of the characters in “Gilead,” won the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction.
If these novels are driven from a private sense of purpose and curiosity, her teaching—and ongoing commitment to her local United Church of Christ—have fed her a larger sense of civic purpose.
Later this summer, she will take this act on the road, lecturing first at Oxford University and then in Greece. “After I give this lecture in Athens, they want me to talk to students in Athens—what a great idea. I’ll feel like Plato.”
“When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays”
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages, $24
Listen to an audio excerpt: Robinson_WhenIWasAChildIReadBooks