I remembered how obscure American fiction can become in Oxford when I told my friends I was going to hear Marilynne Robinson and was met with blank expressions. In many ways, Robinson – widely considered one of America’s best living authors – is both a niche and a lower-class ‘c’ catholic writer. She is a novelist and an essayist. She writes on science, religion, politics, and history – local, national, and international. Her writings are extremely porous and her interests seep into one another. If you are likely to turn from writing which includes religion, or which seriously considers the ideals of American democracy, or which is still interested in the Western frontier as a symbol, alongside the nuclear disaster in Japan, or the new austerity, or lost American heroes, she presents a problem.
Despite – or perhaps because of – America’s global hegemony, being American has never been less popular. Americans are fat, they saturate the world market with their fast culture, their voices screech in the streets of Oxford, as they ask ‘But where’s the University?’ whilst clutching their Union Jack pillows and Jubilee tat (just for the record, I’m American). Robinson proves the superficiality and gross inadequacy of this cultural stereotyping.
Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, was published to great acclaim in 1981, won the PEN/Hemingway award and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her second novel, Gilead, was published twenty-four years later and did win the Pulitzer. Home followed in 2005. In the meantime she has taught at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. I’m inclined not to rate the glories of the state of Iowa and I’m much moved by Robinson’s sympathy for her adopted landscape, but all writing hopefuls consider the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to be a kind of Elysium. Flannery O’Connor went there. Robert Lowell taught there.
Her career as a novelist has been interspersed with collections of essays, and the latest offering, When I Was a Child I Read Books, was published last month. Robinson, an honorary Oxford D.Litt after last year’s Encaenia, returned to Oxford this week to lecture on ‘Christology’ at the Exam Schools and to read from her new book in Blackwell’s sunken Norrington room.
Robinson first read from her title essay, ‘When I was a child’, the best essay of the volume, describing her early habits of reading and her childhood in Idaho. Robinson has a placid expression, and she cocks her head from side to side when she reads and when she answers questions, as though her hair is too heavy for her neck. This gives her a kind of gravitas. Her accent is uncompromisingly American but her voice is like the lower notes of a piano, with a steady habitual rise, and an easy skipping around. ‘I find that the hardest work,’ she read, ‘is to convince the world – in fact it may be impossible – is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling.’ Housekeeping was set in the Idaho of Robinson’s imagination; it is a perfect novel, dark and quiet and fir-brooding.
After studying at Brown in Massachusetts and living on the East Coast, Robinson moved to what she terms with dignity ‘the middle west’. Gilead, from which she read next, reflected this change of landscape. In the novel, an ageing Iowan Congregationalist minister, John Ames, writes the young son who he will probably never know in manhood a series of letters. Turning the ‘middle west’ into great literature may seem like an impossible task for coastal critics, but Robinson is earnest and immovable in her defence of this part of America which is so often seen as being ‘without history’. Robinson traced the impetus of the novel back to her need to ‘know the narrative of a place’ when she encounters it. She called the cultural amnesia which midwesterns experience an ‘alienation from one’s own history, as if a prolonged historical moment never happened at all’.
Robinson is interested in the settling of these places, in the movement of young intellectuals and idealists from the east to found new societies in the middle west and beyond. Many of these new societies were founded by abolitionists and were part of the Underground Railroad. Colleges and universities were established and most of them admitted women and black Americans from the beginning. Here was a ‘culture being established,’ said Robinson, ‘and with a great brilliance with reforms that wouldn’t happen for another hundred years.’
The character of Ames is a great favourite in recent American literature, and his fans flocked to the Robinson event in grey-topped glory. Robinson read the excerpt from Gilead in which Ames is introduced to his second wife, his son’s mother, like a tender sermon. The character’s appearance in Robinson’s mind, after a twenty year hiatus from fiction-writing, was sudden, though ‘nothing silly like an apparition’. Instead, said Robinson, it was like ‘you suddenly feel like you know someone’. When she was asked whether Ames would make another appearance, Robinson said her lips were sealed, but the merry silence was interpreted with a suddenly generated anticipation.
John Ames is not the mouthpiece of Robinson, but his inclusion in her canon signals her deep and abiding interest in matters of religious faith. This is where many readers of her work find themselves uneasy. She writes in her essay ‘Wondrous Love’ that, like it or not, Christians of all denominations are ‘members of one household. I confess from time to time I find this difficult. This difficulty may be owed in part to the fact that I have reason to believe they would not extend this courtesy to me.’ What does one do with a novelist who is right of her secular readers and left of her religious readers?
Robinson herself is an active member of a Congregationalist Church across the street from her university. She is interested not only in practical faith and in simple story telling – to her, the Bible is narrative – but the ideas behind and around faith. Robinson is a critic and her description of her faith marks it out as something measured and considered. To skip over the essays or writings in which she contests or argues for things of faith is to miss the chance to extend an act of sympathy to an astute and gentle writer who happens to have made the cultural misalliance of siding with the majority religion.
I suspect Robinson was awarded her D.Litt not only for the lucid prose of her novels but her unusual public position on the bridge between religion and science. Robinson, who is religious and avidly interested in science, disputes with both Creationists and evangelical atheists in what she terms the ‘pillow fight’ or ‘street theatre’ which has been played out between them in the media. ‘It’s difficult to tell what is authentic and what is media-driven,’ she said to the Blackwell’s audience. For Robinson, the two discourses of religion and science are not incompatible; as she writes in her essay ‘Freedom of Thought’ against ‘the idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, [which] is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons.’ She then described the aesthetic effect of scientific knowledge upon her.
Robinson’s habits of auto-didacticism are impressive; she admitted to her audience that when she realised she had had a poor scientific education, she read to fill the gaps. She calls herself a humanist, and admits to her constant interest in basic humanism. The prototypical humanist, like Erasmus or More, is interested in compulsive reading, in things of the mind, and a general, liberal, knowledge. The humanist spins something vast and connective and well-spoken out of the knowledge gleaned. Robinson is clearly writing in this mould. Her essays are elegantly argued but accessible to the layperson; she omits dense technicalities and laborious explanations for the rhetorically persuasive tone of someone who has learned themselves.
This latest volume indeed sounds incredibly ‘spoken’, and the sentences are written as such to make one imagine the voice speaking them. This is probably because Robinson’s volumes of essays come out of her speaking engagements and lectures.
An audience member asked Robinson whether she had anything to say about ‘sorrow’, an emotion which recurs in her characters and the atmosphere of her novels. Robinson volunteered that she thought current society was too quick to diagnose sorrow and grief as depressive and medicate them. Sorrow, she said, is a ‘legitimate music. Though I don’t believe in self-indulgence, I believe in the integrity of one’s own life.’ Here, Robinson elegantly summarises her American and her humanist inheritances: her hardy Protestant self-regard, and the pioneering principle of individuality within community. Robinson’s apt ways of speaking and writing make her an ideal observer of a society which may not always agree with her.
In the meantime, before change happens, we can all hope for a pause in which to digest When I was a Child and the promise of a new novel.