The title aside, Marilynne Robinson does not show much of her youth beyond a few glimpses: as a child feeling out the solitary and spacious West, doing poorly in chemistry class, deciding to be a writer, and, best, browsing in the library. As a girl in an Idaho library, she chose books that were “old and thick and hard.” Now when she surveys her own library she discovers community. She loves the writers of those books, esteeming even the ones who in her estimation “have struggled with words and thoughts… and lost the struggle.”
In her new collection of essays, Robinson stakes out some judgments about the way things should be. Christianity obliges us to treat each other with respect. The United States should use public means to take care of things that matter, from education to care of the helpless and feckless. It is more consistent with Christianity and American habit to do so, despite what conservatives—who claim “austerity as ideology”—say. The Calvinist roots of America are not to be rued as haunting and oppressive, but kept as a source for conscientious generosity. That was the aim of John Winthrop’s plea that Massachusetts be as a city on a hill. John Calvin should not pass as shorthand for the doctrine of election, but is better received as a thinker impressed by God and creation, who charges us to behave with liberality toward one another. Moses did that too. Against religious critics of the Old Testament as inferior to the New, she presents the humaneness and realism of Moses and the prophets. Against New Atheist critics of religion, she upholds the complexity and brilliance of the cosmos, which remains big and wondrous enough to accommodate God.
It seems customary in reviews of Robinson’s nonfiction to introduce her as the author of the prize-winning novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, as if it were those books, or the acclaim that came to those books, that gave her the right to hold forth on theology, politics, science, and so on. But that is not the source of her authority. She speaks from the priesthood of all believers, from her American and even specifically Western habits of thought, from the power vested by that childhood library card. While inherited, fixed ideas about what is worthy or forbidden can provide good grounding, Robinson is pleased that her region afforded her the opposite. Growing up in the West imposed few bonds to particular tradition or specialization, so she can meet all with wondering, serious attention. Bracingly, her work gives “free appreciation of whatever comes under one’s eye.” Not new here but central to these essays is the premise that each person is of immense importance, no one too small for consideration. Her tenacity on this point is by itself a reason to read her fiction and nonfiction. She thinks we are all incalculably precious and interesting. She uses the tools of her craft to help us think this about ourselves and about all the people we might scant when we forget it.
Robinson nicely links a writer’s insights on the high value of the individual soul with a correction of materialist cosmology. Claims that material or physical explanations account for all we are reduce the person, flatten one’s perception of self and neighbor. Here her language echoes the warning of C. S. Lewis to regard no one as an ordinary person, his reminder that “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” The human being is not just a bundle of appetites and self-interest and rational calculation. Robinson mourns when she sees this error leak out in writing workshops, when smart students invent boring, unrealistic characters, that fail to reflect the irreducible complexity of actual human beings. Robinson’s fictional characters, in their intricacy, model something better. Her characters—and I think first of Jack Boughton and John Ames—are thoroughly layered, by turns perceptive, reflective, self-aware, and self-deceiving. The name that she finds most suitable for this complexity is “soul.”
Believing in the human soul is fully compatible with accepting the decrees of science, Robinson insists, in no small part because the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, as she has read many times. The vastness of the universe does not make human beings simple in comparison. Instead, cosmic exploration might make us more interested in the puzzle of ourselves, somewhat in the style of Walker Percy’s curious self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos, which asks why it is possible to “learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6,000 miles away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.”
Human beings—even apparently insignificant ones, even small-towners from farm states in the middle West who hardly register on the scales of haughty easterners—are never simple or boring. I wonder that easterners (and I am born and raised one myself) still need to be told that the middle and further West of this country do not constitute a flat, placid backwater. That land was settled with a noble idea: that it should be claimed by those who worked it, and that the sweat of one’s brow could yield one’s own bread. The measures that “opened the West were sophisticated, considered, and benign,” Robinson posits, colored by “optimism about what people were and what they might become.” Her praise of the Homestead Act is appropriate, although she would do well to quote the document since she lauds it as the most lyrical legislation since Deuteronomy. While compliment is paid to far-flung towns and farms in lovely language—places to find “light, warmth, supper, familiarity” that “stanch every opening where cold and dark might pour through”—her assessment of the West prioritizes individualism. Robinson’s own sympathies tip toward those who light out for the territories. Lonesome “is a word with strongly positive connotations” for the Westerner, she explains.
Robinson insists that the singularity of the individual does not necessarily conflict with the common good. Yet the tension between those priorities also animated our westward settlement. Recall the conflict running through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, between Pa, always ready to go further west where land was surely better, and Ma, prizing schools, churches, and neighbors when outposts of civilization could afford them. Robinson esteems community, though the ones she praises are often of the elective type. A large part of her definition of community is an “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly,” at its best when broadest and generous, lacking sharp lines between those in and those out. We have seen enough bloody strife between “us” and “them” in ethnic and religious groups to make us wary of drawing lines. But some kinds of lines are essential to community, what distinguish strong ones from casual conglomerations of people with no commitment to each other. And the sort of community that comes in John Winthrop’s vision, the kind Robinson praises for its liberality, depends at least as much on plodding diligence and attention to others’ needs. The hero who departs into great lonesome space leaves others behind who must fill in or lose out because of that absence. We might say it is better for us that he goes, because of the spirit that comes to all in a country where lighting out is still a real option. Western historians of the last few decades also have been keen to point out that the fabled emptiness of the West was a matter of perspective, as Robinson herself recognized as a child, feeling like the odd guest in the landscape sufficient unto itself.
A triumph of common purposes in the Midwest was the founding of Oberlin College, which Robinson praises in another essay. She first recollects John Friedrich Oberlin, eighteenth-century pastor assigned among the poor in Alsace, who built roads, bridges, libraries, and schools among his flock to improve their material and spiritual condition. Honoring that memory, Oberlin College in Ohio was founded in the 1830s by an anti-slavery cohort from Lyman Beecher’s Cincinnati seminary and was governed by the era’s foremost revivalist, Charles Grandison Finney. This college—not Harvard! Not even Berlin!—seems to me the most interesting institution of higher education in the early nineteenth century. It opened its doors as racially mixed and coeducational. It was unique in some respects, but in others was representative of evangelical Christian colleges founded in that period, fueled by piety and reform. Robinson uses the social uplift of figures like Oberlin and Finney to criticize a portion of our political left and right. The former suspects Christians of conspiring to theocracy; the latter frowns on use of public resources. Nineteenth-century reformers were indeed willing to use public monies for public purposes, but Robinson is unfair to conclude that conservatives now reluctant to cede common goals to the state have no alternate means to seek them. Like nineteenth-century reformers, public-minded men and women feed the hungry, house the poor, educate children, and beautify space through church and civic association as well. Robinson prizes Oberlin College finally in terms of equality. That may be less its hallmark—as certainly it seemed to Lucy Stone who, invited to write the commencement address in 1847, declined since she would not be permitted to speak in front of men—than a high confidence in the power of education to transform, cultivate, and elevate.
With characteristic eloquence and cheerful controversy, Robinson’s book ranges with free appreciation over many things that come under our eyes. In addressing topics great and small, her arguments sometimes blur the distinction between the two, sometimes reverse it. Or it may be more accurate to say that nothing necessarily remains small in her estimation. As one of her famous fictional characters observes, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
Agnes R. Howard is Assistant Professor of History at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.