A novelist’s lonely struggle to recover the religion-inspired liberalism of America’s founding ethos.
When I Was a Child I Read Books
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp.
“People always ask me if I’m talking about the same thing again,” novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson told a crowded lecture hall at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2011. “The same thing” being French Protestant theologian John Calvin and his influence on American history. “And the honest answer would almost always be ‘yes.’” Her lecture that day was titled “The Freedom of a Christian,” and it traced an idea of freedom to the New England Puritans, the theology of Calvin, and back all the way to the Old Testament. “Freedom,” in the language of these foundational texts, “is something we give to one another, rather than something we claim for ourselves,” she explained.
Robinson burst on the literary scene in 1980 with the publication of her novel Housekeeping, a story of orphaned sisters being raised by an eccentric aunt in small-town Idaho. Her second novel didn’t appear until a quarter century later. Gilead, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2004, was written in the voice of an ailing Calvinist minister in Iowa recording his family history for his young son. Four years later she published Home, a companion piece set in the same time and place as Gilead but from the perspective of different characters. Robinson also produced a volume of essays (The Death of Adam), an exposé on the British nuclear industry (Mother Country), and a rebuttal to the claims of evolutionary psychology (Absence of Mind).
The political implications of Robinson’s work emerge with particular clarity in her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The force of these decades of speculations and explorations has been summoned with some urgency by the 2008 economic crisis and the punitive responses—on both the populist right and the technocratic center—that have followed. The “language of public life has lost the character of generosity,” Robinson writes in the introduction, “and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.”
Words like “generosity” and “largeness of spirit” are not clichés in this instance. For Marilynne Robinson, human life expands or contracts based on how we define ourselves. And the American founding, contrary to the bitter nostalgia of the Tea Party right and the cynical debunking of the postmodern left, was staked on the idea that humans are capable of much more than our contemporary ideologies admit. This great democratic, progressive ambition comes, Robinson claims, from New England Calvinism.
Competing with other, more conservative religious interpretations of America, New England Calvinism spread through the Midwest in an effort to create a culture that was resistant to slavery and came to exert a disproportionate influence on the nation as a whole through educational institutions and revival movements. The legacy of this distinctive religious culture is a large part of what is at stake in contemporary debates over taxes, spending, and the safety net—whether we know it or not.
Throughout her diverse body of work, Robinson tends to return to certain themes over and over again. She treasures and respects the characters in her novels, however dire their flaws. She fiercely resists reductive descriptions of humanity in her essays, whether they come from Freud, Skinner, or Darwin. She admires the radical religious impulses, now typically at least half forgotten, behind institutions like liberal arts colleges, public education, and country churches. Robinson celebrates the noble impulses found in American history and letters, the Bible, modern science, and ancient culture. And she repeatedly extols the virtue of “reverence,” a capacity to attend to, learn from, dignify, and defend the natural world and, especially, one’s fellow humans. Whether in history or in fiction, this capacity for reverence is fraught with political implications.
“There is clearly a feeling abroad that God smiled on our beginnings,” Robinson says in the volume’s central essay, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism.” She is referring most obviously to the writing and politics of Glenn Beck, David Barton, and most of the Republican presidential candidates— none of whom, it is clearly implied, truly understand those beginnings. “If we really did attempt to return to them,” she insists, “we would find a recurrent, passionate insistence on bounty or liberality” and “enjoying the great blessings God has promised to liberality to the poor.” The essay argues for the sort of claim Robinson is virtually alone among American public intellectuals in making. “Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period,” she writes, “and this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament.”
A movement of the Protestant Reformation, Calvinism originated in France and was carried to Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Great Britain by exiles fleeing religious persecution. Among the distinctive features of Calvinist Christianity is a conviction that society as a whole may be good and just. (Scarlet letters and sumptuary laws are more commonly remembered today, but the local organization of charity and relief was probably a more important development in the sixteenth century.) This conviction derived in part from the importance placed on the Old Testament as a source for social ethics, an importance Lutherans and Catholics—and the Anglicans who founded the American South—did not share. Robinson identifies the many passages in the Old Testament urging and commanding something long rendered in Calvinist Bible translations as “liberality,” that is, “an ethics of nonjudgmental, nonexclusive generosity” toward freed slaves, widows, orphans, the landless, and other people in need.
This is the sense in which the word “liberal” entered the American lexicon, Robinson claims, whereas in England it migrated from the French Revolutionary discourse of liberty. Neither ashen-faced oppressors nor rugged individualists, the Puritan founders of New England relied repeatedly on these biblical injunctions, from John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity onward; they were “central to American social thought from the beginning.” And this biblical ethos and the laws it directly inspired have not been uniformly superseded in our own more secular age. “A glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison” between the Old Testament and our own laws “is not always in our favor.” This is not new material for Robinson; the radical abolitionist preacher in Gilead is remembered for emptying the offering plates of a prosperous church into his hat to distribute to people in need, however conventionally undeserving.
This early Puritan ideal of unstinting openhandedness contrasts markedly with the present mania for fiscal and ethical retrenchment. In “Austerity as Ideology,” Robinson invokes the idea of freedom as a mutual gift: “Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate.” This “great mutual courtesy”— the modesty of metaphor here is typical of Robinson’s work—relies on mutual education, respect, and trust. “We were centuries in building these courtesies,” she goes on, noting that they are under fierce attack in the name of economic and security threats. “Without them ‘Western civilization’ would be an empty phrase.”
Education in particular is both central to this great mutual courtesy and, perhaps not coincidentally, a major target of the austerity disciples. For Robinson, education is the sine qua non of the American democratic experiment, “our most distinctive achievement.” Our fragile and historically rare commitment to educating everyone for free is not only the epitome of our egalitarian ideals (however poorly realized), it is also the cause of our culture’s excellence and dynamism. Robinson looks back with some astonishment, in the title essay, at the ambition of the Latin instructors of her Idaho childhood. It is no doubt a luxury to dedicate even an hour of a teacher’s day to teaching “five or six” students the work of Horace and Virgil. But as any luxury does, it symbolizes a set of values— in this case, the value we place, or once placed, on the potential for each mind to develop in unexpected and creative ways when exposed to the living voice of the past. It is not a value shared, for example, by Florida Governor Rick Scott, who wants to defund all the humanities programs in his state’s universities, the better to focus on engineering and business. “It is as if the very idea of a people, a historical community, has died intestate, and all its wealth is left to plunder,” Robinson morosely observes.
Such a sentiment is not terribly unusual coming from a noted literary figure engaging in political questions. But Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is not simply weighing in on the rhetoric of Tea Party politicians in order to defend her guild. Indeed, an important implication of these essays is that American liberals have helped enable this plundering by forgetting or even turning against the peculiar genius that created these institutions of learning, provisions for common welfare, and mutual courtesies of civilized life. Robinson’s essays hinge, like her fiction, on a picture of human nature that is more capacious than contemporary American politics or American letters typically offers us. For Robinson, the human mind is—one is tempted to say literally—a microcosm. “The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe,” she reports telling her students, the number of neurons in it exceeding the number of stars in our galaxy. “Earthly nature may be parsimonious, but the human mind is prodigal, itself an anomaly that in its wealth of error as well as of insight is exceptional, utterly unique as far as we know, properly an object of wonder.” In her novels and essays Robinson dramatizes this prodigality, this openness to unexpected and ultimately unaccountable actions and realizations. It is presumably the reason her characters, though variously endowed with ethics and good sense, are not villains, brutes, or stereotypes. Material generosity toward our neighbors, both near and around the world, begins with moral generosity, Robinson’s body of work strongly suggests.
Readers may be surprised to find one of America’s foremost Calvinists painting such a noble portrait of the human self, but that’s only because we’ve lost the language of paradox—unimaginably destructive, yet a little lower than the angels—that once charted our capacity for both good and evil. “We have not escaped, nor have we in any sense diminished, the mystery of our existence. We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it.” Here Robinson is referring to various ideologies, from evolutionary psychology to Freudian psychoanalysis to modern economics, that seek to exclude our own thoughts and intentions from the ways we understand ourselves.
It can be fairly objected that Robinson relies too heavily on that word “mystery.” She is sometimes too willing to leave a conclusion or a connection implied. Her style is never pedantic, but it is often dense, careful, and ironic. But these are all minor tariffs for the reader to pay in order to probe the arguments and the rescued historical data of a writer who has been orphaned by the culture wars. A progressive who is enamored with the past, a lover of her country who feels its historical crimes all the more bitterly for that, a devout Christian who is undisturbed by secular people and secular thought, an enthusiast of science who is vigilant against its abuse, a writer who aims her sharpest topical barbs at the right while more deeply critiquing the amnesia of the modern left: Marilynne Robinson can trigger the antibodies of all manner of readers. She does so in her apparently unending circuit of lectures and graduation speeches, gamely fielding the same questions about Calvin and predestination, Max Weber, and the reputed severity of the Old Testament, over and over again. The point of all this doggedness, on the part of an author long mantled in the kind of regard that excuses her peers from defending their ideologies, seems not to be persuading anyone of her own views. Rather, Robinson invites her largely liberal, well-educated audience to yield some of the things we think we know back to the realm of mystery, the great, undefined, unknown human adventure on which more of our politics hangs than we may realize.
As a book about who we are and what we owe each other, When I Was a Child I Read Books is more urgently political than any treatise on the shape of entitlement programs or the proper government share of GDP. Caustic as our public debates may be, they mask a convergence on the bigger questions that animate those debates. What Robinson calls “our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed” can be found virtually anywhere on the American political spectrum today. We are drawn to these self-effacing definitions—whether we get them from Darwinian biology, neoclassical economics, or postmodernity’s generalized suspicion—because they appear to be rational, scientific, or progressive. They liberate us from the oppressions and illusions we imagine constitute our collective past.
But what if we succeed in convincing ourselves that they’re true? If what we experience in both our own consciousness and in the palpable but hidden reality of another’s is just an accident or an illusion, a thin crust floating atop the magma of evolutionary adaptations or historical resentments that constitute our truest selves, it’s hard to imagine a future for the American liberal democratic project. People convinced of their own smallness will not know how to open their hands wide to each other.
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