Marilynne Robinson—unapologetic Calvinist, committed humanist, brilliant writer—is undoubtedly one of the most important contemporary American authors. Born and raised in northern Idaho, she was educated at Pembroke College (now part of Brown University), where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and at the University of Washington, where she received her MA and PhD in literature. She has taught at several universities in England, France, and America, and for over twenty years she has served on the faculty at the celebrated University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her enormous erudition, dazzling prose, clarity of vision, and great wit are on display in her essays and speeches and in her four works of nonfiction: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012). It is, however, for her three novels—Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008)—that Robinson has been honored with some of the most prestigious awards in the literary world. A finalist for the National Book Award, she has received the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for First Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Orange Prize. Jennifer L. Holberg, Professor of English at Calvin College, interviewed Robinson at the Buechner Institute at King College.
Image: At the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, you gave a speech in which you asserted:
Just now it seems almost un-American to claim that certain things have gone right…. Gloom is all the rage. In certain quarters, rage is all the rage. We are told continuously that we have lost our way…. Cultural gloom is an industry in this country. I am often asked to stoke its sooty fires. Honesty forbids.
So, how do you assess the state of culture today in America? Why does “honesty forbid”?
Marilynne Robinson: Well, the culture operates on all sorts of different levels, and I’m surprised by how little they seem to cohere or refer one to another. I’m sensitive on the subject of education, and I hear all the time that we are failing at education, we are being surpassed. My experience certainly would not suggest that. We prepare students who are good enough to fill the best universities in the world. We have five thousand colleges and universities in this country, virtually all of them very fine institutions, certainly by world standards. We couldn’t maintain this if we did not have students who are equal to the demands they present. Our amazing university system endorses our entire educational process.
I’ve lived in France and England. In both cases, at about eleven years old, kids not considered academically gifted are dropped out of the system. It isn’t difficult, therefore, to get high test scores from the kids who remain. When we compare American high school students with European high school students, it’s certainly apples and oranges.
The other thing about these systems with which we compare ourselves is that not only do kids get tracked into university or elsewhere at an early age, they also get tracked into either humanities or science and math. So again, when you compare American and European high school students, it’s very much apples and oranges. We feel that a well-educated person ought not to be specialized—certainly not at such a young age. Our whole university system is based on the idea that a broader education is ultimately more fruitful than a narrower one. We have a philosophic commitment to broader education. At the same time, we fail to observe that other people teach on other assumptions, and so we are always making inappropriate comparisons. I think we have a right to be dedicated to our own theory of education, which I think has been extraordinarily fruitful.
Image: Teaching seems very central to your identity. You were once given a very large and prestigious grant to free you up from teaching, and yet after only a year and a half, you decided to give up the grant and to go back into the classroom. Can you talk about why the classroom is important to you, what you think teaching gives you?
MR: This is often presented to me as a conflict—teaching and writing—and in terms of certain demands on my time and attention, it can be understood that way. But I think we have to break down categories that we’re used to, and one of the things I can report from my own experience is that teaching is as profoundly satisfying as bringing up a child, or re-creating a family culture. It feels right to do it. What have people done since antiquity? Teach each other. Learn from each other.
I was reading that they have found evidence that people in pre-human culture navigated routinely to one of the islands in the Mediterranean and colonized it to the extent that there is a substantial cache of pre-human artifacts there. This was seventy thousand years ago or more, early enough that those people somehow or other didn’t satisfy our definition of “people.” What narrative would lie behind their ability to navigate to this island over a long distance of open water? They couldn’t have done it with a raft—they had to have had something better. What history would lie behind developing something better than a raft? They say that tool-making goes back seven hundred thousand years in Africa. You figure that people probably didn’t have very long life expectancies. How could they?—especially people who did something as perilous as navigating open water in God knows what kind of a vessel. So they must have been training each other, enculturating each other continuously from about as early as would be possible in a pre-human kid. The fact that there is such early evidence of these technologies and of such complex behavior implies that people have to have been teaching. People have to have been learning. It’s the passing down of the wealth of any present knowledge that allows the accumulation of knowledge and makes people capable of these things. I really do believe that the whole of human civilization is tied up in teaching and learning as ritualized human behavior. When I teach I feel like I’m doing something right, natural, good for me to be doing. When I give up teaching, I feel as if something important has left my life.
Image: In a graduation speech last year at Holy Cross, you spoke about how we need to give greater focus to the rich local communities and universities that are producing culture across this country. But somehow those local conversations don’t seem to be filtering up to the national level.
MR: It’s amazing. One of the things that is characteristic of this country—and I have been able to travel a great deal and speak with many people and sample what’s going on in all sorts of places—is that people always think that where they are is excellent. If the earth is curved, you can’t go anywhere without decline. People in another region, or even another part of the same state, are assumed to be sort of disappointing as human beings. Whereas people feel that in their own little community, things are as they ought to be. In a great big country like this—well, in any country—we have to develop a certain intelligent respect for the people over the horizon. We need to assume that they take their lives seriously, that they strive earnestly to preserve the quality of life in the place where they are, that they’re just as fond of their children as anybody else is. Because the narrative you hear over and over again is: “I could never leave North Dakota because South Dakota has sunk into corruption.” It’s ridiculous.
Image: You have a wonderful essay in Tin House, which just devoted a whole issue to beauty. You write, “It has seemed to me for some time that beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us.” Do you believe this is tied to questions you explore in Absence of Mind about our love of “parascientific discourse”? I wonder if you feel that by giving such authority to certain narratives of science we have displaced an appreciation for other values, such as what you call “the mind as felt experience.”
MR: I don’t understand why it is that we seem to reject beauty in general. I think science is beautiful—I read as much of it as I can understand and have time for. I think scientists think science is beautiful, the ones working at the more imaginative levels, certainly. As religious people, I think we ought to be sensitive to the fact that the universe is beautiful at every scale. I became sensitive to that question in the first place when I asked my students to intentionally write something beautiful—just a paragraph—and they were flabbergasted by the suggestion. As if beautiful means hyperbolic or sentimental. At the same time, if you show them a passage from Chekov, they say, “That’s beautiful.” Why should it be an invidious term in any context? And then it seems to me that the churches in general have rid themselves of the heritage of beauty as industriously as they have rid themselves of the heritage of intellectualism, and this simply impoverishes them. There is no more to be said: it creates poverty where there should be wealth.
Image: Explicitly in your nonfiction and implicitly in your fiction, you lament our culture’s lack of historical knowledge and engagement. You coined a term in Absence of Mind—“the hermeneutics of condescension”—to describe our sense that our forbearers are somehow beneath us. Could you explain that?
MR: I see you’ve read that more recently than I have, but as I recall there’s a false anthropological model in place. There are always things wrong with anthropological models, even when they’re appropriately applied, but when we assume that the people before us had to have been always making mistakes that we are superior to, we disqualify the past as testimony to the experience of everything that human life entails. Also, we misread past writers because we want to be able to put them in these categories: “Well, so-and-so couldn’t have thought that because that was before civil rights.” I’m writing about Faulkner now, and I think he’s profoundly condescended to on assumptions of that kind.
We teach each other shorthand, and there’s nothing in the world that people remember so profoundly as these little offhand things they’re told. I constantly come up against Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It’s a really bad little book. One of the things that is important to do is to read primary texts, but I have heard a thousand people quote Max Weber, or at least quote his title, and perhaps one or two of them have actually looked at the book. It’s not scholarly. It’s not rigorous. He has taken the kind of polemical categories that were used against Jews in Germany in the same period, and he’s flipped them over and directed them to Reformed people, who were also a minority in Germany. He was rebutted by a friend of his, whose book was called The Jews and Modern Capitalism, who simply took the stereotype and reapplied it to a more familiar context. The whole thing is bogus—it has no intellectual or conceptual value—but people know that the book exists, and they feel that something has been proved. I think that they believe Max Weber more than they believe Galileo. It’s this hard little nugget, and there are so many like it. People don’t feel obligated to look at things with their own eyes and think about them with their own minds, and that’s a disaster.
When people mention Weber they act like they’re playing a trump card: Calvin—I’m sensitive on that subject, too—had to have been the source of all that is mean and money-grubbing because Max Weber said so. The confidence is entire. And this is only one example. You find it over and over again. Somebody taught an economics class to this same person, no doubt, and probably talked about the positive and negative sides of Keynesianism and this, that, and the other. But one day he said, “Max Weber demonstrated the origins of capitalism in Calvinism.” That they remember—all the subtlety, all the nuance they forget.
Image: In another recent interview you were asked about literary theory and the way your own books are interpreted. “For a long time,” you say, “the academy has been training people in a style of criticism that is marked by nothing so much as jargon, and by generalization that is pointedly inattentive to the character of any particular book. So there is a great breach between the persons of letters who would otherwise lead the public conversation about books and the vast majority of the reading public. No wonder they are so small a voice.”
My question is, borrowing from Matthew Arnold, what is the function of criticism at the present time? What should we be doing in English departments to train people?
MR: Again, I think that people should be reading primary sources. I think that a lot of these critics who stand between the reader and the literature are, God bless them, flies of a season. But Dickens is Dickens. There are books that people have talked about together, interpreted together. When these are small human groups, it’s still criticism—and it is the best criticism. Take the Bible, for example, as an early normative book. They say this text is important, it’s available to us—how should we think about it? I think that that’s the function of criticism, and what all good criticism does. In a modern society, it brings the reading public into conversation with the text.
Image: So do you think that English departments in general have given up their birthright by not engaging with the public? In other words, by speaking to one another and not to the general educated lay reader? By focusing on theory or “the post-human” or whatever, so that we cease to be humanists speaking to other humans?
MR: My view of theory is so low that you don’t want to hear about it. It’s one of those things that I just can’t believe. It’s bad French. It’s bad English. It is as servile in its being derivative as it can possibly be. It is arcane, in the sense that its precise function is to exclude the non-initiated from the conversation. It tends always to assume the posture of the socially sensitive, at the same time that it’s creating an absolute gap between people who are educated in that jargon and people who are not. It’s like speaking Latin—except Latin is a real language.
Image: I’ve read that you write your fiction and your nonfiction in physically different ways—that one, for example, is on a computer and one is not. Could you talk a little bit about how you write?
MR: It’s a very different feeling to write nonfiction than to write fiction. I’m not good at explaining either one of them. When I’m writing fiction, I somehow develop this suspension of disbelief. It’s sort of double. On the one hand, I give my characters some pretty sad lives sometimes; at the same time, I mourn for them. Why don’t I stop doing this? There’s an odd way in which a fictional character who is really active in my writing has a great feeling of reality to me.
Image: You’ve talked about how your fiction is very voice driven.
MR: It is. It’s voice dependent, really. No novel begins for me until it presents itself as a voice speaking. People talk about plot and ideas and inspiration and all the rest of it, but if there isn’t the voice in my head, no. And it’s not my voice. I mean it is, but it’s not.
Image: You create a voice for your nonfiction, too. Could you talk a little bit about that?
MR: I have described myself as having a little more caffeine in my nonfiction voice. The logic of an argument interests me, the way in which an argument concretizes other things that can be referred to and experienced and so on. Insofar as I am qualified to say that my thinking is highly rational, it’s the feeling of being highly rational. Other people can respond as they will.
Image: I’ve always been interested in the story of Housekeeping. I’ve read that it started with metaphors. Could you tell the story of how it grew as a novel?
MR: When I was in college I was told that I had to choose between academic writing—scholarly writing—and fiction, which I had started writing. I felt as if I didn’t have a sufficient education at that point, so I wanted to go to graduate school and study more. That did entail writing a scholarly dissertation and so on. I was trying to demonstrate to myself that I didn’t need to feel anxious about this choice, so I would write what were, in fact, extended metaphors. I was very much under the influence of a great course I had had in nineteenth-century American literature that really has been as important as anything I’ve done in my life. Extended metaphor is very characteristic of that period, and it seemed to me profound. I wrote these things and put them in a sideboard in my dining room, one by one, just as they occurred to me. And then, just as I was done with my dissertation, I took them out and I could see that they cohered, that they implied much more. And so I began writing, and that’s how Housekeeping began.
Image: It’s interesting to me that you wrote so much of Housekeeping in France. You’ve said that you were the only person ever to be in France dreaming of Idaho.
MR: Well, I’d modify that slightly, because Ezra Pound might have dreamed of Idaho from time to time. But I was in a country house, and there were little kids around who were fascinated by the fact of my children and my being American. They would come and knock on the French windows—and they were nice little kids and I didn’t want to be rude to them, so I would close the shutters and that made the room entirely black—this bedroom in the back of the house. I had a spiral notebook and a tiny little bedside lamp, and basically I was in a dark room. France was shining beyond my window, and I thought, “I am the only person in the universe in a dark room in France dreaming about Idaho.”
Image: Each of your novels takes a different form: first person, epistolary, third person. Can you talk about these different forms, what each of them does?
MR: It has to do with voice. For example, I knew that in order to write what I took to be the narrative of Home—which I took to be very much concerned with Jack—that I could not put it in his point of view, that that would be a violation of the character, because he would never have told it. Glory is his sympathetic, but still removed, champion and observer. But she doesn’t know everything. There are real limits to what she can know.
What happens, really, is that you get this idea of a character, and then you resituate it and resituate it in point of view until you find what works. If it’s absolutely crucial to have access to the interior of a character, then you can do omniscient, or you can do something like epistolary, assuming you have a person who is able to scrutinize himself, to turn over his own thoughts. Housekeeping was all about a girl thinking and trying to transform things by the way she thought about them, so that was inevitably first person.
Image: It’s interesting that in Housekeeping you gave Ruth only cultural references that you yourself would have known growing up.
MR: Right. That was funny. I had never published anything before, and I just had this thing on my mind. I thought of it as something I was writing for my mother and brother. I thought it was unpublishable, and that was very liberating. It gave me the kind of freedom I lament for every once in a while, including a freedom to be very allusive. One of the contexts that it provided was the question, “What would this girl actually have in her mind?”—I being the reigning authority, at least in that part of France.
Image: It was curious to me to realize that in Gilead, John Ames’s son is never named. Yet you find out in Home that he and Jack’s son have almost the same name. Why did you decide not to give him a name in Gilead?
MR: I don’t use names much. Lila’s name is used very, very sparingly, and when Jack uses it—to me, at least—it seems like almost overstepping a line. In my own household growing up, first names were rare. It’s like taking someone by the collar to call them by their first name. Rather than seeming like intimacy, it seems like distance. For example, it would have been extremely rude of me to call my mother by her first name—I still don’t do it. When I went East, I found out that the cultural norms were very different. People often related to their parents in a way that surprised me. I still feel that way. You can’t really explain these deep emotional things rationally, but they’re there. They make me very resistant to any casual use of a first name. It seems like reifying, objectifying.
Image: What were you trying to do with the doubling of the boys’ names? At the end of Home, Glory has that vision of Jack’s child coming back to the place she’s been preparing for him, and there’s the sense that maybe Robby Ames will also be coming back to that same place. There’s a strong sense of doubling—or is that over-reading?
MR: The doubling is certainly intentional. But those things happen at an uncalculated level. Jack is given to Ames as his son, and yet he’s not. Robby is no doubt given to Boughton as his son, and he’s not his son, but there is a real Robert who is Jack’s son.
Image: I know writers are always loath to talk about their new projects, but I know you are working on a novel. Are you able to say any more than that?
MR: I can tell you that I’ve written quite a lot of it.
Image: As Glory would say, the Lord is wonderful, right? In 2008 you gave an interview to the Paris Review in which you were asked, if you could only have written one of your books, which would it be? You answered, perhaps surprisingly, Mother Country, your book on Britain, the welfare state, and nuclear pollution. In the book’s introduction, you talk about your anger at the dumping at the Sellafield nuclear facility—and you write that, as you learned more and more:
I feel the worth of my own life diminished by the tedious years I have spent acquiring competence in the arcana of mediocre invention, for all the world like one of those people who knows all there is to know about some defunct comic-book hero or television series. The grief borne home to others while I and my kind have been thus occupied lies on my conscience like a crime.
How do you feel about where we are environmentally today? It seems that Mother Country is not only about chronicling abusive practice, but about chronicling the values that inform and allow that practice.
MR: Practices that are very much alive and well, and I would say even rising. I think that we’re in terrible shape environmentally. For various reasons we’re not at all candid about it. I’m talking about the fact that Britain reprocesses nuclear fuel and has since 1957. They dump transuranic elements as waste products because they’re not efficient about extracting plutonium and uranium—the bomb-grade versions of them. They break these things down in nitric acid, which then goes into the Irish Sea. People fish in that sea. Every now and then, everything has to be closed down because it’s so radioactive. Now, this is bad enough, but Britain is bringing this stuff in from all over—from Germany and Europe in general and also from Japan. Imagine that: this stuff is carried by air or sea from Japan, reprocessed, and then the bomb-grade materials are shipped back to Japan. What could possibly go wrong?
The Japanese now have a terrible crisis with their nuclear industry—but that has been the case for years, though people systematically don’t remember other crises, for example, at the Monju breeder reactor in 1995, 1996, and 2011. They brought in a shipment of highly defective reprocessed fuel from Britain, and they had a big nuclear crisis not far from Tokyo. If we were to talk candidly about this issue, it would have a profound impact on the world economy. I was looking at a list in the New York Times of places where nuclear materials are least secure. If you ship bomb-grade materials by sea from Britain to Japan, there’s virtually no way that can be highly secure. If you ship bomb-grade materials or waste products from Germany by rail across the channel to Britain, which is done all the time, that can’t be very secure either. If the New York Times were really to talk about this, you could imagine drastic consequences to three major world economies—but that won’t happen. And because we don’t get the truth about the environment, we can’t know that the environment is continuing to decline seriously in every major way. I want to say, though, relative to this book about Britain, that you probably won’t read anything else by an American that comes anywhere near being systematically critical in the way that Mother Country is.
Image: In When I Was a Child I Read Books, your new collection of essays gathered from over a number of years, you come back again and again to Calvin. You often return to the question of how we can enrich our discourse and increase our respect for each other through emphasizing the imago Dei. For you, this concept is really a statement of complexity, of plenitude and liberality and generosity toward our fellow creatures. Ultimately you argue that understanding people as being made in the image of God is a directive to love and celebrate and respect. You also reflect a great deal on how Calvin enjoins us to remember that God likes and enjoys us—and that’s perhaps not a typical view of Calvin or of God.
MR: Our being made in the image of God is one of the first things that’s asserted in the Bible. It is absolutely crucial. Calvin takes the idea of the image of God and folds it into the parable of the great judgment in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, which means that in every encounter you are indeed dealing with an image of God. Circumstances can vary to any degree the image by which God chooses to present himself to you. It can be anybody, anything, a threatening person, somebody toward whom you are profoundly hostile—it’s still God. And the obligation you have toward that other has to be understood as the obligation that you have to God himself, to Christ himself. Calvin’s idea is that if someone sins against you, if someone offends you, Christ is standing there waiting to take on himself the guilt for that sin. So, in dealing with someone who is hostile or destructive to you, you are dealing with somebody whom Christ is waiting to forgive. This is a beautiful ethic, and I can’t find anything theologically questionable about it. It’s also a very demanding one. It’s superhuman, but that of course never excuses us. That twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the parable of the great judgment, is very demanding.
Image: I like that when you celebrate Calvin, you also take on the hard doctrines. You don’t just talk about the glory of creation and the imago Dei, but in both Home and Gilead you repeat that debate about predestination. What don’t we understand about predestination? What is your understanding of it, having actually spent the time to read Calvin?
MR: Every major theologian with the exception of John Chrysostom and John Wesley has believed in predestination. You find it in Thomas Aquinas; you find it in Ignatius of Loyola—and the reason they do is because it’s very biblical. Which does not keep it from being extremely problematic, but it does make it something that you can’t just toss aside.
I think the way that we experience time is not the way God experiences time. The question is really beyond our grasp because we are caught in time. People like Moses Maimonides had profound intuitions early on that time is mysterious and anomalous, and insofar as we are carried along in it, that that’s one of the radical qualitative differences between us and God. All these people—John Locke, Jonathan Edwards—say there is no way that the nature of causality itself can be demonstrated. And this is true. We know it happens, we can describe the fact that it happens, but what is intrinsic to it, we don’t know. Edwards and Locke speak of an arbitrary order of the universe. Things happen because it’s the will of God that they happen—the ball rolls down the hill, and so on. This is a difficult thing to conceive of, and I think that our strange scientism, which is not very respectful of science itself, doesn’t help. No physicist will tell you that he can explain causality. We have a very hardened way of looking at things that earlier writers didn’t have. It’s hard for us to concede that the temporal moment is completely different from essential being. I think that the objections to predestination come largely from the intuition that there ought to be a causal relationship between what one does and one’s destiny. All of that is mystery as far as I’m concerned, but the question is perplexed by people bringing inappropriate categories to it. I don’t feel bothered by the objections. I basically don’t know what to think about it.
Look at the first creation narrative. God says of the one tree, “if you eat of it you will surely die.” Does Adam die? No. “Surely I will be killed,” Cain says before he goes into exile. No, he won’t. In the whole conversation of the Bible, there is a way of talking about things that asserts the drastic-ness of violating the will of God, and at the same time, over and over again, you find that there is a well of graciousness that overrides the prohibition. And I’m fond of that.
I do think it’s extremely serious when people commit really evil actions. When God finally says that if someone kills someone else then you have to kill him, this is a grudging acceptance of what people were up to anyway. But I think that’s a fix that was supposed to make the world more habitable. The crimes we commit are crimes against other human beings—that is, other images of God—and the gravity of them is absolutely not to be dismissed.
Image: You’ve said that if you had come of age a little later you might have become a preacher, and Glory says something similar in Home. Can you talk about preaching? Or are your novels stories that preach, as it were?
MR: Oh, I don’t know. I think preaching belongs in pulpits. I was interested in going to divinity school after college. But at that point in time a woman with a degree from divinity school was an oddity. You could imagine people asking, “What’s she going to do, write someone else’s sermons?” The world was not beckoning to us, shall I say. It may be a fault of mine, but subordinate positions don’t attract me.
Image: You once said in an interview, “a mystical experience would be wasted on me,” and you’ve also characterized your life as “puritanical hedonism.” Can you explain those statements?
MR: One of the things that is most profoundly attractive to me about Calvin—and I think what makes him the origin of Romanticism and Kant and Locke and all sorts of wonderful things—is that he believes that experience itself is visionary. If God makes the world, populates the world, infuses the world with every kind of ethical meaning, then the signature of God is the beauty of the world. Why even imagine a mystical experience when we’re born into one, submerged in one, day after day?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.