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Marilynne Robinson Does Politics (Badly)

Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). 206 pages. $24.00.

Marilynne Robinson’s third collection of essays is her most political book since Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989). It is also her weakest to date. Absence of Mind, her last book, established Robinson as the most forceful critic of the New Atheism and a thrilling defender of the religious understanding of man. (My review is here.) When she continues to pursue this project, she continues to write brilliantly. Robinson singlehandedly demolishes the “neo-Darwinism” (as she calls it), which denies to human religion anything more than a proneness to error, violence, evil. In her new collection of ten essays, she adds the important biographical detail that she considers herself to be writing in the tradition of liberal 19th-century evangelists like Charles Finney and Theodore D. Weld. In one remarkable passage, she reveals that the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa — the setting of her brilliant novel Gilead and its sequel Home — was modeled upon a historical settlement founded by liberal evangelists “as a fallback for John Brown.” When she turns from defending religion, however (and criticizing its exclusion from the human picture) — when she turns to a practical political application of her thinking — Robinson falters badly.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Robinson’s contradictions is between the “open-handedness” she urges as a social policy and her own failure to extend an open hand to those with whom she disagrees politically. A self-described Calvinist, Robinson founds her “ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity” upon John Calvin’s conviction that “every human encounter is of moment,” because “the other in the encounter is always ‘sent’ or ‘offered.’ ” This is a first principle with her. “It may be mere historical conditioning,” she writes in the book’s title essay, recalling the effect upon her of growing up in Idaho, “but when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to stay that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

The mystery dissolves, though, when she glimpses a “pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read DON’T DISTRIBUTE MY WEALTH. DISTRIBUTE MY WORK ETHIC.” The “offering” of the pickup driver, the possibility that he has been “sent” to her, is rejected out of hand. Robinson knows for a certainty what stands behind his bumper sticker: a “grudge against the populace at large,” who are characterized by some ungenerous Americans “as a burden, a threat to their well-being, to their ‘values.’ ” The swine! No longer a human being who is seen clearly for a moment, the pickup driver is transmogrified into the symbol of a politics that Robinson reviles. The irony is that her own failure of generosity is entirely invisible to her. For immediately she sniffs: “There is at present a dearth of humane imagination for the integrity and mystery of other lives.” Very much including the lives of pickup drivers, apparently, if they oppose higher taxes!

This close-fisted attitude toward her political opponents is neither isolated nor accidental. In Absence of Mind, Robinson was relentless with her antagonists, but she was also generous. She joyously embraced the open-handedness of debate, exhibiting a readiness to lay out arguments, to supply evidence, to expose herself to rebuttal, to take the chance of being proved wrong. She named names and quoted offending passages from offensive books. She engaged in a direct face-to-face conflict; she accepted the responsibility of philosophical animus; she herself furnished the materials for an intelligent reply. In When I Was a Child I Read Books, not so much:

On what is conventionally called the conservative side, those attitudes and qualities that are at present revered, or are at least polemically useful, constitute the very slender whole of historical memory. This approach treats context as an impertinence and change as decline. It yields a robust sense of loyalty to certain national values — a loyalty which is inevitably lacking in those whose reading of history leads them to draw up a different set of national values. Its certitudes do not provide the basis for a complex or nuanced view of either the present or the past.

How would anyone begin to go about refuting this passage? The dearth of specifics, the illiberality of paraphrase, the absence of quotation, the lack of integrity toward the other side in debate make it impossible to respond with much beyond an guttural monosyllabic snort.

The most embarrassing moment in the book occurs when Robinson crumples into self-parody while trying to be ironic. In “Wondrous Love,” a long essay that lifts off from a “great old American hymn that sounds like astonishment itself,” she contrasts the doctrine of Christ’s love to a number of contemporary American perversions of it: doctrinal conflicts “within the household of Christ, the family of Christ, that fly in the face of that last commandment” (John 15:12), the “assertion by certain excitable people that this is a Christian country,” the failure to appreciate that freedom of religion really means freedom from established religion. Robinson reserves her deepest scorn, however, for “self-declared patriots.” She tries out several variations of an ironic response to them (whoever they are):

• “I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to believe that most Americans are good people, committed to living good lives. . . .”

• “I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks.”

• “I am so unpatriotic as to attach great importance to the day-to-day practical well-being of my fellow citizens.”

To achieve their full effect, these lines should be recited by Margaret Dumont. I know there are writers who feel it is their duty to distinguish themselves from “self-declared patriots,” but must they do so with such farcical self-righteousness?

The partisanship and intellectual negligence of When I Was a Child I Read Books is a pity, because scattered throughout the book are fugitive remarks that throw a rich and satisfying light upon Robinson’s fiction, which is among the greatest written by an American over the past three decades. A challenging revisionist theory of the novel could be built up from the asides in her essays, but someone else will have to do the building. Or Marilynne Robinson will have to abandon political sloganeering and return to her first loves — religion and literature — to accomplish something else worth looking into.

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