Feb/Mar 2012

West Toward Home

Tracking Marilynne Robinson's intellectual pilgrimage

Charles Petersen


Click to enlarge

Tae Won Yu

I.

IN HER NOVELS AND in her nonfiction essays, Marilynne Robinson's questions are always roughly the same: Who are we, and where did we come from? The first is a matter of metaphysics, the second of history. At least since the publication of her first collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), Robinson has been making it her business to remind us that these questions are not yet settled. We may be descended from apes, but that does not mean that we are essentially apelike. "It has been usual for at least a century and a half to think of human beings as primates," she writes in her latest collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, only to add, "I suppress the impulse to say 'mere primates,' since I suspect the other members of our great order are undervalued by us in the course of devaluing ourselves." This is a characteristic Robinson turn—admit the dehumanizing point of your opponent, only to show how deep our humanity goes.

When I Was a Child, by far Robinson's most political work to date, turns her old questions to the problems now directly confronting us. The book is a defense of what she considers the grand traditions of American democracy—generosity, hope, and a radical openness to new experience—waged against a society that seems to believe itself in irreversible decline. At the same time, Robinson registers a profound note of disappointment at feeling, "on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are now losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization."

To this end, Robinson critiques what she calls a "toxic heritage approach" to the American past, in which even the greatest reforms, like the abolition of slavery or the passage of the Civil Rights Act, are seen as little more than the outcomes of a shameful tradition. Her method here is more of a reductio ad absurdum, taking the historical determinism that often hides in such views to its logical conclusion. "Determinism and reform are at odds with each other," she writes in "Who Was Oberlin?," an essay on the links between abolition and evangelicalism. "The notion that reform has relatively little meaning"—because reform might be linked to something poisonous, say, evangelical religion—"reduces it from serious purpose to virtuous sentiment." The result is a sense of inevitability, the assumption that all reform is perverted by the forces that drive it; and "the sense that anything . . . is inevitable in this society goes a long way toward giving that thing legitimacy and even authority, toward making it, to use a potent word, American." Yes, evangelicalism may be strongly tied to abolition, but for Robinson that should raise our opinion of evangelicalism, not lower our opinion of abolition—and lead us to see what might be American, in the positive sense, about both traditions.

Robinson's great virtue as an essayist is her ability to combine a deep knowledge of this country's literary, intellectual, and religious canon with a demotic, impassioned tone that is American in the highest sense. Better, for a long moment at least, to let her speak for herself:

I suspect the edge of fear, or the passion of fear, that can be heard more and more in the national conversation may have behind it a sense that [the] great societal changes [since the 1950s] are not a new birth of freedom but a slippery slope to perdition. There is a disturbing lack of confidence in democracy in the frightened resistance to the workings of democracy. . . . It resembles nothing so much as the disturbing lack of faith in Christianity that puts the darkest interpretation on social change, religious diversity, foreign influence, the implications of science, and so much else besides. If Christianity expresses the nature and will of God, and if Christ will be with us even to the end of the age, why all this fear? If the United States is the greatest country on earth, why so little respect for its culture and people?

Robinson is a representative of the grand tradition of liberal Protestantism, still carrying the flame for the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich. She also stands for the kind of unabashed left-wing patriotism that explodes into public consciousness every few years or so: the Obama campaign, if not the presidency; Occupy Wall Street, at least as expressed in my favorite sign, "The American People: Too Big to Fail." These traditions can be found in largely dumbed-down form every Sunday at your local mainline Protestant church, and every weeknight on Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. But for those who prefer their liberal American dream in the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Robinson has, for the past three decades, been the standard-bearer.

II.

BUT WHO IS MARILYNNE ROBINSON? Where does she come from? The answers may seem obvious. With the publication of Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), Robinson went from cult-style renown as the author of a single novel, Housekeeping (1980), and the writer of occasional polemics for Harper's and Salmagundi, to a household name—one of the best-known, and likely best-loved, writers in America. This recognition, however, has, if anything, obscured Robinson's origins. Her ardor for the Puritan and abolitionist traditions, expressed in her recent novels and essays, may make it seem like she must have been born fully formed from the exhumed forehead of John Winthrop or Theodore Weld. But Robinson, despite her years of teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is not a native of the Midwest—nor does she come from New England, the homeland of most of the classic writers and theologians to whom she continually refers. She was, rather, born and raised in northern Idaho, thousands of miles from the landscapes that loom largest in her writing now.

Robinson's upbringing matters more than it may at first seem. Admittedly, I have a personal bias, since I am also a native of northern Idaho. Housekeeping happens to be set on a lake where I spent several summers playing as a child; the novel, more than any other, has taught me how to think about the landscape of the American West. During her early years, Robinson herself was quite clear about the importance of the West to her writing. As she said in an interview in 1981, "While I may not conform to the notion of a Western writer, I am [one], in my imagination." Two of her best essays, "Hearing Silence" and "When I Was a Child," first printed in obscure magazines, are about the West; I have carried them around as photocopies for years. It is thus one of the great pleasures of this new collection that Robinson has not only reprinted "When I Was a Child" but taken its opening sentence for her title.

This essay casts light on aspects of Robinson's work that have until now largely been taken for granted. Consider, for instance, her Calvinism. As far as I know, "When I Was a Child" contains Robinson's sole published account of her upbringing, and it doesn't once mention church. "I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture," she writes; other than that, one gets the sense that she passed her childhood amid little-settled lakes and woods as a "sensuous little savage," to use a phrase Wallace Stegner coined to describe his own western upbringing. Evoking the Idaho wilderness of the 1950s, Robinson writes:

I remember when I was a child at Coolin or Sagle or Talache, walking into the woods by myself and feeling the solitude around me build like electricity and pass through my body with a jolt that made my hair prickle. I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and among fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion—feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.

This account clearly does not match up with any twentieth-century childhood in the Midwest; nor does it bring to mind the legacies of New England Calvinism, in which nature, too, is regarded as a fallen thing. Here society is not pressing in—nature is, bountiful yet sublimely indifferent. History, in this landscape, may as well not exist. Ditto theology.

Robinson's upbringing was much like that of the young girls of Housekeeping. In that book, she populates her landscape with huge lakes, unknown wildernesses, and a grab bag of myths, drawn not from the local Indians or settlers, but from the entire history of Western civilization: Carthage sown with salt, Dido pining on her couch. In a way, this is what is most western, in the American sense, about the book. As Robinson observes in the title essay, "I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history, to experience that much underrated thing called deracination, the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one's eye."

Robinson, in other words, came by her Calvinism, among her many other surprising beliefs, honestly, not only through a familial heritage, like the preachers of Gilead and Home, but by reading Calvin himself, when his work happened to come under her eye—just as she happened to wander into that forest grove, just as she happened to read the tales of old Rome—and being moved.

This is why her geographic origins are important. As many critics have noted, Robinson often seems to come from another time. This is, of course, simply false. Robinson doesn't come from another time—it's just that she's from a place, the American West, that for most contemporary critics and intellectuals may as well be terra incognita.

III.

THE EXPERIENCE ROBINSON DESCRIBES as "peculiarly Western" is, in a way, the experience of the frontier. When Robinson was growing up, the West may no longer have had a physical frontier—her great-grandparents were homesteaders—but, despite the fixed plots of land, she didn't find many fixed states of mind. The result was "that much underrated thing called deracination," the process of returning to basics, of leaving presuppositions behind like so many useless European garments; it is this process that animates all of Robinson's thinking, whether about the West, or about evolution, or about the contemporary political situation. "Perhaps it was a misfortune for us that so many interesting ideas were associated with access to a habitable wilderness," she writes. "The real frontier need never close. Everything, for all purposes, still remains to be done."

Instead of giving up on the frontier and its many troubled legacies, Robinson doubles down. Not only are the concept's apparent racism, colonialism, and sexism for her relatively inconsequential; the frontier's other most notorious problem—the constant movement from place to place, in search of the next big strike, which tended to destroy all sense of community and place—is for Robinson the great strength of the frontier idea. Indeed, it is what makes the American West, to her, so American, in the positive sense. As for the receding of the West in our consciousness, Robinson, at least at the time she wrote "When I Was a Child," deeply hoped for its return:

I think it is fair to say that the West has lost its place in the national imagination because, by some sad evolution, the idea of human nature has become the opposite of what it was when the myth of the West began, and now people who are less shaped and constrained by society are assumed to be disabled and dangerous. This is bad news for the American psyche. . . . I think it would be a positively good thing for the West to assert itself in the most interesting terms, so that the whole country must hear and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually put aside and too readily forgotten.

To reassert the West "in the most interesting terms" was, at least in part, Robinson's purpose in writing Housekeeping. In that novel, she set out to feminize the frontier hero, the cowboy, and show that one could be an outsider without becoming a violent sociopath. Thus, she created the book's heroine, Sylvie, who, "to the degree that she has not taken the impress of society"—that is, to the degree that she remains deracinated, an outsider, a product of the frontier—"expresses the fact that human nature is replete with nameless possibilities and, by implication, that the world is accessible to new ways of understanding."

IV.

I GO ON AT SUCH LENGTH ABOUT THE SHORTEST ESSAY in When I Was a Child because the collection, like so much of Robinson's nonfiction writing, is in other ways so strange—and because her western heritage can offer a helpful way to understand a few troubling aspects of her writing. Now that Robinson has been a public figure for three decades, it can be easy to take the idiosyncrasy of her views for granted; those who have been following her work will find little surprising in When I Was a Child. But it is worth stating what she believes as explicitly as possible, if only so that we do not read her as no more than a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of what she calls "that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism."

What is truly distinctive about Robinson, aside from her prose style, is that, while firmly standing on the political left, she believes, first, in a form of American exceptionalism; second, in the indispensableness of religion to the American project; and third, that part of what is exceptional about America, and thus part of why religion must remain central to public life, is that our culture has, at least until recently, been built upon the Calvinist doctrine of "total depravity." Under this principle, she writes in The Death of Adam, "we are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace" to form the bedrock of our lives.

In "The Human Spirit and the Good Society," one of the central essays in When I Was a Child, Robinson puts forward a "solution of sorts," as she modestly terms it, to the problems currently besetting our country: "What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?" It is a provocative thought experiment, one I can't say I find objectionable. But a few pages later Robinson states that, "lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said." Among the things that cannot be said, she argues, are Jefferson's famous lines in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Robinson asks—and for nonbelievers these questions really should be shocking—"What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? . . . What would be the nonreligious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case?"

One may equally well ask what the Christian case would be for human equality, given the evident favoritism that the good Lord and his minions indulge in. Calvin, of course, does have such an argument, just as any number of secular political theorists have advanced a nonreligious case for the rights and endowments that Jefferson called God-given.

But rather than belaboring this old dispute about human rights and religion, Robinson's overreach seems to me an opportunity to look at what is truly central to her thought. It's possible that the attractiveness of Robinson's writing arises from her self-confident embrace of the Calvinist tradition; she has, for instance, been singularly unafraid of owning up to the unfashionable legacies of Calvin's most famous American followers, the Puritans: "If one says the Puritans were a more impressive and ingratiating culture than they are assumed to have been, one will be heard to say that one finds repressiveness and intolerance ingratiating."

But even as Robinson, over the years, has begun to leave behind her western heritage, the traditions of the American West, and the frontier in particular, offer in some ways a more persuasive understanding of her work than her more recent embrace of Calvinism. In the process of making her case for the importance of religion to American democracy, for instance, she argues that

Jefferson's words [in the Declaration] acknowledge an essential mystery in human nature and circumstance. He does this by evoking the old faith that God knows us in ways we cannot know ourselves, and that he values us in ways we cannot value ourselves or one another because our intuition of the sacred is so radically limited. . . . [Jefferson's] epochal sentence is a profound acknowledgment of the fact that we don't know what we are.

An all-knowing God who forgives us despite our evenly distributed depravity—the sin whose depths we mere mortals cannot know, and so cannot say who might be better than whom—is, of course, one way to arrive at the conclusion that "we don't know what we are," and, therefore, that all people must be treated as equals. But the frontier, at least in the ideal form that Robinson celebrates, also is a "profound acknowledgment of the fact that we don't know what we are." It is a celebration of the fact that if we allow ourselves to become deracinated, we need not become dangerous outsiders, but can instead recall, as Robinson puts it in a formulation that bears repeating: "The real frontier need never close. Everything, for all purposes, still remains to be done."

The idea that, in America, we can always begin again, return to first principles, whether of the founders or of ourselves—that we may always "light out for the Territory," if not in terms of land then of intellect—thus seems to me what Robinson is really evoking when she writes about America, not some fundamental religiosity. Elsewhere in When I Was a Child, she writes, "We have made a very interesting experiment . . . in putting aside traditional definitions and expectations and finding that when they are not supported culturally, which is to say artificially, they tend to fade away." Again, this is a consequence of approaching the American tradition in terms of the frontier; it is not, notably, implied by Calvin's doctrine of "total depravity," which could easily include among the long litany of individual depravities the impossibility of "putting aside traditional definitions and expectations"—of the way, for example, that guilt and resentment, contra Robinson's frontier expectations, can be difficult to root out, and can continue to move helplessly from generation to generation.

V.

IT'S CERTAINLY POSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND Robinson without the West—there's more than enough frontier thinking throughout the American tradition, as Emerson's work alone can attest. But without the West, it can be harder to see where she's coming from, and to appreciate how her occasional flaws rise to the fore.

From this view of things, the signal weakness of Robinson's recent career is not so much that she has begun arguing for a more religious conception of America. Rather, it's that she's more or less given up on the West. In an interview in 1994, she could say,

When I was writing Housekeeping, one of the things that I was aware of it as being was a novel about the West, in the sense that that's the part of the country where I grew up and my family has lived for a long time. And it's a part of the country that people in general have a very impoverished imagination of, because it's been so intensely represented in such reductionist terms all these generations.

Robinson refers here, of course, to the dominance of the cowboy narrative to our imagination of the West, something that the successes of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx have done nothing to alleviate. Meanwhile, I have conducted an informal survey over the last five years in New York, and not a single person, whether literary critic, party acquaintance, or stranger reading Robinson's books on the subway, has been able to tell me where Housekeeping takes place. Shortly after the book was published, Robinson said she was trying to evoke the "sense of frailty of people in a landscape, the intense bond between people and how people are attracted and destroyed by the land they inhabit." For most readers, Housekeeping's powerfully evoked Northwest landscape still appears as nothing more than a kind of fantasyland.

No desire that she recognize her western heritage could make me give up Robinson's fine novels and essays about Iowa, Calvin, and the abolitionists. But like so many westerners before her, from Josiah Royce to Susan Sontag, she has sadly found it easier to stop talking about the region she comes from, and the intellectual freedoms it gave her, rather than take up the thankless task of proving that there is such a thing as an intellectual tradition in the American West.

Robinson wasn't always this way; in my favorite lines in "When I Was a Child," she says, "I find that the hardest work in the world—it may in fact be impossible—is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling." In 2012, I can report, it's still just about as difficult. And much of Robinson's work will remain much loved, but little understood, until this country has an intellectual conception of the place she once called home.

Charles Petersen is an associate editor of n+1.

Advertisement