Thinking Again: Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books

March 13, 2012 | 9 6 min read

cover Marilynne Robinson’s latest collection of essays rehashes a lot of old positions. There’s the polemic against reductionism — “There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell” — and the arguments against rational-choice economic theory and its assumption that humans are one-hundred-percent self-interested.  Calvinism still needs defending, the Abolitionists were truly heroic, public discourse has been “dumbed down,” the New Atheists get religion all wrong, and the ghost of Sigmund Freud won’t go away. There’s also a pretty serious lack of humor throughout, which is too bad because Robinson can be funny in a folksy kind of way. It’s not that her interests aren’t compelling; it’s that if you’re really familiar with her nonfiction, especially The Death of Adam stuff, you might grow slightly impatient with all this thematic repetition, despite the fact that the prose is consistently gorgeous.

cover Thankfully, that’s not everything. The latest turn in Robinson’s thinking is toward politics, specifically her strong intuition of political crisis in America. She’s talked politics before, but it’s never been quite this intense or urgent. The Tea Party is isolated as a particularly menacing development — she sneeringly calls them “these patriots” — but the crisis goes considerably beyond them, to the bedrock of American values.  “Loyalty to democracy is the American value I fear we are gravely in danger of losing,” she writes. “We are now losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization.” Whether you buy ambiguous intuitions like these, and there are probably decent empirical grounds for doing so, like the abysmally low percentage of Americans who actually trust Congress, the point is that Robinson intends for her book to respond to what she believes is the depressed spiritual state of the union. This isn’t anything new. Walt Whitman talks about all kinds of American terribleness in Democratic Vistas, which Robinson quotes from in the introduction. In this collection she wants to do roughly the same thing as Whitman did in Vistas, to respond to this American moment with a mixture of criticism and hope in a prophetic-sounding voice.

Besides the essays’ tone, which is consistently heartfelt, moving from grave (“We do not deal with one another as soul to soul..”) to joyful (“I love the writers of my thousand books.”), her political concerns give the book a kind of informal unity. “Austerity as Ideology” is a good example of the kind of political thinking Robinson does, combining an eccentric mix of discourses — cosmology, Cold War history, autobiography — to approach a Major Topic from an Oblique Angle. Here the Major Topic is the politics of Austerity (her caps) that emerged after the ’08 financial collapse and the Oblique Angle is starting the essay with the planet Mercury’s “innumerable scars of eons of local cataclysm.” It’s neat how she circles toward her subject from a distance, literally from outer space; the cosmic scope can be exhilarating. Even if you don’t agree with her arguments, it’s fun to watch her leap between discourses, finding intuitive linkages between them. One of her virtues as an essayist is her sensitivity to the emotional texture of ideas. Another is her knowledge of how ideas can surprise you and suggest new ones when juxtaposed in original ways. The Austerity essay criticizes the reductionism of ideological thinking and the culture of fear and anxiety that makes Austerity possible. Hopefully you’ll hear some echoes of Robinson’s calm, historically-informed voice in a debate that will likely play into the 2012 Presidential election.

Robinson’s politics are tough to classify. They’re obviously on the spectrum of liberalism, but from what I can tell they seem closest to a species of communitarianism that the term “civic humanism” describes pretty well. The entry in Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy says civic humanism is opposed to “acquisitive individualism” and it’s a stance that says the purpose of society is the “realization of human potentiality, encouraging the flowering of all forms of creativity and ingenuity insofar as they contribute to public welfare.” This jives with Robinson’s critique of the self-interestedness of neoliberal economics and her concerns about civic virtue and public responsibility. It also helps explain the most persistent political theme in the book: education. Two of the essays, “Freedom of Thought” and “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” celebrate education from an autobiographical perspective, and in other ones like “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” education is being undermined by cultural forces like anti-intellectualism. Robinson holds on to the humanist faith in the liberating powers of education, and the essays do a lot of worrying about the fate of public education once that faith disappears.

cover cover As probably anyone who read Gilead figured out, Robinson is a Christian, but she’s the kind of Christian most non-Christians are comfortable with, not the dogmatic Evangelical or TBN-style Prosperity Gospeller, but the liberal Protestant type. She’s a part of a tradition that’s okay with mystery and uncertainty, that encourages a spirituality of process and exploration, a faith that she calls in her “Credo” “a liberation of thought.” It’s also a tradition that values the Bible, without a doubt the most important book to Robinson, and two of the essays take up Bible-related issues almost exclusively. “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” delves back into the Reformed tradition and Biblical scholarship of The Death of Adam and the history of law of Mother Country to make the contrarian point that the origins of American liberalism’s ethos of social justice is more indebted to the Hebrew Bible or Old rather than New Testament. Instead of the O.T.’s “warlike God of Israel,” Robinson looks to the sunny side of Deuteronomy and finds liberalism, “an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity.” The bigger point Robinson makes is about the Christian attitude of disparagement toward the O.T. In the other Moses essay, “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” which contains some of the best rhetorical take-downs in the book and brings out Robinson’s ironical side, she finds this same attitude of O.T. disparagement in recent biblical scholarship. “The Old Testament certainly is not ours to misrepresent, since in doing so we slander the culture we took it from, an old and very evil habit among us.”

That quote’s “ours,” “us,” and “we” really begs the question of audience. After some light Googling, I found that most of the essays were originally talks or lectures. It would have been helpful to know the makeup of the audiences she addressed, since some of the essays like the Moses ones seem explicitly addressed to a Christian audience, concerned as they are with debates internal to that community. There are lines like, “To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus.” Is the supper at Emmaus “familiar to us all”?  I’m just not sure how many people buying books of pop-style intellectual history, from a publisher like FSG, will know about that.  The introduction would have been a good place to tell us about the rhetorical situation of the essays so as to make those “we’s” and “us’s” less confusing.

My other big criticism is an overall sense I get that Robinson’s intellectual and political interests end in the 1960s, right around the time she left Sandpoint, ID for Pembroke College, RI. Other than a brief reference to Vattimo in Absence of Mind, she’s refused to deal with one of the most influential intellectual developments since the 1960s, the emergence of Theory. It’s like she’s not aware of how much the part of the academy she cares about most, the humanities, have absorbed the assumptions and attitudes of thinkers like Foucault. She’s still hand-wringing over Nietzsche’s superman, Freud’s primal horde, and Skinner’s behaviorism. Politically, Robinson’s liberalism looks to the past rather than the present. For her, the paradigmatic liberals were the Abolitionists who had a religious vision for social justice. But she seems reluctant to acknowledge that the torch of social justice has long since passed to secular hands, and the major progressive achievements of the last thirty years, feminism and gay rights, were couched in secular rhetoric. There’s also the sense with Robinson that all good things come from New England, that every major U.S. achievement, artistically, intellectually, politically, religiously, is traceable back to Puritan origins, and ultimately back to the fountainhead of John Calvin. Her privileging of New England origins was once fashionable back with scholars like Perry Miller whose heyday was roughly around the same time of Robinson’s undergrad days. I really don’t care that she takes these positions — in fact, they account for a lot of her strangeness and originality — but her thinking would benefit from a dialogue with some of the recent shifts in the humanities, and her politics would benefit from a deeper recognition that good things can have secular sources.

The risk of her essays is that they might come off as culturally irrelevant or out-of-touch or, worse, conservative. She includes almost zero references to TV, movies, Facebook, celebs, or anything to do with pop culture. Her lonesome distance from the mainstream is eccentric, but it’s also what gives her essays their strange power to diagnose America’s discontents. It’s a perspective that’s simultaneously alienated and engaged, public and personal  For anyone familiar with her nonfiction, her positions are by now familiar: her defense of public education, her sense of the irreducible mystery of existence, her reverent attitude toward history, her questioning of the assumption that we are absolutely self-interested. But I don’t mind the repetition, because if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we’d be much better off for it.

is a Lecturer at Baylor University. His book, Understanding Marilynne Robinson, will be published by The University of South Carolina Press. Contact him at [email protected] He can be contacted at [email protected].


  1. Great review. I’ve tried her fiction and probably should try it again- although I’ve always been more attracted to Catholic writers- O’Connor, Greene, Spark,Waugh, Percy, etc..
    Maybe her essays would be a better way for me to get into her.

  2. This makes me feel that I must read at least one book of Robinson’s essays. I’m a big fan of her fiction. Which is the best of her three books of essays? Anyone have an opinion?
    I found that for a believer she creates great fictional non-believers – I find Jack the most compelling voice in Gilead & Home. Interesting that you feel she attributes religious roots to all positive movements in social justice. There is a sense of an aridity in the purely secular life in Home.
    Good review.

  3. Wonderful article and review. I am not a fan of Robinson’s fiction, but I ordered these essays, and I am looking forward to reading them. Like Paula, who commented here, I am more attracted to works by Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox writers as I am a Christian who believes in a sacramental Christianity. Nonetheless, as a Christian, I believe these essays will speak powerfully about the Christian experience, and I am interested to read what she has to say. I also find it refreshing that these essays contain no references to pop culture.

    I do have one question though. Do you really consider her a liberal Protestant? I thought she was a Calvinist, who takes her beliefs quite seriously (correct me if I am wrong about that), and I don’t consider Calvinists to be liberal Christians. True, they are not Evangelicals, nor do they believe in the prosperity gospel, but that doesn’t mean they are liberal.

  4. Thanks for comment, Ali.

    So, you’re really drawing attention to the diversity of U.S. Christianity and those often blurry distinctions between denominations, especially within “Protestantism” under which we can file “Evangelicals,” “liberals,” and “Anglicans.” Probably the best way to categorize Robinson would be “liberal Reformed Protestant,” with the “Reformed” part signaling her affiliation with the theology of John Calvin as opposed to Martin Luther, and the “liberal” part signaling her identification with–what else?–the liberal (as opposed to Evangelical tradition) which tends, in general, to be skeptical about dogmatism, orthodoxy, or any absolute assurances of salvation and focuses efforts, in general, on issues of social justice. As Robinson puts it her essay “Onward, Christian Liberals,” “Faith is not about piety or personal salvation, but about helping those in need.” It sounds like the “Calvinists” you’re talking about are probably operating within a more dogmatic Evangelical paradigm as opposed to Robinson’s highly idiosyncratic approach to Calvin, which basically sees him as a humanist alongside Shakespeare, Whitman, and Emerson.

  5. Theology wise, I know PCUSA churches make use of Barth alongside Calvin. While it would be difficult to classify Barth a liberal in a meaningful sense if one is familiar with his work, some Evangelicals certainly do so. The UCC (while diverse, being congregational), can get their liberalism from process theology, Schleiermacher, Tillich (again, not really liberal but…), all sorts of places.

  6. I stand corrected, Alex, then if she sees faith as being about helping those in need. I had always heard her described as strong Christian–and I thought those descriptions referred to her being a conservative Christian. Thank you for providing some clarification. I do look forward to reading her book for her insights.

  7. Robinson got a PhD in literature in 1977 and spent most of her adult life in universities. If she doesn’t “deal with” Theory (your shiver-causing caps) maybe it’s because she knows that there’s nothing there to deal with. “Theory” is about as coherent a category as “people named George.” It’s also not known for its practical applicability–making it essentially irrelevant to anyone outside the academy. The worst parts of David Foster Wallace are when he tries to run around petting the various rabbits called Theory and acting like every time he’s managed to touch a bunny, he’s showed you his special friend. It’s not as bad as Wallace on grammar–like most people in English departments, he was plain pig ignorant of that–but it’s pretty darn bad.

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