Robinson’s Rich Vision

A collection of nonfiction called 'What Are We Doing Here?'

It is difficult to know where to begin in reviewing a new work by Marilynne Robinson – in this case, a collection of nonfiction called What Are We Doing Here? Or, rather, it is difficult to know what to say after the extremely obvious beginning: Robinson is the greatest living American author. The three novels in the Iowa Trilogy (2004-14) set forth a poetics of the American Midwest that writers in the region will draw on for as long as the words in this sentence remain legible. Housekeeping (1981), her first novel, is unremittingly bold and original, and boasts perhaps the finest last sentence of the twentieth century. Her nonfiction – Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), The Givenness of Things (2015) – has taught a generation to think anew, about Puritanism, abolitionism, the nonexistent “free market,” social justice, Freud, Britain, Marx, America, and the virtue of actually reading the books that you talk about, among other things.

Compounding the difficulty of review, Robinson tends in her nonfiction to circle around the same concerns she has before, which is only a “criticism” if you wish that Prince had written fewer songs about sex, or that God would knock it off with the sunsets already. Robinson is, broadly speaking, working to redeem Puritanism in our collective imagination – to make us see it as the impulse behind the redeeming, radical currents in United States history. If you say “Puritan” to most people I know, they picture someone in a stupid hat peeking in windows to make sure no fun is being had. What Robinson would prefer that we picture: scholarship; abolitionism; early feminism; generous and non-means-tested poor relief; Emily Dickinson, maybe. In addition to her usual praise of Calvin and Edwards, she quotes some absolutely ravishing passages from John Flavel, a seventeenth-century writer of whom I had never heard. She finds evidence of greater religious tolerance and press freedom in England under Edward VI, the tragic “child-king” of 1537 to 1553, and under Oliver Cromwell, than in the far more celebrated reigns of Elizabeth and Charles II. She reminds us that English and American Puritans tended to follow Moses in forbidding the law to punish crimes against property, and so were less likely to, say, hang a starving man for “stealing” a rabbit from once-common lands that some smooth-brained aristocrat decided last week were his, a process known to economic history as “enclosure.” She suggests that American law may owe more to Wycliffe and Calvin than to English common law, to its benefit. She wants to recover a usable past, one that would allow Americans to understand ourselves as something other than a colony of graspers teleologically committed to end in Trump.

Along the way, she pits this Puritan richness of vision against the selfish-gene-type reductionism that we’ve all seen refuted a thousand times, but that still lives in all our minds like a bad dream. She attributes its power less to its intellectual force than to its usefulness to capital. If you want to replace human beings with human resources, you have to first convince people that they’re not truly human, that brilliance is an algorithm and decency a reproductive strategy. She’s made variations on all these arguments before, but who cares? Watching Robinson own the reductionists is, by this point, a perennial, self-renewing comic pleasure, good for the soul, like watching Bugs Bunny thwart Elmer Fudd, or – perhaps this is a better comparison – like watching Charlie Chaplin’s Kid, or Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, frustrate various self-assured, implacable, and ultimately fragile systems of machinery. 

Elsewhere she writes an account of her own personal poetics, an essay without which I will never send another creative writing student unprepared into the world. She meditates on the theological virtues – her account of “hope” made me cry at the bar. She lionizes her good friend Barack Obama, in a frustratingly hagiographic article that seems to dismiss that thoughtful man’s tendency to drone-bomb people who in no way had it coming. What are we doing here, indeed? I suppose Robinson is right to be loyal to a friend, even if that friend makes terrible life decisions like “becoming President” and “diffusing left-populist energies that might have led to durable reforms,” but American imperialism and neoliberalism are real things that do harm, and fulminating against “the left” (as she also does) won’t make them go away. At least this lapse saves the admiring reader from outright hero-worship.

Late in the book, Robinson turns her gaze to a U.S. institution that is often taken as a Puritan holdover but would better be understood as Puritanism’s opposite: Fox News. Fox presents itself as the defender of an embattled Christianity, which it redefines as a thing people (mainly white people) possess, a “cultural heritage,” rather than as an utterly destabilizing encounter with the Christ who possesses you. In the process, Fox encourages viewers to fear the very same luckless and wayfaring people Christ commands us to care for, and cultivates a kind of voluptuous paranoia that leaves many of viewers unable to hear the words “Happy Holidays” without apocalyptic premonitions. They make fearful and confused old people into paid-up conspiracy theorists. Among these people: Robinson’s own mother.

We’ve all known so many people who have been ruined by the combination of isolation and bad TV news – family or one-time friends who suddenly pop up in our Facebook feeds after years of silence asserting that people like ourselves and our loved ones ought to be shot – that it’s surprising to be brought low by reading of yet another one. But when Robinson writes that her own mother was “tormented by anxieties and regrets” because she had come to hold “self-professed liberal[s]” like her own daughter responsible for “destroying America,” and that she believed her daughter (our foremost Christian public intellectual) doomed to hell, I was crushed. To think of a writer to whom I owe so much, from whom I have experienced so much pleasure and edification – to think of a person I, quite frankly, love, if it is ever appropriate to use that small, final word to describe the loyalty and appreciation one feels for those minds one will only ever encounter through the deep but narrow channel of books – losing her mother to a butt-pinching nonentity like Roger Ailes: it could make you despair. But Robinson has already blocked that exit. “Christians know truth of another order, that human beings are created in the image of God,” she concludes. “This is the truth that has made us free.”  

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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