Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning novelist, is a confounding writer in todays political alignment. Her new essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is fundamentally a leftist political manifesto and lament for Americas loss of faith in government. Yet it grants a central argument of many religious conservatives that Americas virtues are indeed steeped in biblical thought.
When I Was a Child is a broadside defense of literature and classical liberalism that demands we include the Old Testament as a foundation of both. Through rigorous citation and deep personal reflection, she builds an excellent case. Yet her contrarian instincts are better at challenging assumptions about biblical and American values than in diagnosing more terrestrial problems.
If Christianitys founding documents really make such a profound argument for equality and kindness, then why do so many Christians get it wrong in her view? And why do those Christians seem to have such an outsized power in Americas politics?
Over the books 10 essays, Robinson systematically marshals text-based evidence that upends popular beliefs about faith, America and their uneasy commingling all themes explored in her novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home. In Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism, she champions John Calvin, a theologian whose very name evokes a dunk in an ice bath of guilt. But as she digs into his actual writings, his Latin translations turn out to lay the masonry for what the word liberal means today. When she cites from his sermons echoes of Marx are intended.
In Austerity as Ideology, she explores where a country derives its worth. Robinson defends the commons, but from a preservationist vantage point worthy of founding conservative Edmund Burke: Those in earlier generations who intended the benefits of education for me did not intend them any less for my great-grandchildren. But the new ideology seems to assume that the public as such cannot legitimately own anything or obligate the living to anything. In the wake of Antonin Scalias famous quip on the governments obligation to treating the sick Well, dont obligate yourself to that Robinsons liberalism feels more truly conservationist than what we call conservatism today.
Preserving the culture of literature is her other priority. In the title essay, Robinson evokes an Idaho childhood on her grandparents ranch where lonesome is a word with strongly positive connotations. The isolation of reading is sensitizing and clarifying, and a natural complement to the idea of the American West, which is in many ways the idea of America. But for all her edifying work reclaiming bedrock Western texts for progressive ends, this collection has trouble suggesting how to move forward on the ground. Clearly, Robinson believes that a more accurate reading of Americas source material will result in better politics.
Her confidence in the inherent virtue of her preferred institutions (both religious and secular) can sometimes have a whiff of smugness. In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos, she writes in Freedom of Thought. Thats a vague accusation from an otherwise methodical academic, and there are a few quantum physicists who might challenge her point.
Still, When I Was a Child feels progressive in its belief that humanity has written stories that hold their virtue over millenniums. And her commitment to those texts is ultimately humble before all that we dont know when I see a man or woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, she writes. Which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.