Essays, Religion, Reviews.

The capacious heart of Marilynne Robinson

Book Book Review, Title When I Was a Child I Read Books, Author Marilynne Robinson, Rating 4.0, The capacious heart of Marilynne Robinson

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Marilynne Robinson

Book Review

Every few odd years Marilynne Robinson has produced a book of essays, notably Absence of Mind and The Death of Adam. The latest arrival is When I was a Child I Read Books: Essays. The best of Robinson shines in these latest essays: In them she lays out her vision of the American Dream, celebrating the strengths of the American way of life, marked by its liberality (individual freedom), sense of community, and generosity, each informed by a non-sectarian respect for the soul.

Like Walt Whitman, she finds that America, with all of its flaws, is better at providing a liberal home for all citizens than alternatives past or present; that America has struggled its way to a much more full but still incomplete democracy, driven by respect for each citizen, which she describes as a non-sectarian religious imperative, arising perhaps paradoxically by the founder’s insistence on the separation of church and state.

The author suggests that diversity in America’s population has contributed more to its vibrancy and  progress than to internal conflict or instability:  (note 1)


Walt Whitman. PD-US.


She is concerned that Americans maintain their optimism in democracy and some remove from partisanship, and quotes from Whitman’s 1871 essay Democratic Vistas:

Robinson is appalled by the current decrease in public generosity, the stripping of social and community support in the name of a blind capitalism: (note 2) 

Unsurprising to any who have read Robinson, she organizes much of her thought on these matters in terms of Christian ideals, arguing that they are an important differentiator in what is the best of America.  Francis Schaeffer, another Christian writer who held similar views, wrote a markedly different analysis and prescription: In his How Should We Then Live, Schaeffer described Western Civilization as ascendant when Christendom held sway, and in perpetual political and moral decline since modern Western society moved to a secular governing model; he called upon his fellow Christians to wrest back political control of society before it perished in a sea of its own iniquity.  Schaeffer’s ideological progeny make up many of today’s conservatives.  Robinson views such arguments as false conversation that invert the values upon which the country was built:

In the essay Freedom of Thought, the author ably defends a more unbounded way of looking at the human existence, one unconstrained by morose modern aesthetics or by the predisposition that science is the primary source for understanding.  She says that "Science must not be judged by the claims certain of its proponents have made for it. It is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity. It is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion."(Freedom of Thought)  (page 14)    This is true enough, and, the over-simplistic Victor Stengers of the world aside, captures what science in fact asserts for itself: That it is tentative and incomplete and subject to testing and to correction and change.  I would still argue that in many areas of knowledge, the best and most reasonable means we have for what truth we can glean, in the form of hypotheses and models of real world behavior, is through the methods of science. (note 3)

Conversely, absolute standards, truth and objectivity are simply unattainable with our finite abilities to reason, test and observe: there is and will probably remain profound mysteries outside of the reach of science, as Robinson emphatically asserts. The author rejects the limits of the crude and highly simplified hypotheses of anthropology and psychology, particularly in the areas of human cognition:  consciousness, perception, self-awareness, and motivation, and suggests that such deep mysteries of human existence open the door for religious interpretation and for terminology like “miraculous”, and that:

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. Art, music, and religion tell us that. And what they tell us is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of the universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else. And it is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.
-Freedom of Thought (page 13)

Robinson well understands that both science and religion can overstate and artificially restrict the bounds of their respective descriptions of human and natural behavior.  My perspective is in a similar spirit, that science and religion conflict much less than the loudest voices from each camp can insist.  She is skeptical of a long historical trend to separate physical from spiritual phenomena; her suggestion that the ancient word ‘soul’ might still be a good description for the nexus between the mind and the brain is a very old idea in and of itself, one that is still perhaps richer than the current cognitive models of science.  Robinson concludes that freedom of thought requires an understanding that "Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again." (Freedom of Thought)  (page 16)  (note 4)

Robinson suggests that   "community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly." (page 19)  She defends and celebrates community, obstensibly the writing and academic community but clearly extending  it to society as a whole.  Imagination flourishes ultimately in community, not only because it must be shared to have use or meaning, but because community elicits and shapes an individual’s imagination in turn. Our thought lives are inseparable from our communities:     "Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities." (Imagination and Community)  (page 20)  She closes this essay with this:

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community. The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.
-Imagination and Community (page 32) 


What Wondrous Love This Is, 1854. PD-US.


In Wondrous Love, Robinson ponders the music of Christian love, literally and figuratively, and celebrates the gift of love as an acceptance of others, another profound aspect of community.  She wonders at the presumption of tribalizing and foreshortening Christian love:

And how is it consistent with the belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of the nation? As I have said, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to be drawn in light of the many examples of nationalized and officialized religion that persist in the modern world. In general, this posture, this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic. Neither of these are emotions becoming in Christians or in the least degree likely to inspire thinking or action of a kind that deserves to be called Christian. . . . I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.
-Wondrous Love (page 134) 

The title essay, When I Was a Child, is the most nostalgic of the essays, and mixes some of her childhood influences with a celebration of the American frontier, the individual, the outsider, the beauty of isolated austerity.  She in particular finds the Homestead Act a thing of poetic beauty, as it served to open up to any class those freedoms influenced by the ownership of land, even with certain costs: 

History is a dialectic of bad and worse. The history of European civilization vis-à-vis the world from the fifteenth century to the present day is astounding and terrible. The worst aspects of settlement were by no means peculiar to the American West, but some of its better aspects may well have been. On the one hand, the settlement was largely done by self-selecting populations who envisaged permanent settlement on land that, as individuals or communally, they would own outright. The penal colonies and pauper colonies and slash-and-burn raids on the wealth of the land which made the history of the most colonized places so unbelievably desolate were less significant here. On the other, there was a Utopian impulse, the hope to create a model of a good human order , that seems to have arrived on the Mayflower, and which flourished through the whole of the nineteenth century. By the standards that apply to events of its kind, the Western settlement had a considerable positive content.
-When I was a Child (page 88) 

This is a passage typical of the author’s point of view of America as better by degree than other societies. It is also typical of her approach to argumentation:  Throughout these essays the author evidences a laudable tendency to address both positive and negative aspects of the ideas she is espousing, although it often feels like some of the tougher questions are being at the same time brushed aside.  For example, in the preceding passage the “worst aspects of settlement” are in no wise spelled out, among those aspects the removal of Native Americans from their land through various means, mostly foul, in order to produce the wide open spaces that the author celebrates; yet some of the worst colonial excesses of other societies are detailed.  Calvinism and Biblical scholarship, each dear to the heart of the author, are treated in a similar manner, along with other topics unmentioned here. (note 5)

The author ably defends the Old Testament as a primary source for the Judeo-Christian-inspired culture of generosity in the essay Open Thy Hands Wide, making an extended point that the Old Testament is much more than Biblical scholars sometimes reduce it to:  A jumble of ancient tribal laws and a brutal history of a wrathful and unforgiving God.  Her explication of the culture of generosity is welcome, but her arguments notwithstanding, the Old Testament has many more examples of harsh laws, brutality and wrathfulness than she is willing to admit to.

The author’s essays are written in polished and thoughtful phrases; she can mix similes, analogies, indirect labeling, sarcasm, and some ad hominem to form her arguments, and fold them into complex sentences that a German would surely admire, her self-described debt to Cicero notwithstanding.  (note 6)   Robinson sees and describes the world as a novelist; she is an assured writer who weaves images and ideas into a narrative:  what may seem secondary characteristics are for her necessary parts of a complex whole. She might ask patience of her dear readers:  While her style can sometimes seem unnecessarily tedious, it can also be stimulating, forcing the reader at times to reread a sentence to capture its multiple ideas, often admirably tied together.  I have found it impossible to read her lightly, to her credit.

Her writing is often mordant and incisive, and at its extremes it can be orotund:  her best a musical voice full and round, imposing and deep, rich and resonant; her worst the pretentious voice of a Church Lady.  (note 7) 

Reading some of Robinson’s past essays produced in me a certain amount of frustration, not because I sometimes disagreed with her conclusions, but because the writing could come across as episodically ungenerous and uncareful:  brilliant paragraphs followed jarringly by one more polemical or slippery or caustic.   Yet hoping against hope, I chose to read these essays looking for the best of Robinson, and am thankful that I did.  In these essays, hope transcends past disappointments; in them are revealed the author’s heart, and it is a capacious heart, which seems to moderate her bitter mordancy in a wonderful way, blunting the sharp-knifed edge that often marred her previous essay collections without dulling her passion for those ideas that make America great:  Liberality, generosity and community, within and without.

(My reviews of past Robinson essay collections can be found, for The Death of Adam, here, and for Absence of Mind, here.)



0. This review quotes more than a typical number of passages from her book, because the prose is of such high quality that it calls out to be read.

1.  She adds that "we have created a population whose origins are increasingly various. The canard that associates 'heterogeneity' with conflict and instability would have to be reexamined if comparison were made between America and countries that claim to be homogeneous or insist that they must be. The modern history of Europe is highly relevant here."(Preface)  (page vii)   

2. Additionally, Robinson amplifies her thinking on the limitations of the concept of capitalistic selfishness in the essay Austerity as an Ideology,  where she addresses more directly the shortcomings of leaning too much on purely economic considerations, and points out the ideological limitations of capitalism, primarily that an open market in and of itself is often highly inefficient without the historically ever-present governmental regulations.  (trust-busting, anyone?)

3. In her Cosmology essay  Robinson uses Victor Stenger, not unfairly, as the poster boy for popularizers of an over-application of scientific models, particularly of evolution, to the explanation of the human arc and capability.  She reiterates a theme found in other of these essays and in much more detail in her previous collection, Absence of Mind, that modern science falls well short of explaining the mysteries of human existence.  While acknowledging some of the explanatory power of biological evolution, and correctly pointing out some of its weaknesses, she underestimates the power of in particular the genetical parts of the model.

4.  In the final paragraph of the book, she emphasizes these ideas again, suggesting that the apparent gap between science and the arts is a perception arising from another more real lack, the recent trend in minimizing the importance of the humanities in education, a vital part of human understanding, and over-emphasizing the practical arts and sciences: "The meteoric passage of humankind through cosmic history has left a brilliant trail. Call it history, call it culture. We came from somewhere and we are tending somewhere, and the spectacle is glorious and portentous. The study of our trajectory would yield insight into human nature, and into the nature of being itself." (Cosmology)  (page 199) 

5. Thomas Jefferson is given her customary pass for his much less than forthright defense of the natural rights of all human beings, in this iteration because she wants to place the primary influence of the development of American individual freedoms in the bosom of religion, that “men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”. (The Human Spirit and the Good Society.)  (page 160)   There is no doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers, and that they chose to couch some of their rhetoric in that of the prevailing religious thinking.  There is also good reason to believe that the origins of the 17th and 18th century embrace of the natural rights of humans are varied and not all religious, particularly the thread of Germanic rights of freemen that channeled through the Magna Carta.  Much of the Enlightenment’s unburdening of civil governance from religion was in reaction to the worst of religious illiberality in its secular application.  While Calvin and Luther took a great step towards individual rights in a society, they mostly did it in reaction to the strictures of Roman Catholicism, and were loath to carry liberality further than their newly constructed priesthoods or beyond the bounds of their new traditions – their very limited ideas of liberality grew in spite of their own considerations and influences, many more negative than the author allows.  This is important in understanding Rousseau and Locke, who were more the authors of the celebrated opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence than was Jefferson, something Jefferson himself acknowledged.  There is religious influence, to be sure, in these thoughts, but much also in reaction to the rigid application of Christian religious thought to civic institutions and governance of everyday life, and in reaction to the memory of the vast amount of blood spilled in the name of Christ.

6.   "It was also Mrs. Bloomsburg who trudged us through Cicero’s vast sentences, clause depending from clause, the whole cantilevered with subjunctives and weighted with a culminating irony. It was all over our heads. We were bored but dogged. And at the end of it all, I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more indebted to Cicero than to Hemingway." (When I was a Child)  (page 85) 

7.   "The music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense , what it means." (Wondrous Love)  (page 128) 

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