A thoughtful interview with Marilynne Robinson in last week's Atlantic served to remind us of her much-needed compassion, clarity of vision, and uncompromising inquiry into the state of American democracy.
In 1981, at the age of thirty-seven, Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, "Housekeeping." It won a PEN/Hemingway Award, and, as one critic noted, "the language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn’t want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience.” Robinson did not publish another novel for more than twenty years. In 2004, when "Gilead" came out, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and the author followed with "Home" four years later.
In her fiction and four books of nonfiction, Robinson writes with a compelling blend of intensity and austerity. Her voice is often severe, even when her passion for the subject -- like the global debt crisis, for instance -- is evident. She isn't one for sentimentality or "clever" prose, and although there are flashes of humor in her work, you would never describe her as funny. Among contemporary American writers, though, she is one of the best.
In her latest book, "When I Was a Child I Read Books," Robinson offers ten essays on themes ranging from her Idaho childhood, solitude, and religious faith to the decline of our political culture. She reflects on her experiences teaching for nearly two decades at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and she ponders the mysteries of the writing life: "Two questions I can't really answer about fiction are 1) where it comes from, and 2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute."
In some of the book's best moments, Robinson describes her life as a reader, with "my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience." She expresses gratitude for the books which have "taught me most of what I know....and trained my attention and my imagination." In the title essay, she recalls herself as a "bookish child in the far West": "My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists." She writes of a childhood in which books were devoured without any desire to impress or satisfy others, and pays tribute to the high-school Latin teacher who taught her Horace, Virgil, and "Cicero's vast sentences, clause depending from clause, the whole cantilevered with subjunctives and weighted with a culminating irony." She adds, "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."
As for advice on becoming a writer (which, presumably, she is asked often), Robinson is rather succinct: "Read."
Must-Read Marilynne Robinson
On how she encourages her writing students: "I want them to know that they have their own testimony to offer, that if they are good observers, if they are thoughtful people, if they have the courage to evaluate things independently, they will give the world something new, something worth having."
On being called a "religious writer": "I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious, whether a writer intends it to be religious or not."