Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books
By ANDREW DELBANCO
New York Times Book Review
April 20, 2012
In her celebrated novels, Housekeeping (1981), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), Marilynne Robinson gives us “isolated towns and single houses” where the afternoon sun draws “the damp out of the grass and . . . the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor.” It is a laconic world where adults conserve “syllables as if to conserve breath” while children brave an “outsized landscape” by day and seek shelter by night even as they long to break away from the “regime of small kindnesses” that makes home both comforting and confining.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD I READ BOOKS
By Marilynne Robinson
206 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.
Robinson grew up in Idaho and now lives in Iowa — places where, as she puts it in her new collection of personal and critical essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, “ ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations.” In her lexicon, lonesomeness means the opposite of isolation. It envelops the mind and heart in unsullied nature, allowing focused apprehension of the miracle of creation, as when she remembers kneeling alone as a child “by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion — feeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.”
One inference to be drawn from Robinson’s essays is that her novels contain a good deal of self-portraiture. When she was young, she seems to have been a prairie version of one of J. D. Salinger’s Glass children — except that rather than urbanity, her precociousness took the form of piety. “I looked to Galilee for meaning,” she tells us, “and to Spokane for orthodonture.” Only such a reverent child could have felt, as Ruth, the narrator of “Housekeeping,” feels when the boat she’s in seems about to capsize, that “it was the order of the world that the shell should fall away and that I, the nub, the sleeping germ, should swell and expand.” This kind of high-mindedness can appear a little chastising to those of us who would have worried about drowning.
But if Robinson writes with a devoutness that can alienate those who don’t share it, she also avers that wisdom is “almost always another name for humility.” Not only in Christian Scripture but throughout the Hebrew Bible, she finds a “haunting solicitude for the vulnerable.” Like many conservative critics, with whom she would otherwise disagree, she is angry at America for its putative betrayal of its founding principles. She condemns “condescension toward biblical texts and narratives, toward the culture that produced them, toward God.” She decries the diminution of religion as “a primitive attempt to explain phenomena which are properly within the purview of science.” But her anger arises not on behalf of some fanciful notion that America was once a monolithic Christian nation. She is angry, instead, at our failure to sustain the capacious conception of community with which, as she shows in a brilliant essay entitled “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” America began — a community founded not on the premise that human beings are motivated primarily by greed, but as an experiment in building a society on the principle of love. She persists in believing that this experiment has not been futile: “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”
As the credo of a liberal Christian, Robinson’s new book of essays stands on its own. But it is also an illuminating commentary on her novels. In “Gilead,” for instance, the preacher who tells the tale says of his “unreposeful” grandfather that “to be useful” was his great hope and “to be aimless” his “worst fear.” In her new book, Robinson revisits this theme of Christian restlessness by decrying Max Weber’s “unaccountably influential” book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” for portraying Puritans as early-to-bed, early-to-rise drones, driven to material accumulation and convinced that worldly prosperity is the best measure of worth in God’s eyes. (This version of Weber is something of a straw man, but given its popular prestige, Robinson is right to knock it down and burn it up.) Later in the volume she describes the abolitionist evangelical Charles Grandison Finney as an exemplar of what “unreposeful” has meant in the history of Christian activism — just the sort of man she had in mind in “Gilead.”
It’s not a bad idea to read Marilynne Robinson’s novels with a Bible concordance and a theological encyclopedia close at hand. In “Housekeeping,” for instance, she tells us (this reference is familiar enough that many people may not have to look it up) that “if one is lost on the water, any hill is Ararat.” More obscurely, the preacher in “Gilead” recalls reading “somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.” This is an allusion, I think, to Jonathan Edwards’s “Notes on the Mind.” But the best companion of all to Robinson’s novels may be her own essays. When, for example, in the essay on “Freedom of Thought,” she invokes John Calvin’s metaphor that “nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed,” we comprehend better the devotional descriptions of nature in her fiction.
The book also registers Robinson’s debt to the schoolteachers who gave her the gift of culture during her Idaho childhood — culture not in today’s degraded academic sense of “a system of signs and passwords, more or less entirely without meaning except as it identifies groups and subgroups,” but as a precious resource for living. “As a bookish child in the far West,” she tells us, “I was given odds and ends — Dido pining on her flaming couch, Lewis and Clark mapping the wilderness — without one being set apart from the other as especially likely to impress or satisfy anyone. We were simply given these things with the assurance that they were valuable and important in no specific way.”
She has put these gifts to good use. As one reads through her learned essays, a dash of leavening humor now and then would have been welcome, something like her report in “Housekeeping” (with Luke 22:51 in mind) that Christ “restored the severed ear of the soldier who came to arrest him — a fact that allows us to hope the Resurrection will reflect a considerable attention to detail.” But by and large this collection is a rewarding reminder that the author’s faith infuses every word she writes.
“I think we all know,” she remarks near the beginning of the book, “that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions.” In that word “presumptions” there is great force, amplified by the plural possessive pronoun that precedes it and that underscores everyone’s “inevitable share in human fallibility.” Like every good preacher, Marilynne Robinson judges others while including herself — in theory, at least — in the judgment.