When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays by Marilynne Robinson - review by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter

From the Pulpit

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays


Virago 206pp £16.99

In an interview in the New Yorker in 2004, the prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson confirmed that, as a member of a Congregationalist church, she had occasionally given sermons. ‘I have enjoyed the problem of exploring the sermon as a form,’ she explained. ‘It is a deeply instructive experience, a very interesting way to think.’ The ten essays in her new collection indeed seem closer to sermons than to any other genre. They are not literary criticism, although Robinson quotes from Whitman and Emerson; they are not memoir, although the central (and most engaging) piece, ‘When I Was a Child’, is an autobiographical discussion of the western setting of Housekeeping, her first novel. They are not political or polemical, although she laments that ‘we now live in a political environment characterized by wolfishness and filled with blather’. Overall, in their moral seriousness, concern with theological argument, and large philosophical questions, they are thoughtful, erudite, and engaged. But although the sermon genre may offer an interesting way for Robinson to think, it is less congenial for the reader of Robinson’s novels who comes to the book expecting to be entertained and enlightened as well as instructed.

Despite occasional witty digressions on topics including her unbribable lab rat in a college psychology course (‘an Eliot Ness among rats’), or the Soviet Union as a ‘good adversary’ and worthy cultural competitor during the Cold War (‘America was forever outskated, forever beaten at chess. Her youth would never truly master the violin’), Robinson is set on more abstract questions about the ‘human spirit and the good society’. She is intentionally vague about the date of each piece, and the audience for whom it was first composed. Phrases such as ‘I will speak very briefly’ suggest that several essays were originally lectures; one of two learned essays on Moses, I discovered by some Googling, began as an address to the Princeton Theological Seminary. She does not identify her adversaries. In the preface, she condemns ‘certain among us’, ‘self-declared patriots’, who wish ‘the establishment of a kind of religious monoculture we have never had and our institutions have never encouraged’.

Are these folks members of the Tea Party? Evangelical Christians? She doesn’t say, although they reappear frequently from essay to essay. The lack of specificity perhaps makes the essays seem timeless, but it also risks making them look aimless. When Robinson is writing about her own views, however, as in her essay ‘Wondrous Love’, she rises to her most eloquent
and forceful expression. ‘In my Bible,’ she declares,

Jesus does not say, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free market principles.’ I am so unpatriotic as to attach great importance to the day-to-day practical well-being of my fellow citizens. Until there is evidence that ideology mattered to Jesus, it will be of no interest to me.

Her opinions can be quite scathing; ‘I am so unpatriotic,’ she continues ironically, as to believe ‘that the United States of America … is not especially decadent, as modern societies go, and the notion that it is, is both tendentious and uninformed.’

Even when their target is unclear, Robinson’s views are admirable. She writes often about the connection, rather than conflict, between science and religion, and does not make ‘a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the physical’. Instead, she believes we should celebrate every new scientific discovery as another glimpse of the miraculous state of the universe, ‘the endless brilliance of creation’. She holds both religion and science to blame for a lack of charity in public life. ‘We do not deal with each other as soul to soul,’ she notes, in ‘Freedom of Thought’, ‘and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.’ At the same time, she insists, ‘science can give us knowledge but it cannot give us wisdom’.

Robinson is also a staunch and vigorous defender of American higher education, seeing colleges and universities, even more than churches, as places that keep the ideals of democracy alive and generously share their vision and wisdom. ‘I know from visiting all sorts of institutions everywhere in the country’, she writes, ‘that even the smallest college is a virtual Chautauqua of conversation and performance that binds it, together with its community, into national culture and world culture.’ And she is uncompromising in her insistence that American colleges and universities are ‘the greatest in the world by any reckoning’, contradicting the ‘pervasive and influential’ notion that ‘we as Americans are hostile to learning’. I agree, but her argument would seem less like preaching to the choir if she had given some examples of this pervasive notion, and cited those who hold it.

There will be a special and enthusiastic audience for these essays and for the opportunity to follow Robinson’s thinking about big issues and questions: freedom of thought, imagination and community, austerity, liberalism, the fate of ideas. But for those who tend to nod off during even the most inspired sermon, her novels will be much more illuminating.

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RLF - March