In her novels and in her nonfiction essays, Marilynne Robinson‘s questions are always roughly the same: Who are we, and where did we come from? The first is a matter of metaphysics, the second of history. At least since the publication of her first collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), Robinson has been making it her business to remind us that these questions are not yet settled. We may be descended from apes, but that does not mean that we are essentially apelike. “It has been usual for at least a century and a half to think of human beings as primates,” she writes in her latest collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, only to add, “I suppress the impulse to say ‘mere primates,’ since I suspect the other members of our great order are undervalued by us in the course of devaluing ourselves.” This is a characteristic Robinson turn—admit the dehumanizing point of your opponent, only to show how deep our humanity goes.
When I Was a Child, by far Robinson’s most political work to date, turns her old questions to the problems now directly confronting us. The book is a defense of what she considers the grand traditions of American democracy—generosity, hope, and a radical openness to new experience—waged against a society that seems to believe itself in irreversible decline. At the same time, Robinson registers a profound note of disappointment at feeling, “on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are now losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization.”
To this end, Robinson critiques what she calls a “toxic heritage approach” to the American past, in which even the greatest reforms, like the abolition of slavery or the passage of the Civil Rights Act, are seen as little more than the outcomes of a shameful tradition. Her method here is more of a reductio ad absurdum, taking the historical determinism that often hides in such views to its logical conclusion. “Determinism and reform are at odds with each other,” she writes in “Who Was Oberlin?,” an essay on the links between abolition and evangelicalism. “The notion that reform has relatively little meaning”—because reform might be linked to something poisonous, say, evangelical religion—”reduces it from serious purpose to virtuous sentiment.” The result is a sense of inevitability, the assumption that all reform is perverted by the forces that drive it; and “the sense that anything . . . is inevitable in this society goes a long way toward giving that thing legitimacy and even authority, toward making it, to use a potent word, American.” Yes, evangelicalism may be strongly tied to abolition, but for Robinson that should raise our opinion of evangelicalism, not lower our opinion of abolition—and lead us to see what might be American, in the positive sense, about both traditions.
Robinson’s great virtue as an essayist is her ability to combine a deep knowledge of this country’s literary, intellectual, and religious canon with a demotic, impassioned tone that is American in the highest sense.