Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)

There are many books I love that I would almost never wish upon my loved ones. When asked about these volumes (the rarest honor), I embark on a high and glowing encomium, only to slow down with wary admonition, and stop with a shrug. I feel the need to protect my friends and family from getting caught in Dickinson’s webs, for fear those words which are to me like continents of light will read to them like nought after nought after nought. I feel guilty for the length of half of my favorites. I only mention War and Peace if I am feeling the need to arrogate to myself a more Napoleonic status in the conversation; the same goes for The Brothers Karamazov and piety (or philosophical seriousness). I am overly apologetic about the generosity of Dickens. Bleak House is excellent, but it’s crowded full of characters, and those characters are so aspill with their own words—as if his Victorian, literary excess should make a mess of others’ tidy, twenty-first century brains.

But there is one author I frequently find myself wishing more people had read. One reason for this is aesthetic: she is accessible in the optimal sense. Whether through novel or essay, she writes of things available to common perception. She appreciates the capaciousness of common language—for instance, the potential inclusiveness of a word like “thing.” Her work consistently seeks to show the huge in the small, the unsaid in the said, the cosmic in the everyday. In this sense, she is a distinctly religious stylist: a positive puritan of prose, an inheritor of a long American estate of seeing the grand (or the Grandest) in the plain which we know best through Cather, Anderson, and Hemingway, but stemming even farther back than the prose of the King James translators to the Hebrew narratives from which it came. She takes nothing for granted, because she sees everything as given. No detail is spare; every word bears the meaning of considerable attention. This is all to say that, in the mercenary terms of commerce, the reader of this author’s work can receive abundant compensation for so little time and expense—if they have eyes to read it.

But another reason is more particularly social, even moral—perhaps I should say humanistic. This author represents, in her upbringing and background, her education and continued reading (or self-education), in her interests and commitments, an assemblage of identifications becoming less and less common in our society (or at least in our discourse). The labels she has chosen for herself overlap peculiarly, and together bear no easy summary. Sometimes they seem to press against and out of our small, symmetrical, isolated picture of political, intellectual, and religious identity. She shares commitments and interests beyond our expected boundaries. Her terms, taken together, resist the unhealthy satisfaction of pert association. It is for all this variety and contradiction of belonging that she is an individual.[1]

I am talking, of course, about the individual in my title, Marilynne Robinson. For about the past two decades she has been exemplifying all (and more) of the qualities I mentioned above. Her work serves to continue the multiple traditions she finds formative and instructive. However, it should be stated that, for all of her diverse influences, Robinson first and foremost identifies as a Christian and an American.[2] For all of the things she finds formative, these two are in some deeper sense normative. Nevertheless, like the totality of her labels, Robinson’s own Christianity and American-ness bear no easy summary. Those swift and simple associations that form the mind’s lazier morals will likely swerve to a stall in a variety of synaptic dead-ends. (Incidentally, these are the kinds of cognitive cliffs that William James identified as moments of truth.) Robinson’s work attempts to give those dead-ends firm and effective connections.

The things Robinson seeks to connect her readers with can be summed up, I believe, as the given. As her latest book of essays shows, Robinson regards all things as endowed with the quality of givenness. This givenness of things may be the unifying theme of all her recent work. More important, this move of Robinson’s to give connection to the given may be an important departure for American discourse itself—a departure that is in fact a return.

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