New Times,
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10 March 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 10:19am

Marilynne Robinson’s new essay collection is acerbic – and problematic

In What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson attacks Fox News and the “dystopian media”.

By Sarah Churchwell

“I am fascinated by history, and I don’t know what it is.” It seems likely that history will be equally fascinated by Marilynne Robinson, and equally uncertain what to make of her. Although her novels are esteemed to the point of idolatry, Robinson’s essays – surprising, acerbic, trenchant, a bit cantankerous – are, for many readers, somewhat more problematic. In her latest collection, What are We Doing Here?, Robinson is once again doing what she does like no one else.

Most of the pieces in this book originated as lectures. They have not been edited for continuity, repetition, or internal consistency, which makes it a book to dip into and out of, rather than to read cover to cover. Most of the lectures circle around the same themes that have preoccupied Robinson since The Death of Adam, her first collection of essays, published 20 years ago. There is her abiding interest in the history of Calvinism, which she prefers to call Puritanism; the links among theology, education, and liberalism in American thought and tradition; the settling of the Midwest (which she, like F Scott Fitzgerald, always calls the Middle West) during the American Civil War; Christian ethics and identity today; her hostility to what she sees as “deterministic” world views; and American historiography, about which she is very stern indeed.

Robinson is often called an original thinker – even an eccentric or cranky one. She cheerfully confesses terminal “unhipness”. “It has been my eccentric fate,” she notes, “to be attracted to subjects that have been excluded from the historical conversation by an aversion of which no account can be made.”

Among the scattered insights of these lectures, the repetition can become tiresome. The same passage from de Tocqueville is quoted at length in two different pieces. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641, a precursor to the US Bill of Rights, is well worth learning about the first time – less so the third. That the Geneva Bible, not the King James, is the one Shakespeare would have read (and was out of print, Robinson informs us, from 1644 to 2007), is a favourite fact; dark matter a favourite metaphor.

Robinson has been defending the Puritans against being stereotyped as dour, joyless, rigid, and austere for decades. A long-standing hostility to “ideologies” – she does not consider her Christianity an ideology – surfaces again, as she takes broad, caricatured swipes at Marxism, Freudianism, and Darwinism as “the antibiotics of the intellect, killing off a various ecology of reflection and experience”.

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More problematically, she too often relies on straw man arguments, putting foolish words in the mouths of notional people. “Early American historiography is for the most part a toxic compound of cynicism and cliché, so false that it falsifies by implication the history of the Western world.” It is quite startling to read a writer of Robinson’s thoughtfulness – one who elsewhere in the book speaks often of the importance of our tradition of free universities – blaming historians for popular myths and shibboleths. Objecting to “the history of academic so-called Marxism,” she asserts that “Americans think Marx was criticising America”, an idea “propagated in the university as diligently as in any right-wing think tank”. Despite spending a great deal of time in the American university system listening to people discuss Marx, I have never heard this idea in my life.

Robinson’s own claims are not free from distortions. She writes at length about the “freedom of conscience” and abolitionist traditions established by the great universities, including Yale; but fails to note that Yale paid for its first postgraduate courses and scholarships with a slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island, or that until two years ago it honoured slave-owners and white supremacists such as John C Calhoun. She mentions in passing, once, in her defence of New England, that the nation’s founders were Southerners; she does not reflect on the fact that these Southerners (namely, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison, whom she does not name) were slave-owners, too. It is a familiar fact, but it bears repeating and demands reflection.

One of the strongest aspects of the book is the staunch defence Robinson launches of humanist education against utilitarian arguments, contending that universities played a crucial role in creating American prosperity. “There has been a fundamental shift in American consciousness,” she rightly adds. “The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets are now public burdens.” This phenomenon is not unique to America; it has happened in Britain, too. But as Robinson trenchantly remarks, these assets contributed greatly not only to the public good, but to public wealth. Our university tradition has worked, and there is no reason to believe that the new principles being espoused will. “No comparably wealthy society has proceeded on the utilitarian principles that would ration access to varieties of learning in the name of improving a workforce.”

A few essays venture further afield, to great effect. One moving, memorable talk reflects upon the character of Barack Obama, with whom Robinson became friendly, and whom she greatly admires as “a philosopher, perhaps a theologian” – no higher compliment in Robinson’s lexicon, one suspects. Despite the malicious efforts of his opponents to “shake and discredit him”, he “kept his poise through it all and met the demands of his office with deliberate, gentlemanly calm”, providing a lesson for us all. There is a fascinating excursion into Russia’s intervention in the US Civil War, which, as Robinson points out, prevented England and France from intervening on the side of the South. They “came very near attempting to enforce a ‘peace’, that is, a permanent division of this country that would have left American slavery intact and ensured the flow of American cotton to those nightmarish factories in Manchester and Lyon… we might in fact be said to owe our national existence,” she concludes, to “these formidable Russians”. The question is, “How did we manage to forget this?”

In “Slander,” the final and most topical essay, Robinson directly, and powerfully, confronts the toxicity of Fox News, at which point her tone becomes considerably less seigneurial. She describes watching “some Fox blondie” spread the lie that Obama was not Christian, dismissing “the impassioned little commentator” in terms that are no less patronising for doubtless being deserved. She has no time for “self-declared Christians who are clearly convinced that their wrath and God’s righteousness are one and the same”.

She argues that the right-wing Christianity dominating American cultural life today has joined forces with a “dystopian media” to slander even the concept of truth, undermining our civic, and civil, traditions. Ignorance is a key weapon in this battle: “It seems to me that for the survival of our experiment to be even imaginable the country must know itself much better.”

“There are risks in having an interesting mind in this odd climate we have made for ourselves,” Robinson rightly remarks, adding: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man might seem delusional.” He might also seem like a prophet, but we can only recognise prophets once history has finished with us. Until then, as Robinson notes, “the country needs to regain equilibrium and direction. It needs to recover the memory of the best it has done, and then try to do it all better.” That is one answer to the question of what we are doing here, at least those who want to join forces with Robinson’s project: we are trying to do better. 

“Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream” by Sarah Churchwell will be published by Bloomsbury in May

What are We Doing Here? Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Virago, 336pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war