#41: Marilynne Robinson 2006
Watch, Listen, May 8, 2019
In this interview, beloved author Marilynne Robinson speaks with editor Andy Crouch in 2006 about American culture and her writing process. She also muses on a myriad of other subjects, from balancing teaching and writing, to economics, to the need to respect those we encounter.
- Marilynne Robinson,
Susan Felch (Host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio transports us back to the conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Andy Crouch from the 2006 Festival.
I am Susan Felch, and I teach in the English Department at Calvin College.
Marilynne Robinson is the author of four novels: Housekeeping, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for the best first novel published in 1980; Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Home, the winner of the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction; and, most recently, Lila. Robinson has also written books of non-fiction, including Mother Country, The Death of Adam, Absence of Mind, When I Was a Child I Read Book, and The Givenness of Things. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books.
Robinson’s other honors include the National Humanities Medal and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, as well as nominations for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker. She spent much of her career teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, from which she retired in 2016—that was the same year Time magazine named her on its annual list of 100 most influential people.
Andy Crouch, author of Culture Making, Playing God, Strong and Weak, and The Tech-Wise Family, has also written about the intersection between culture and faith for Christianity Today, The New York Times, Books & Culture, and The Wall Street Journal. His work has appeared in the anthologies Best Christian Writing and Best Spiritual Writing.
Now a partner for theology and culture at Praxis, Crouch has served as a campus minister at Harvard University with Intervarsity and edited re:generation Quarterly.
And now, Andy Crouch interviewing Marilynne Robinson at the 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Andy Crouch: [00:03:10] And I guess one of the best things about my job for this hour is I get to say what probably a lot of people want to say, which is just thank you, especially for Gilead. [applause]
And it just seems like a good thing to say at first that a lot of us feel that this book said something we might have said if we had been bright enough and [laughter] and smarter and better looking and wiser, and a little older, and it’s just—it’s just marvelous.
Marilynne Robinson: Well thank you, that’s very gratifying.
Andy: And I wonder if we can maybe start with you telling us a little bit about when you first knew you wanted to write this book.
Marilynne: Well, I—it was—these things are so accidental, I—I was invited by some people who were former students of mine to come out to Provincetown to give a reading, and I had—the fine arts work center is where they were, which is open only in the winter. So I had been there once before and I knew that being out there in the ocean, in effect, in the middle of the winter is very beautiful. So I said I would come if I could come at Christmastime. And then I rented space in an old hotel so that my sons and I could spend Christmas there together.
And they were delayed in coming, and so I was in a little upstairs room in this old hotel just this beautiful Emily Dickinson New England room with the wide-board floors and the sea-saturated sunlight and so on, and I had my spiral notebook and my black pen, and I began to think about John Ames, in fact, I had a thought in my mind of an old man writing to a child as if he were writing to an adult while the child played on the floor beside him, and I felt as if I—when I began writing from that point of view as if I were writing what he would have been writing, his voice seemed very clear to me, and a great deal just proceeded from that.
I wrote 93 pages of the book and I—you know you always feel very tentative about something like that, it’s so strange a thing to do. So I sent 93 pages of it to my agent and I said, “This is just for you to see I just want you to know I’m alive,” [laughter] and she sent the 93 pages to my editor, of course, because I told her that she wasn’t supposed to do that, [laughter] and he scheduled the book for publication in the next fall. [laughter]
But the response of my agent, who is the most complete and pure Manhattanite that has ever walked the face of the earth, [Crouch laughs] was so positive and lovely and encouraging, and then my editor the same, I thought, “Great.” So I—so I would write 40 or 50 pages more, send it off—wonderful response from the agent and the editor. So I’d write—it was like being Charles Dickens, I’d write. [laughter] So I wrote it almost as if it were serial novel. And it was a pleasure to write, I enjoyed that book more than any other book I’ve written before, that’s really an understatement.
Andy: And when you say, “I wrote 93 pages,” can you take us into that a little bit, did that just happen in an afternoon, or—? [laughter]
Marilynne: Oh, it’s odd. When I—when I become sort of engrossed in what I’m writing I don’t really pay attention, you know, like people say, “Write 3 hours every morning” or something like that, I write until I feel as if I am not being faithful to my sense of the fiction and then I stop. So I might write—now this has—the amount of time I spend writing has nothing to do with the amount of writing I get done, so—
Andy: —Many of us are familiar with that. [laughter]
Marilynne: Sometimes I will write a scene in a 4-hour period, say. Sometimes I will spend three days writing in effect two paragraphs, you know. But you do what is necessary, and—you know, you just do what’s necessary.
Andy: And what are the signs that you’re not being faithful to the fiction, like how do you know, what—is there a feeling, or?
Marilynne: Well it’s um—you know, things wander out of character. You’ve—you’ve—you’re trying to make a character do something that that character you deeply know would not do, or you know the dialogue goes flat, or whatever. I’ve written enough now, I’ve written long enough that I pick up these cues from myself pretty quickly which is a good thing. When I started out writing, I used to persist with something because I thought it was a good idea and I would ignore the intuitions that I had about what the text was rejecting, but I don’t do that anymore.
Andy: So had you started other things and just found they weren’t working out over the years, and—?
Marilynne: Yes. I fiddled around for quite a long time with a novel—I even read parts of it here and there and people remind me now and then and I think, “Oh yes, that did happen.” [laughter] And when I find pieces of it floating around I think, “That’s not bad,” you know, but the fact is I was never committed to it, I never bonded with it, it was something that I was doing that to a certain extent felt clever to me and I wasn’t interested in that.
Andy: [00:10:01] An editor who’s here at the Festival actually wrote about Gilead that if he had received a kind of a one page synopsis of it as a, you know, little query you know, with the—the Biblical name of the town and the aging pastor, and—there are a lot of tropes in here that are familiar, very familiar in one sense, when you just state them baldly, and I mean it might even sound—I hope this isn’t offensive to say, but it could even sound like sort of bad Christian fiction of a sort that some of us have had too much exposure to, [laughter] and yet when you read it, those things that are at one level kind of obvious, they’re true, they’re not—they aren’t false or cliche, and this struck me in reading Housekeeping as well, that you know, the symbolism is very palpable, the train and the lake are on—the lake especially is on practically every page, I started sort of counting—every page I’d look, “Ah, there’s the lake, yes, I thought it was coming,” and that could have been so heavy-handed but it wasn’t and of course you teach writing, so I wondered how you manage that. How you manage to be sort of plain without being cliche and facile?
Marilynne: I don’t know. [laughter] I write what’s on my mind, I try to—as I said before I try to stop when it seems to me that I’m not writing from the middle of my mind, and that’s all.
Andy: So when students—maybe we could talk a little bit about the teaching process, when students bring you something that’s forced, how do you help them? What are your—if we were your students, what would you say when we came with that?
Marilynne: One thing that is important for teaching and something that I can usually rely on being able to do because we have a nice rigorous program, a selective program, you can usually point to the strengths of someone’s work, and it might only be a paragraph, you know? But if you have something striking, some evidence that the student can do something remarkable, you can point them back toward that and use that as a touchstone for their writing, because really the only—when people learn to write it’s because they have learned to write as they should write and there really is no exterior model that you can impose on a writer if you wish that writer actually to be what he or she could be in terms of attaining—you know, the quality that he or she is capable of as an individual writer.
Andy: So you just find that place where they’re being—where they are being true—
Marilynne: —Yes exactly. And I mean there’s nothing more instructive than success however momentary, whether it’s a page or a scene or whatever, because often students can in a way—writers can in a way find their way back to the moment in which they were thinking: what that felt like, where that was, in effect, and that creates a beginning place for other writing.
Andy: You’ve been teaching for quite a while, teaching writing, and I wonder how you balance those two, teaching and writing?
Marilynne: An objective viewer might say I don’t balance them terribly successfully. [laughs] I have enjoyed teaching very much, it’s been a privilege to work with a lot of very fine young writers, and it’s a very interesting line of work. You have sort of insights into thought and personality and the absorption of personal history and so on of a kind that I think people can rarely have. And one of the things that’s wonderful about my teaching is that I have a seminar that I can—that I teach every semester on any subject of my choosing so I can talk at length in kind of—within the community of writers about whatever happens to be on my mind, with chapter and verse of course, but—so in a way I think it’s been very congenial. I think that I’m a better writer than I would have been if I had not done that kind of work. I’m not perhaps as prolific as I would have been without it but that’s a good trade-off I would say.
Andy: And I read in one of the biographies that floats around that you actually turned down or sort of left a writing-only fellowship to go back to teaching.
Marilynne: Yes, I did. Five years, five years. [both laugh] I survived for a year and a half, but you know I—the metaphor that came to my mind forever and it’s still the metaphor that is—I’d read about how Inuit people when some grandmother got to be really too old they put her on an iceberg and left—[laughter] I was paddling my iceberg back to shore. [uproarious laughter]
Andy: Welcome back, we’re glad you came back.
Marilynne: Thank you.
Andy: Yeah, sometimes those awards—now you’ve been receiving a lot of awards, you came actually last night from the Grawemeyer Award for Religion which has never been given to a novel before and they picked Gilead, and I was wondering—if this is too personal a question just you know tell me, but—it’s such a different thing from writing and then teaching, but then this experience of being celebrated, you end up in places like this with people you’ve never met asking you intimate questions—how do you adjust to this—to this new responsibility you have as someone who created something that is really touching people?
Marilynne: Well, it’s interesting to me that it does touch them, I’ll be frank about that. One of the things about going out in public like this, although it certainly is not the sort of thing that I have done or do in ordinary life, is that you find out what people are thinking about and what they’re responding to. I think that we all—we live in this culture that basically is huge, diverse, full of roiling passions of one kind or another, and you sort of find out about from the newspaper, whatever, but it gives you a very different sense of reality to go out into the country and talk to people, and it’s interesting and reassuring and gives me an opportunity to watch and listen which is—these are the two disciplines upon which everything depends, I think.
Andy: Are you somewhat more—are you encouraged? You said reassuring, that—are you encouraged about our culture by what you’re encountering?
Marilynne: Well, yes, I mean, one of the things I do is go from university to seminary to civic theater to—you know—but when you do that, in town after town after town after town and you find out that there are people who love the place where they are and are deeply committed to arts and writing and so on in the place where they are—in many beautifully restored theaters in all sorts of towns all across the country, you know, infinite numbers of reading groups, it’s really extraordinary how many there are, people that talk to you passionately about books. I read in the New York Times that there’s a great increase in attendance at readings and lectures and so on that is comparable to public attendance at readings and lectures in the 19th century which was phenomenal.
And I’ve seen that myself and other people I know that have the same kind of life I do have seen it. It’s a very interesting thing and interesting to know that it can rise in one—in—all over the country at the same time sort of as an unexpected thing. But all of this is unmistakable cultural vitality of a kind that somehow or another we never credit ourselves with. A lot of intellectual interest, a lot of interest in the arts, you see it and see it and see it.
Andy: It’s almost like the television has been fooling us, like it’s not as bad as it looks.
Marilynne: The television is a fool. [all laugh and applaud]
Andy: Amen. And so it’s not as bad as we all think it is? I mean, it’s more hopeful, are you—there was a wonderful, I’m not sure I can retrieve it, but yeah, in one of your essays you say it’s my belief that a civilization can trivialize itself to death, that we have set our foot in that path, and then you say, “Well, not that that will be a big problem because by the time the end comes the lost of the world will be very small,” in other words, if something trivial passes from the scene, well, so be it. [laughter]
Marilynne: [00:20:21] Well, you know, I stand by that. One of the things that bothers me is that there’s an incredible difference between the level at which the public is addressed and the actual level that the public deserves and is capable of dealing with. [applause]
I think that if there’s anything—I think the major destructive force in the culture at this time is the fact that people do not approach one another with an appropriate respect and optimism.
Andy: Hmm. Can you say a little—how, where—where does that happen, where does that level of respect—?
Marilynne: Well, I mean, where does it not happen, is that the question—
Andy: —Or yeah, either—
Marilynne: Well I mean we’ve talked about television. I live in Iowa of course which means that at some seasons of some years you can’t basically go to the drugstore without encountering a presidential candidate. [laughter]
This has an interest of its own but if you ever talk to them individually you find out that they’re sort of pleasant and presentable people with a reasonable range of interests and sympathies. If you see them giving their stump speech you feel like hiding in the basement or something, you know? And what has happened is this very hard prejudice against people in general, what they will tolerate, what they can understand and so on, it packages people so that they are completely different as they present themselves.
Now the problem with that of course is that is the discourse of American public life, that is the level at which the great issues are addressed, at least so far as the public knows, and you know we might be tired of it, we may never have particularly wanted the problem, but the fact is that we are a huge power, and that the fate of the world is very dependent on the quality of our thinking and of our responses and our understanding of what the issue is, and the level of discourse now is by no means sufficient to make us competent in the ways that we need to be.
Andy: So that there’s almost two things happening simultaneously: there is a rich life in fact happening at the local level, but that somehow when it’s presented through—when it’s mediated through media it becomes hollow and shallow and—
Marilynne: And sensationalist even. Somebody said to me once that a lot of—I don’t, you know—that a lot of the way that the media covers anything is determined economically, you know, if it’s easier to follow a sensational trial for example than it is to try to articulate or to find people who can articulate important economic issues, or it’s cheaper to keep a reporter in Hollywood than to send one to Budapest, you know? And so basically that kind of economics enters in as a form of censorship in terms of what we actually are allowed to know.
Andy: And I sometimes wonder, I don’t want to go too far down this path, but—whether a kind of unintended conspiracy takes place where there are elites, if you want to call them that, who do think about economics seriously and who read a certain kind of literature and they are actually in places of certain kinds of power, but that there’s this almost conspiracy to keep that from the public in a way. And there’s just almost two unconnected worlds, when I’m reading my New Yorker and my Atlantic, I feel like I’m in a completely different world from if I happen upon a television and watch Fox News, or CNN.
Marilynne: Yeah, very true. I think it’s—I mean it’s hard to know, I think that a lot of economic choices are made on the basis of the fact that the people making them plan to retire in 20 years. [laughter] Let the next guy worry about it, you know? I think—I think that we don’t even have to go to a conspiracy theory. I think people would say economics doesn’t sell newspapers and that would pretty much be the end of the conversation.
Andy: Perhaps, right. Well that’s a depressing direction, [laughter] so let’s stop thinking about things we can’t control and back to things that you’ve created that work—
Marilynne: —You can’t control either—
Andy: —No we can’t control them, but—and you can’t control them either now. In fact I want to ask you about this book Housekeeping, and the first question I want to ask is what is it like to be talking to people about a book that you wrote 25 years ago, or published 25 years ago? Is that strange to have it stick around this long, and people still want to talk about it?
Marilynne: [00:25:39] Well, it’s the kind of strange I can live with. [laughter]
It’s pretty remote, you know, and one of the things I think that accounted for the writing that I did after Housekeeping and the interval between the two novels is that I didn’t want to write another Housekeeping, you know. I had to have my sensibility in another place for a while, because I had—the things that I wrote frankly sounded like Housekeeping to me, and there’s something creepy about feeling as if you are—somehow you’ve imprinted yourself on yourself, you know, so—I don’t talk about it a whole lot, it has its own history of criticism, a lot of the criticism has carried it off in directions I would never have anticipated, [laughs] but anyway—it’s, I’m glad I wrote it, it’s made many other things possible in my life.
Andy: Right. It has been read, among other things, as a work of feminist literature, in a way, if only because all the principal characters are female and really operate without men in their lives. I’m wondering if you intended that or have been surprised by those interpretations, or how do you respond to them.
Marilynne: Well it’s interesting, I mean, I consider myself to be a terrific feminist but what that means to me is that I do whatever I want to do and I do it as well as I can do it, that’s my only, that’s my whole theory of feminism, [laughter] and if anybody wants to adopt it as a theory of masculinism he is welcome to it as well.
Andy: You’ll share.
Marilynne: I’ll share. It was a strange thing, I—in—there—when I went from Idaho to Brown, so I went from Idaho to Rhode Island, so I was there suddenly cheek and jowl with a lot of very Eastern people, and I found out that they had a sort of—they had seen the West through the lens of John Wayne, shall we say, and had a completely hokey and unreal notion of it. My family homesteaded in Idaho, I would have been the fourth—I was the fourth generation in my family to be from Idaho, and so I had a completely different narrative and it was quite matriarchal, I mean, whether women were good at what they did, making clothes, making soap, cooking food, keeping gardens, keeping chickens, all these kinds of things which are in no way less demanding or interesting than tending cattle, [laughs] growing rye, you know what I mean? In any case, the competence of women at creating environments that people could thrive in, that was a very very important thing.
And not only that but they tended to be in many cases the wisdom of the group, you know, “Ask Grandma, ask Grandma,” you know. And there are all kinds of great stories about them. So I wrote a story that—that—I mean that I intended to have, you know, putting a woman’s spirit into this environment where I knew one belonged, that was the sort of thought of mine. At the same time I didn’t mean to have it only women, but it was one of those things where I would write a man in and then he didn’t go, it wasn’t right, I’d take him back out again, put another one in—
Andy: —If only it were that easy in real life! [laughter]
Marilynne: Yes, exactly!
Andy: It is though also a novel about the disintegration of those womanly arts and the kind of failure in a way—or am I, is that too simple, or—
Marilynne: [00:30:01] —I wouldn’t call it failure, no. It’s the haunting possibility of other choices, that’s what it is. One of the things that I—I mean, where I grew up it was very thinly populated and very full of mountains and woods at that time now it’s full of people who have bought the mountains and woods, but there were hermits, you know I mean it was as if you know you wanted to do that, that was one of your options, you could find an island somewhere. And that was always I mean respected by the community and attractive in many ways, the idea of a solitary life, I suppose you would say a contemplative life, was—it was not terribly uncommon by world standards, certainly, and it had its appeal, it was sort of like running off with the Gypsies in another myth system, or something like that. We don’t really think in those terms anymore at least in the public discourse and so people see it as failure if you don’t—you know if you’re not an—if you’re insufficient to your bourgeois calling, but I didn’t mean it that way and I’ve never thought of it that way.
Andy: So even though they burn down the house.
Marilynne: A house. [both laugh]
Andy: And so there’s this sister figure in the book, the narrator’s sister who opts out of that more expansive definition of housekeeping that includes possibly burning it, [laughter] and we don’t know quite what happens to her, she goes off to some more conventional life—I just can’t—I have—it just occurs to me, “Oh that’s interesting, at the end of the book she might be in Boston,” which is pretty near Rhode Island, and that kind of constrained domesticity is the alternative in a way.
Marilynne: Well you know one of the things that’s interesting to me when I write fiction, and it’s like I write fiction all the time, no I don’t, but in the cases when I have written fiction, one of the things that’s been interesting to me is to avoid invidious comparison. Avoid possibly—one of the things I think is very interesting about physics, say, about light, is that two contrary things can be true at the same time. And I think that this is a truth about being that ought to be more generally respected. I like both my characters. I have a deep admiration for housekeeping in the conventional sense which I think you know is clear from what I said earlier on about the role of women on the frontier, at the same time that I also have deep respect for wandering away.
Andy: I think one of the things that is truly so helpful about your writing for us, many of us, is you somehow manage what you just described, you manage to affirm something while also allowing its negation to be in the picture. Do you mind if I read you two quick little quotes and get your reaction to them?
Marilynne: Go ahead.
Andy: Towards—at the very end of Gilead there’s this amazing paragraph, do you pronounce his name Boughton, Bow-ton?
Marilynne: Boughton [BOW-TON].
Andy: Boughton. I think the statute of limitations has expired on you know giving away the end, right? [laughter] This won’t quite give it away. Anyway,
[00:34:11] “Old Boughton, if he could stand up out of his chair, out of his decrepitude and crankiness and sorrow and limitation, would abandon all those handsome children of his, mild and confident as they are, and follow after that one son whom he has never known, whom he has favored as one does a wound”—and this is the part I wanted to especially read—“and he would protect him as a father cannot, defend him with a strength he does not have, sustain him with a bounty beyond any resource he could ever dream of having.”
And it reminded me so much of the very end of Housekeeping where Lucille “does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie.” And I thought about the apophatic tradition of approaching tremendous things by saying not, and I hear you doing that and I wonder if you’re aware of—is that something you’ve adopted as a way to approach those things?
Marilynne: Well, perhaps I have, perhaps not intentionally. I think—I mean one of the things that interests me about representing human beings in these ways is that I think there is so much more in the experience of any human life than the manifest human life. For example, I think that many of us exist in relation to other people toward whom we would be protective and generous beyond any realistic means that we have, any imaginable means that we have, you know, that the intention of kindness in many cases is something that is inexpressible, because it can never move beyond a necessarily frustrated impulse because there are limits to how much you can protect and so on, radical limits.
In the case of the characters, I tend to think—like, in Housekeeping particularly I was so aware of the thinness of representation of character in the fiction that I was reading at the time, and so in order to solve that problem I—from my point of view I arrayed potential across a series of characters, so there’s a certain sense in which you could say that the grandmother and Sylvie are opposite ends of a continuum rather than being things that are opposed in a—in the—as in conflict, you know, with each other.
Because I think that it’s true that virtually all of us make choices and live with our choices and know in the fact of making them or recalling them, living with them, that we have chosen against many other things that were as live in our emotions and our imagination as the choices that we actually made, and that in many instances if you could ever know someone, if you could know someone the way God knows them, you might very well know that the crucial thing in their lives is what they did not do, you know. That potency, that tension I think is just part of the electricity, the aura, the potency of human individuals. You can’t really talk about them if you don’t acknowledge that I think.
Andy: My mother’s mother was dying a few years ago of cancer, and I was with her a week before she died and we got talking about God which we had never done in my whole life knowing her, and she said, “The thing that worries me is the things I haven’t done.” It was the not, you know, the way we say in the confession, we’ve left undone. And we—you know, it’s almost more that than what we’ve done that we feel somehow accountable for, and it’s missing.
Marilynne: It’s very powerful, very powerful. Things that—I mean, both the things that you should have done and have not done and the things that perhaps you have not done out of self-restraint, tact, love, you know those things inhibit also, and I think that there’s something—you know we have this, I mean I think, Freud, you know was not a good moment in the—you know, but—[laughter] an incredible impulse towards simplification of things that—you know, are not accessible to simplification, but one of the things I think that we lost actually is the fact that there is a tension that is a beautiful tension in our choices that that the fact of considering impulse, considering longing or reflex or any of these other things and choosing among them and composing a life out of what you can accept and what you must reject or suppress, you know, this a powerful legitimate beautiful dynamic in human personality.
Andy: This is actually helping me to understand something that I wanted to talk about, which is that probably like many readers I read Gilead first, I had never read Housekeeping ‘cause I never read novels, enough [laughs]—that’s a terrible thing to say at this festival, strike that—
Marilynne: Me either— [both laugh very hard]
Andy: [00:40:10] So I read Gilead and it is a novel among other things about commitment to a place, and the grace of place, and the grace of a vocation that isn’t even just his own, but multi-generational, just staying in one calling in a way, and I thought, “Well that’s very beautiful and it’s very life-affirming,” and all the nice things that people have said about it. And then I read this book in which the train and the lake win, and the town loses, and I thought, “Well, this is depressing,” I mean, you know.
But what I’m hearing from you is helping me think, we really need maybe a few more books than these but if we have these two, they help establish for us two realities that we—we need both of them. Is there an order to them, like could you imagine reversing the order and writing Gilead first and then Housekeeping or the other way around?
Marilynne: Not really, I wrote Housekeeping under a kind of particular circumstances. Part of it I wrote while I was writing my dissertation and I was just writing metaphors because I was interested in them. But then I went to France to teach in a university in France and it was on strike all the time. And—
Andy: [speaks French, something about change] [laughter]
Marilynne: And so I was out in the middle of the French countryside actually, I had a kind of country house and the little neighborhood kids would come and beat on the windows because they were—we were novelties and they were very interested charming children, but you know, not ideal from the writing point of view, [laughter] so I would close the shutters and that made the room completely dark where I was working and I had a little lamp and I was writing in a spiral notebook which is what I always do, and in that sort of sensory deprivation environment in the middle of France with this radiant countryside all around me, I was remembering Idaho, and it was a very intense experience of deep memory, I couldn’t believe the things that I was actually able to recover, you know, what grew where under what circumstances and that sort of thing, and I think that the novel grew out of that circumstance in a very strong degree, you know.
Andy: And it is deeply about a place, and in that way it’s not at all a novel of transience, it’s about almost the too much-ness of a place.
Marilynne: [laughs] It is about the too-much-ness of a place. It’s a—that’s an amazing place, that lake, you know, it’s Pend Oreille Lake. And it’s so deep that in the Second World War they tested submarines in it, they had a naval base there, and so on—it’s a huge glacial lake where people who swim in it can die of exposure in the middle of the summer.
Andy: My goodness. I want to talk a little bit about the other place, or the place of Iowa, the shining star of radicalism. Those of us who grew up with Field of Dreams think of it as, is this heaven, no it’s Iowa, but—twice in Gilead, Iowa is the shining star of radicalism and you’re helping us I think, I mean help me out here, I’m not from the Middle West, I’m from the northeast, and you’re helping us to recover a history in these places that are thought of as very conventional and conservative, that there’s this history of wild radicalism.
Marilynne: Oh absolutely, no question about it, an enormous number of utopian communities and so on, all over Iowa, all over the Middle West. When Friedrich Engels wrote a thing called the Viability of Communistic Societies, every one of them was an American utopian society. A lot of them were—Brook Farm was one of them that he listed, a lot of them were German language utopian communities scattered through the Middle West which of course he could be aware of because they were, you know, at that point in his life he had more access to what was German language. But in any case it’s interesting to know that what they meant by communistic societies was Brook Farm, it seems like something we could have talked over about 50 years ago and maybe saved us some trouble. [laughter] But in any case—
Andy: It was Iowa, what’s the problem with Iowa?
Marilynne: [00:45:02] Well you know the Amana Colonies, you know, I mean there were lots of societies out there that called themselves communistic societies, it was not a dimmed word at that point, but in any case Iowa—banks were illegal in Iowa to about the period of the Civil War because they were considered to cause accumulations of capital. [sarcastically] I don’t know why.
Andy: They do tend to do that.
Marilynne: But it was—President Grant did call Iowa the shining star of radicalism and he was speaking specifically of its evolutionist activities which were very powerful, very potent.
Andy: Do you hope to retrieve that in a way, I mean to retrieve that sense of getting down to the root of things, do you think that’s viable in Iowa now, for example, or is it really lost, or just history?
Marilynne: I think that people are always pleased to find out the history of the place where they are, especially, I mean a lot of people are sort of touched by that history because there was—there was a lot of idealism and enlightenment, the—you know, those little colleges that are all over the Middle West, which is, you know, which is the sort of thing that one notices when one comes in from the outside, they’re often very old, they’re often older than—God knows than the state they’re in, you know, I mean they’re among the first things that happened in the territories. They look like little New England colleges, they have little New England clapboard communities around them typically. And it’s because they were founded in the 1830s and 40s by people who came in from New England and upstate New York, a lot of them from Yale and Andover and Amherst which were all very strong anti-slavery centers.
There were two bands of Yale Divinity students who came into Iowa, who founded colleges that looked like Johnny Appleseed, [laughter] you know, these very—I mean, you know, it’s very charming, you know, these young fellows who came to what was nowhere then and lived in—under all imaginable difficulty and helped to establish all these very fine colleges which immediately the minute they were, you know, up and running, were teaching Latin and Greek and Hebrew and Shakespeare and Milton.
They had a system called the manual labor system that still has certain survivals like Berea College where everyone who can’t—everyone in the college worked, you know they were little villages in effect, and so you know the president of the college would take care of the beans and the peas, you know, and the vice president would take care of the hogs, and then the undergraduates would carry the water, and you know? Mount Holyoke College was based on this system also, and Mary Lyon who was the first president of Mount Holyoke College was responsible for making all the bread that was eaten in the college, you know and. But the idea was to make it so that there would be no financial obstacle to education and so that the stigma would be removed from labor, which was a very important part of the abolitionists’ intentions. They were all on the Underground Railroad. They had an amazing impact I think on the culture of the Middle West.
It’s interesting—one of the things that’s interesting is that they remained fine colleges, you know? That whatever magic these people had took, even though those colleges themselves don’t remember where they came from. Oberlin is a great example, I mean you simply cannot overstate the importance of Oberlin, because it was integrated by gender, by race from the beginning, and it sent out what they would have called missionaries who were simply people who started other colleges, you know, and recruited people to the cause of abolition and so on, very, very powerful institutions of very, very generous-spirited people. I think it’s certainly a history worth being aware of. Carleton College is another of these, they’re all over the place. Knox College, Central College.
Andy: You have such an eloquent way of speaking about place and especially small towns and for those of us who don’t live in those places, I live in suburban Philadelphia and have wandered around New England, I think it’s easy to feel jealous of what you have, and of course you live in a smallish town now, and—do you think there’s any hope for us who live in cities and suburbs?
Marilynne: [00:50:25] Oh yes, absolutely. I think, you know, if I didn’t—I mean, I’ve always sought out small towns because I grew up in them, I know how to live there, I’m used to—not only that but university small towns which I think is somewhere near heaven in fact because you have the art museum and the symphony orchestra, and you know—
Andy: —That’s kind of cheating, really.
Marilynne: It is kind of cheating, I confess. But if I didn’t live in a town like that I would certainly live in a big city because I love the culture of big cities and you know, even Louisville is a good size city—I don’t want to say even but you know—the art museum there is very very very impressive, I barely was able to walk through it but I love things like that I could spend days in there if I could, you know. There are certain things that cities just have that I am very capable of enjoying. [laughter]
Andy: Can they produce good novels though? Because it seems like a lot of good novels are in small towns. I just—it’s—these are the places where you have a—in some ways a clear sort of setting, you know, and a limited number of characters in a way, and time—people have time to relate and grow and I’m just—I’m short on novels and of course I don’t read very many novels so that’s why [laughter]—but the ones I’ve run across I just—I keep coming back to ones that are in small towns, is there something about that setting that just helps the novelist do their job, do you think?
Marilynne: That might be true. I think that familiarity is so important, you know. When I have kids who come to me as students from Manhattan and they tend to write about Manhattan because they—all the—the material of it is available to them, they know what things look like and smell like and so on you know. I think that at an early age I was imprinted with small townness. I like the limited props of a small town, you know, but that’s just because I’m familiar with that, it’s a comfortable world for my imagination. I couldn’t be sufficiently confident that I was doing a city justice, doing it right, you know.
Andy: We’re here at Calvin College, so we have to talk for a minute about [French accent] Jean Cauvin.
Andy: Mais oui. In this wonderful essay, very cunningly titled “Marguerite de Navarre,” which ends up being for the first half all about John Calvin, you insist on spelling his name Jean Cauvin to remind us that, you know, who is this John Calvin, he never called himself that, and you know, what don’t we know about Calvin that we ought to know, even at a place like Calvin College?
Marilynne: Probably a lot. [laughter]
Calvin is an interesting historical problem for me, because I’m—he’s very, very important, you can’t read any cultural history of the Western world without people just listing off the things that derive from Calvin, I mean it’s you know, the modern French language, for example, you know. I mean he is one the great figures in the history of Western civilization. He has been the subject of a very very very determined polemic for a long time. And his legacy tends to be among people who think, “Well, he must have been a pretty bad guy then,” and throw him over, you know what I mean?
There are—I mean, the major distinctive religious tradition in the United States of America proceeds from Calvinism, but nobody knows what he wrote, nobody knows when he lived, nobody knows anything about what in their tradition proceeds from his thought, etcetera. So I thought, you know, I mean there’s something that drives me crazy about these gaps, it’s part of the thing about the history of the Middle West which has a huge enormous eloquent history that the people living there don’t know. “Why do you have civil war uniforms in your attic?” “I don’t know.” You know, I mean it’s just—how can you bear not to know? [laughter]
[00:55:02] But in any case, so I started reading Calvin, I started reading actually in association with Herman Melville, Moby Dick, because that’s such a theological book that I wanted to read the theology that he would have been in conversation with and I did, and I found it very illuminating on both sides. But I think if you had to describe Calvin, he is a pretty classic example of a Renaissance humanist. His celebrations of what human beings are, are as lyrical and as exalted as anything you will find in any poetry. Now this for some reason is—and at the same time, he thought we were up to some pretty bad stuff, you know? [laughs]
Now these two things together are not opposed, they exist very much simultaneously with each other. I—when I look at the world, when I read the newspaper, I think, “What wonderful things we are, what terrible things we are,” absolutely simultaneously. I think that there’s a huge mercy built into the the fact that these things are two simultaneously, that when you look at what we have done and what we do you don’t have to abandon the other perception, that we are brilliant and poignant creatures.
So anyway, I—the—there’s a parody version of Calvin that only alludes to his awareness of human fallenness without any notion of his celebration of the exalted condition of human life, these same human beings who are fallen, you know? An enormous amount of the impact that he had in the traditions that were influenced by him for a very long time had a strong emphasis on the celebration of humankind, which of course is the unusual part of it, and all sorts of arguments for democracy and so on come directly out of Calvin’s humanism. It’s in a way in order for us to understand the theological underpinnings for many of us of egalitarianism of all kinds I think we have to go back and see where they were first articulated and how they were articulated, you know? But for some reason he has been treated as if he were a dull and dreadful figure, and he’s lost for those reasons and I think it’s a great pity. Course I’m doing my little bit—nobody else writes [laughter]—nobody else writes—smuggles Calvin in under the cover of Marguerite de Navarre. [laughter]
Andy: And you spoke of him in Gilead in a wonderful way because it is about that range and how those can be true both at once, and you know it occurs—I mean I feel sometimes living in the place, the class that I do, that God has been forgotten in the way that Calvin has been forgotten. I mean you say in your essays in—to effect, that we don’t even pay the past the complement of refuting it, we simply have forgotten—we’ve forgotten Calvin, we just assume we know what he was and we can dismiss him, and of course many of us as believers in God feel that a similar conspiracy of forgetfulness has sort of fallen over the whole Christian testimony to what it is to be human, how glorious, how terrible. And somehow your book has snuck through those defenses and you’ve said that, right, plainly said that.
Marilynne: Good! [laughter] It’s true, I mean I think that one of the things that was an assumption in classic American literature and classic Reformed tradition is the idea that one is always in the presence of God, that thought, experience, memory, learning, invention, the list goes on and on and on, and I’m paraphrasing Calvin, all of these things happen in the most intimate possible simultaneous conversation in fact with God, so that your being is your soul in fact, you know what I mean, your soul is not something that you have put on a shelf somewhere and plan to look after later, but actually the experience of life itself is the experience of the soul which is the experience of God. I think that—that in order to have a proper respect for oneself or—and for others this is a very necessary model. And it is forgotten, and God—for—even in traditions that are much too profound to deal in this thing it’s like God is painted on the ceiling or something, you know, we got over that a long time ago, but I think that we’re back to it now.
Andy: I wonder if I can ask you one last question that builds on that which is—there’s this marvelous thing that John Ames says at one point, “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
Marilynne: You want me to comment on that? [laughter]
Andy: Well, I can give you a little more of a question to answer. Just that I just think it’s easy to be in a posture of defense in a world that has forgotten and yet I—when I read that I think you’re right, I don’t think we can—I think that robs us of the ability to say anything true and useful. So maybe you can help us envision what the alternative posture is, what the true posture is from which we might speak about God to the world.
Marilynne: Well I think one of the things people do when they feel defensive about religion, which I think everybody does at times, they create a smaller model of God in the course of trying to make something—to make an argument, you know, as if, “Well, yes I do understand him, yes I can describe him, yes I know how to prove his existence,” when none of these things is consistent with a conception of God that should exceed explanation, should exceed defense, should exceed proof. It’s as if we were trying to demonstrate the existence of a human personality or something like that, which I think is an extraordinary error of conception in the first place, and then the conversation simply can’t be good from that point on.
Andy: So we have to be willing to not shrink God in the process of speaking of him.
Marilynne: Exactly. And also not to be unfair to God in the course of attempting to protect ourselves. [both laugh]
Andy: Well, Marilynne Robinson, thank you very, very much.
Marilynne: You’re very welcome. [applause]
Susan: Heartfelt thanks to Marilynne Robinson and Andy Crouch for this gem from our archive.
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