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Marilynne Robinson

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Marilynne Robinson portrait

Photo courtesy of Marilynne Robinson

“Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me.”[1]

A novelist, teacher, and essayist, Marilynne Robinson, this year’s Presidential Lecturer, is one of the most remarkable and distinctive voices in contemporary American literature. In her novels, all of which have won major literary awards, Robinson illuminates the sacred qualities of ordinary experience, finding the remarkable in oft-overlooked places, like Gilead, Iowa and Fingerbone, Idaho. Trained a literary scholar, Robinson has also published several collections of essays and works of nonfiction, tackling issues of environmentalism, the place of religious faith and the humanities in a world increasingly dominated by science, and the intellectual tradition at the heart of mainline Protestant religion. Few contemporary writers have probed their own thinking and those of others as thoroughly and resolutely as Robinson.

The Pacific Northwest, Housekeeping

The child of John and Ellen Harris Summers, Robinson was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, on November 26, 1943. Robinson’s father worked in the timber industry, and the family often moved from town to town, as his career demanded, taking up residence in several towns in northern Idaho and western Washington. Robinson recalls that her mother had a great fondness for language and story telling: “She read to us a lot and she had good taste in what to read.”[2]  Robinson and her brother David were raised in the Presbyterian Church, though she has since become a Congregationalist. According to Robinson, her mainline Protestant faith, deeply influenced by the writing of John Calvin, continues to inform her work: “One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience.”[3] The loneliness of the Pacific Northwest and its remote, rugged landscape also deeply influenced her:  “Only lonesomeness allows one to experience this sort of radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege. Understanding this permits one to understand the sacred poetry in strangeness, silence, otherness.”[4] These concerns with the visionary nature of individual experience—its singularity, dignity, and mysteriousness—are themes Robinson returns to again and again in her work, forming the core of what Anthony Domestico terms her “aesthetic of wonder—her sense that humility before the vastness of the world and our experience of it is the proper attitude for the artist to take.”[5]

Robinson left the Pacific Northwest in 1962 to attend Pembroke College, the coordinate college of Brown University, where she studied religion and literature. The work of 19th-century American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Dickinson made an indelible impression on Robinson: “What I take to be the characteristic mode of thought of most of the classic American writers… is based on the assumption that the only way to understand the world is metaphorical, and all metaphors are inadequate, and that you press them far enough and you’re delivered into something that requires a new articulation.”[6] From writers like Emerson and Melville, Robinson developed a penchant for language in which “metaphor is not ornamental, it’s methodological.”[7] In addition to courses on literature, Robinson also took a creative writing class with the novelist John Hawkes, whom she credits with being a “wonderful editor” and teacher, and who helped her see the strengths of her own intricate, metaphor-laden style.[8]

After graduating from college in 1966, Robinson returned to the Pacific Northwest to begin graduate study in English at the University of Washington in Seattle. While a graduate student, Robinson married and had two sons, James and Joseph. In the process of writing her dissertation, A New Look at Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II:  Sources, Structure, and Meaning, Robinson returned to writing fiction, amassing scraps of paper with metaphors and bits of scenes that would form the basis of her first novel. “When I read over those fragments,” Robinson says, “I heard a voice in them, and that was the origin of the novel.”[9] Housekeeping (1980) tells the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised by a succession of female relatives after the tragic deaths of both their mother and grandfather. “My name is Ruth,” the novel begins, invoking both the biblical story of Ruth and the opening line of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. This opening sets the tone for the textured web of allusions and metaphors that distinguish the novel’s style.[10] (Read an excerpt from this opening here.) Reviewing the novel in the New York Times, Le Anne Schreiber noted, “Marilynne Robinson has written a first novel that one reads as slowly as poetry—and for the same reason: the language is so precise, so distilled, so beautiful that one doesn’t want to miss any pleasure.”[11] Set in Fingerbone, Idaho, a town loosely based on Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint, Housekeeping is also “a novel about the West” that places women at the center of its imaginative world:  “I did think of creating a world that had the feeling of… femaleness about it to the extent that my experience did, and it wasn’t because I felt that women had been slighted in that setting but that their presence was ignored in representations of that place.”[12] Housekeeping earned a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. In 1987, in the wake of the novel’s critical and popular success, it was made into a movie directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Andrea Burchill, Sara Walker, and Christine Lahti.

Nonfiction and essays

During the 1980s and 1990s, Robinson surprised many in the literary community by turning to teaching and nonfiction.  Robinson took a series of teaching positions at Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Kent in England, Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the University of Alabama, before accepting a position in 1989 at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she still teaches. She has said of her own fiction writing process that, “The voice is the way into a novel,” and she strives to help her students to discover their own voice.[13] Much like John Hawkes, her teacher at Brown, Robinson encourages her students to find their own voices by becoming sensitive readers of their work: “I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is…. I don’t try to teach technique.”[14]

In addition to writing numerous essays and book reviews for The Nation, The New York Times, and other periodicals, Robinson published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), an impassioned exposé that charged the British government with polluting the sea and land around the Sellafield nuclear processing facility in Britain. Although the book received mixed reviews, largely due to its reliance on newspaper coverage of the plant, Robinson says writing the book was a significant experience for her: “It was a real education for me. It did as much as anything to undermine the education I brought with me when I started the project.”[15] A similar impetus to interrogate her own assumptions is evident in her essays, which range widely across the sciences and humanities. Whether reclaiming the humanism that animates John Calvin’s theology or challenging our widely held assumptions that the Puritans were joyless and intolerant, Robinson’s essays are deliberately “contrarian in method and spirit,” often seeking to unsettle our conventional wisdom. Wide ranging as her essays are, they share a passion for careful examination and intellectual self-reliance. In Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self (2010), which was adapted from the Terry Lectures that Robinson gave at Yale University, she launches a sweeping critique of positivism in the natural and social sciences and their “truncated model of human being,” which neglects the “self, the solitary, perceiving, and interpreting locus of anything that can be called experience.”[16] In the words of Roger Kimball, Robinson’s essays serve as “a goad to renewed curiosity.”[17] Robinson has said that much of her work as an essayist has served “To change my own mind… to continuously scrutinize my own thinking.”[18]

Gilead, Iowa

In 2004, after a twenty-plus year hiatus from fiction writing, Robinson published Gilead, the first of three novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950s. According to Robinson, the idea for a new novel came to her as she as waiting for her family to join her for vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts at Christmas: “But they got delayed, so I had several days there by myself in an otherwise empty hotel, in a little room with Emily Dickinson light pouring in through the windows and the ocean roaring beyond. I had a spiral notebook, and I started thinking about this situation and the voice.”[19] In Gilead, Reverend John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old Congregationalist minister suffering from heart disease, writes a long letter to his seven-year old son, the only child from his marriage to his second wife, Lila, a woman decades his junior. In a series of diary-like entries, Ames records bits of family history, personal memories, and his own private metaphysical and theological musings in what amounts to a testimony for his son. (Read an excerpt here.) Ames’s story moves back and forth in time, covering his own family’s history and his relationship to the people in his parish, including the family of his friend, the Reverend Boughton, a Presbyterian minister in Gilead. “Gradually,” says New York Times critic James Woods, “Robinson’s novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.”[20] Hailed for its lyricism, its mastery of tone and voice, and its deft, thoughtful treatment of issues of faith, family, and grace, Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Award in 2005.

Following the critical success of Gilead, Robinson returned to the fictional Iowa town for her two most recent novels, Home (2008) and Lila (2014). Robinson explains: “After I write a novel or story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved…. With Jack and old Boughton especially, and with Glory also, I felt like there were whole characters that had not been fully realized in Ames’s story. I couldn’t really see the point in abandoning them.”[21] In Home, Robinson explores the world of Gilead through a third-person narrative centered on the perspective of Boughton’s thirty-eight-year-old daughter, Glory, who has returned home, divorced, to attend to her ailing, aging father. Home also revisits one of the main narrative threads of Gilead—the return of Reverend Boughton’s reprobate son, Jack Ames Boughton, to his father’s house. In this sense, the novel is a retelling of and reflection on the parable of the prodigal son, a parable which Robinson sees “as a parable about grace, not forgiveness, since the father runs to meet his son and embraces him before the son can even ask to be forgiven.”[22] In contrast to Gilead’s contemplative lyricism, Home is a work rooted in the quotidian lives and conversations of its characters and the subtle moments that trace their changing relationships to each other. (Read an excerpt here.) The novel, Clare Messud writes, offers “both a spiritual and mundane accounting” through Glory’s perspective.[23]  With its careful consideration of sin, predestination, and forgiveness, A.O. Scott calls the novel “unsparing in its acknowledgement of sin and unstinting in its belief in the possibility of grace.”[24]

In Lila, Robinson returns to Gilead once more to explore the lonely, troubled past of the title character and the events that lead to her courtship and marriage to Reverend John Ames. Abandoned as a young child, Lila takes up with a surrogate mother, until she arrives in Gilead and walks into Reverend Ames’s church in the pouring rain. Unlike its two predecessors, Lila explores the fundamental lonesomeness of the individual through its title character, who struggles to find her place and forge connections to others in her new community. (Read an excerpt here.)

Distinct as each of the three Gilead novels are, they are all sustained by the voices of their central characters—Reverend Ames, Glory Boughton, and Lila Ames. Colm Toibín writes that Robinson “has a seriousness about her characters which helps defeat their solemnity and helps to distract us from what is almost an aimlessness, a looseness, in the plotting of the novels.”[25]  “Beneath the surface of each character,” writes Leslie Jamison, “the trio of novels reminds us, is a particular and infinite soul.”[26] Robinson’s focus on a small Midwestern town in the 1950s has led some critics, like William Dereziewicz, to see her work as nostalgic portraits that evince “little interest in contemporary American culture,” and yet, taken together, the trilogy speaks poignantly to the independent thought of the individual and the continued importance of religion in American culture.[27] As a whole, the three Gilead novels offer a rich exploration of the place of religion in individual experience and its power to animate and elucidate some of the most intimate and ineffable of human experiences.

In both her fiction and nonfiction, Robinson’s work offers a portrait of and testament to the workings of the individual mind, always seeking to see the world afresh, unburdened by conventional wisdom. In her Stanford Presidential Lecture entitled “The American Scholar Now,” Robinson will revisit the idea of education in light of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.”


FOOTNOTES

[1] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[2] Hedrick, Tace, et al. “Interviews with Marilynne Robinson.” The Iowa Review 22.1 (1992): 1-28.

[3] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[4] When I was a Child I Read Books. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 90

[5] Domestico, Anthony. “Blessings in Disguise.” Commonweal 141.18 (2014):15.

[6] Hedrick, Tace, et al. “Interviews with Marilynne Robinson.” The Iowa Review 22.1 (1992): 6.

[7] Vorda, Allan. “A Life of Perished Things: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson.” Eds. Allan Vorda and Daniel Stern. Houston: Rice UP, 1993. 159-60.

[8] Voss, Anne E. “Portrait of Marilynne Robinson.” The Iowa Review 22:1 (1992): 26.

[9] Johnson, Sarah Anne. “Marilynne Robinson: An Intensifier of Experience.” The Very Telling: Conversations with American Writers. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006. 182.

[10] Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980. 3

[11] Schreiber, Le Anne. “Housekeeping (Book Review).” New York Times Book Review (1981): 14-

[12] Schaub, Thomas. “An Interview with Marilynne Robinson.” Contemporary Literature 35.2 (1994): 233.

[13] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[14] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[15] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[16] Robinson, Marilynne. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. Terry Lecture Series. xiv, 7.

[17] Kimball, Roger. “John Calvin Got a Bad Rap.” New York Times Book Review (1999): 14.

[18] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[19] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[20] Wood, James. “Acts of Devotion. (Cover Story).” New York Times Book Review (2004): 1-11.

[21] Fay, Sarah. “Marilynne Robinson: The Art of Fiction no. 198.” Paris Review.186 (2008)

[22] Painter, Rebecca. “Further Thoughts on a Prodigal Son Who Cannot Come Home, on Loneliness and Grace: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson.” Christianity and Literature 58.3 (2009): 488.

[23] Messud, Claire. “Witnesses to a Mystery.” New York Review of Books 55.18 (2008): 45-6.

[24] Scott, A. O. “Return of the Prodigal Son.” New York Times Book Review (2008): 16.

[25] Tóibín, Colm. “Putting Religion in its Place.” London Review of Books 36.20 (2014): 19-23.

[26] Jamison, Leslie. “The Power of Grace.” Atlantic 314.3 (2014): 35.

[27] Dereziewicz, William. “Homing Patterns.” Nation 287.11 (2008): 30.


Text by Rebecca Wingfield, Curator for American and British Literature.
Stanford University Libraries ©2015


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