Marilynne Robinson on Democracy, Reading, and Religion in America

An interview with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about her recent collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books

AP Images

We tend to speak of democracy as though it were a precious heirloom, something we were lucky enough to be handed by our forefathers. In a new collection of essays, Marilynne Robinson critiques this passive stance, insisting that democracy is an ongoing negotiation that requires creativity, compassion, and vigilance. When I Was a Child I Read Books is the fourth book of nonfiction for the novelist, whose bestselling Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

The reason democracy is so difficult, Robinson says, is because human beings are so given to fractious quarreling. We demonize those who do not share our values or priorities, and we ostracize (at best) the groups we take to be dissimilar. She begins the book's preface with several lamenting quotations from Whitman's essay Democratic Vistas : "These savage, wolfish parties alarm me," he intoned in 1870. "Owning no law but their own will, [they are] more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood."

In 2012, not much has changed. But it is our "difficult obligation" to celebrate our differences, Robinson suggests, because the minute we dehumanize our opponents is the moment we cease espousing true democracy. She reminds us that the American experiment is grounded in radical humanism: a conviction that every voice, no matter how small or how troubling, should be considered. "To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life." she writes, " to arrive at democracy as an ideal."

Though the essays take different approaches and subjects, they have an implicit thesis: That when we expand our reverence for humanity, we increase our commitment to democracy. And its logical corollary: When we diminish our admiration for species, democracy suffers. As she works, Robinson shows a remarkable ability to breathe new life into topics that have calcified into staunchly opposed stances. "Freedom of Thought," for instance, proposes that we should not be content with religious dogma or scientific orthodoxy. In her view, good science and good religion both expand questions—still unsolved, by the way—about who we are and why we are here.

I spoke with Robinson in her office at the University of Iowa, where she teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop (she was my professor). We discussed the entrenched tensions between scientific and religious thinkers, the reasons people turn to books, and her thoughts on the state of American democracy.


This is the second consecutive collection of essays you've published since your last novel, Home (2008). Are essays especially engaging you right now, as opposed to fiction?

Almost all of the essays in the book were lectures that I gave in specific settings. The oldest one, the title essay, is a lecture I gave just after Housekeeping was published [in 1980]. I gave "Austerity as Ideology" in Oxford last May. So, they cover a wide span.

I don't know how the idea came up of gathering up unpublished lectures that I had written—maybe it originated with me! But I'm glad if they seem relatively readable as a book. When I lecture, under almost all circumstances, I write a new lecture for the occasion. It helps me think. It helps me make demands of myself that I would not otherwise make. Then, having done that, I collected them.

I imagine you approach fiction and non-fiction differently, and for different reasons. Do these genres serve different roles in your writing life?

They're both very strong impulses for me. Fiction and essay-writing feel quite different to me. I did go through graduate school and I like to do research, to create something that has a certain objective solidity. The same thing influences my fiction to some degree, because, you know, my fiction is often based on history that I've read.

But I think I feel two sort of opposed impulses. To be analytical and assertive, on the one hand, and on the other to let the fiction find its own life. I separate them in order to keep them from infiltrating one another in ways that I would not find satisfying.

People bemoan the state and fate of publishing, but I've heard you say many times it's a good time to be reading, writing, and read. What makes you feel that way?

Well, I do love the availability of information that we have now, which is just unparalleled in human experience.

I've found that everyone that I've had to deal with in publishing has been wonderful, very ready to encourage what they take to be quality or originality. I've written things that get called "unfashionable," but it's never done them any harm. And I hope that people will take from my example that you can be "unfashionable" in whatever mode is most appealing to you. That the publishing industry, so far from being intolerant of something unexpected, is happy to see if you can find a readership.

How would describe the "unfashionable" quality you say has been ascribed to you?

It's often a comment that's made about my prose, which—I mean, it just seems like prose to me—but to other people it seems formal. I use long sentences. I use an extended vocabulary, that sort of thing. And I do make references, especially in my essays, to subjects that are not terribly fashionable in their own right—like Calvinism, for example! That's an interest of mine. I've taken a great deal of pleasure from researching it. I find that people just let me have my obsessions, and I find that if I do reputable work, or if anybody does, the latitude we have is very broad.

In "Freedom of Thought," you write that, although you can't say why fiction is necessary, it is indisputable that people crave it. When have you seen fiction meet a deep need within an individual reader?

Well, often people meet you very briefly, and they say—"your book changed my life." I think writers get that comment pretty often. And it's very moving think that people do actually navigate by books, that books can have that kind of impact.

Once I went to woman's prison in Pocatello, Idaho. I read some, and we talked some, and when I was leaving one of the women said, "Tell your students to write good books. They're all we live for." [Pauses.] You know? It's so easy to forget how important books are, partly because I'm someone like me: I'm practically drowning in books. My house is groaning with books. But then you realize that they're really bread to people who absolutely need then.

What is it that we seek in fiction? Do we seek out sacred books and literary books for similar reasons?

I think that's probably true. I think that one major subject of sacred books is—beauty, actually. And the same is true of literary books. There's something about the aesthetic quality of existence that's a little bit uncanny, you know? And I think that's something that both kinds of literature exist to explore.

You seem to feel that the mystery of human perception—which is sometimes overlooked, being so familiar to us—is the great things worth exploring, either in fiction or nonfiction.

Oh definitely. I definitely agree. It's inexhaustible.

When I'm writing fiction, I'm sort of interested by the fact that somehow or other I can have the feeling of actually seeing things through someone else's eyes. I know I'm concocting them, I know that—but the sensation is still there. You say, given this, given that, given another thing, how would the world look. And you can kind of re-conceive the world around that. You can make the effort.

It think maybe that's why people write fiction, and why people read it, is because you don't know who you are unless you can imagine being otherwise.

You critique the assertion that "religion formed around the desire to explain what pre-scientific humankind could not account for." Why do you take issue with the claim that religion was the way of explaining scientific phenomena in a world before science?

When you read ancient literature, it tends to have a mythic creation at the beginning of it. And then it proceeds through the various dramas of the passions and the aversions and the attractions and all the rest of it, or in the case of the Bible it tends towards history. But the thing that's interesting, is that the fundamental intuition that ancient literatures share—that there was a beginning—is extraordinary. Because it wasn't until Edwin Hubble that modern science accepted a beginning.

And so—it's sort of odd—but the things that are apparently least scientific, in fact, anticipate what is probably the major datum of contemporary science. This is all very strange. To think that someone in antiquity understood the world as beginning in time, and that Einstein didn't until Edwin Hubble: It's remarkable! It's one of those things were you just have to stand back and marvel.

Often, in our discourse, we hear people pitting science and religion against one another, as if worldviews of faith and science are mutually exclusive. But you write that it's a mistake to view science and religion as "struggling for possession of a single piece of turf." You take issue with the notion that one can or should unseat the other. Why?

I'm not impressed by the quality of the conversation on either side of that controversy. There's better religious thought, and there's better scientific thought, and they don't engage.

There are people who, for one reason or another, have a bad experience with religion. They drop out at the age of 12—this seems to be characteristic of most of religion's major critics. And then they spend the rest of their lives attacking a 12-year-old's conception of religion. Part of the responsibility certainly does lie with religion, because the people who claim it often don't do it any justice at all.

On the other hand, there's an idea of science which is not serious. A notion of science which presents itself as all-knowing, all rationalizing, when in fact the best science has always engaged with mystery. With the possibility of error. And the whole complexity of how human beings can know what they know, and so on.

Science is very alert to error, excited by it, pleased by it! If someone can reverse some important position that science has taken, a thrill passes through the scientific community. That tends not to be the way that it's represented. So I think there's something tacky, and sort of below the dignity of both sides, in the controversy that's going on now.

What do you think of atheist crusaders like Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens? It seems to me that the mystery has gone out of a lot of that kind of writing, and they approach their subject with the same dogged fundamentalism that they perceive in religious people.

I've been asked to write about Dawkins, and I did it—I reviewed a book of his. Again, he's basically an animal anthropologist. He's educated—perhaps, in an old-fashioned way—in a very narrow discipline, from which he makes global statements.

Hitchens: I don't know if he had any scientific background at all! There's a tradition. The English speak of the "village atheist"—you know, someone who strikes this posture. This has been going on since the 18th century, and the arguments are the same. The old atheists sound just like the new atheists. It's a kind of rigid, rationalist approach that doesn't really absorb, for example, contemporary science.

These essays suggest that scientific advancements actually deepen, rather than reduce, your feelings of religious experience. In the book, you mention that you're deeply grateful to live in the era of cosmic exploration. Perhaps you're not unique in that regard, but what is it about photographs of deep space that inspire your imagination so profoundly?

People have always looked at stars. One of the things that I like about antiquity is they seem always to be looking at stars. And when you have Calvin in Geneva, talking about the stars, his stars must have been wonderful in the 16th century...

Here we are on this speck, this completely negligible little phenomenon, looking billions of light years away! It's amazing. That we want to look so far away, and that we can figure out how, is just incredible. And maybe we're all alone...

Part of the reason, of course, is that the wider our sense of the universe, also the more wonderful our sense of the universe. These things like dark energy—that just seem like metaphors! We've uncovered phenomena that must be absolutely integral to the being of the cosmos itself, and at the same time are so inaccessible. To me, that's haunting and beautiful.

How has it been for you being a profoundly religious person who's spent much of your life in the mostly secular university setting?

I'm a great admirer of secularism. At its best, I think it's one of the best things that we have. I don't believe in insinuating religion into conversation. I don't believe in excluding it from conversation. I enjoy the fact that people's innermost thoughts are their own. I think actually that writers tend unusually to have a religious aspect to their thinking, whether or not they're formally religious in any way. I never feel isolated in this.

At the same time, it's an inappropriate use of a classroom to exclude the possibility of religious thought, or to insinuate it. But any human situation is imperfect. People are on one side or the other. I think people who choose a religiously oriented education can get an excellent education of that kind. I like being in a larger environment. I'm already interested in what interests me almost to the point of obsession, and I don't feel the need to be in a setting that reinforces it.

The idea that there are huge spaces in which everyone feels equally at home, and that everyone can choose within the vast ways of responding to religion or anything else, is excellent. It's much too precious, should never be ridiculed or minimized.

The book's introduction makes an argument informed by your reading of Whitman: that democracy is contingent upon our acceptance, even celebration, of radical differences. Is our "collective" society only as strong as our willingness to tolerate idiosyncrasy? We cannot claim a sacred "We" until we honor each "I"—no matter how baffling or repugnant to us—with due regard?

One of the things that Whitman insists on is that everything is true for "I"—for the person speaking—is true for any other person also. So that the celebration of self is also the celebration, by extension, of all other human beings. That would imply respect. And it would imply reverence. It would imply real, fair-minded attention to the beliefs of others. I think all of those things are more and more conspicuously absent from the way that things are done in this country. And it's a terrible loss.

There is no sacred "We" but one that acknowledges that sanctity of any "I." And I think that one of the things that's destroying this is the impulse to draw battle lines. This is certainly coming from the culture that identifies itself as "religious" as much as it's coming from anywhere (perhaps more, at this point). People simply have an impulse to standardize themselves to one model or another that's presented to them as desirable.

But another thing is the therapeutic culture that built up around the self, and made people consider themselves frighteningly prone to illness or invalidism, afraid of their own thoughts, afraid of their own emotions. Afraid to let idiosyncrasy develop in themselves. I think when you're afraid of your mind, afraid of your thoughts, it's more likely to become something to be afraid of. And then the best part of it, the amazing part of the mind, is basically suppressed. I don't want to over-generalize, but I think that often happens.

So you see us shifting towards pre-approved, archetypal selves. How does this manifest itself in public life, or politics?

I think people are being forced away from individuating themselves in the public sphere. It's hard to understand—as though we want to public figures to be a sort of hologram that we've collectively generated. Rather than the idea that people are really highly individual—especially ones who've had a long enough career to become public people. You know, if someone risks a remark or a joke that hasn't gone through three kinds of groups, he risks being ridiculed to the end of his life, or her life. It's very unrealistic. And insofar as strength of character would be of value in a public person, this tendency seems designed to destroy every trace of strength of character.

If you have to be a party person, there's no room for individual scruple.

Exactly. On the other hand, every one of these individuals asserts himself or herself in ways that make you wish they would blend into the wall paper a little bit more [laughs]. Because the only individuality that people seem to have the courage to assert now is aggressiveness, or ridicule.

Free market economists, and the businessmen and politicians inspired by them, insist that individuals always act in their own self-interest, in the name of profit. Some would say that we, as Americans, owe our freedoms and our relative prosperity to this unfettered pursuit of profit. But in "Human Spirit and the Good Society," you suggest this outlook does not reflect history or the human condition, and betrays what you consider to be quintessentially American.

It certainly does! It's a very, very aggressively simple economic model. If you look at the history of the country—things like the GI Bill and the Homestead Act and so on, these huge redistributions of wealth—were not capitalist. If you look at the country about which Marx was writing, England, they have no equivalent for that. Nothing like that has ever happened there!

Today, we take a very narrow model that's really based on the factory system that existed in the 19th century: in which people could be exploited beyond limits, in which colonial markets existed for everything that was manufactured and so on. But that's the not the model that was most important here. And it's not the model that, frankly, has ever had a humane place in the world.

So we were stronger when we all agreed it was a virtue to take care of our people. But this is in direct contradiction with what we commonly hear today—griping about "entitlements" and so on. Some insist that initiatives designed to aid the less fortunate, to foster a middle class, function like roadblocks to prosperity—and that's it's un-American to believe in anything but the Darwinian free market.

It's true. And it's amazing to me how people have turned their back on what I would describe as the American heritage. This economic system that people have been induced to accept implies that no thought, no imagination, is necessary to perpetuate the most complex civilization in history. Just sit back, and—in the just the same way that the price of olives will be determined in some obscure province somewhere—society will take care of itself. It's ridiculous, out of hand, that no moral considerations are relevant, no patriotic considerations are relevant. It's ridiculous. But it's so easy, if you subscribe to the economic orthodoxy that is prevalent now. You can just put aside everything that might otherwise have seemed a like a very legitimate interest or concern.

In the book's introduction, you write that the fate of democracy and the fate of the United States may no longer be so intertwined. What makes you most concerned that we've stopped believing in the ideal of democracy, as much as we espouse it?

Democracy depends on mutual respect of a very deep kind. And a very strong self-discipline that comes with conceding legitimate freedom and space to people that we can completely disagree with.

The way that people talk now, anyone who disagrees is an adversary. And perhaps even a very sinister adversary. And if you think of the people with whom you share your social and political fate as being nefarious—obviously, you can't run a democracy on those assumptions. And you can't run a country on those assumptions. Nothing could be more destabilizing or threatening.

I know you can't speak for Whitman, but do you have a sense of what he would say about the state of American democracy today?

I would like Whitman to correct me. I have the feeling that he looked at the same things that cause me to feel anxiety, he would show me how to see something more, something else, something better. I feel as if perhaps my view is in some degree affected by the larger view that I sense in the culture. I'm really tired of hearing people called "un-American," or any of the other slurs that are being brought to bear—they're so anti-democratic. That's how people in sick, totalitarian situations talk about each other.

You write about so many different periods with admiration and wonder in the book. When would you most like to have lived?

When I fantasize, it would the period of settlement of the Middle West, or the West. Which is probably partly because my family settled there. I've just read stories.

But I think I would rather live now—as a woman [laughs]. It's really hard to beat the present moment. I just hope it continues to be that way.

And that's an interesting thing. Because as much as we're shaking our heads over a kind of anti-democratic movement in the culture, the fate of being a female, for instance, has undergone an complete sea change. And in your lifetime.

Yes. I could have had a bookish life. And probably have had boxes of handwritten things in a closet somewhere. But this is better [laughs].

When you were growing up, you write, a woman had three options for adult life: homemaker, teacher, or nurse. You had a figure in your life, a male teacher, who felt you were born to be a nurse. Was that a sign of faith in your abilities?

Oh, absolutely. He felt—with all the grounds in the world—that he was pointing me towards a very honorable and useful life. For someone who actually should be a nurse, that would be true! But for me, it would not have worked that way.

What are you working on now? A novel?

I am. I got myself involved in some other projects. I have to give other lectures, and I have chosen very ambitious subjects for those lectures, and I have three more that I consider to be very major. But I am also working on a novel. And I'm very well into it.

Do you have a particular method? Do you chip away systematically, or do you work in big chunks?

I do whatever I can.