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Mar­i­lynne Robinson | Wiki­media Commons

Last week, in a heroic money-saving venture, a Uni­versity of Wis­consin campus pro­posed the sac­rifice of 13 college majors, mostly in the human­ities. The Wash­ington Post heard echoes of Gov­ernor Scott Walker’s ill-con­ceived and ill-fated 2015 plan to shift the mission state­ments of the uni­versity system from the “search for truth” to meeting “the state’s work­force needs.” 

Marxist? Maybe. But it’s also a ral­lying ground; the plan to retool America’s public edu­cation system places renowned nov­elist and liberal-leaning essayist Mar­i­lynne Robinson’s vision of the great Mid­western insti­tution of liberal learning more in line with a certain private Michi­ganian one than with her cohorts in Stevens Point, Wis­consin, or with her oppo­nents in Walker’s penny-pinching Repub­lican party.

According to the Wash­ington Post article this shift in mission statement was sup­ported by some Wis­consin con­ser­v­a­tives who think state uni­versity degrees leave stu­dents empty of mar­ketable job skills and stuffed with liberal ide­ology. And in her new essay col­lection, released last month, Robinson asks a question that American edu­cators should, regardless of political leaning, con­sider seri­ously: “What Are We Doing Here?”

For Robinson, the answer to a sup­posedly unhealthy American edu­ca­tional system is not in beefing up the STEM depart­ments of great Mid­western uni­ver­sities, but in broad­ening our intel­lectual and his­torical palate to under­stand the American spirit that con­cocted them in the first place. The missing flavor, though, is one that may cause some lip-smacking: Puritan the­ology and pro­gressive political phi­losophy.

“This country grossly impov­er­ishes itself with this con­de­scending or con­temp­tuous dis­missal of vast reaches of its terrain and the mul­ti­tudes who live and die there,” Robinson con­tends about her growing concern that America’s dis­taste for its own her­itage stems from a steady diet of junk history.

The taste many readers acquire first, though, is for Robinson’s lit­er­ature, and it’s a good place to start in under­standing why Robinson wants to augment our appetites with her par­ticular menu of American thinkers.

Robinson found her way to Hillsdale’s core through her sto­ry­telling; her name graces the syllabi of English courses such as Great Books II (where I met her first novel, “House­keeping”) and upper-level sem­inars, including The­o­logical Aes­thetics and American Fiction since 1980. In a course on jour­nalism of the 20th century, my instructor placed her with George Orwell and Wendell Berry in the list of “lib­erals con­ser­v­a­tives like — or listen to.”

So why do Amer­icans on each side of the table listen? 

I would like to believe it is, first, for her voice. Fit­tingly for a renowned pro­fessor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop program, Robinson’s fiction is widely acclaimed for the way it opens lit­er­ature to a spe­cific culture and place; for her, the wide spaces (of the field and of the mind) of the Great Plains. After a thirty-year break from her first novel (“House­keeping,” 1980) to the Pulitzer-prize-winning “Gilead” (2004), Robinson has in her recent novels played a Faulknerian game; a trilogy com­pleted by “Home” (2008) and “Lila” (2014) traces two Iowa fam­ilies through mar­riage, birth, death, betrayal, heart­break, and home­coming. 

Raised as a pastor’s daughter not too far West from Robinson’s Iowa, I treasure her fiction for all the God in it — or the people who see him, and show me him, or him within them­selves.

All this to ten­derfoot the path toward the jarring crossover into my Marilynne’s pol­itics.

I am not naive enough to think that a shared artistic vision leads to a common approach to pol­itics of the people who are its sub­jects and ben­e­fi­ciaries. But I do find Robinson’s tracing of Iowan indi­vid­u­alism to the grand vision of Puritan progressivism…puzzling.

In “What Are We Doing Here?” Mar­i­lynne returns to her home ter­ritory of her familiar liberal mainline Protes­tantism, a pol­itics that res­onates with well-intended and artic­ulate humanism as much as it mys­tifies me with the paths it takes to get there.

An illus­tration: As her­alded by the New York Review of Books, Robinson met with Obama to express her admi­ration — and admo­nition — mul­tiple times throughout his pres­i­dency. The closing para­graph in her essay on Obama’s legacy (“the pres­ident is a philosopher, perhaps a the­ologian”), is worth quoting in its entirety for certain Robin­sonian themes that connect her fiction to her pol­itics to her the­ology:

“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is under­stood, is expressed in a char­ac­ter­istic elo­quence. Every new artic­u­lation renews the present life of the country and enriches his­toric memory to the benefit of future gen­er­a­tions. Barack Obama speaks this lan­guage, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see our­selves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are.”

I feel a vague American thrill as I read this; a vertigo of high aspi­ra­tions in states­manship and patri­otism. For Robinson, political lead­ership is fun­da­men­tally moral, perhaps even a work of the moral imag­i­nation that shapes how we live as Amer­icans.

But it all feels shakily grounded in reality. Reading Robinson is like the first time I drove in the left lane on a one-way street; every­thing familiar, but the buildings too close in my right-con­di­tioned periphery, the turns too sudden, tight and alarm­ingly close to danger when I reenter the cau­tionary yellow of America’s bidi­rec­tional pol­itics.

Like her Lin­col­nizing, the rest of the col­lection pro­vides new angles on ven­erable “con­ser­v­ative” themes: the limits of sci­entism and mate­ri­alism, the unde­niable indwelling of the imma­terial in the material, the search for a new way to speak of God in light of devel­op­ments in science, the pressing need of a more robust humanism and of pre­serving the dis­ci­plines (history, lit­er­ature, the­ology, phi­losophy — Stevens Point, Marilynne’s watching you) that remain rel­evant as long as men live their small epics in history. 

Robinson believes that American igno­rance of history is to blame for many of its identity crises, swal­lowing up a tra­dition of freedom and democracy begun in England, but never so robustly at work in the world: “The void Puri­tanism has merged with the void Calvinism, swal­lowing Edwards along the way, to con­stitute a vast igno­rance of early American history.” 

The void in Amer­icans’ under­standing of colonial Puri­tanism, par­tic­u­larly, gapes: “[The Puritans] were the most radical social reformers this country has ever seen … they had an extra­or­dinary oppor­tunity to put the impress of their values on a civ­i­lization very much in a nor­mative stage. … The whole movement had a kind of heroic gen­erosity into its design and intention that is rare in history.”

And this is the thread that con­nects her fiction with her pol­itics: The need for charity, humanism, the support and pro­tection of the kind of men and women who actually live and dream here, and to open the horizons of freedom as wide as the pro­gressive minds and the faiths of the people who settled the plains. 

But here, the turn: this means, for Robinson, funding for state uni­ver­sities. An appre­ci­ation for the pro­gres­siveness of the Puritan spirit, and the “great insti­tu­tions,” federal and not, that they estab­lished: Welfare. Oba­macare. A reading of American political phi­losophy and the­ology that follows a line from Calvin to Cromwell to Edwards to… Where next, exactly?

Science. Taking her cues from Edwards, Robinson is at her best in dis­cussing the ways the natural world col­lides with the the­o­logical one: “Microor­ganisms live in clouds, air moves in rivers, but­ter­flies nav­igate the earth’s mag­netic field. The matter cos­mol­o­gists call ‘dark,’ which makes up most of the mass of the uni­verse, seems to be nonatomic. Wonders never cease,” but we have given up finding new vocab­ulary for the divine in light of dark matter and other recent devel­op­ments in science.

Returning to Robinson’s non­fiction is like getting turned around in the old part of downtown; sud­denly I’m going in circles, and every corner in Mar­i­lyn­neville is First and Edwards Street: his the­ology, Robinson believes, is essential in under­standing how human expe­rience of the tran­scendent in nature can bridge the per­ceived gap between science and the human­ities, the material and the imma­terial. I know it’s her wheel­house, but the essays seldom leave this cul-de-sac.

Why does it seem as if the West has been curated according to Robinson’s Protestant pioneer vision? Regardless of how inter­esting Robinson’s store of knowledge is, does it aim to fill in gaps in my con­ception of America or paper them over with a giant Edwards adver­tisement?

If I were so auda­cious as to submit a bid for improve­ments to Mar­i­lyn­neville, I would include the fol­lowing: Broaden the road from the Ref­or­mation from its one-lane Calvinism. Expand the playing field of reli­gious denom­i­na­tions’ con­tri­bu­tions to American insti­tu­tions and culture (Catholic mis­sions and Lutheran hos­pitals). Perhaps a nod to founding political the­o­rists’ real reser­va­tions with Puritan ten­dencies toward utopi­anism.

There is a ten­dency in Mar­i­lynne toward a sort of trib­alism as she trumpets the ideas of “her people” without attempting harmony with the whole. When she writes novels about Iowa preachers and lionizes Puritan philoso­phers, I don’t see Robinson speaking through them simply because they’re voiceless; she speaks not objec­tively, but from the heart, with a voice that is also hers. 

This par­tiality, though it narrows her scope, also channels her strength. After Mar­i­lynne res­ur­rected Edwards, I want him to join the American forum. I want to hear his con­ception of the “heavens declaring the glory of God” in con­ver­sation with the founders’ “self-evident truths,” with Luther on the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, with Catholic social teaching, with Gerard Manley Hopkins on the “dappled things” of America’s medley of culture and political self-con­cep­tions.

As I con­sider our nation’s image of itself, I am revisited by a metaphor from “Gilead,” of the world as a smol­dering coal, one that flares out when stoked. That is Robinson’s Iowa, and the indi­vidual lives, humbly grand, lived within it, and it is also the fire that fuels her pol­itics in her non­fiction, Puritans and the legacies of past pres­i­dents who may, depending on our faiths and sen­si­bil­ities, look opaque.

But at Stevens Point, what we’re doing here in America’s liberal insti­tu­tions is snuffing out the coals of the intel­lectual fires that forged us. And for Robinson, we’re increas­ingly blind to that danger.

What will burn out — the sci­ences or the human­ities that fuel them — when the coals of history are shaken? 

I imagine my Mar­i­lynne would say, “Neither.”

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    ‘For Robinson, political lead­ership is fun­da­men­tally moral, perhaps even a work of the moral imag­i­nation that shapes how we live as Amer­icans.’ What a con­dem­nation in my view, but it accu­rately depicts the fun­da­mental dif­fer­ences between con­ser­v­a­tives and pro­gres­sives in America.