Artful, American Essays From 'When I Was A Child'
In her new collection of essays, novelist Marilynne Robinson writes: "I find that the hardest work in the world — it may in fact be impossible — is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling."
Robinson grew up in Idaho and has lived in Massachusetts for 20 years. In her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson takes on misconceptions of the American West, the generosity of Christian faith, and the state of the global economy.
Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, speaks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the importance of storytelling.
On literary notions of the West
"I grew up in small-town northern Idaho, west of Montana. ... I started writing, actually, when I was in college, partly because I felt as if the idea of the West was so misunderstood by people. Probably, the understanding of the West has never recovered from the dime novel. I was the fourth generation of my family to live there. And there were many, many stories about settling, and all the rest of it. The importance of women was very great. And the idea that it's male, essentially, and that it is violent ... I just felt as if what was beautiful about it was really lost in these often very cheap dramas of violence and maleness."
On misunderstandings about American identity
"I think that American history has been very seriously misrepresented in most of the conversation that's gone on about it. I talk about John Winthrop's [speech] Model of Christian Charity ... and how that is consistently misquoted in a way that can only mean that nobody has read it. The idea that we were 'a city on the hill' meant — as it means in the Bible — that our sins and failures would be particularly conspicuous and impossible to conceal. Winthrop makes that point very clearly. And then along comes the idea that we're suddenly boasting of being a shining city on the hill; there's no 'shining' in Winthrop. It's an argument, basically, that we have to be generous toward one another in order not to fail. That's what he's saying."
On our need for narratives
"There's a huge demand for them. In fact, the use of fiction gives us models of possibility. It gives us ways in which an event can fall out, you know? And it also gives us the pleasure of a sort of deeper competence, as if we see a wider landscape because we have put ourselves through the rehearsal of possibility in these various ways."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Marilynne Robinson has a new book out. This doesn't happen all that often, so we want to call attention to it. This book is a collection of essays. Many of them explore some of the ideas she writes about in her novels. The collection is called "When I was a Child, I Read Books." Ms. Robinson is in Iowa City speaking to us from member station WSUI at the University of Iowa. Welcome.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the title essay, "When I Was a Child, I Read Books," that's in the middle of the book and it begins: When I was a child, I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and hard. I made vocabulary lists. I wonder if you could read another few lines from the first page of that same essay.
ROBINSON: All right. (Reading) Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodontia, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient. It may seem strange to begin a talk about the West in terms of old books that had nothing Western about them and those naive fabrications of stodgily fantastical authoritative worlds, which answered only to my own forming notions of meaning and importance. But I think it was in fact peculiarly Western to feel no tie of particularity to any single past or history, to experience that much-underrated thing called the racination, the meditative free appreciation of whatever comes under one's eye, without any need to make such tedious judgments as mine or not mine.
WERTHEIMER: Where did you grow up as this child who read books?
ROBINSON: I grew up in a small town, northern Idaho, west of Montana.
WERTHEIMER: I gather that West is an important idea for you.
ROBINSON: Well, it is. You know, I started writing actually when I was in college, partly because I felt as if the idea of the West was so misunderstood by people. Probably, the understanding of the West has never recovered from the dime novel. And the idea that it's male essentially and that it is violent, and I just felt as if what was beautiful about it was really lost in this, you know, these very often very cheap dramas of violence and maleness.
WERTHEIMER: What were some of the old thick hard books that you were talking about here?
ROBINSON: Well, I was very interested in history, you know, and so I read things like a biography of Oliver Cromwell and anything that I could get my hands on about chivalry. My grandfather, he went to college - and I think he was a history major. He had a big bookcase full of very old history books that my brother and I used to go through sitting on the floor, you know, reading about the Roman Empire and so on. I was always very interested in that sort of thing.
WERTHEIMER: Another idea that you seem to be turning over and over in this collection is politics. And I would say that I'm getting a sense that you think these politicians who were carrying on about character are leaving out something essential about the American character.
ROBINSON: I think that that's very true. I think that American history has been very seriously misrepresented in most of the conversation that's gone on about it. I talk about John Winthrop's model of Christian charity as his, you know, the Arabella speech and how that is consistently misquoted in a way that can only mean that nobody has read it.
WERTHEIMER: John Winthrop, we probably ought to mention, was a great Puritan.
ROBINSON: Yes, exactly. In the 17th century, he gave a lecture to - or a sermon, whatever it was - to people coming on the ship Arabella, which was one of the earliest ships to bring Puritan settlers into Massachusetts. The idea that we were a city on the hill meant, as it means in the bible, that our sins and failures would be particularly conspicuous and impossible to conceal. And Winthrop makes that point very clearly. And then along comes the idea that we're suddenly boasting of being a shining city on the hill, and there's no shining in Winthrop. It's an argument basically that we have to be generous toward one another in order not to fail. That's what he's saying.
WERTHEIMER: I like the threat of faith that I find in these essays. And it's also part of your novels. I have the impression that you had some kind of a reaffirmation experience in the middle of your life. Maybe I'm making this up but it seems to me that you allude to it in the essay called "Wondrous Love" on page 125. And I'd like you to read a few lines from that. You say that some of the things that have become important to you, you could never have anticipated.
ROBINSON: This is page 125?
ROBINSON: (Reading) The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example.
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ROBINSON: (Reading) They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them. The old ballad in the voice of Mary Magdalene, who walked in the garden alone, imagines her tarrying there with a newly risen Jesus in the light of a day which was certainly the most remarkable daybreak since God said: Let there be light.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: Now, you also say very early in this essay that you never actually liked that hymn until you did like that hymn.
ROBINSON: Yes. I have never heard it sung well - that is a fact. There is something about it that just - it's harder than the national anthem, I think.
WERTHEIMER: Well, I could tell you for many years of my childhood of singing it that I think you're right. It has a sort of a seesaw rhythm to it that is just very hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: Now, the discussion of hymns in this essay then moves into a discussion of narrative and that this seems to be something that people require stories.
ROBINSON: That seems to be true. There's a huge demand for them in fact. The use of fiction gives us models of possibility. It gives us ways in which event can fall out, you know. And it also gives us the pleasure of a sort of deeper competence, as if we see a wider landscape because we have put ourselves through the rehearsal of possibility in these various ways.
WERTHEIMER: Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "Gilead." Her new collection of essays is called "When I Was a Child, I Read Books." Ms. Robinson, thank you very much.
ROBINSON: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.