Review: Marilynne Robinson’s “When I Was a Child I Read Books”


I’ve been re-reading a book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, the novelist of Home and Gilead and professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It’s an informative collection which covers a range of topics relevant to American society – how we think about our country today (the book was published in 2012 as a reaction of sorts to the financial downturn and the shifts in public policy ideology it ‘necessitated’), the spiritual history of the United States (Robinson is a modern liberal Christian and a scholar of the subject), the vanguard of New Atheism, and most notably, a close examination of the ideology of austerity pervading our public universities.

Robinson has clear opinions to assert, and she does so with grace, fluidity, research and with an eye for the wider lens. Her particular method of persuasion invites us to consider other modes of ‘American’ perception before hardening into one kind of savage believer or another.

And how do we reckon ownership? Who owns [the public university]? The generations who first broke ground for them? Who saw them through wars and depressions, when the wealth of this present generation would still have been unimaginable? My university is more than 150 years old. It was built on generosity and good faith. Why should all these hundreds of little farm towns sustain such a thing? They have sustained it heroically. Who should own its resources and its reputation? They are very valuable, so there is money to be squeezed out, certainly. There are corporations ready to rent it or buy it piecemeal. It is as if the very idea of a people, a historical community, has died intestate, and all its wealth is left to plunder.

Her essay, “Who Was Oberlin?” describes the social liberality of the Second Great Awakening, a Baptist and Methodist evangelical movement originating in upstate New York around 1790 and lasting decades in the Midwest. This was a movement which saw the rise of the Protestant pastor as grassroots community organizer, which led to substantial reform movements for education, prison conditions and care for the disabled and mentally ill, and which led to the founding of abolitionist, women-supportive liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Grinnell, and Knox. Charles Finney, a leader of the 2nd Great Awakening, preached people into a tizzy of the possibility of a true liberation from original sin through repentance, that personal holiness was attainable in this lifetime. In these pastors’ minds, not only was the perfection of society possible, it would be inclusive.

Think about Christian evangelism today. How does one reckon Finney’s wild-eyed, open-armed progressive leadership alongside that of his contemporary counterparts, whose political ideologies formed the Tea Party caucus? In some corner of my imagination, a single charismatic character emerges, but this character’s values  and approach have clearly mutated.

Robinson is also an accomplished Biblical scholar. As a secular-spiritual person (ah, so much of life lived in that dash) who really only went to Church because her mom told her to, I was fascinated by her essay on Calvinism and the notion of charity in American spiritual history, titled “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism”.  It begins with a complicated quote from George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher and essayist in 1911:

America is a young country with an old mentality: it has enjoyed the advantages of a child carefully brought up and thoroughly indoctrinated; it has been a wise child. But a wise child, an old head on young shoulders, always has a comic and unpromising side. The wisdom is a little thin and verbal, not aware of its full meaning and ground; and physical and emotional growth may be stunted by it, or even deranged.

Santayana says that the “old head” is Calvinism, a Old Testament-based form of Christianity (Santayana called it “an expression of the agonized conscience”) often described as zealous and strict, which American writers quite plainly turned away from for the more imaginative and beautiful idea found in the New Testament, the Gospel of Grace. Robinson questions this polemical association of the harsh, foreign Old Testament and the gracious, charitable New Testament formulated by American religious scholars. The aloof, alien Old Testament God-construct of modern dialectic reduces the liberalism of the Old Testament, she argues, and in fact, Calvinism defended “an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity”.

She nerds out on Bible translation here too, tracking how words like “charity” and “generosity” changed in various versions of the Bible, and how different preachers from Calvin to Winthrop used these words deliberately, thus altering the political conception of what congregations of individuals should be doing to help those in great need: does one literally give them the coat off one’s back, or all the money in one’s pocket since they need it? Or is praying broadly for the improvement of their well-being considered ‘loving’ them? When it comes to governance, should conscientious Americans push for a welfare state or “safety net”, or do we trust in the “thousand points of light” charitable institution model to do the work of taking care of our nation’s poorest?

Robinson works the idiom and language well. She has thought deeply about the United States and where we come from – intending not to glorify the past, but to take on the more difficult work of understanding how we discuss and use the past to make arguments. Sure, she wants you to support robust funding for public universities, but readers can tell that this advocacy comes not from any self-interest, but in genuine recognition of the work that went into those schools, reminding us that they were built on the backs of previous generations who believed it deserved priority. To liberals who ask, how did we get here? — these essays may help.

I’ll leave with the prescient, persisting quote that opens the book’s Preface, from Walt Whitman’s essay “Democratic Vistas” (1870):

America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American Ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.