It’s the prelude to a thousand jokes: a man climbs a mountain to talk with a guru, seeking wisdom about the meaning of life. But sitting in the audience at Marilynne Robinson’s interview at the National Book Festival in August, I really felt like I was seated at the feet of the master — this master in the form of a 71-year-old woman with long, gray hair and a string of pearls.
The Library of Congress’ National Book Festival featured more than 100 authors, but Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilynne Robinson (and Nobel Literature Prize dark horse — but I have my fingers crossed) was my clear highlight. She spoke for an hour with The Washington Post’s Book World editor, Ron Charles, about her newest novel Lila, public discourse on religion, and why we’ll never get to read any of her sermons.
In one of his first questions to Robinson, Charles asked why she seems to be one of the few contemporary American novelists who depict religion in a positive light.
It’s true, she said. With the proliferation of the out-of-touch pastors and abusive priests in our national literature, an observer would think that Americans are an irreligious bunch. But many Americans have a deeply-treasured friendship with a minister.
“It is part of our national character to ridicule what we value,” she said.
“And this makes it difficult to articulate what we actually value.”
I hadn’t come to the festival equipped to take notes, but as soon as Robinson said this, I pulled out my flip phone and started typing in quotes. It was already embarrassing to look like I was texting about lunch plans while in the presence of Marilynne Robinson, but when she turned to the subject of technology and the setting of her famous cycle of novels, I felt quite conspicuous.
Her novels Gilead, Home, and the newest, Lila, all deal with characters in Gilead, Iowa in the 1950s.
When asked why she keeps returning to the same setting, she replied, “I’m interested in a time when people had less access to each other. I like people who have long thoughts.”
This penchant for “long thoughts” is evident in her writing. The character of Rev. Ames in Gilead embodies the long thoughts born of solitude. In a letter, he tells his son:
I’ve shepherded a good many people through their lives, I’ve baptized babies by the hundred, and all that time I have felt as though a great part of life was closed to me. Your mother says I was like Abraham. But I had no old wife and no promise of a child. I was just getting by on books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches (54).
Robinson herself has spent a lot of time with books and baseball and fried-egg sandwiches. Consider the structure of Gilead. The entire novel consists of letters the elderly Rev. Ames writes for his young son, so that his son will have something to remember his father by when he dies.
But the letters are not set off from each other with salutations or separate pages or chapters. They all merge together into one long thought — a monologue of thought addressed to a son who cannot possibly understand.
This was not an accident.
“I’ve never written a novel with chapters in it,” she told the audience during the Q & A session.
“In Housekeeping the chapters were added by an editor.”
Robinson didn’t say it explicitly, but our lack of solitude may be related to our habit of ridiculing what we value. With the ubiquity of cars, computers, cell phones, and social media, the quietude of Gilead is no longer an identifying feature of the American landscape. Without the space to think long thoughts on our own, we think always for an audience — real or hypothetical. And aware of an audience, we tailor and adjust our thoughts based on immediate reactions, or at least the reactions we imagine getting.
This self-editing is most apparent on social media and internet message boards, where one of the most common tones is undoubtedly cynicism, particularly in reaction to an expression of unadulterated joy. This is what Elizabeth Scalia calls, in her strikingly memorable phrase, “the acid bath of ingratitude.” Yes, I want to be happy. But even more, I don’t want to be the fool. And so, toning down my joy to make my thoughts fit for the consumption of a cynical age, I end up participating in the ridicule of the source of my joy — that is, of what I value.
Marilynne Robinson’s work and thought, however, provide a helpful antidote. She possesses that independence of mind that can be thoroughly contrary without being contrarian. To pick an example at random, she writes in the essay “Open Thy Hand Wide,”
Like old Israel, the United States is often said to be legalistic. And for some reason this is taken to be a criticism and to identify a failing. It might better be thought of as an acknowledgment of the human propensity to sin or error, in tension with an active solicitude for human vulnerability to the effects of sin and error (When I Was a Child I Read Books, 69).
Defending the laws of the Old Testament, American society, the Puritans, and Calvinism (as she does in this essay) as legalistic and therefore tender is, whether you agree or not, the clear product of long thought — untroubled by our sensational, cynical public discourse.
So when Charles asked Robinson how she deals with ridicule for writing so beautifully about faith, I believed her when she replied, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t really pay attention to it,” she said.