Understanding America Through Marilynne Robinson
Scott Esposito on One of This Country's Great Storytellers
I want to talk about Marilynne Robinson today. I want to talk about her because her novels feel to me like some of the most profoundly American literature I have ever read. And also I would like to discuss her because, more than almost any other writer I can think of, her words have made me a much better writer, thinker, and citizen.
I’m going to talk about Robinson’s essays—which I think are at least the equal of her fiction—but first a word about her novels. Her characters are not people I have very much in common with. In general they are very poor, they are uneducated, they come from the obscure rural heartland, they are deeply religious, they live in a time and place that is almost completely ignored in the history books. When I think of people whose lives resemble mine, these are not the qualities that would come to mind. And yet, these people—their thoughts, their beliefs, their struggles, and their way of figuring out life—have always felt completely relevant to my life, and they have always struck me as absolutely American, embodying things that are very deeply about this country. This is what novels should do—as Robinson writes in an essay, “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.”
Robinson’s essays contain an equally vivid and deep sense of our national character. I read just a few pages from one and I am already inspired to be a better citizen. It is not that Robinson and I have such radically different notions of our country’s values, the meaning of our political system, or the place of art and literature in a thriving community. For the most part, the assumptions I bring to her as a reader are close to those she brings to me as a writer. But through the genius of her imagination she takes those same assumptions and turns them to something quite powerful. Here’s what she says about the role of language in civic life:
A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives. . . Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without communities.
(“Imagination and Community”)
As one of our greatest storytellers, Robinson knows that a nation is knit together by the stories it tells itself. A rich language filled with deep stories is essential for inspiring a nation and filling its people with courage, pride, and compassion. It is also essential to successful politics—cognitive linguist George Lakoff has attributed Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 to an ability to tell superior stories than his opponents.
I agree with Lakoff. But the fact is that the story Trump tells is one of progress through anger and division—it worked in this case, but I do not think it will prove lasting. It is not the America I see when I read Robinson’s novels. In fact, I much prefer the story she tells about our democracy, one of the tolerance, union, and inclusion that has again and again triumphed in this land. This is what she says democracy is:
Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.
As I re-read Robinson’s essay “Imagination and Community,” these words brought me to a halt. I suddenly felt they pertained to me. The fact is, lately I have not been making much effort to identify with much of this nation. I have been feeling bitter and resentful about the election. I am already getting angry at what is being done in Washington, DC. I am aghast that anybody could have voted for these things, this man. During moments of greater perspective I have reflected that this is precisely how many Republicans felt during the eight years Obama was in office, years in which I often wondered why it was they could not open their eyes to the opinions of their fellow Americans.
I read authors like Robinson because she helps give my mind the openness it needs to really be a citizen of this democracy. I think this is something that comes fundamentally—and maybe uniquely—from longform literary writing, be it novels, philosophies, histories, memoirs, exceptional journalism, what have you. In the 1960s, the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan suggested that as film and television took over as our primary means of communication, our communities moved back into a pre-literate footing. Once again, shared tribal myths, and not written narratives, formed the basis of our understanding. If he is correct about this, then I believe that the little outrage-spurring bites of information that we tend to get online are their contemporary heirs.
In this daily feedback loop of grievances and rhetoric, there is little possibility of telling the deep, complex stories of this nation. Instead we have a super-saturation of discrete data points feeding into powerful symbols and memes that give us our sense of political identification. There are no bridges between communities here. There is no narrative worthy of a great nation. It is essential to turn to the great writers who will attempt to assemble nuanced narratives and complex arguments that give a complete idea of our reality. As Robinson writes, “I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.”
I agree. I don’t mean to demonize things like Twitter and Facebook—I use them every day to stay on top of the news and to connect with friends. Oftentimes, the outrage they bring is warranted. And it is important to our civic life to articulate what we believe in and to call out those things we find deleterious to our society.
But I do notice that, along with their pluses, social media, television, and (sometimes) film rarely encourage me to think beyond what I already know. They create a simplistic picture of “the other side” that is difficult to resist. I feel that I need the longform work of rigorous, literate thinkers like Robinson as a kind of essential mental hygiene—perhaps my last remaining way of getting a broad perspective on the day-to-day. I read them in hopes that some of their rigor will rub off on me so I’m not so quick to dismiss the next time I read an outrageous headline.
Let me be clear. When I talk about not dismissing those with whom we disagree, I do not mean the neo-Nazis who descended upon Washington, DC, in December 2016 to throw up “heil Hitler” salutes while celebrating Donald Trump’s victory, and nor do I mean the Republican lawmakers who have fought to systematically disenfranchise minority voters under transparently false fears of “voter fraud,” and who took extraordinary and unprecedented actions to disempower the democratically elected governor of North Carolina in December 2016. Those people are despicable, and we should denounce them loudly and by all means.
I mean the largely decent people who share my love of this country and its values but have reached vastly different conclusions about what is best for our future. People like Melody Forbes, who wrote in a USA Today op-ed that she voted for Trump and is aghast to see that Congressional Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence, and likely Trump himself will soon attempt to defund Planned Parenthood. Now I do believe that Forbes is greatly misled about which party holds her interest at heart—and when I first saw her piece, I immediately felt like firing off an outraged tweet (as many did)—but I’m glad I did not. She cares enough to be involved in our democracy, she is being honest about the failures of the man she voted for (whereas Republicans in general give him high approval ratings), and there are at least some issues that she and I agree on. So I would like my party to have enough imagination to figure out how to get her vote in the next election. I do not want to win progressive victories by excising people like her from my community, and nor do I want us to succeed by furthering the tribalism and resentment politics that allowed a charlatan and cut-rate authoritarian to win power through a campaign of lies, division, and base spectacle. Indeed, it has been suggested that delegitimizing our democracy and tearing it apart are the fondest hopes of some of America’s worst enemies.
Furthering such divisions would run counter to one of the things I am most proud of about the progressive cause: how it has continually used its imagination to include more and more different kinds of people in its mission. Lately it has shown remarkable compassion in recognizing the implicit bias in our world and attempting to understand the experience of other ethnicities, races, and genders. Surely this has become a powerful way of overcoming division, building a shared understanding, and broadening equality, and I am proud that the artistic community has been among those leading the way. Furthermore, it is no surprise that right wing extremists in Arizona and Wisconsin are determined to eliminate such messages from public education, for they must know that the more people who hear this message, the more their divisive and restrictive policies will lose elections.
Just as the right wing extremists attacking these classes are the enemies of the American community, so are we if we cannot come together with those who have honest differences from us. Perhaps we should naturally feel more compassion toward someone who is a victim of institutionalized, historical discrimination, and less toward a person who has largely benefitted from one of the greatest accumulations of wealth and power in the history of civilization. And yet, I do believe this nation of ours is a community, and I believe that our political institutions will only remain robust and healthy if we continue to act as a community and treat one another with imagination and respect. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderate” a “great stumbling block” to the cause of equality—worse even than the Ku Klux Klan. If we feel the same way today about the “white moderate,” then I believe that is because of a failure of the left to broaden our story in those five decades.
I would like to leave you with the words of President Obama, as interviewed by Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times. As a citizen, I have my disagreements with many of Obama’s policies, but I nonetheless greatly respect his accomplishments, as well as his unceasing attempts to bring a level of dignity and inclusiveness to our national politics. As President, he strove to represent everyone, and he never descended to the sort of base tactics that were practiced against him regularly. I think this is the key to his remarkably high outgoing approval ratings in a time of intense partisanship and discord, and I further believe that history will judge him quite well for it. Obama too is a fan of Robinson, and this is one thing he said he learned from her:
It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap…
It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where Gilead and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them—the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to—it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.
And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.
BOOK TO KEEP YOUR POLITICAL MIND HEALTHY
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson
The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra