If a piece of Robinson’s writing is available on the Internet, we try to link to it. We haven’t attempted the same level of comprehensiveness when it comes to pieces on Robinson, but during lulls in her publishing schedule, we’ll try to post some of the more significant.
With that in mind, we’re long overdue to discuss a piece from 2008 by William Deresiewicz in The Nation on Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and essays, written shortly after Home was published.
Deresiewicz opens with an appreciation of Robinson’s work and offers several highlights:
“Robinson is right to insist […] that we take the time to find out what Calvin actually said and what his followers actually did rather than continuing to assent to the sound-bite stereotypes typically used to dismiss them. If we view the Puritan influence on American history as malign, she adds, all the more reason to educate ourselves about what it really involved. She is also right to call our attention to overlooked continuities in the history of progressive thought, and in particular to the Continental lineages of American culture. We really must stop being the world’s biggest island.”
Deresiewicz then pivots into criticism of Robinson’s essays and perspective — which would be helpful and welcomed if it were at all coherent.
He writes, “Her own biases force her to omit too much.” Fair enough, if it can be supported. We’d be happy to link a thoughtful, examined criticism of Robinson’s work. But instead of supporting his accusation, Deresiewicz spends the next few paragraphs wandering around an accusation that Robinson somehow misunderstands modern progressivism.
First, Deresiewicz accuses Robinson of reductionism:
“I will also pass over the injustice of reducing all of modern thought to the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud, and the further injustice of reducing the ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud to their social Darwinist elements.”
Since Deresiewicz is so generous as to pass over these injustices, we’ll pass over his in adducing them: Robinson, of course, makes no attempt to characterize “all of modern thought.”
Most of Deresiewicz’s comments on The Death of Adam suffer from his seeming inability — perhaps encouraged by the desire to write a splashily critical piece — to perceive what kind of book The Death of Adam, in fact, is: a loose garland of occasional essays. All his reproaches — that Robinson ignores secular progressives, second-wave feminism, Catholic liberalism, etc. — would actually make sense if Death of Adam were titled, say, A Concise History of Progressive Ideas in America, or Thought in the West Since the Renaissance. As it is, she is no more “guilty” of ignoring these things than Deresiewicz is of ignoring quantum physics in his book of essays about Jane Austen. His attack on Robinson the essayist commits one of the most basic errors in book criticism: He attacks the book’s failure to be something its author never intended, or promised, in the first place.
There are plenty of other problems in the essay as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Deresiewicz proceeds to trot out the age-old trope about the simple-minded folks in flyover country:
“That Robinson has lived most of her life, physically and imaginatively, in Idaho and Iowa, two of the least diverse states in the Union, is not enough to explain this omission.”
Where again is Brown University located?
“Progressivism is missing. Liberalism is missing. Trustbusting, Social Security and the Voting Rights Act are missing. Finally, the continuity of progressive ideals across American history: that is what is missing.”
Sure. Progressivism and liberalism is missing in Robinson’s work. We hear that a lot.
“It is not hard to see why. Democratic, humane, enlightened ideals were not extinguished after the Civil War, by social Darwinism or anything else, but they did largely pass into secular hands.”
Secular hands like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the hyper-Catholic Cesar Chavez, the Berrigans, etc. Not to mention the influence of non-Western religions, and Native American thought, on American progressivism. In the course of attacking Robinson for the totalizing view of progressive history she doesn’t actually articulate, Deresiewicz reveals some blind spots of his own.
In any case, Robinson isn’t an author of history textbooks; she’s an essayist and novelist whose subject is history. Much as I would enjoy hearing her thoughts on the American Indian Movement or the second wave feminists, she’s under no obligation to follow anyone’s obsessions but her own.
“Robinson seems complicit in that common article of religious faith, at once a form of vanity and a kind of faulty syllogism, the idea that only religion can make people be good.”
Of all the criticisms of Robinson we read, this is surely among the most tiresome. Nowhere in Robinson’s writing is there any hint that “only religion can make people be good.” If Deresiewicz took heed of his own advice a few paragraphs earlier to “find out what Calvin actually said and what his followers actually did,” the absurdity of his criticism would be self-evident. And not just Calvin; add to the list your pick of Augustine, Luther, Barth, Lewis, or other major historical theologians.
Unsurprisingly, Deresiewicz offers no direct support for this criticism. Instead, he spends the next few paragraphs returning to praise of the narratives of Gilead and Home. Yet this raises a bigger question: What recent novels more thoroughly dispel the notion that “only religion can make people be good” than Gilead and Home — especially the character of Jack Boughton?
He does have Jack in mind, though, but for a completely different argument, which he draws from the section of Home in which the Boughtons are watching coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott:
“The bus boycott, for [Robinson], seems to have more to do with the betrayal of abolition, ninety years earlier, than with the civil rights movement, of which it was an opening chapter. That movement was to become a signal example of interdenominational, indeed interreligious and religious-secular, common cause, but as we know, such things are not dreamt of in her philosophy.”
This comment bears no relationship whatsoever to anything Robinson writes. And like most of the Deresiewicz’s nastiest digs, it is unsubstantiated by quotation.
“To judge from Ruth’s age at the novel’s conclusion and the fact that she seems to be Robinson’s contemporary, Housekeeping also ends around 1956. Robinson’s imagination appears to have advanced no further. This is fine, of course, as long as she follows her own advice and doesn’t try to speak about what she doesn’t know.”
And sage advice it is; only, with readers like Deresiewicz, what difference could following it possibly make? He has spent much of his review faulting the opinions she does express, on subjects she knows intimidatingly well, simply because they fail as the exhaustive history of American progressivism that he imagines (with no encouragement from Robinson) he’s reading. With equal justice, we could write:
Deresiewicz’s book of life lessons he learned from reading Jane Austen novels is intermittently insightful, but its account of the history of gender relationships and marriage customs in the West is dangerously blinkered and reductive. Deresiewicz completely fails to discuss, among many other things, the temperance movement, women’s combat experiences, the sidelining of women in the Black Panthers (his frame of reference is suspiciously Anglophile), or how scary Adam was that one time on “Girls.” If only he had stuck to his area of expertise and written a book about the life lessons he learned from reading Jane Austen novels.
All irritation aside, we can certainly endorse Deresiewicz’s well-phrased conclusion:
“Of the soul, and its wanderings, and its struggles to find a way home, she is a modern master.”
–a joint post by Phil and Christian