Of all the eventualities in the work of a critic, one of the most nerve-wracking must be the challenge of assigning a rating to an artwork that is much, much smarter than they. Praise for Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays cannot help but acknowledge that her work primarily evinces an intelligence of startling and almost severe clarity. However readers perceive Robinson before picking up When I Was a Child, the collection only solidifies her reputation as one of America’s strongest literary voices.
Robinson’s concerns are immense, and at times she seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. This book will not necessarily be an inviting or easy read for those who have enjoyed her fiction. Speaking casually of academic texts and citing Scripture like a rectory-bound seminarian, the tone of her essays ranges from the casually curious to the heavily scholastic. Numerous references are made to her experience as an educator (she currently teaches at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and many of these essays are lectures written for an informed audience rather than welcoming explorations of a topic that might be introduced on the first day of the semester.
Although her essays possess a casual sort of a gravity, swooping and diving into topics such as the state of American education, the Old Testament’s place in Christianity, liberalism, and in the final pages, “Cosmology”, Robinson never strays far from the pages populated by her beloved characters. In the essay which gives the book its title, she freely discusses the relationship between her own upbringing in Iowa and the thematic concerns of her first novel, Housekeeping. Her writings on religion, particularly Calvinism and her direct experiences with her Congregationalist faith, of course, were animated to great effect in Gilead.
Robinson’s rhetorical style has a striking power to intimidate in that her arguments time and again stab at the root of her chosen opponents’ positions by questioning common assumptions and so-called conventional wisdom. That only an author and reader of Robinson’s caliber could command such authority on the page is self-evident; her question is always whether a word really means what so-and-so seems to think, whether there might not be some subtle or long-elided distinction at play. There are a few passages here, especially in the eponymous essay, which offer the same lyrical prose as her novels, but for the most part Robinson’s writing resists the glib simile and presses deeper, asking hard questions and digging into her own extensive store of knowledge for the answers.
At times, perhaps, she goes too deep. This is not to say that the questions posed are meaningless or not worth asking; rather, that her curiosity and seemingly boundless store of knowledge on the subjects she addresses results in some loopy structures within her essays. The best are the shortest: “When I Was a Child”, “Freedom of Thought”, and “Imagination and Community”. Her writing hardly falters in the longer sections, particularly the rigorous examination of Old Testament law in “The Fate of Ideas: Moses”, yet there’s also a tendency to circle around and browbeat the same targets a couple of times, rather than progressing toward a clear conclusion. Make no mistake, these essays are all worth reading, but Robinson’s theses are not so clearly grasped as one might hope.
One can little doubt that the sort of focused, sharp thinking which Robinson displays in her interrogation of academic assumptions about topics like Scripture, the American West, and capitalism is exactly what the American national dialogue must engage in if any worthwhile discussions are to be had. Yet Robinson does her own genius a disservice by relaxing her rigor when it comes to the individual structure of each piece. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with reasoning through rhetorical questioning and a focused dissection of a particular text existing alongside each other in the same book, yet when Robinson slips into a casual voice to make a point after having just decimated some critic on a tangentially-related subject, the effect disorients the reader and undermines the credibility of a clearly brilliant writer — if only because her train of thought takes so many sudden and foreign detours.
For example, in “The Human Spirit and the Good Society”, Robinson systematically picks apart the underlying contradictions and assumptions In a New York Times science article, proposing that she “would consider this discovery [of 130,000 year old tools] cause for rethinking the definition of the word ‘prehuman,’ and therefore the world ‘human,’ taking behavior rather than anatomy as the set of traits by which humanity should be extinguished.” (155) This debunking continues without further reference to the text of the article for almost four pages until she picks up after a line break to ask “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?” By setting these rhetorical musings aside from her critiques so jarringly, it becomes difficult to gauge her argumentative style.
On the whole, Robinson’s is a book worth reading, and reading carefully. Her novels have a bracing power in their brevity, particularly the austere prose of Gilead, in which a few slight sentences expand to fill an entire childhood. Here she writes with density, crafting passages with the weight of water. Like water, she often tries to carry too much at once, forgetting its heaviness — but it’s a sharp, welcome draught, nonetheless.