When I Was a Child I Read Books
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 232 pp., $24
Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning novelist, is a confounding writer in today’s political alignment. Her new essay collection, “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” is — despite the sentimentality of its title — fundamentally a leftist political manifesto and lament for America’s loss of faith in government. Yet it grants a central argument of many religious conservatives — that America’s virtues are indeed steeped in biblical thought.
“When I Was A Child” is a broadside defense of literature and classical liberalism that demands we include the unfashionable Old Testament as a foundation of both. Through rigorous citation and deep personal reflection, Robinson builds an excellent case. New Atheists like Sam Harris and medieval nostalgists like Rick Santorum would each find occasions for garment-rending in this collection.
Yet her contrarian instincts are better at challenging assumptions about biblical and American values than in diagnosing more terrestrial problems. If Christianity’s founding documents really make such a profound argument for equality and kindness, then why do so many Christians get it wrong in her view? And why do those Christians seem to have such an outsized power in America’s politics?
Over the book’s 10 essays, Robinson systematically marshals text-based evidence that upends popular beliefs about faith, America and their uneasy commingling — all themes explored in her novels “Housekeeping,” “Gilead” and “Home” as well. In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” she champions John Calvin, a theologian whose very name evokes a dunk in an ice bath of guilt. But as she digs into his actual writings, his Latin translations turn out to lay the masonry for what the word “liberal” means today. When she cites from his sermons — "[A]ccording to your abilitie you be bound to recompense them that have traveled for you, & have bin the instruments of such blessings” — echoes of Marx are intended.
The connection between economics and morality is an undercurrent in the collection. In “Austerity as Ideology,” she explores the idea of where a country derives its worth. Robinson defends the commons, but from a preservationist vantage point worthy of founding conservative Edmund Burke: “Those in earlier generations who intended the benefits of education for me did not intend them any less for my great-grandchildren. But the new ideology seems to assume that the public as such cannot legitimately own anything or obligate the living to anything.” In the wake of Antonin Scalia’s famous quip on the government’s obligation to treating the sick — “Well, don’t obligate yourself to that” — Robinson’s liberalism feels more truly conservationist than what we call conservatism today.
Preserving the culture of literature is her other priority. In the title essay, Robinson evokes an Idaho childhood on her grandparents’ ranch where “lonesome is a word with strongly positive connotations.” The isolation of reading is “sensitizing and clarifying,” and a natural complement to the idea of the American West, which is in many ways the idea of America — “It should be clear why I find the Homestead Act all in all the most poetic piece of legislation since Deuteronomy, which it resembles.”
But for all her edifying work reclaiming bedrock Western texts for progressive ends, this collection has trouble suggesting how to move forward on the ground. Clearly, Robinson believes that a more accurate reading of America’s source material will result in better politics.
But this book’s scrambling of liberalism and conservatism presents its own problem — if our foundational texts and traditional ideologies aren’t serving as our map, then what is guiding our faiths and our government?
Well, people are. Robinson’s defense of our national character and the systems it created can swell your heart — “What if good institutions were in fact the product of good intentions?” But American government seems systemically incapable of acting on its better angels today. It’s hard to see where she thinks a more sensitive Calvinism might soften a Supreme Court majority that didn’t once cite the needs of the sick in hearings about the fate of the heathcare overhaul. Good institutions have to withstand bad intentions too, and American government is struggling to do so today.
That confidence in the inherent virtue of her preferred institutions (both religious and secular) can sometimes have a whiff of smugness. “In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos,” she writes in “Freedom of Thought.” That’s a vague, misty accusation from an otherwise methodical academic, and there are a few quantum physicists who might challenge her point there.
Still, “When I Was A Child” feels progressive in its belief that humanity has written stories that hold their virtue over millenniums. And her commitment to those texts is ultimately humble before all that we don’t know — “when I see a man or woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me,” she writes. "[W]hich is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”