Americans are being led to disparage their finest historical legacy. In When I Was a Child I Read Books Marilynne Robinson examines the falsehoods and popular clichés propelling this impoverishment of the national character. Her hope is that when we understand why we are not only allowing but actually encouraging each other “to think in terms that are demeaning to us all,” we’ll return to the more generous and just estimation of ourselves and others that preserving democracy requires.
Robinson, who teaches at the University of Iowa, is the author of three prior essay collections and the novels Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, and Home. Her books have always radiated a sense of human beings as marvelous mysteries, full of high potential and — being human — often falling short of that potential. Her new book most directly addresses the need for Americans to renew this hopeful yet realistic sense of each other.
The Idaho-born author credits growing up in the West for her love of reading and belief in individualism. As regards her well-known independence of mind, one reviewer of When I Was a Child dubs her “Robinson, gunslinger,” a large-souled loner faced with cleaning up whole townfuls of sloppy, pretentious chatter. Straight-talking good sense in a writer who is also a Christian has sharpened her appeal to secular audiences everywhere, including in the Seattle area, where her ties include a PhD from the University of Washington.
Now reviewers in newspapers from L.A. to the U.K. are discussing the new book as a vital contribution to conversations about human nature and the good society. The Wall Street Journal calls the essays “psalms to an indivisible America.”
Robinson writes that the American corner of the “universe of wonders and astonishments” that we’re lucky to inhabit enjoys a special form of luck. Our nation was founded on ideals that allow and encourage us to honor, even reverence, ourselves and each other. America's reality has often failed to match these ideals, of course, but our oldest traditions foster “imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.”
Yet today’s Americans are growing fearful of their own democracy. We have “self-declared patriots attacking the very substance of our heritage,” and the cost is high. “When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests.”
Narratives of American decline are not new; Robinson traces them as far back as 1838. But now we have a deliberate “marketing of rancor.” Critics of America’s faults “never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree.” Even worse, “Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem.” Without a community in which difference and discussion are possible, democracy may not survive.
Why have warring cynicisms come to dominate public life and squelch the hopes for humanity that inspired the nation’s founders? Partly because we’ve accepted popular neo-Darwinist theories that a person is merely a bundle of instincts for power and survival, Robinson says, and we’ve starved the schools, libraries, and universities that help us develop more rounded, humane conceptions of each other.
To rationalize denying those establishments public support, we’ve adopted an “ideology of austerity.” We're oblivious to the irony that such austerities will kill off the very institutions and customs that brought America unparalleled wealth. Our leaders pander to unenlightened self-interest, saying the kinds of investments in the nation that we made throughout our history are wasteful extortions. We the people now think of ourselves as “we the taxpayers.”
But we aren’t citizens of an economy, and our democracy’s founders specified a duty to “promote the general welfare.” This includes giving everyone access to good books, schools, teachers, colleges, music, art, and civil, informed discussion, says Robinson. Without them we can’t learn to imagine and feel the affection, sympathy, and identification with other people that make community possible.
So let’s stop saying education is elitist. It's not “idleness or triviality … that has no purpose except to assert a claim to superiority.” Robinson turns the elitism cliché around by desiring an elite education for all Americans. Universal learning creates “a ruling class that is more or less identical with the population.” The undemocratic forms of elitism arise when tuitions soar, grants and scholarships are slashed, and leaders deride education for any purpose except job training, as if our great universities should be merely “corporate laboratories and trade schools.”
Public voices on both sides of the political divide promote narrow pessimisms, according to Robinson. Conservatives tend to read U.S. history as touting a small, rigid set of values that all must follow if the nation is to avoid catastrophe. Liberals take “the toxic heritage approach” to the same history, seeing only or mainly baseness, pathology, and failure.
Religion divides us, too. Robinson finds no historical basis for the biased Christian view of the Old Testament as a book teaching intolerance and uncharitableness. Christian benevolence is actually rooted in Mosaic law, whose principles of justice, mercy, and charity far outclassed the savagery toward the vulnerable that persisted in Christian Europe through the 18th century. Citizens of what self-styled patriots keep calling a Christian nation should act on the wisdom the Old Testament gave to the Gospels, Calvinism, and the American Jonathan Edwards, and be bountiful to the needy, the fragile, and the stranger, even when someone may not appear to deserve it.
Robinson is astute and funny about many of the recently multiplying books on religion, whether written by theologians or by New Atheists — their credulity, circular reasoning, and magical thinking. She punctures the notion that a perennial clash between society and the individual exists, arguing that “there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society.” In the course of her book she touches on science, the human brain, mid-20th-century Russia, fiction writing, college students, the selfish gene, David Brooks, housekeeping, the rise of anthropology, the uniquely mixed character of U.S. capitalism, Freud, traditional hymns, Mao’s Red Guard, and the American West’s take on loneliness.
In short, Robinson’s writing is way more interesting than my writing about it. I've even risked mischaracterizing the author by quickly summing up parts of her book, in the process making her seem to resemble the public voices who she hopes will develop more thoughtful, historically grounded views.
Nor can my paraphrases and brief quotations capture Robinson’s style. Her units of thought are the paragraph and the page, not the sentence, and she slows readers down to a pace that makes nuanced, complicated thinking possible. Now and then I was stalled by gnarly syntax or an obscure allusion (who is Marcion?). But in following the movement of Robinson’s mind as she attends to books, ideas, and the world around her, we flex our own. We come to feel what she calls “the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being.”
Perhaps most important for the readers Robinson wants to reach, her optimism is contagious even as she raises urgent questions such as these: If we believe that human beings act solely or even mainly on the basis of self-interest, why should we join with others in building a good society? If we are basically selfish and people outside our small circle are deficient, depraved, undeserving, or unfit to thrive, why should we support them generously when they are in need? Why not just spend our days devouring, like locusts, the goods of the rich and generous nation that others faithfully labored to build?