Michael Horton and the White Horse Inn have a new half-hour audio interview online with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson:[audio:http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/files/2009/12/WHInterviewMR.mp3]
(Download the mp3 here.)
Robinson also explains that she started reading Calvin’s Institutes after teaching Moby Dick. They also talk about the Puritans, the difference between good and bad fiction, and much more.
Robinson has been called “the world’s best writer of prose,” and I assume most readers of this blog are familiar with her novels—but if not, here they are:
Housekeeping: A Novel (1980)
Named by The Observer one of the 100 greatest novels of all time and Time Magazine’s s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. From Wikipedia’s plot summary: “Ruth narrates the story of how she and her younger sister Lucille are raised by a succession of relatives in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho . . . Eventually their aunt Sylvie (who has been living as a transient) comes to take care of them. Initially they become a close knit group, but as Lucille grows up she comes to dislike their eccentric lifestyle and she moves out. Then when Ruth’s well-being is being questioned by the courts, Sylvie returns to living on the road and takes Ruth with her. The novel treats the subject of housekeeping, not only in the domestic sense of cleaning, but in the larger sense of keeping a spiritual home for one’s self and family in the face of loss, for the girls experience a series of abandonments as they come of age.”
Gilead: A Novel (2004)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Publishers Weekly: “Fans of Robinson’s acclaimed debut Housekeeping (1981) will find that the long wait has been worth it. From the first page of her second novel, the voice of Rev. John Ames mesmerizes with his account of his life—and that of his father and grandfather. Ames is 77 years old in 1956, in failing health, with a much younger wife and six-year-old son; as a preacher in the small Iowa town where he spent his entire life, he has produced volumes and volumes of sermons and prayers, “[t]rying to say what was true.” But it is in this mesmerizing account—in the form of a letter to his young son, who he imagines reading it when he is grown—that his meditations on creation and existence are fully illumined. Ames details the often harsh conditions of perishing Midwestern prairie towns, the Spanish influenza and two world wars. He relates the death of his first wife and child, and his long years alone attempting to live up to the legacy of his fiery grandfather, a man who saw visions of Christ and became a controversial figure in the Kansas abolitionist movement, and his own father’s embittered pacifism. During the course of Ames’s writing, he is confronted with one of his most difficult and long-simmering crises of personal resentment when John Ames Boughton (his namesake and son of his best friend) returns to his hometown, trailing with him the actions of a callous past and precarious future. In attempting to find a way to comprehend and forgive, Ames finds that he must face a final comprehension of self—as well as the worth of his life’s reflections. Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense. There is no simple redemption here; despite the meditations on faith, even readers with no religious inclinations will be captivated. Many writers try to capture life’s universals of strength, struggle, joy and forgiveness—but Robinson truly succeeds in what is destined to become her second classic.”
Home: A Novel (2008)
Publishers Weekly: “Robinson’s beautiful new novel, a companion piece to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, is an elegant variation on the parable of the prodigal son’s return. The son is Jack Boughton, one of the eight children of Robert Boughton, the former Gilead, Iowa, pastor, who now, in 1957, is a widowed and dying man. Jack returns home shortly after his sister, 38-year-old Glory, moves in to nurse their father, and it is through Glory’s eyes that we see Jack’s drama unfold. When Glory last laid eyes on Jack, she was 16, and he was leaving Gilead with a reputation as a thief and a scoundrel, having just gotten an underage girl pregnant. By his account, he’d since lived as a vagrant, drunk and jailbird until he fell in with a woman named Della in St. Louis. By degrees, Jack and Glory bond while taking care of their father, but when Jack’s letters to Della are returned unopened, Glory has to deal with Jack’s relapse into bad habits and the effect it has on their father. In giving an ancient drama of grace and perdition such a strong domestic setup, Robinson stakes a fierce claim to a divine recognition behind the rituals of home.“
Professor Robinson is not only a novelist, but also an essayist—best-known for the following collection of essays:
The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998).
Publishers Weekly: “”My intention, my hope, is to revive interest in . . . John Calvin. If I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt that the average reader would have read this far.” That’s the introduction to one essay, but it could also apply to most of Robinson’s (Housekeeping) first book in nearly a decade. Among the 10 essays here is one on the idea of wilderness and an intensely personal meditation on growing up Presbyterian, but these are essentially afterthoughts to an impassioned argument against America’s contemporary social Darwinists cum free marketeers. And here’s where Calvin comes in. She rebuts the characterization of Calvin as protocapitalist and the quick dismissal of his Puritan followers as prigs. Instead, she finds in their example a more fulfilling morality, one that substitutes personal responsibility for contemptuous condemnation of our fellows and a more personal, independent relationship with God and conscience. The corollary of the notion that “our unhappiness is caused by society, is that society can make us happy,” she writes, adding, “Whatever else it is, morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself.” Though there are occasional problems—for example, the argument “an important historical ‘proof’ very current among us now is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence unconscious of the irony of the existence of slavery”—is simply a straw man. But for the most part her moral integrity is accompanied by an equally rigorous intellectual integrity, and rather than accepting received wisdom she hunts it out for herself among original texts. In the process, she revives founding beliefs as a possible solution for current ills.”
This Spring (May 2010) Yale University Press will publish the Terry Lectures she delivered at Yale in the Spring of 2009: (1) “On Human Nature,” (2) “The Strange History of Altruism,” (3) “The Freudian Self,” (4) “Thinking Again.” The book will be called Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. Here is the publisher’s description: “In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson’s view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality.
Finally, here’s a 20-minute video interview with Ms. Robinson from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop on visiting Iowa and the rich history of the Midwest: