NEA Big Read


by Marilynne Robinson

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Marilynne Robinson (Copyright Nancy Crampton)

Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943)

"Robinson is a kind of contemporary George Eliot: socially engaged, preoccupied with the environment and the moral progress of man...." — The New York Times

Marilynne Robinson was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, where her family lived for four generations: her grandparents were farmers and ranchers; her father was in the lumber industry. "My family was pious and Presbyterian mainly because my grandfather was pious and Presbyterian, but that was more of an inherited intuition than an actual fact," she told The Paris Review. Her two sets of grandparents lived at opposite ends of a bridge that crossed a large, cold, beautiful lake, which claimed the life of her mother's brother in a sailing accident before Robinson was born. There are family legends, she recounts, of "homesteading relatives in the 19th century—coming in covered wagons—dark forests, wolves, American Indians coming to ask for pie.... The women in my family always bake pies. And they're vain about it." Her brother—an art historian—told her at a young age that she would be a poet. "He was like Alexander dividing up the world: I'll be the painter, you'll be the poet" (The Paris Review).

Robinson followed her brother to Brown University in Rhode Island, where she nurtured her interest in 19th-century American literature and creative writing. She graduated in 1966, and from there went on to earn a PhD in English from the University of Washington in Seattle. "In college," she said, "I was in a novel-writing class and I started a novel, which I loathed and detested the minute I graduated" (The Paris Review). Once she completed her dissertation on Shakespeare, she began working on her first novel, Housekeeping (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), now a modern classic. She gave a draft of the novel to a friend and fellow writer, who passed it on to an agent without her knowledge. "If he hadn't done that," said Robinson, "I'm not at all sure that I would ever have submitted it for publication."

It would be 24 years before Robinson published her next novel, Gilead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In the meantime, she devoted herself to writing essays, book reviews, and nonfiction books on environmental and public health dangers, the relationship between science and religion, American politics, and the ideas of French theologian John Calvin, which are often reflected in Robinson's works—Robinson identifies as a Congregationalist. During this time, she also moved to Iowa. In 1991, she joined the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she taught until her retirement in the spring of 2016.

Gilead is the first book in a trilogy of Robinson's award-winning novels published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux that center around Gilead, Iowa, and share characters that are in some way connected to Gilead's protagonist, John Ames: Home (2008) is about the return of the hell-raising son of Ames's friend Reverend Boughton; and Lila (2014) illuminates the backstory of Ames's wife. "After I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters," Robinson told The Paris Review. "I feel sort of bereaved. So I was braced for the experience after Gilead."

"Robinson has created a small, rich, and fearless body of work in which religion exists unashamedly, as does doubt, unashamedly," writes The New York Review of Books. "Perhaps Robinson is able to write so powerfully and engagingly about religion, even for the nonreligious, even now when the discussion of religion has become so debased by fiery fundamentalism on the one hand and fiery atheism on the other, because she writes about questions rather than answers. Even her preachers do not preach so much as wonder. Morality and judgment are present only obliquely, part of a distant landscape."

Robinson's awards are numerous, her reputation as a major American writer for the ages secure. TIME Magazine included her in its list of "the 100 most influential people." The Library of Congress bestowed upon her its Prize for American Fiction. In 2012, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama, one of her biggest fans who sought her out during one visit to Iowa and took part in a recorded conversation with Robinson about her novels, democracy, politics, and Christianity.

In the meantime, she tries to lead a solitary life. She is divorced with two grown sons. "I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it," she told The Paris Review. "I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It's a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book."

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