Humility and charity rarely find themselves heading the list of American virtues. Marilynne Robinson, however, in her recent essay collection When I was a Child I Read Books, finds in them the soul of democracy. As she writes in the introduction, “to identify sacred mystery with every individual experience…is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching reverence.”
As the quote suggests, and Robinson subsequently explains, she grounds this collection of musings on civic virtue and the state of American public life with reflection on human nature. Rather than offering a positive formulation, however, she attempts this apophatically—to “make inroads on the vast terrain or what cannot be said,” as she defines later in the book. Rather than metaphysical concerns, she takes the mystery of consciousness as the most primal fact of human life. Because of this, Robinson celebrates the very feature of democracy which its detractors criticize as destabilizing: the heterogeneity of democratic society. Consciousness, Robinson insists, is fundamentally heterogeneous, varying not only between individuals but also between regions and nations, and therefore democracy is descriptive of the human condition rather than prescriptive. Democratic virtue, not conformity, makes coherence possible in a truly free society.
By democratic virtue, Robinson means those habits of soul which cultivate “imaginative identification . . . with [the] shared humanity” of others. Without this imagination, “[it] is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts.” Civil conversation would because impossible because it requires imputing good intention to those who hold differing views from ones’ own.
Though the book is a collection of independent essays, as a whole it certainly makes a central argument, which deserves some summary here. For Robinson, rigorous education cultivates this imagination which democratic virtue requires. Fiction and poetry opens children to their own unique inner lives, and it allows them to identify and sympathize with the inner lives of others. Literature teaches humility before the complexity of human experience which escapes circumscription and yet submits itself to those who would approach it slant-ways in poetry and fiction. Only such literary habits of mind protect a person against ideological attempts to define and limit the purpose and meaning of human life.
Education, however, has been in a decline for decades, Robinson claims, and she sees a direct causality between the loss of literary education and the impoverishment and polarization of civil discourse. She spends a majority of the book calling upon an impressive breadth of historical sources to root out this mole in the garden of American civil life. To her credit the rant rarely becomes self-indulgent, either for her or for the reader. She treats the disintegration of public discourse as a public responsibility—and this includes both her and her reader. She requires her audience to examine itself for every form of a bad faith, denouncing the “bright line between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’”: the American public is lazy and undisciplined, whereas I and my friends work hard; the other party’s ideals just conceal a ruthless will to power.
Despite the breadth and force of Robinson’s argument, however, the book falters. Her attempt to establish the mystery of consciousness as the rallying cry of democracy fails to produce any clear positive vision of American civil life. By banishing from the conversation any ultimate commitments, the book ends with a brittle aestheticism. The apophatic proves a bit too radiant a fog for the robust needs of human life, and the reader wonders if a some of the Protestant and American voices Robinson draws up in her defense didn’t offer a rather better field book of the “vast terrain” of the unsayable which Robinson equates with human nature. For instance, I doubt whether John Calvin—Robinson’s personal favorite on whose behalf she launched an admirable defense in her book The Death of Adam—would have approved of her praise for American intellectuals like Walt Whitman for whom “creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation.” Perhaps we can call this a certain aestheticism of the soul: “A man must not mean but be.”
The problem with aestheticism of all stripes, however, is that it is essentially reductionist. After all, one of the progenitors of literary aestheticism, Oscar Wilde, also wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, two deeply moral works. Robinson, perhaps, forgets that though literature certainly teaches inwardness and sympathy, it often does so by impressing the reader with the moral weight of choice. The variety of human choices, four millennia of world literature teaches us, often end tragically. The best laid plans of mice and men, and all that.
Likewise, while Robinson laments the loss of “soul” from American vocabulary, her aesthetic appreciation of religion belies its obnoxious and perennial tendency to insist on firm and clear ends to human life, and therefore public life. Given the broad knowledge of Protestant intellectual history demonstrated here and elsewhere, her failure to note its tendencies to meddle socially and politically seems puzzling. If religion is the heart of Robinson’s America, it seems missing from its backbone and biceps, a troubling absence in light of its historical force.
Of course, it is pretty hard to give an exact outline of what “Robinson’s America” would be in its ideal, or at least improved, form, and there’s the unfortunate failure of a really delightful and insightful book. Sometimes it’s almost too easy to just accuse her of nostalgia, particularly when she laments the starvation of “our great public education system” which is largely the offspring of John Dewey and an experiment of the kind of capitalistic labor mill Robinson abhors.
Nostalgia aside, she doesn’t seem to have a telos for American virtue, and though she lambastes the political Right for its cramped individualism, it’s hard to see how her lovely articulation of the mystery of conscious gives much direction for communal life. A negative formulation of freedom as respect for the mysterious unknown just isn’t a strong enough peg to hang a nation’s public life upon. She talks a lot of about cooperation and sympathy, but with little indication of the end toward which we strive.
This aimlessness also wrinkles up the book’s generally starched style. While her admirers will appreciate here her characteristic economy and vigor, When I was a Child I Read Books lacks the precision and polish of Robinson’s earlier work. The diction tends a bit toward abstraction, while the essays have an unsettling habit of spiraling around one another. Unlike the best of her previous essays, many lack clear internal structure and are prone to unsubstantiated claims. Several times, I was even sure I had read nearly an identical sentence a few dozen pages before.
Those who already appreciate the probity of Marilynne Robinson’s thought and the weightiness of her prose style will find When I was a Child I Read Books rewarding. It isn’t, however, the best introduction to her work. The essays rarely obtain the necessary internal momentum to arrive at that elusive place of almost reading themselves—a quality she achieves so well in the best of her fictional and discursive work. It is certainly the kind of book read best with a pen in hand, and a second skim after a preliminary read will reveal patterns in what before appeared scattered threads. Even at its low points, however, the book deserves and requires the reader’s robust attention, and Marilynne Robinson never fails to reward the humility and charity of her readers.