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Monday, March 12, 2012  

Calvin vs. Hobbes

My review of Marilynne Robinson's new collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is now online at the Washington Monthly:

The political implications of Robinson’s work emerge with particular clarity in her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The force of these decades of speculations and explorations has been summoned with some urgency by the 2008 economic crisis and the punitive responses—on both the populist right and the technocratic center—that have followed. The “language of public life has lost the character of generosity,” Robinson writes in the introduction, “and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.” 

Words like “generosity” and “largeness of spirit” are not clichés in this instance. For Marilynne Robinson, human life expands or contracts based on how we define ourselves. And the American founding, contrary to the bitter nostalgia of the Tea Party right and the cynical debunking of the postmodern left, was staked on the idea that humans are capable of much more than our contemporary ideologies admit. This great democratic, progressive ambition comes, Robinson claims, from New England Calvinism. 

Competing with other, more conservative religious interpretations of America, New England Calvinism spread through the Midwest in an effort to create a culture that was resistant to slavery and came to exert a disproportionate influence on the nation as a whole through educational institutions and revival movements. The legacy of this distinctive religious culture is a large part of what is at stake in contemporary debates over taxes, spending, and the safety net—whether we know it or not.

When I got back into the world of periodical writing after more than a year's hiatus, something along the lines of this article was one of the things I wanted to do. I regret that format and timing--I didn't know the book was coming out until relatively soon before a review needed to be complete--prevented me from trying to wrangle an interview, which is one of my lingering ambitions. But in any event, Robinson has helped shape my work, both in ministry and in writing, since I read Gilead in 2005 (the following summer, I remember sitting in the Ford City Potbelly's and crying big, cinematic tears as I read the last part of Housekeeping. I was doing hospice chaplaincy at the time, so that may have had something to do with it. In any event, a topic for a different essay).

Now I only mention all of this because it's easy for writers to stint on the gratitude we owe to the people we write about, whether they're our heroes or our dead relatives or strangers we overhear on the train (there is a 2003 Metro North ride that awaits the right setting, believe me). And while I suppose all of these people sit down with us when we start working on something new, there is a special privilege, over and above the privilege embodied in writing itself, in having the chance to write about someone who matters to you in the way that Marilynne Robinson matters to me.

(I wrote this review of Absence of Mind in 2010, in case you're interested).

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:33 PM
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