Reading Marilynne Robinson from the left

“...when his belief in the rightness of his position dissipated like mist, under no real scrutiny.”

I was 13 pages into Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the companion to Gilead, a book that changed me in important small ways, and saw what clinched an unusually intense string of coincidence. I began writing this issue to acknowledge it.

It didn’t take long for me to see that the coincidence was rather part of a greater confluence, in which, as ever, I am immersed. Now I write to note the new tributaries that have lent their essence to the stream.

Before Robinson I was reading Peter Orner. On Tuesday night I finished the last essay in Am I Alone Here?, on Wednesday morning the last novella in Maggie Brown and Others. Orner thanks Robinson in both acknowledgments; I think he studied with her at Iowa. There’s that.

There’s also the affinity I feel for this “Jewish kid from Chicago,” who articulates my gut feeling that “only through reading has the rest of the world, including my own small place in it, begun to make any sense whatsoever.” In Am I Alone Here?, Orner writes about the books most important to him in order to make sense of other things, like his relationship with his father, or embedding with the Zapatistas in Chiapas just before getting married. “Long live Comandante Ramona and Subcomandante Marcos,” indeed.

And there are the minutes I spent Wednesday afternoon considering which sense-maker next. I picked through Leon Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution; I left it for later. Instead I chose Home. This novel tells the story of Jack Boughton, prodigal son to Rev. Robert Boughton, returning to Gilead, Iowa after 20 years incommunicado. It felt like the right thing to be reading as I flirt with prodigality myself.

Robinson narrates in the close third person through Glory, youngest of eight Boughtons, whom life has also brought back to her birthplace. On page eight, as Glory considers “the immutable terrain of her childhood,” she recollects an old enmity between her father and a neighbor they knew only as… Mr. Trotsky. Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live  eBook: Orner, Peter: Kindle Store

Mr. Trotsky liked converting his incongruous politics into praxis: Each year, he could be counted on to grow alfalfa on Boughton land without permission. Then, Mr. Trotsky, “who seemed otherwise unemployed and who railed against the cash nexus, donated his crop to a rural cousin, who in exchange donated to him a certain amount of money.” The Boughtons found the whole situation somewhat funny, if irritating.

(Alfalfa, I learned last Sunday from LSAT PrepTest 73, is what’s known as a “green-manure” crop, rejuvenating the soil in which it grows. Mr. Orner, should I follow you to law school, too?)

One day, as they play “a joyless and determined game of fox and geese,” the Boughton children take it upon themselves to trample Mr. Trotsky’s crop. Their father immediately sees an “opportunity for Christian humility in such an unambiguous form that the neighbor could feel it only as rebuke.” He sends them to apologize.

They knocked at the door of the small brown house and the wife opened it. She seemed happy enough to see them, and not at all surprised. She asked them in, mentioning with a kind of regret the smell of cooking cabbage. The house was sparsely furnished and crowded with books, magazines, and pamphlets, the arrangements having a provisional feeling even though the couple had lived there for years. There were pictures pinned to the walls of bearded, unsmiling men and women with rumpled hair and rimless glasses.

The Boughtons quickly announce their penitence; Mrs. Trotsky knows why they’re there. She calls up to Mr. Trotsky, “perhaps in a foreign language,” then admonishes the children herself, naming their crime senseless destruction.

A brother defends them: “That is our field. I mean, my father does own it.” The wrong thing to say.

“Poor child,” she said. “You know no better than this, to speak of owning land when no use is made of it. Owning land just to keep it from others. That is all you can learn from your father the priest! Mine, mine, mine! While he earns his money from the ignorance of the people!” She waved a slender arm and a small fist. “Telling his foolish lies again and again while everywhere the poor suffer!”

The siblings are aghast. “They had never heard anyone speak this way before, certainly not to them or about them.” Jack singles himself out by laughing; Mrs. Trotsky lights into him, too: “I know who you are. The boy thief, the boy drunkard! While your father tells the people how to live! He deserves you!” Jack laughs again and leads them out the door. As they scamper home they’re already plotting revenge, but the reverend responds to their report with that “tireless tenderness of his” — with grace again designed to dot the point.

My first pass through these five pages left me thinking Robinson had given the Trotskys short shrift, pushed them too far towards meanness and caricature. I’ve since reread them a number of times and no longer know what I think.

Robinson does skirt past why the couple (Ashkenazim, surely, fish far out of water) might be so dour. But she also grants Glory hindsight on her innocence — and here is where the scene’s significance seems to lie: “She was too young at the time to understand the alfalfa putsch, and she was in college when she began to see what the old stories meant, that they were really the stirring and smoldering of old fires that had burned furiously elsewhere.”

I believe this description of the old stories fits Home itself. Robinson is cagey with dates, but the novel takes place in mid-1950s, as the fight for civil rights began scorching the country anew, even if it would leave towns like Gilead physically unscathed. Though I’m still only halfway through, I have little hope for Jack Boughton — supporter of Adlai Stevenson, reader of W. E. B. Du Bois, husband to a Black woman, father of their mixed-race child — as he has stepped back into Robinson’s America, a place that believes it is already in possession of what it takes to be good.

Home: A Novel - Kindle edition by Robinson, Marilynne. Religion &  Spirituality Kindle eBooks @

Robinson lays out her worldview more frankly in her nonfiction. Her new piece in the New York Review of Books remained fresh in my memory. From there I worked backwards through her recent essays — discursive and knotty where her fiction is lambent, unadorned — until again the nature of my inquiry changed: I wasn’t so much stuck on the Trotskys as I was curious to know what Robinson would make of where the current has taken me. The apparent answer is frustrating.

There’s a central question driving her recent essays: “What have we done with America?” On the surface, we see the same symptoms of care mislaid. We’ve foisted austerity on our public sphere, to the especial detriment of our universities. We’ve separated our electoral system from true representative democracy. We’ve suppressed wages “while wealth swells like an aneurysm on the other side of the same economy.” We’ve incorporated competition into the marrow of our bones.

Beneath all this blight, however, Robinson identifies something still invisible to me: remnants of a culture worth restoring. To her eyes, the source of our problems is that “America as a whole has embraced, under the name of conservatism and also patriotism, a radical departure from its own history.”

In explaining how poverty is a condition we’ve chosen to perpetuate, rehabilitating the Puritans’ reputation as our earliest reformers, or arguing that the humanities’ value has never been higher, Robinson is really decrying a close-mindedness that has shackled our society, kept us from our first principles. “This is how we educate people in this country: intellectual lockdown. Learn an attitude and inquire no further.” This rings true. But it bugs me that on this basis Robinson also dismisses the left, given our “quaint adherence to Marxian categories,” even though we apply them to agitate for the precise reversals she seeks to engender.

I’m not sure there’s anyone better than Robinson on how ideology has petrified American politics. Her bête noires are Bentham and Malthus, or efficiency and scarcity, the respective horses they ride. I’m on board only up to here; I hop off before accepting that we need to recover the “animating spirit of humanism” in order for our ailments to abate. The thing I am sure of is that the roots of our rot reach beyond an aberration in our nation’s moral lineage.

I’m upset at myself for criticizing Marilynne Robinson. This learned Calvinist — whose fiction, again, introduced new colors to my field of vision — is one of our staunchest bastions of virtue. God forbid we want the same thing for different reasons.

Yet I do take solace in that I’m not alone here. Reviewing What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson’s 2018 collection of speeches and essays, Parul Sehgal relays her discomfort when Robinson falls into the very trap she fervently warns against: “when she says that ideologies are to be avoided because they come with conclusions baked into them, I begin to fidget. This sounds an awful lot like some of Robinson’s own nonfiction.” In her review, Sarah Leonard called Robinson’s famous conversation with President Obama “a Norman Rockwell painting disguised as an interview.”

If ideology — that which ends a conversation before it’s begun — can’t be avoided, then what’s there to do? Find an ideology that looks and sounds like something else. Uplift reform over revolution, shun radicalism in favor of religiosity. Draw on Tocqueville and Whitman, or, obscurer models, Henry Ward Beecher and Henry George. Identify as a “liberal Democrat,” if liberal is taken to mean “open-handed,” as it did for John Winthrop when he gave voice to the original American dream — a “city upon a hill— before having set foot on its soil. Who could argue with that?

BIPOC, perhaps. Granting that Robinson wrote that most recent essay about Covid, before police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, there remains a gap in her philosophy where racial capitalism wants to slot in. There are few real rocks that can shatter the tempered panes of pre-baked conclusion. For both classical Marxism and religious humanism, paradoxically enough, such missiles include the hardships of a stranger that neither political economy nor human nature can exactly explain. Here I speak of racism.

“Does an instance of white people acting badly really cancel out another instance of white people acting badly, though innocents are victimized in both cases?” Robinson wondered rhetorically a year ago. She was chastising “a tactic of evasion to which Americans are prone” when confronted with the evils of others. (Catastrophic safety failures killed 72 Londoners when their public housing caught fire? Well, in Los Angeles, the number of unhoused people jumped 16 percent last year.) No, indeed they don’t cancel each other out; they actually compound.

So my generation is calibrating its own scales. Remember the pair of lawyers who tried to burn an empty cop car during a demonstration in Fort Greene, Brooklyn? Thanks to the Commerce Clause, they’re facing 45 years to life. There’s not a single system in place that should be spared our scrutiny. Forgive us if we’re not tender, for we’ve grown tired of the ethical instruction available within the confines of this nation.

Robinson says “the assumption that things can get better, with the expectation that they should, creates the kind of social ferment that yields progress.” I find that optimism lacking in the face of a politics energized by what Frantz Fanon deemed the “terrible ferment of subversion,” a process that begins when even the mainstream politicians “make the people dream dreams.” If that didn’t describe 2008, doesn’t it match where we’re at today? Maybe it’s just that I’m reading Wretched of the Earth with peers who are on a page quite similar to mine.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Either way, it bears repeating that I want what Robinson wants: a society that’s actually just. The point of contention is how — and, more challenging, why — to get ourselves there. Robinson would have us follow our New England theologians’ lead. Winthrop took his Arbella shipmates to be the “founders of a new civilization,” and sought to express to them his conviction that “inequality is the divinely created occasion for liberality.”

“Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.” This is a paraphrase of the verse in the Book of Acts describing the practice of the early Church, more succinctly and famously paraphrased by Karl Marx as “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”

Both work for me. I just happen to believe that ditching the axis of left and right makes it harder to tell up from down, let alone keep our feet on the ground.

The ideology we could all use, I think it’s fair to say, is one that works as a valve, separating the forward flow of inspiration from regressive motivation. That way, we can drink from the same river, no matter its source, and help each other navigate the rough seas of change we’ve reached.

To end with Home: It helps to know Rev. Boughton never confronts Mr. Trotsky because he fears an ethical argument. Not too long before, there had been an “embarrassing episode when he tried to prevent the town from putting a road through his land, on no better grounds than that his father would have opposed it, and his grandfather.” Eventually, “his belief in the rightness of his position dissipated like mist, under no real scrutiny.” I’m open to the possibility that one day I’ll experience something similar. But in this case, it’s also true that Mr. Trotsky planted his alfalfa — “the beautiful alfalfa, so green it was almost blue, so succulent that a mist stood on its tiny leaves even in the middle of the day” — on land that would have otherwise lain bare.

The year after the kerfuffle, Mr. Trotsky moved on from alfalfa to potatoes and squash. The next year, corn.

A nephew of the rural cousin came to help him with his crop, and in time was given the use of the field and built a small house on one corner of it and brought a wife there, and they had children. More beds of marigolds, another flapping clothesline, another roof pitched under heaven to shelter human hope and frailty. The Boughtons tacitly ceded all claim.

So far, that’s the last I’ve heard of the Trotskys. It seems Glory, with the wisdom she’s given, doesn’t find them so strange after all. I’ll get back to reading.

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