Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here? Essays (2018) (i)

I’ve been aware of  very favourable responses coming from people whose opinions I trust to the novels of Marilynne Robinson for some time, but like many males of a certain age I don’t read as much fiction as I used to. Seeing reviews of a collection of addresses she’s recently given I pounced on a copy, which I rapidly read and then largely reread, making copious underlinings. She blocks out some very impressive interpretations of issues I’d always known to be important but never really come to grips with.

At the centre of Robinson’s world stand the Puritans, who briefly held power in England in the days of Oliver Cromwell and with whose republican ethos she sympathizes. She sees the founding of New England by the Pilgrim Fathers as a relocation of Puritan values into the New World, in opposition to the slave-owning South, whose values were more closely aligned with those of the mother country. Setting herself against what she takes to be caricatures of early New England that stress the Salem witch hunt, she writes powerfully of the values of this society, and how some of these, such as a stress on conscience and a broadly scientific attitude to the natural world, deeply underwrote those of the United States when it became independent. These lived on in the philosophy of Jonathon Edwards, whose work I am ashamed to say I have never looked at, and the views of Barak Obama, among other people.

Robinson’s heroes are in the main people who have generally been found hard to like. Cromwell has not had a good press in England, while what she describes as a Toryism in Elizabethan studies has yielded a model of culture that cannot find a place for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The society of colonial New England has been held to be irredeemably repressed, Puritans being thought of as men wearing big black hats with buckles and being associated with ‘priggishness, acquisitiveness, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and fanaticism’.  Jonathon Edwards is best remembered for his thinking on hell. Yet, as Robinson tells it, the dissenting northern colonies with their vision of a city on the hill and laws of gentleness and moderation were more progressive than the slave-owning plantation owners of the more Anglican and Anglo South. The Puritans were keener on literacy, and Robinson is particularly interesting on the universities they founded and their influence. Their sermons were logically argued, and Edwards was ‘the best philosophic mind this continent has produced.’ Robinson forces one to think positively about a tradition that has been lacking persuasive defenders for some time.



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