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Awards & Honors: 2012 National Humanities Medalist

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s career represents a remarkable merger of the interests of the public intellectual and the private citizen. In her three gemlike novels, she has used modest heartland settings to unearth universal themes of family and spirit, in time becoming one of the most admired practitioners of literary fiction in the United States. And, as an essayist and scholar, she has explored biblical, scientific, and political concerns with an urgency that belies the calm, reasoned tone that defines her work. “Every subject that I talk about, whether it’s economics or nuclear physics or whatever, it has a very strong ethical dimension,” she says. “As the future looms before us, I think we can see the ethical seriousness of many kinds of choices becoming more and more apparent.”

Robinson was born in 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, a small town she evoked in her debut novel, Housekeeping (1980). She began writing that novel as an experiment in metaphor while pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Washington, but the book evolved into a more robust story about two sisters’ efforts to find a stable perch among a series of relatives. The qualities that define Robinson’s fiction emerged fully formed in that first novel: watertight sentences, an attentive voice that demands close attention, and themes of integrity and home. Farrar, Straus & Giroux published the slim, quiet book with minimal expectations, but a rave by Anatole Broyard in the New York Times Book Review gained Housekeeping an audience. He wrote: “You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt.”

Housekeeping would win the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, but Robinson would not publish another novel for nearly twenty-five years. In the meantime, she pursued an interest in political and theological subjects, which produced two nonfiction books: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989) and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998). She also began teaching creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she has served on the faculty since 1991. Teaching, she says, has given her confidence in the future of fiction as a discipline. The students “are more diverse than they have been historically,” she says. “Their interests are more diverse than they have been historically. And they’re just impressively thoughtful people. I don’t want to make invidious comparisons with earlier groups, but I’m certainly very much impressed about who they are and what they do.”

She returned to fiction with her 2004 novel, Gilead. Written as a series of diary entries by an aging Iowa minister to his young son, the book blended religious guidance with gentle reminiscences and graver revelations of family secrets. The book was a commercial and critical success—James Wood admired the way it had “its feet planted firmly on the Iowa soil and its eyes fixed imploringly on heaven”—and it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She revisited the novel’s cast of characters in her 2008 novel, Home, which would win the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction).

Robinson was born Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist—she occasionally delivers a guest sermon at her Iowa City church—and has rarely gone long without writing on Protestant history and doctrine. In particular, she has strived to correct misperceptions about the philosophy of John Calvin, most recently in her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012). More broadly and more ambitiously, she has addressed the complications of religious and scientific knowledge in a series of 2009 lectures at Yale University, collected in Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010).

Robinson’s work is unified not just by its grace and emotional power, but by its epistemological urge—her career is marked by her various efforts to understand how we come to understanding. “The question always is, how can I know what I need to know, how well can I trust what I seem to know, how well can I articulate what seems to me needs to be said?” she asks. “Different disciplines pose the question in different ways, and that’s why I find science and so on so interesting, because they put another light on that same question. But that’s always the question.”

— by Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, and many other publications.