WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? by Marilynne Robinson


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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her novels, Robinson (The Givenness of Things: Essays, 2015, etc.) gathers trenchant essays about faith, values, and history, most delivered as lectures at religious institutions and universities from 2015 to 2017.

Speaking at the University of Virginia, the author told her audience that she discovered, in an article on the internet, a description of herself as personifying “unhipness,” a quality that she cheerfully embraces. “I am in my seventies, I was born in Idaho, I live in Iowa, I teach in a public university, and I am a self-professed Calvinist,” she admits. Her unhipness, though, was given as a warning that readers “will find thinking that is very unlike their own.” This fear of contradictory ideas Robinson finds deeply disturbing: history is filled with “erasures and omissions,” she asserts, which skew our understanding of our shared heritage. In several essays, for example, she points to mistaken beliefs about capitalism, American exceptionalism, slavery, and the Puritans. “The convention,” she writes, “is that Puritan culture was stunted intellectually, emotionally, and morally by the religious tradition that also founded Harvard and, of course, Yale, to name only local examples of their remarkable institution-building and their devotion to learning.” In an essay about freedom of conscience, Robinson characterizes “Early American historiography” as “a toxic compound of cynicism and cliché, so false that it falsifies by implication the history of the Western world.” She blames nostalgia for the conviction that America “must once have had the authenticity and fellow feeling supposedly to be derived from a common stock,” emphasizing the ethnic and religious diversity that flourished since Colonial times. Robinson is at her most lyrical when writing about Barack Obama, whom she much admires and believes to have been the ideal president for 21st-century America: “dignified, gracious, competent, and humane,” showing endurance “more than heroic.” The author also writes with rueful anger about the vicious slander that her mother saw on Fox News.

Sharp, elegant cultural analysis.

Pub Date: Feb. 20th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-374-28221-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2017


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