Some months ago, I wrote of Marilynne Robinson that,
Regardless of her political preferences, her worldview, in its starkly Calvinist way, and insofar as it’s expressed in those novels and Absence of Mind, is conservative in a way that goes far beyond the political.
I further claimed that her novels Gilead and Home were “at their core . . . conservative works.” I wasn’t entirely at ease with the phrasing at the time—my mention of going beyond the political was an attempt, of sorts, to hedge—and have grown less comfortable with time. Her most recent collection of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, leads me to suspect that she would respond, more or less, by saying she had always thought of them as deeply liberal works. Though that, too, would be an unsatisfactory label.
Peter Lawler, however, has offered me the term that I was groping blindly for: Robinson, he says, is a “neo-Puritanical novelist”:
[I]t’s from the Puritans that we get the idea that freedom is about more than work or productivity. Every person has a soul, and so everyone should be able to read what the Bible says about one’s personal destiny and charitable moral responsibilities for oneself.
The Puritans, Robinson explains, are a potent source of our devotion to liberal education, to education for civilization. The Jeffersonians, we might say, excel in the pursuit of the means or conditions of freedom, but it’s the Puritans who supplied us with our original insight about the personal end or point of our freedom. Freedom of religion is for freedom of religion–understood as an organized community of thought and action in which particular persons participate.”
What confused me—what prompted me to label her works, despite my best judgment, “conservative”—is the refusal of Robinson’s writing to accept many of the premises of contemporary liberalism—at least as it is construed in what we’ve taken to calling “liberal” cultural products. The crux of it is: Humans are created beings with souls, and therefore freedom must be a freedom in order to—a freedom with some defining purpose that takes into account that we are created beings with souls.
That doesn’t make her a voice out to spread the Good News. It makes her a quiet but insistent voice that relentlessly judges history. She is—as the title of the most recent collection should make clear—one of America’s most genuinely counter-cultural voices.
On a further note, maybe this helps to explain my continued befuddlement at the question of liberal/conservative (“pop”) culture: certainly there’s plenty that’s liberal, and less that’s conservative—but there is a third category that, like Robinson, may reject premises of contemporary (“pop”) culture without becoming conservative, or, if not in outright rejection of these premises, is deeply and genuinely self-critical and self-questioning. I’d be willing to wager, moreover, that what we deem lasting and worthwhile from this period’s cultural production in fifty years will have been disproportionately from the third category.