In her essays, Marilynne Robinson writes in a prophetic voice—which is to say, with a sense of moral urgency backed by a lofty certainty. To some, this can be annoying, and whenever a new volume of Robinson’s essays appears, a common complaint is that they lack charity toward those with whom she disagrees. As a novelist, the assumption seems to go, she really ought to be a nicer sort of a person. (Which even-tempered novelists provide the basis for this belief is a puzzle beyond my ability to answer.)
But we also are living in prophetic times, or at least times when people would like a prophet to explain what’s going on. So given that we are now in the mood, what do we make of what she’s saying now? In her preface to this book, her fifth collection of essays, Robinson positions herself as someone who understands the dilemma we are facing today, even if she cannot fix it.
The trouble, as she sees it, is that Americans have accepted a story about America that has stripped the country of its moral resources and heritage. Both conservatives and liberals understand America as a country driven primarily by capitalism and self-interest. Such a historical self-understanding undercuts the impulse to reform—why try to improve what was rotten from the start?—while legitimizing greed. “It is shocking,” Robinson writes, “how defenseless the protections of the environment, of the poor, and even of the rights of voters have been shown to be.… No one defends these things as American, because the Left no more than the Right thinks of them as among our core values.” Surely, Robinson thinks, there are ways to take pride in America’s legacy without lapsing into jingoism.
To the extent that What Are We Doing Here? provides a corrective, however, it’s largely by accident. Any guiding principle behind these essays is, for the most part, an after-the-fact concoction. And while most of the best essays in this volume do represent Robinson’s ongoing attempt to rescue America’s heritage, specifically its Puritan heritage, the collection as a whole feels somewhat underworked, even a little phoned-in.