Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson (1943) is the author of the novels Housekeeping (1981), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), and the nonfiction works Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010). In 1991, Robinson became a professor with the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, where she continues to teach creative writing today.

Robinson's Writing Life

Robinson was born on November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho. After attending high school in Sandpoint, she went to Brown University, graduating in 1966; she then enrolled in the graduate program in English at the University of Washington, where she started writing Housekeeping (1981). Housekeeping would eventually become a Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award winner for best first novel, as well as being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, included in The New York Times Books of the Century list and picked as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by the UK Guardian Observer.

After the publication of Housekeeping, Robinson began writing essays and book reviews for Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. She also served as writer-in-residence and visiting professor at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Kent in England, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts.

Her second book, Mother Country: Britain, The Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1988), revealed the extensive environmental damage caused by the nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield, northern England. The book evolved from an essay she wrote for Harper's Review and was a finalist for the National Book Award. A decade later, Robinson published a collection of essays entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.

In 2004, 23 years after the publication of Housekeeping, Robinson published Gilead, her second epistolary novel, set in an imaginary Iowa town. The book is narrated as a letter written by its protagonist, the Reverend John Ames, to his seven-year-old son, as he faces up to the inevitability of death. Gilead won Robinson the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, becoming her best known work. Four years later, she published Home (2008), a follow-up of Gilead, which follows the character Ames’s closest friend and neighbor, the Reverend Robert Boughton, and his two children.

Robinson lives, writes, and teaches in Iowa City. On February 14, 2010, she presented the 27th annual University of Iowa Presidential Lecture, entitled "Being Here," in which she gave a personal, almost intimate account of the deep relationship she has established between her and the Midwest: “I came here to Iowa City because I was invited as a visiting professor to the Writers’ Workshop. I stayed because I learned to love the place …”

"Being Here": Marilynne Robinson, 27th annual University of Iowa Presidential Lecture


Marilynne Robinson’s Plaque

Marilynne Robinson’s Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk displays the following quote from Housekeeping:

"The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train, which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock."

The plaque can be viewed as part of the Iowa Literary Walk tour, which celebrates works by 49 writers who have ties to Iowa. The walk consists of bronze plaques displaying quotes, situated along Iowa Avenue in downtown Iowa City.

Robinson on Writer’s Method and Philosophy

In an essay published on April 3, 2005, Robert McCrum called Gilead “a love letter to lost America”(excerpt):


In scripture, the “balm of Gilead” heals the sick at heart, the wounded and the bereft. Aptly, this long-awaited novel, a Christmas bestseller, has thrilled her admirers and brought Robinson a massive new audience. Speaking exclusively to The Observer at home in Iowa, this elegant and disarmingly merry woman of 61, with more than a hint of the classroom and pulpit in her speech and demeanor, described the moment her new novel took shape.
“I was in the desert in east Oregon and I saw a full moon rising as the sun was setting... it was absolutely brilliant, lovely and amazing. Then I had this picture of an old man sitting at a desk writing while a child was playing beside him on the floor.”
Technically, Gilead is an epistolary novel, but it's much more than a letter and closer to a testament to a lost America of slaves, preachers and self-improving republicans. “What mystifies me is how history perpetuates itself and how it fails to. How memory perpetuates itself and how it fails to,” Robinson says. “Living here in the Midwest has made me very aware that people can utterly forget their own native origins.”
Her Midwest is not the red-state, fundamentalist wilderness of contemporary caricature, but an infinitely subtle landscape in which the textured shades of political and religious idealism reflect the ochre tones of the Iowa landscape. “You could say Gilead is a love letter to Iowa,” she states with a smile. “This is a place that produced many important American writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, Twain. And, of course, men like Sherman, Grant and Lincoln.”
Among the most brilliant achievements of Gilead is the deft way in which, through the evocation of a fictional Gilead (based on the Iowa town of Tabor), Robinson contrives to let the provincial microcosm of the Midwest speak for the teeming macrocosm of America today. Gilead is about the state of the Union, viewed from its heartland. Much of this, she agrees, is the product of diligent research into the byways of Iowa history. More moving, to the non-American reader, is the portrait she slowly builds up of Ames in relation to his son and his own father and grandfather. “My father was very important to me,” she says. “We had the sort of relationship in which everything that matters was unstated.”
Robinson’s childhood gave her a lifelong love of the Bible, and she speaks affectionately of Genesis, Exodus and the Book of Ruth, which has, she admits, “influenced me inordinately. The Ruth-Boaz relationship seems to be what I wrote about in Gilead.” Her childhood reading was steeped in British and American classics: The Little House on the Prairie, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, the collected works of Poe, Melville and Dickens. “It was like some sort of flywheel in my brain as soon as I started reading Dickens: "I've got to write something!" And that was wonderful.” She also learned Latin and is grateful for the way it grounded her sentences. “I would have to count Cicero among my influences,” she says. Her prose flows from these classical sources, at once simple and rich, musical but unadorned. “Writing has always felt like praying,” says one of her characters, expressing the book's mood.

In an excerpt from an interview published on April 4, 2006 in The Christian Century, Debra Bendis asked Robinson to explore the aspect of theology in her work:


Robinson: “Everything you’ve done in your life goes into everything you write. I’ve read theology and history for many years just because it’s my pleasure, so I had a background into which I could incarnate [Ames’s] voice. Other than that it’s a matter of watching people and thinking how someone of a certain nature would think in certain circumstances.
“I grew up in the mountains in northern Idaho, then lived in New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Both of these places are appropriately vain on the subject of their landscapes. When I came to the Midwest and the Great Plains, I decided that I had to learn how to see this landscape, so I spent a lot of time just looking at it, trying to understand how to relax my expectations about mountains, for example, and see the beauty unique to this place. I began to consciously and systematically study the nature of the place because I wanted to know where I was. For me, that always means building a historical sense of a place.
“I’d like to see mainline churches, collectively and individually, remember and claim their profound histories and cultures. The mainline church, for example, founded a great many of the nonpublic universities in the country, and a lot of the public ones as well. This is an intellectual tradition. At least until the middle of the last century, most of the presidents of universities in this country were ordained clergy. This country has spent more time and resources on education than any other civilization in the history of the world. We are not phobic about intellectual institutions, but we act as if we were. We act as if we have to give people a placebo in place of learning and thought.
“I’m interested in the abolitionists partly because of the interesting effect their strategy had. Some speak of abolitionists as if they were all violent crazy people. But what they did was of great consequence: they came into the new territories and built colleges. Many of the colleges in the Midwest had such origins. The founders would buy land from the government and build a church and a college. People wanted to live near colleges and churches, and so the value of the land rose. When some of the land was sold, the money endowed the college or funded the development of another college. This was a well-designed system for creating value. These colleges educated women as well as men, and many were on the Underground Railroad. Oberlin is a classic example: an abolitionist foundation that admitted women and black people on equal terms with white men from the beginning. Important progressive movements germinated in these colleges and communities. They were organized on what was called the Manual Labor System. Everyone who went to a college did the work that was involved in the life of the college. Faculty and students alike hoed the rows and slopped the hogs. The point was, on one hand, to eliminate financial barriers to education and, on the other hand, to remove the stigma attached to physical labor.
“Calvin’s proof for the existence of the soul is the creative capacity of human beings, what they can make, what they can understand, what they can imagine and so on. That they dream, for example. The overplus of human capacity beyond any survival benefit -- this is the image of God. This is the proof of the soul, human divinity. That kind of joy in human gifts and human capacity is the basis of art, the basis of everything good in culture.”

In this excerpt from Intelligent Life magazine in 2008, essayist Emily Bobrow describes Robinson’s life in Iowa City:


Robinson is known as a serious person who hates small talk and prefers authors who are long dead: "I'm not terribly interested in clever writing." She mostly keeps to herself in the broad sweep of Iowa, where she teaches at the University of Iowa's renowned Writers' Workshop. She is sometimes seen walking her dog in Iowa City with her head buried in Melville or Thoreau.
"It's the strangest thing," she says, when I ask what moves her to write fiction. "Something comes to my mind and I can sense a certain heft to it—that it has the weight of a novel. I go into this sort of self-induced trance, and I write it until it's done." She makes it sound like a sort of spellbound serendipity.
"I do have an impulse to sort of leverage what I say against something I disagree with," Robinson says. "That's my usual starting point when I'm writing non-fiction. I tend to take a sometimes, you know, I hate to use the word...polemical approach." Her fiction addresses similarly profound questions, but puts them to beautifully fallible characters.
"Home" feels different from Robinson's earlier work. Told in the third person, it is full of dialogue and repartee and the energy of a moment—not just a moment remembered. All this surprised Robinson, who was writing non-fiction when "Home" suddenly imposed itself. "Those characters were just in my mind—it was as if I could sense that there was another whole reality that I could explore. If there's one determining factor in any fiction that I write, it's that I always love my characters. That puts limits on how far out of line they can get, I suppose."
She was aware that the book [“Home”] was a departure. "I kept getting these dialogue scenes, and I kept getting more dialogue scenes. And I was thinking ‘I don't do this'," she says, laughing at herself. "I actually tried to sort of find a way back towards what I considered to be a more characteristic style, but the characters just kept talking, so I kept writing it down."
Her work always evokes a reverence for the landscape, a grateful humility before nature. There is the "hot white sky" and "soft wind" of Gilead (in "Home"), with "a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas". And the merciless chill of the Idaho town in "Housekeeping", where the lake is "lightless, airless", the winters long and frigid. "When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin."
"One of the pleasures, for me at least, of writing fiction is that you can put things at a distance. If I'm writing too close to myself, I feel like something is about to go wrong. Like I'm defending myself. I prefer the idea—even if it's an illusion—that you can reach a level of objectivity, that it doesn't have your handprints all over it."

Conversations From the Iowa Writers' Workshop: Marilynne Robinson


Pulitzer Prize Winners Biography

Text: Zlatko Anguelov

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