When I lived in Des Moines, the capitol of Iowa, I met some amazing people–my forever friends, and some folks with recognizable names. Living in a small big town allowed contacts I would never have had in my hometown of Chicago. I shook hands and talked with Secretary Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Howard Dean, Gov. Tom Vilsack, Sen. Tom Harkin, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Terry Branstad–to name a few. I joined a series of talks where celebrated women shared their lives: Anne Lamott, Julie Andrews, Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Ann Richards and more. I heard Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman and even shook hands with Barack Obama. But I never met a writer that I admire and would feel honored to sit and talk to–Marilynne Robinson. She is currently a professor with the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Wow, if I could go to Prairie Lights and hear her read.
Background of Marilynne Robinson
Robinson’s first best-selling novel, HOUSEKEEPING was published in 1980 and nominated for a Pulitzer. She didn’t publish another novel until GILEAD, in 2005, and it did win the Pulitzer. Because Robinson had fallen in love with the family of her creation, the Boughtons, she wrote two sequels, HOME and LILA, published in 2008 and 2014, respectfully. Readers like me were thrilled.
I will always remember driving back to Des Moines after visiting my mom who was slowly dying in a senior home. Listening to an audio version of HOME, I started to cry. Minister and widower Robert Boughton is also dying and wants his son Jack to stay in Gilead. “I can’t enjoy the thought of heaven like I should, leaving so much unattended to here. I was hoping I would be able to tell your mother that you had come home.” Jack sat pondering his father…finally he said, whispered, “I hope you will give her my love.”
POTUS Asks to Sit Down and Chat: Democracy
Robinson’s works touch on the deep religious roots of our culture and President Barack Obama, like me, had read all of her novels and asked to speak to her about the broader cultural forces that shape and affect our democracy. You can listen here. Marilynne and POTUS met in an architectural jewel, the legal library in the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. And after listening to their hour podcast, I hope to capsule here and next week the main points that they covered.
They concurred that the basis of democracy is that people assume well of other people. That allows us to work together. Fear and conspiracy theories fight the function of democracy. Democracy (demos: Greek for people) indicates that WE ARE ALL FROM EVERYWHERE, and it is inappropriate to have an “in-group.” They agree that democracy is the consequence of humanism–being human and having a love of God is always implied in this. LOVE THY NEIGHBOR should be part of how we function and not arming ourselves constantly against the “imagined other.” THIS IS A CHALLENGE and IT IS DIFFICULT! Yes.
In the discussion of Robinson’s work, that it features small town Iowa, Robinson and POTUS agreed about the importance of life on the local level, that it can instill the virtue of interacting with our neighbors through Little League and trips to the ER. We are being good to each other, caring for each other. Knowledge of one another fights against FEAR.
Then they discussed the GAP between this, our daily life, and political life. Robinson suggested that the restlessness that helped build this country is trying to unbuild it. She says: “People who don’t like government should go live where there is none–no roads, education, post office, electricity.” Suspicion of government can be paralyzing and so can someone building up fear of THE OTHER. An emphasis on CONFLICT creates a pessimism and drowns out the positive voices in our culture. POTUS: And that, too, is a running strain in our democracy. That’s sort of in our DNA. We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.
Reading Novels/Listening to Music
POTUS asked Robinson if we are still reading novels, still distilling ideas through the lives of characters who can offer some hope or analysis. They talked about Iowa small towns and how POTUS felt comfortable in 2004 when he began his presidential campaign and spent a great deal of time in Iowa being with families. I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country. Robinson concurs because she has traveled all through Iowa and set her novels in the state and sees it as a symbol of America and its people and their struggles and how religion and day to day living can bring people closer together and yet challenge their beliefs at the same time.
They then discussed HAMILTON, the brilliant musical currently on Broadway, seeing it as a symbol of the vibrancy of American democracy. The show and its song lyrics emphasize that our forefathers were brilliant, but at the same time flawed. Just as they are today. They agreed that HAMILTON is an excellent way to reach young people and teach them history.
How the United States Relates to History
POTUS stated that in many ways America is ahistorical. He says: That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.
Education and Quarterly Earnings
Robinson and POTUS also discussed the importance of education, agreeing that all of society needs to support education and often it does not. Success is defined not by how much you read and learn but by quarterly earnings. Robinson asks that folks think about what makes them feel optimistic. When she asks the question of others, she hears that people crave a society that supports them. Her solution to getting there? She says: And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.
What Would You Like to Add to the Conversation?
Would love your thoughts. And more next week. Thanks to the New York Review of Books.