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James Wallace Robinson

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James Wallace Robinson
James Wallace Robinson Brady Handy.04859.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 9th district
In office
March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1875
Preceded byCharles Foster
Succeeded byEarley F. Poppleton
Member of the Ohio House of Representatives
from the Union County district
In office
January 4, 1858 – January 5, 1862
Preceded byWilliam Gabriel
Succeeded byWilliam H. Robb
In office
1864 – December 31, 1865
Preceded byA. J. Sterling (resigned)
Succeeded byM. C. Lawrence
Personal details
Born(1826-11-26)November 26, 1826
Unionville Center, Ohio
DiedJune 28, 1898(1898-06-28) (aged 71)
Marysville, Ohio
Resting placeOakdale Cemetery
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Mary J. Cassil
Mary E. Kent
Childrentwo
Alma materJefferson College
Cincinnati Law School
Signature

James Wallace Robinson (November 26, 1826 – June 28, 1898) was a U.S. Representative from Ohio.

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  • ✪ The Writer and the Critic: Marilynne Robinson and James Wood in Conversation || Radcliffe Institute
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Transcription

[MUSIC PLAYING] - Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Liz Cohen. I'm Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and I am so pleased to welcome you to this year's Julia S. Phelps Lecture in the Arts and Humanities. Here at Radcliffe, we have a twofold mission-- to support pathbreaking research and creative endeavors across all disciplines, and to share that work with the public through a full calendar of events like today's. Today, we are gathered for the annual Phelps lecture in honor of Julia S. Phelps. Julia was a Radcliffe College graduate who worked as an art historian, a curator, and a devoted teacher. Recent Phelps lectures have featured cultural historian and Boston Globe classical music critic, Jeremy Eichler; choreographer Karole Armitage; and author ZZ Packer. We are grateful to Julia's family, friends, and colleagues for their generosity and their support in honor of Julia. And let me offer a special welcome to Julia's daughter and son-in-law, Susan Napier and Steven [? Coit, ?] who are here in the audience with us today. [APPLAUSE] This year's Phelps lecturer, Marilynne Robinson, is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary American literature. She is in the midst of a week here at Radcliffe as a visiting scholar, interacting with students and faculty across the university. And this afternoon, Marilynne will be in conversation with another member of the Harvard community, the distinguished literary critic, James Wood. To have Marilynne and James here together is a fitting culmination to a semester during which we have enjoyed a feast of brilliant writers, including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Gish Jen, Claudia Rankine, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Celeste Ng. And all of those events are available through our website if you'd like to watch the videos. At a time when our society is preoccupied with what is real and what is fake, when the very notions of truth and fact are under threat, it might seem strange to celebrate the virtues of fiction. But I don't think it is. Fiction has a remarkable power to illuminate complexity in action, motivation, sensibility, and emotion that we might otherwise struggle to understand or to articulate. In fact, at a time when supposedly objective observers openly promote what they know to be false with the explicit intention of misleading, great fiction can help to ground us in the real. In today's world, fiction can indeed be stranger than so-called truth. Marilynne Robinson's particular approach to truth-telling through fiction is especially powerful. Reviewers of Marilynne's work have all but exhausted the range of laudatory superlatives. Her debut novel, Housekeeping, is widely considered a classic and has earned a place on The Guardian's list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. Marilynne's writing is also so distinct that critics have struggled to pinpoint its literary antecedents. The well-known sportswriter Allen Barra stepped outside of his typical milieu to write a glowing review in The Atlantic, in which he described Marilynne as, and I quote, "an American original." He continued, and I quote him, "Though Robinson may share certain sensibilities with other writers, it's difficult to detect more than a faint association between her work and that of any previous author." James Wood, Marilynne's conversation partner who's here with us today, has identified some of those shared sensibilities, including a familiar American simplicity with its origins in puritanism, as well as echoes of Emerson and Melville. But he, too, notes that the final composition is unique, especially among those authors whose work resonates with modern readers. As James put it, referring specifically to Marilynne's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, and I quote, "The result is one of the most unconventional, conventionally popular novels of recent times." Although Marilynne is best known for her fiction, she also writes meticulously-researched nonfiction on an incredible range of subjects. As a result, her body of work resists our inclination to pigeon-hole. How do you sum up an oeuvre that includes both entrancingly quiet literary novels like Gilead, as well as a notable polemic on nuclear waste entitled Mother Country-- Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution? Much of Marilynne's work in both fiction and nonfiction explores complex existential and epistemological themes. Religion-- in particular, Marilynne's own Protestant Christian faith-- figures prominently, and it is treated with a level of grace and nuance that is extremely uncommon in broadly-read contemporary literature. Marilynne's writing also challenges us to reconsider notions so embedded in our collective consciousness that we might not be aware of them at all. In her most recent collection of essays titled What Are We Doing Here?, Marilyn writes, and I quote, "In essential ways, we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared." More sardonically, Marilyn once observed that "unread books may govern the world," referring here to our failure to critically assess the fundamental texts on which so much of modern culture is based. Some of Marilynne's fictional characters seem to embody the kind of rigorous thought that she demands of her readers. For instance, the Reverend John Ames, who is the compelling narrator of Gilead, demonstrates a Christian faith that is deeply held but still questioning in important ways. He is keenly aware of what he doesn't fully understand. At one point, Reverend Ames writes to his son, alluding to a passage in the Gospel of Mark, and I quote, "You can know a thing to death and be, for all purposes, completely ignorant of it." In short, Marilynne pushes us to think carefully about what we know and believe and what we don't. In her essays, she does that directly by boldly reassessing the likes of John Calvin and Charles Darwin, or by examining the contemporary topics like tribalism, cynicism, and the state of American democracy. But even more remarkable is the way her novels grapple, at least tangentially, with many of the same intellectual issues while engaging readers on both cerebral and emotional levels. And these novels do it without seeming pedantic or pedagogical. That is the power of great fiction. Marilynne has spent the bulk of her career at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, where she is now professor emeritus. In addition to the titles I already mentioned, Marilynne has written two other novels-- Home, which won the Orange prize; and Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. In nonfiction, besides Mother Country and What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne is the author of The Death of Adam, Absence of Mind, When I Was a Child I Read Books, and The Giveness of Things. Among her honors, which are too many to name here now, Marilynne won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2016. She also received the 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama for, and I quote, "her grace and intelligence in writing." Now, it should be said that this was not just a matter of her turn coming up. Rather, President Obama is one of her greatest fans. When Marilynne retired from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 2016, President Obama recorded a touching video message to thank her for, and I quote, "uncovering what is most meaningful when the rest of us can't find the words." James Wood is an ideal conversation partner for Marilynne, and I am delighted to have him here with us today as well. James is one of the most admired literary critics working today and an author in his own right. He has also been called, and I quote, "the foremost literary enthusiast of our time." James is a powerful advocate for fiction that is both aesthetically beautiful and real. He alludes to this commitment in the title of his most recent collection of essays on fiction which borrows its title from a George Eliot quotation, "Art is the nearest thing to life." James is professor of the practice of literary criticism here in the English department at Harvard, as well as a staff writer and book critic at the New Yorker, and a member of the editorial board of the London Review of Books. James was previously a senior editor at The New Republic and chief literary critic at The Guardian. In addition to his collections of critical essays, James has published a novel entitled The Book Against God and a book-length study of literary fiction called How Fiction Works. We are very fortunate today to be able to listen in as these two stellar writers converse with each other. Before I invite them up to the stage, let me just tell you how the afternoon will work. Following the conversation that they will have, there will be time for a Q&A when you, too, can join the discussion. We'll place a microphone in this center aisle. Please, if you have a question, line up, introduce yourself before you ask your question. And afterwards, I invite you all to a reception next door at Fay House. Now please join me in giving a warm welcome to Marilynne Robinson and James Wood. [APPLAUSE] - Thank you very much for coming, and thank you to Liz for that wonderful introduction. I think the last thing you want to do on a Tuesday afternoon is hear two introductions. So that's not going to happen. I think we should go straight into our discussion. And I want it to be free-flowing. I think there were certain things I might come back to-- obviously, fiction. I think there might be some interesting relationship between us, perhaps even tension at some point because I had a very religious upbringing and I sort of came out the other side from Marilynne in some ways. But we overlap in a mutual respect, I think. And of course, I have an intense respect for her writing, her essays, and her fiction. In addition to the novels, I hope that we will talk a little bit, too, about her latest book, a book of lectures, as I was saying to Marilynne earlier, an astonishing book in itself given how many lectures she's written in the last two or three years and how superbly they maintain the style of her essay. So most of us, lectures are hopeless things full of oral clatter, let's say. And there's none of that in Marilynne's lectures. So I thought, if you wouldn't mind, Marilynne-- and of course you should feel free exactly to answer as little or as much as you want to. But I thought, if you wouldn't mind, we could just start at the beginning with your childhood in Idaho. You've talked a lot about the importance of public education and of libraries. But I actually wanted to ask you about the sort of religious atmosphere you were brought up in and the development of that sensibility as you got into your teens. - My family was not particularly churchy. Let's put it that way. I never doubted that they were religious. I felt as if-- I mean, I didn't talk about my religious thinking either until I was, what, through college, probably. I've never felt inhibited or urged or coerced or anything like that. I had a very quiet family, and I was a quiet participant in it. And we were living in a glorious place. And I read whatever interested me. And I wouldn't change any of it, you know? - Yeah. - I was at a religious college a few days ago, Wheaton College. And they pointed out that I had said somewhere that it was not my family's habit to say grace before meals. You have to be careful what you confide to an interviewer. I felt suddenly rebuked. [LAUGHTER] - Was there a moment where-- I mean, given that background-- and I don't want to reduce everything to some sort of 19th century religious dilemma. But it seems, given that background, you could, as it were, have gone either way. Did you have a sense in your late teens or 20s of adding to whatever religious inheritance you had, of being unfolded in a way that was more intense than your parents? - I was interested, in the first place, in religion as a metaphysics. I was interested in it as a worldview. I don't know when this began. Religious thought never seemed to me separate from thought itself. And it was a very natural path for me to follow farther and farther into for exactly those reasons. It always felt to me as if there were a soundness to it and, at the same time, an openness to it. I think, often, people who are brought up in religious atmospheres, they often feel constrained by what they have been taught. But to me, it always seemed like it raised absolutely the largest questions, the most interesting questions. And so I was propelled autonomously, in effect, in the direction that was very natural to me. - Yeah. You've said, I think, about your novel Housekeeping, which, by my calculation, is taught on at least four courses here at Harvard, which is fairly astonishing. It used to be a fair bet that you could say that the only two novels that any of the students will have read were Lolita and To the Lighthouse because they were all taught on overlapping courses. But now, I think we have to add Housekeeping to that. I teach Housekeeping. I love that book. And I know you've described it as being, in some way, an accounting for and a summation of the kind of-- that you wanted to work with the materials that were available to you as a child growing up in Idaho. That's to say, the kind of things you would have learnt at school, the natural resources. And of course, that's a beautiful element in the book. In some ways, I think the book is about the construction of a religion out of the available bits and pieces, including school textbooks and, quite literally, twigs and soil and water. Can I ask you, when you were writing Housekeeping, when you wrote it and how you went about writing that novel? - Well, I wrote a dissertation on Shakespeare. And when I was doing that, people told me that if you wrote that sort of thing, you would not also write a novel. We're here to contest that view. But in any case, so as I was writing my dissertation, I was writing extended metaphors. And my interest in extended metaphors came directly from 19th century American literature. So I think you can see the allusions that I'm making in Housekeeping. But I wrote these things, and they were in a stack. And I realized that I actually had made the core of something or the beginning of something. And then I went to France to teach in an exchange for a year. And while I was there, the university went on strike. What could I do? The building was locked. What can I say? But in any case, so I was living in this house out in the French countryside. And I was considered a novelty. And so the little kids that lived in the neighborhood would come over and pound on my windows to see me move. I mean, that was literally it. We would wave. So I went into a back room in that house, and I closed those big shutters. And that made the room absolutely dark. And I had a little, wobbly bedside lamp, and a spiral notebook, and a black pen. And I began writing, continuing what I had done before. And it was very interesting and valuable to me because I was in what amounted to a sort of sensory deprivation environment. And I was-- I've already told this story this morning. But anyone who heard it before, forgive me. I would be plunging around in my memory, trying to remember Idaho. I hadn't lived there for, like, 17 years. I found that I had, over time, an extraordinary success remembering Idaho. And this acquainted me with the fact that my mind was much larger than my customary access to it would let me know, that my memory was very, very much fuller and more precise than anything that I would have imagined. I'm pleased. Sometimes-- there are all these mountain systems there-- Bitterroot, and bannock and all these kinds of [? cabinet ?] and so on, [INAUDIBLE]. And people would write to me and say, which mountains, asking-- they had had an argument about which mountains I was referring to, which pleased me very much. But in any case, I found my way into that novel in that way. And over time, I wrote it, as it were, long story short, as they say. But when I came back to America, a friend of mine had written and published a novel. And he asked if he could see my novel, and I gave it to him. And he sent it to his agent, didn't tell me. So out of a blue sky, I got a letter from an agent saying she would like to represent my book. She's still my agent. But people ask me how to enter the literary world. I have no idea. [LAUGHTER] - Fantastic. It feels to me like a different novel from your later books. And obviously, there can be reasons for that. One would be that there was a long gap between the next three. Another is that the next three belong together in some way. But the prose also seems different. And I understand when you say that the first book came out of a thing of writing, experimenting, in a way, with long metaphors. I mean, you can see that in the book, of course. It's absolutely part of the fabric of it. When you came to fiction again-- it's rather assuming that you hadn't in between. But as it were, when you were next writing fiction, whenever that was, was it the same kind of prose? Did it feel like the same kind of prose, or did you feel, OK, that was a particular pinnacle that I reached and a different kind of place that I want to be now in terms of just the style? - Well, when I was working on Housekeeping, one of the things that bothered me is that a great deal of contemporary literature, things that I read about in the newspaper and so on at that time, seemed to me to be incredibly conventional-- thin characters and tired language. And so I thought, well, I can retreat into my own enclave. Nobody has written about my little part of Idaho. And so I had the whole thing to myself, whatever kind of language and association and so on I wanted to explore. But then 24 years passed. And then I was out on the cape, waiting for my sons to join me for Christmas in an empty hotel. And John Ames spoke into my mind. I don't know what that means. I got-- the first sentences of Gilead simply occurred to me. They had the heft of a novel behind them. And so I wrote on from there. Voice is what determines my style. I don't know. I couldn't go back to the character of Ruth or the problems of Ruth, so I couldn't go back to her prose either. - Right, that makes a lot of sense. Is there another way, though, in which that first novel is different from the later ones? Or maybe I'm just trying to find things that I'm determined to find. But it seems to me that if we could say of the trilogy-- I mean, you're never an orthodox writer, religiously. But if we can say of the Gilead trilogy, that it's more-- I think one could fairly say that it's more obviously located in a set of recognizable Christian traditions, should we say. What's very striking about Housekeeping is this flood-like paganism that seems to be about to inundate everything and sweep away everything. Or put it another way, what's remarkable to me when I reread it, when I teach it, is what you call the resurrection of the ordinary. The spring, just walking through a forest and spring about to happen or happening, is a strong rival to any orthodox religious spiritual resurrection that there might be in the novel, such a strong rival that it might even outdo it, if that makes any sense. In other words, I feel that novel is really-- when I said earlier that it's about the construction of a religion, I meant that in the sense of with all the possible heresies and impurities, as it were, that might happen when you just decide to construct a religion out of what's at hand. When you look back, does it feel different in that theological sense? - I think of it as an exploration of what is called natural religion, the sort of chapter 1 of Romans, you know? - Yeah. - I mean, in a way, I recapitulate my childhood because I did, in a sense, put my religious consciousness together out of experience rather than out of instruction and ideas like resurrection. And so I remember how strange, how almost daunting, or something, those ideas seemed to me when I was a child to the extent-- I mean, you hear of the word, and you sort of have the image in mind. But I'm interested in the theology of the uninstructed. Ruth is one example, and Lila's another. I think that a great deal of what one could describe as religious understanding is sensitivity to what is implicit. - Yeah, yeah. Can I just talk to you for a second about resurrection? I think it's your great abiding obsession. You have a few, but that's a really powerful one. It's there in all the books. Sometimes, it's figured as home and the return to home. Often, as justice-- and you're equally interested in political justice, the restoration of the healing and restoration that's necessary on earth as much as it is in heaven. But this is a constant element in your writing, what you beautifully call the lore of completion. In Housekeeping, you say where everything will be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for if not to be knit up finally? And then some of you might remember, in Gilead, there's this fabulous thing that I often return to that John Ames says about the famous verses from Revelation about how, when we reach heaven, God will wipe away all our tears, and there shall be no more death, neither crying or sorrow, verses which obsessed another heaven-obsessed writer, Dostoevsky. John Ames, glossing those verses, writes, "It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required." So there is a great deal of suffering, and a great deal of healing will be needed to make up for that, compensate for that suffering. As you can probably tell, I'm fairly obsessed with this too. The problem is I can't believe it. And what I love about your work is that it's also full of people who they believe it more than I do, and they want to believe it more than I do. But in your writing, it's also hedged around with a great deal of necessary doubt and anxiety. And I respond to that very much as the kind of reader I am. And I really just wanted to talk to you about that. That's a little vague, isn't it? All right, let me just ask you about this lovely "It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required." - Well, as far as resurrection is concerned, just to back away from the question for a moment, I think of it in terms of there being what I think of as a human over plus. I think of people as being much too profound, much too complex, much too open to the extremes of experience to simply live fourscore years and die. I mean, in that sense, just on humanist grounds, it seems almost inevitable to think that there is more to us than perishes in this world. This has been very important to me from the point of view of characterisation, just to be technical about it, but you know. So often characters, seem almost thrown away in fiction. They seem dismissed. And I feel as though that's always, always inappropriate, that it is simply authorial neglect. I think that-- I mean, on that basis, I don't come at resurrection doctrinally. I come at resurrection like, that certainly seems right to me. I think that if there's a reality that is humane enough to super-induce life from us, I think it would also be attentive to our tears. And it would reflect the existence of a God who is attentive to them who would make the very tender fatherly gesture. - Unfortunately, as you know well-- and you write about this, and you imply it often in your essays. The promise of a spiritual restoration can get in the way of actual material political restoration. That is to say, it can be one of the curses, I think, of a certain kind of religious charity, is that instead of the here and now, there is an emphasis on the then and the future. Is that fair? Am I characterizing-- - I think that can be true. I am a Calvinist because I read Calvin, and he persuaded me of many things. But one of the things he said is that if God wanted us to know anything about heaven, we'd know something about it. The fact that we don't know anything about it means we have to pay attention to what we can know, which is this world, this life. And so I don't-- I mean, I have a religious resistance, that he named for me, to imagining a life beyond this one. I'm very happy to concede the possibility or the likelihood. But in terms of the specifics, I expect to be surprised. - Of course, your fiction is full of people who are imagining, in often quite hilarious, practical physical detail, going right back to the beginning of Housekeeping, or right through, I think, to your last novel, and indeed, to that wonderful essay, I think, where you talk-- I can read the very beginning of it. Where is it now? It's the one about hope where you talk about someone who was at church with you who suddenly said, if heaven exists, she would like to go up and take the hand of her grandmother, or something like that. It's very nice. I've got to try and find it. But yeah, going right back to Housekeeping when I think Ruth's grandmother is said to expect that heaven will look quite a lot like Idaho. And of course, these are ordinary human desires. You're brilliant at writing about them. Do you have them yourself? I mean, do you fall prey to them yourself? I mean, you said just now, you feel you shouldn't be imagining heaven as anything just as more than a surprise. But do you actually do the same things that your characters do, which is think, oh, that's where I'll see my mother, that's where I'll see my father, and they'll look like this, and the room will be such and such? - I can't really-- my imagination stops at the point of whom I would encounter and under what circumstances. I mean, the great-- it's like the question that Jesus has asked of somebody who has seven husbands, who's wife is she. And we are so entangled with one another that-- I mean, I might want to see my mother, but then her sisters might have a prior claim. I mean-- [LAUGHTER] I take it to be unfathomable. And to the extent that I talk about it, I'm usually sort of literalizing assumptions that I would not directly share. I assume it would be wonderful. That's certainly its reputation. But I-- [LAUGHTER] Beyond that, I just hesitate-- you know what I mean? I find the image problematical. I do always have people walking out of the lake and all that sort of thing. But that's only her saying, how can we imagine the life that has fallen into this lake, and how can we imagine its [? purdurability? ?] - Yeah, yeah. The thing from your essay, "Hope," is, "In church, a lady so tiny with age that when she stood up, her hat was just visible above the pew, said, 'The first thing I'll do when I get to heaven, I'll run and find my grandma. She loved me so much.' Her small voice crackled with anticipation." But it's a very humane vision you have, I think, because you see that-- I mean, what I love about it is when I was trying to work this stuff out to my satisfaction as a teenager and in my early 20s, I abstractly, I suppose, abstractly came to a number of decisions about the impossibility of heaven, beginning with the idea that heaven was the great problem for [? theolocy, ?] not the solution to it, but containing such questions as precisely the ones you deal with humanely in your fiction. That's to say, continuity. It can't be just like it is on earth. If it were, we'd all be doing exactly, up there, what we do here, which would mean, of course, that it's like Eden. We would be spoiling it with error and sin and freedom. So it can't be the same as it is down here. But so that's continuity. But difference is also the problem. Because if it's too different, it doesn't seem to have any of the pleasures that life here has, and we can't imagine it. And the unimaginability is, I think, part of the problem. And then adequacy, which goes back to the beautiful John Ames thing, "It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required." Adequacy, how does salvation, healing, restitution, the law of completion, how could it ever compensate adequately for the suffering that many of us have to put up with on earth? - Well, one can only assume it can. I mean that it is of a kind that does. I think that a long life, in retrospect, seems very brief, she said, speaking as one who knows. I'm sure that in the temporal scale of the cosmos, all of our lives will seem extraordinarily brief to the point of disappearance from assuming any kind of other life. There is no way to-- I mean, if you remove the idea of an embracing God who nevertheless presides over a world in which suffering is very, very common and always has been-- god bless our ancestors. But if you remove that, then what you have is simply suffering, about which nothing can be made. You can't even say, then, what a terrible thing it is that a human being should live so briefly or live so painfully. Because then, we lack the sanctifying definition that makes our suffering matter in the universe. And we have to believe it does. - Yeah, I suppose. Well, one could argue that what you have without the promise is just the suffering, yes, without the false promise, shall we say, of restoration, which would then force you, one, to concentrate on the restoration here and now, I suppose. But again, what I like about your fiction is the way in which it's alive to these doubts and uncertainties, the tendency to overliteralized. And it's also alive to the fact that if one idea of heaven is going home, Eden, going back to the place that you came from, your characters don't really want to be there. I mean, if you think of Ruth and Sylvia at the end of Housekeeping, they're wanderers. Jack Boughton comes home, is the prodigal son, but leaves home. And the constant-- what I love about [INAUDIBLE] is that she's always about to take off, right? You're not sure at the end of the novel whether she's even going to stay, even though you know from the earlier novels that she must. I like that a lot. I think that you're wonderfully alive to that. And I suppose this is a way of asking you whether you feel that-- I suppose it must be the case-- that writing fiction helps you to dramatize, stage, work certain things out in a way that, say, writing an essay might not. - Well, that's certainly true. That is certainly true. Writing fiction is another way of thinking that is satisfying to me. Also, the feeling of following a thought to its conclusion-- it's just in another dialect, in effect. Well, it's quite other. But when you talk about the improbability of heaven, how improbable is this life? It's 99% anti-matter, 100% matter, emerged from the Big Bang, right? That's the theory. We exist because there is that tiny failure of equivalence between these two things. I mean, you can go through-- I'm not using an argument from design or anything. I'm just saying that this world in this universe is such an improbable thing. And if you were back at moment one and someone said, well, here are some protons and here are some neutrons, put a world together to be populated by creatures that love poetry, you know? - That's absolutely true. I can't deny that. Nevertheless-- [LAUGHTER] Nevertheless, if you look at the very narrative arc that we are given as Christians, say, from the Hebrew Bible, it would suggest surely that-- and your own fiction rather plays into this-- that home isn't the place we return to. Home is the place we always leave, right-- that there may be an Eden somewhere. But if we get to it, we'll almost as soon have to leave it, that we're always leaving rather than going back. That, as it were, to adapt that terrifying Kafka line about there is infinite hope, but not for us, there is a law of completion, but not for us. - Well, you'd have to prove it. - [LAUGHS] Well, that remains to be seen, doesn't it? - Yes, it does. - Neither of us will know. - We're all interested observers. - Let me ask you another question. We're on this thing of doubt or whatever we're talking about. You do talk about doubt, and you have done in your essays. And of course, I love the dynamic in your essays, that on the one hand, you're quite good at bringing the hammer down when it needs to come down-- say, defending Calvin or Jonathan Edwards or something like that. And it's good work. And it's an instruction to read it. And you're also very good at giving space to your liberal Christianity, which is liberal in this also sense of having doubt. So I suppose a question, which is an impertinent one, perhaps, but one I would like to ask you is, when you doubt, what do you doubt? - Well, I'd say here, again, I think I'm a Calvinist because my family were Calvinists, but they'd forgotten it already. But I have always considered doubt to be a dielectric with faith. He says that, that you slip back because your assumptions are too narrow. And then being instructed, I doubt you'd make another experiment of thought or belief or whatever. So I have not ever dealt with doubt as being a problem. I've always seen it as-- I mean, sometimes you-- I don't know. I haven't doubted in quite a long time. [LAUGHTER] I'll tell you the truth. I consider my life to be completely unanticipateble by me. I wrote a book I thought would never be published, and I get a letter in the email from an agent. I mean, that's sort of the image of my existence. I find it fantastic. I'm supposed to be one of the hundred most influential people in the world. Even, what, Time Magazine said that, and they're never wrong, right? - Never. - I mean, this is just grossly improbable. And it has-- - They got Trump right so many times. - So anyway, I feel as though I know what I want to do, which I consider to be a great blessing. So long as my faculties hang together, I will do what it seems to me as if I ought to. I'm content with that. I'm much more than content-- amazed at the opportunity, frankly. - Between Housekeeping and Gilead, you were writing essays. And you may-- also, you will tell me-- have been writing fiction. Why were you writing essays, and so many essays, in that period and not, at least, publishing fiction? - I wasn't writing fiction. I had a crisis, a crisis you might call a doubt. After I finished Housekeeping, which I liked and I was pleased with the reception of it and so on, but I felt as if I had solved a problem in a way that it would be dishonest to repeat. I could not use the same solution again. I did not want to be regional in the sense that I could not move beyond my region. And I realized, frankly, that my education, as much as I valued it, was really only an annotated bibliography. I just knew what I had-- I had a general sense of what I should know and no great confidence that I knew it in any meaningful way. So I went-- the luxury, I spent 24 years basically reading, reading things like The Wealth of Nations, Malthus' theory of population, Capital, every book that everyone had always spoken to me about as if they had read it. [LAUGHTER] And it was a new territory. It was a-- you know what I mean? And once you start doing that, then there's no natural stopping place. I just stopped finally because I had this novel in my mind. But to the extent I've stopped, I'm still reading all kinds of strange things by other people's standards. But I could not repeat the northwestern provincial style. Don't ever quote that. [LAUGHTER] And I could not write anything else with the confidence that I myself was actually saying this. And so I did a great deal of very basic work in order to feel that my thoughts were, in some degree, my own. And of course, there are limits to how much that's ever true. But I felt, finally, as if I could speak in my own right, you know? - Yeah. And one conclusion you came to, I know from that reading, is the one that Liz quoted in her introduction. And it's in one of the essays in the new book, that the world is run, not very well, according to unread books. One of them is the Bible. Do you want to name another? - Well, Capital is certainly a good example. And it's so odd. I mean, frankly, the same person that sent my novel to his agent also lent me his copy of Capital, which I never returned. But in any case, that's embarrassing, but it's true. But he writes in the style of Martin Luther. He does this because he was reared as a Lutheran, right? Who doesn't? I mean, we are such-- what do you call it-- racists or something that we assume that we know everything about this man because of his, what, last name? But in any case, when you read him, having read Luther, you can see what kind of argument he's making and why. I mean, and of course, this is complicated by the fact that they're a hundred of years apart, and there's the influences of culture and so on. But nevertheless, that's something that's absolutely not recognized in him. He was dealing in the language of social morality-- I mean, basic equity-- that you find in Adam Smith and that you find in the tradition that he felt that he-- he was writing for Germans. So his polemical methods would certainly be influenced by the most potent polemic that was ever launched in the German language. I mean, the sort of de-contextualization that people engage in, which is dramatically inappropriate to an interpretation of his work. The reason-- I mean, I sort of started early with Marx because I knew so many Marxists, and I never knew one who had read him. [LAUGHTER] - So once you were really reading Marx, what conclusions did you come to in terms of-- I mean, what were people taking from the Marx they weren't reading? How was he getting flattened down, and what would it be that you want to restore? What would be most important to talk about now about our neglect of actually really Marx? What are we not getting there? - Well, his argument is basically a recoil from the fact of the extraordinary suffering of the working class. I mean, when-- what's his name-- Disraeli said that the lifespan in Manchester, at that time, was 15. People could expect to live to be 15. And I mean, the routine, mechanized brutality of reducing populations to that level, I mean, that's where you have to begin in understanding Marx. And then I'm sure we could find things that are perfectly equivalent in other parts of the world, and certainly in the less well-functioning parts of this country. So I mean, there's a humanitarian core in Marx that was turned into some kind of, like, industrial-age machinery so that you had this and that dialectic going on and so on, completely without the moral ballast that is absolutely central to Marx himself. - And this is generally, in your essays, particularly when, say, you write about the university, but it's a strong current throughout this book-- as I was reading it, I was thinking how much you sound-- and I'm not the first person to have said this, I know-- but how much you sound like certain 19th century social critics. There's a real prophetic strain in your writing, perhaps increasingly emboldened, as you are, by the last four or five years of political developments. But there's a strong sound there of certain-- Marx would be one. Ruskin might be another, maybe even Dostoevsky of Notes from Underground-- an attack on what you see as a stifling pragmatism, utilitarianism, a narrow economic definition of both education and of human potential. And that's a powerful note in your essays. I know you talked somewhat to President Obama about that. But I'd sort of hoped, in that interview, that you and he would dig a little further into that. - Yes, well, it ended. He was on a tight schedule, and we were just getting into the meat of things. And then suddenly, operatives come and scuttle him out of the room. It's the problem talking with presidents. [LAUGHTER] - This is the first moment where I hear you taking justifiable pride in your achievements. - Actually, I'm going to limit myself to one president. [LAUGHTER] - Yeah, well, it's true that there's a sad moment in that wonderful exchange that was published in the Review of Books where Obama says-- or maybe it's elsewhere that he says something about how he picked up Gilead when he was campaigning in Iowa. And he says something like, there were long journeys between campaign stops. There's a lot of down time to read. I immediately think, well, not with the current president. That's just more time to watch TV. Maybe we should open the questioning up to the audience at this point. We've got about 20 minutes, I think. Here we go. - Hi, I'm Patsy [? Bodwin. ?] I'm curious to know whether your books are-- I assume your books have been translated. And I'm wondering what you think of the reception you're getting in any countries that you would want to speak to us about. - My books have been translated. My most recent language is Icelandic. I don't know. I can't follow those things particularly well. But I assume, since they keep getting translated in places like Iran and so on, that they have a reasonable history of life in translation. I'm very grateful to think that people are reading them in other places. - Hi. My name is Sarah, and-- oh, this is very loud. So my question is I guess Calvinists kind of have this reputation as being, like, grumpy and boring, which is not how I think many people who've read your books would characterize them or the people in them. They're compassionate and funny. And so I guess I'm wondering, like, why is it that people think Calvinists kind of suck, and why do the people in your books not? - Well, there are Calvinists that deserve that reputation. [LAUGHTER] What can I say? I mean, I think part of my fascination with Calvin is resurrection. I'm trying to excavate him from this burial under the worst implications that people have drawn from his writing. Every major theologian, including Ignatius Loyola, has said, yes, there is predestination. The only two who don't agree with this is [? Chrysostom ?] and John Wesley. So how did it get pinned on Calvin? Polemic. I think he had the problem of being the most effective polemicist, the most effective theoretician of his period. And therefore, he took the brunt of a lot of controversy. That's a very complex question I've brought up, but nevertheless, things like that that are artificially associated with him as if other people had not come to the same conclusion. And then there are just inexcusable Calvinists. [LAUGHTER] - Hi, I'm Heather. Happy to be here [INAUDIBLE] I was [? thinking ?] when you were talking about in the absence of a caring God, is our suffering meaningful. And just a thought, so I won't go on too long. But I was thinking, for me as a humanist, I feel like my job as a human being is to watch other people suffering with at least watchful concern and caring, that that's what people do for each other. And then I think, as a reader, the characters I love the most and the writers I love the most, I feel like those characters are sitting with me, that they can sit and keep me company in my suffering without a God being here. So I was just wondering what you thought about humanism as a way of approaching giving meaning to suffering even if I don't feel a caring God is up there. - Well, that makes suffering a different kind of problem, certainly. I think that human freedom is real in the sense that we, from moment to moment, have the option of dealing with people with the degree of respect that they yearn for. A lot of suffering, I think, is not visible. I think that a huge source of suffering is the rationing of respect that we engage in. In other words, I think that we are given the real problem of dealing with the sad burden of human sensitivity in all its forms, and that the question is actually, are we going to respond from the soul? And that's one of the existential questions that we are burdened with or dignified by as human beings. - Hi. My name is Linda Schneider, and I was introduced to your writing in 1982 in the first fiction course I have ever taken. It was not an assigned book, Housekeeping, at that time. But Susan [? Mansker ?] had really read a story that I wrote and said, you have to read this book. And I have read it multiple times, [? though ?] the religious element, at that time, just went right over my head. But what I was deeply moved by in the book-- and I think you alluded to it when you talked about authorial respect for characters. And that was there was clearly something, quote, unquote, "wrong" with Sylvie-- or mental illness. I don't know what you want to call it. But the respect accorded her and the girls and the sad history of the family was very moving. And I don't know if you had encountered in your life or in your town or whatever, but what made you just have such a much larger vision of these people than a lot of writers might have. - Well, I was talking earlier about how, reading contemporary fiction at the time, I couldn't find characters that seemed real to me that were complex enough. And so my solution was to do a kind of Cubist portrait where Ruth-- in my mind, Ruth is one profile, and Lucille is another, and [? Sophie ?] is another. It's Cubist. But in any case, I consider them to be-- I mean, I think everyone lives not only with the choices we have made, but with the choices we have not made, with the kind of yearnings that we have felt we had to suppress. Where I lived, I think one of the yearnings, since there was just wilderness all around us, was that you could just take off and just disappear into nature in some way. So I was rewarded, when I tried to make, by my lights, one character richer, by the fact that it seemed to make all the characters richer, in my experience. So that's what was happening there. - Hi. My name is [INAUDIBLE],, and I'm a senior at the college studying sociology. So I love your fiction. I'm a huge fan of your fiction, but I also love your essay collections, The Death of Adam and When I Was a Child I Read Books. And I was really struck by the ideas of Old Testament traditions and liberality and, as you've been talking about, restoration and resurrection. And it resonated with me not only because you were very convincing, but also because of my own Protestant traditions growing up. But I wanted to ask whether your ideas on social justice, which have been really compelling because of this prophetic, religious fire that you have, whether religious thinking is a foundational premise for these social justice ideas, or just the lens through which you look at issues. So is God or religious thinking a necessary condition of your ideas, or is it just one of many lenses that you can have or that any person can have looking through it, as a secular lens, for instance, and reaching the same conclusion? - Yes, it's an interesting question. I think that there's a tendency to think of religion as being doctrinal and formulated. I think there are lots of people who would not think of themselves as religious, but nevertheless, they look at another human being and they say, this is sacred. We ought not to allow this to happen-- a crowded prison, or any of the infinite number of things that we see. I think that if you have an intuition of the sanctity of a human being so that you want to give them dignity and the possibility of living out their lives by their lives and so on, that is basically a religious impulse. It's just non-doctrinal, non-denominational. - But it could-- just to leap in, but it could be there's no reason why it needs to be grounded necessarily in the notion of the divine. - I don't know. I mean, I think that you proceed from a different set of assumptions that I do. I think that if you see the sacred in anything, that is an intuition of the divine. It doesn't matter if it's quantum physics or your next-door neighbor. - Thank you. - Hi. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about your experience as a writing instructor, what you've observed in the classroom, the different mistakes students have made, promising aspects of what's emerging from writing programs today. - Oh, a great deal is emerging now, a great deal. I see a lot of students making the mistake that I did, which is the idea that you can look at what is being written in your moment and feeling as though you have some obligation to it or as if you will fall into a stream of the publishable or something like that. And, I mean, if you're trying to do that, then you're making yourself second-rate, in effect. It's incredibly difficult to do, but people have to find their own voices, as everybody tells you, but they tell you the truth. The workshop, at the moment, it's going through an interesting transition because finally, we have a diversity of students. For such a long time, people will not apply to come to Iowa because it's Iowa, which is a lovely state. I mean, it's just a-- but anyway, this has ended now. So we're getting a lot of kids that are first generation, kids from the Caribbean, and so on. And people like that have the advantage of making a case for the world they come from. And so they're very attentive to the kind of beautiful details of life that most of us only notice when you stop and think, well, this is a beautiful, sunlit day here, even in the middle of the Middle West. So there's a kind of richness that is coming in, and an attentiveness to detail-- you're great on detail-- that is a tremendous [? balloon. ?] We're seeing a lot of interesting stuff. It diversifies the voices. It makes everybody more conscious of what they're there to do. It's a very good thing. - Hi, my name is Abigail. And I was curious about the role of reading. So it seemed as though you articulated that you wanted to read widely before returning to fiction, or it seemed somehow necessary to develop a new sense of self as a writer. But it didn't seem like you had that same feeling about writing nonfiction in essays. And I'm wondering about the role of that kind of wide reading in both of those voices, and also whether there's a different sort of sense of position that comes when you write nonfiction and fiction and how voice differs there. - Well, my essays, they're usually lectures. And they're usually very much as I delivered the lecture. And what they usually are, I'm usually speaking to a college or sometimes a church. They're little screams of surprise. This is what you've been led to believe. This is not true. And it's based on some book I've been reading or some literature I've been reading. And so the essays, up until very recently-- and perhaps recently also-- are rooted directly in my going back and looking at things that, frankly, were things that were misrepresented to me. - Hi, my name is John. My question has to do with the sense of religiosity or faith or kind of a belief in a divine or something mysterious. I'm curious to know-- and this is something that I had experienced when I was in college, too-- whether it comes from a kind of intellection or thinking, or it comes from experience, or it comes from experience that is kind of everyday and really not through kind of a logical faculty. Where do you see that situated within our mind and soul and in other parts of our body? - I think I have a more sort of holistic sense of thinking. I mean, some of the craziest writing in the world is writing that has taken itself to be severely logical. And I think that experience, if you're functioning attentively, experience feeds so directly into every other aspect of your thinking and in your dreams and so on. I think that if you isolate something like intellection, you are robbing it of its primary resources, which are all the other things that you have named that also come into the experience. I think that we are, for one thing, acculturated to exclude from our thinking what we take to be imaginative, as if imagination didn't discover a thousand things that science has adopted, and so on. Also, I think we live in a time when the notion of what religion is is strange enough to drive people away from it because it's settled so strangely in a great many minds. It tends to be a claim that you make for yourself rather than an obligation you feel for yourself, that sort of thing. I think that if you just sort of relax and think, my mind is my mind, and it's so interesting, and here I am with it. And I will watch it live, and it will watch me live-- I always start out telling my students that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, which is simply true. You can read it in Scientific American. [LAUGHTER] But if you think about that, that every skull in this room has, in it, this primary object of cosmic life, then you think, well, I have it. Now what do I do with it? Or what does it do with me I think is a more important question. I think that you shouldn't be passive in relation to it, and you shouldn't try to do the procrustean thing of making it into something that is useful to a industry rather than being the unbelievable cosmic privilege of having that brain, that mind. - May I ask a follow-up question? For someone who is perhaps interested in kind of grasping the sense of unfathomable or mystery or finding interest in religion, do you have any words of encouragement? [LAUGHTER] Or if it's not just coming from sitting in a room and thinking on your own, where does one find it? How did you find that sort of encounter or understanding, if you can put it that way? - I haven't used conventional methods, obviously. I think that-- what can I say? People come to it by unique ways, I think, very often. If there's anything that you consider to be overwhelmingly beautiful or amazing, that gives you a taste of it. If I want to have a full-blown religious experience that's as good as reading the psalms, it's Scientific American. I love these beautiful hypotheses about the beginnings of things and the configuration of the universe and all this. It is so hyperbolic. I mean, the Earth is not a speck of dust. And here we are, looking at all this. It's absolutely amazing. I mean, that's my little testimony to human beings as being totally unaccountable creatures. But the things, the fact of the materiality of things looked at closely disappear under the gaze, all of that is very beautiful. And for me, it's very theological. - Hi, my name is Bree. And as a reader, in my experience, a lot of contemporary literature tends to be characterized by a sense of hopelessness. And as a lover of stories, wanting to capture this really powerful sense of awe and joy without it being seen as, like, a lack of depth or something that's naive, I think in your stories, you really capture the balance of having this deep, real sense of reality and this deep sense of sadness with this really real experience of joy. And as a writer, I guess, how do you strike that balance between those two and have it be believable? And I guess, the follow-up question would be too, like, what do you see the role of hope in literature moving forward? - Well, I think that it has to be authentic. You know what I mean? I don't think that you can induce in yourself something you don't yourself feel. You can work towards something you don't feel. That's always valuable. I think that finding the balance between anything and anything else-- when you're writing, every question is real. Every moment is another question. How do I do this? How do I do this? There is no solution that's external to the specific work that you are doing. I think that one of the things that really helps is respect for your characters, that you don't embarrass them or abuse them. Or you know what I mean? I think that maybe readers take a certain amount of reassurance from the fact that they are also not being abused. They're not being lied to. - Thank you. - You're welcome. - Hi, there. My name is Catherine. My question is, are there ways that you would recommend to us to better cultivate graciousness in our lives? - To cultivate graciousness? - Yeah. - Well, I mean, I so admire the project. I mean, I think that that would be the answer to so many problems. But you have to notice it when you see it. You have to be aware that you have an occasion where you yourself can enact it. I think one of the things that we don't do-- I talk about Calvin and the human being on the stage with God watching and so on. But we have, individually in our own lives, the continuing possibility of acting well; thinking not, what do I need or what do I want, but what's gracious in this moment. I think that's really the discipline, to be aware of, in terms of the sort of whole canvas of human dignity, how could I make a decent account of myself in this moment? How can I do something beautiful? That's what I would say. - Thanks very much. [MUSIC PLAYING] - Well, that was really an inspiring conversation. [APPLAUSE]

Life and career

Born in the township of Darby, near Unionville Center, Ohio, Robinson attended the common schools and Marysville Academy. He was graduated from Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1848. He studied law first with Otway Curry,[1] and graduated from Cincinnati Law School in 1851. He was admitted to the bar in the latter year and commenced practice in London, Ohio, partnering with Curry.[1] He served as prosecuting attorney of Union County for two terms, elected as a Whig.[1] He moved to Marysville, Ohio, in 1855. He served as member of the State house of representatives 1860-1862, and in 1864 was elected to fill an unexpired term.

Robinson was elected as a Republican to the Forty-third Congress (March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1875). He was an unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1874 to the Forty-fourth Congress. He resumed the practice of his profession. He died in Marysville, Ohio, June 28, 1898. He was interred in Oakdale Cemetery.

Robinson was a Presbyterian, and an elder in the church beginning in 1855.[1] He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the College of Wooster, which conferred a LL.D. on him in 1896.[1] He was married to Mary J. Cassil of Marysville, and had two children and died in 1894. In 1896 he married Mary E. Kent of Rome, New York.[1]

His nephew, James E. Robinson, was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio and a maternal great-grandfather of U.S. President George W. Bush. Thus, James Wallace Robinson is a great-great-granduncle of a President of the United States.

Sources

  1. ^ a b c d e f Reed, George Irving; Randall, Emilius Oviatt; Greve, Charles Theodore, eds. (1897). Bench and Bar of Ohio: a Compendium of History and Biography. 1. Chicago: Century Publishing and Engraving Company. pp. 298–301.

 This article incorporates public domain material from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress website http://bioguide.congress.gov.

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Charles Foster
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 9th congressional district

March 4, 1873–March 3, 1875
Succeeded by
Earley F. Poppleton
This page was last edited on 20 May 2019, at 07:19
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