cover image What Are We Doing Here? Essays

What Are We Doing Here? Essays

Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-28221-9

This collection of 15 essays by Pulitzer-winning author Robinson (The Givenness of Things) is sometimes cranky and rambling, but always passionate. Robinson’s crankiness comes out in her love of Puritans, Calvinists, and Oliver Cromwell, and her annoyance at history’s maligning of them. Yet it also stems from her passion for art and beauty, a humane deity, and a world run more by moral compass than balance sheet. Following Robinson’s train of thought can make for a bumpy and circuitous ride, no doubt in part because most of the essays originated as spoken addresses. Yet with Robinson as guide, details in the cultural terrain emerge that one might otherwise miss. She points out in “The American Scholar Now” that when the U.S. actively funded the humanities, its prosperity simultaneously grew. Elsewhere in the same piece, she notes that “the Citizen has become the Taxpayer” as civic ideals have eroded. In “Slander” she looks with approval at the long Christian tradition of curbing one’s tongue and unequivocally places blame for a now uncivil society on an unhappy convergence of “dystopian media” with right-wing Christianity. An essay or two rambles too much—“Untitled” is aptly named—but Robinson’s overall trajectory is clear and important. Her eloquent work stands up for a compassionate faith, the value of education, and a sense of decency. (Feb.)