When Robinson was not quite twelve, she and her family were in an automobile accident. Another driver crossed the center line, totalling their car, injuring both of her parents, breaking her brother’s leg, and leaving her with a concussion. All four of them were hospitalized. The crash was so traumatic that Robinson does not drive, creating a rare dependency in someone who is otherwise almost entirely self-sufficient. Already in childhood she was comfortable with solitude, even with loneliness; her needs, including her need for other people, were remarkably limited. One of Robinson’s schoolteachers told her that “one must make one’s mind a good companion, because you live with it every minute of your life,” advice that she either took to heart or never required.
Robinson still likes to walk while thinking and talking. One day, strolling through the stately oak savanna of Rochester Cemetery, in one of Iowa’s last remaining patches of native prairie, she narrates the ecology of the area and some of its human history, pointing out the generations of headstones hidden among a tiny sea of hills. She is formidably erudite but punctuates her speech with the surprisingly sweet refrain “you know?” The answer is almost always no—no, we do not know much about the Albigensians or the Waldensians, have nothing to say about the migratory habits of pelicans, had no idea that the first English translator of Philipp Melanchthon’s systematics was an African-American philosopher named Charles Leander Hill, have not read Marlowe’s translations of Ovid, have read the first volume of Calvin’s “Institutes” but, alas, not all of the second. But “you know?” is less a question than an assurance, part of why Robinson was a beloved teacher: there is a lot we do not already know, but no limit to what we could learn, and no reason to underestimate one another.
In other ways, too, Robinson is a patient guide. A stop in Stone City, named for the area’s many limestone quarries, near where Grant Wood painted, is followed by one at Anamosa State Penitentiary, which prisoners built from the limestone, and where Robinson recounts her own experiences teaching and meeting with the incarcerated. Next is a visit to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, where, before entering, she lingers in the parking lot to discuss the miracles in the Synoptic Gospels, and, upon exiting, returns to the same topic, which leads her to a distinction she draws between the religious imaginations of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson.
Robinson’s own religious imagination took shape during her sophomore year of college, when a philosophy professor assigned Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended.” The treatise contains a footnote that changed her life; in it, Edwards observes that although moonlight seems permanent, its brightness is renewed continuously. Believers often say that God meets them where they are and speaks to them in voices they can understand, so perhaps it is fitting that Robinson found her own revelation in a seldom read yet much maligned two-hundred-year-old book. An eighteenth-century evangelist articulated what she had always felt: that existence is miraculous, that at any moment the luminousness of the world could be revoked but is instead sustained.
Another truth revealed itself in that encounter: that history is not always a fair judge of character. Edwards had been reduced in the popular imagination to the censorious preacher of a single sermon, but the man who once called us “sinners in the hands of an angry God” spent a lifetime pointing out that we are creatures in the embrace of a tender and generous one, too. Likewise, Robinson came to see Edwards’s fellow-Puritans not as finger-wagging prudes but as radical political reformers who preached, even if they did not always live up to, a social ethic with strict expectations around charity—a tradition of Christian liberalism and economic justice rarely acknowledged today.
Robinson thought about going into the ministry, but when she did not get a scholarship for seminary she returned to the West, for graduate studies in English at the University of Washington, where she wrote a dissertation on “Henry VI, Part II.” (Characteristically, she was drawn to one of Shakespeare’s least-known and least-loved plays.) While there, Robinson married another student, whom she met in a seminar on the literature of the American South, and their first son was born not long afterward. When her husband got a job as a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in 1970, the family moved from Seattle to the Pioneer Valley, where their second son was born. The marriage ended two decades later; she does not speak of the divorce, or of the man to whom she was married. But she loves to talk about motherhood and her children, and she describes bringing them up as the most sustained act of attention she could imagine. “When you watch a child grow, it is pure consciousness coming into being,” she says. “It’s beautiful, complex, and inexhaustible. You learn so much about the mind, how language develops and memory works.”
Robinson says that she “aspired to mythic status as a mother,” although the mothers of mythology are a mixed bunch, and her own mother was a source of some consternation. Both of her parents were very conservative, and the gap between their politics and hers grew over time. Robinson’s relationship with her mother was interesting, but not easy. Her mother prized respectability above all, and for a while Robinson seemed to strive for that standard. She recalls winter mornings in Massachusetts when she got up early to bake, so that the house smelled of fresh bread when the boys awoke, and summer afternoons when they gathered gooseberries from the back yard to make pies, and hours spent tending the flower gardens that adorned their white clapboard house on a maple-shaded road. But Robinson had an outlet for her ambition that her mother never did: around the edges of all that domestic activity, she was turning herself into a novelist.
“I don’t ever remember her writing,” Robinson’s younger son, Joseph, says, “but I do remember playing with my brother a lot, so it must have been happening then, while we played, or maybe while we slept. It was this other life she had, because when we were children, and she was home with us, she interacted with us all the time—down on the floor with us, in the yard with us. Whatever she is doing, my mother is not distracted.”
Robinson felt that she and her brother grew close because of the isolation of their childhood; wanting the same for her own children, she took them to Brittany for a year, in 1978, while she and her husband taught at the Université de Haute Bretagne. “We were the only Americans—it was really something,” her older son, James, recalled. “We went to this rural school, and people made such a big deal about us.” Because of a higher-education strike, Robinson had plenty of time to work on “Housekeeping.” “I was probably the only person in France thinking of Idaho,” she says.
The experiment abroad was so successful that the family did it again in 1983, when both parents taught at the University of Kent. By then, “Housekeeping” had been out in the world for two years; another twenty-one would pass before Robinson published her second novel. But she never stopped writing, and it was while living in Canterbury that she found the subject for her next book—an exposé inspired by daily news coverage of nuclear pollution from a plant on the northwest coast of England called Sellafield.
Although her journalism up to that point included little more than a few columns and a profile of John Cheever for her college newspaper, Robinson quickly wrote a magazine article, which Levine placed with Harper’s in early 1985. Farrar, Straus & Giroux then commissioned a book on the subject, in which Robinson drastically scaled up her argument. The latter half of “Mother Country” is an expansion of the article, an account of the nuclear program at Sellafield and its literal and figurative fallout—including an indictment of environmental activists with Greenpeace UK and Friends of the Earth, who Robinson felt were complicit in covering up the extent of the catastrophe. The first half is something else entirely: a thoroughgoing and thoroughly scathing political and social history of modern England.
As Robinson saw it, the roots of the Sellafield crisis lay in failures of political economy and moral reasoning which went back to the sixteenth century and the beginnings of the Poor Laws. While the developed world grandstanded about the superiority of its scientists and its social order, she alleged, one of its leading nations was poisoning its own people for profit. “My attack will seem ill-tempered and eccentric, a veering toward anarchy, the unsettling emergence of lady novelist as petroleuse,” she wrote. “I am angry to the depths of my soul that the earth has been so injured.”
The reviews were mixed. Some critics challenged her conclusions and the facts on which she had based them, while others seemed affronted that an American would presume to criticize the nuclear program of any other country and by the claim that Britain’s political foundations were so compromised. Although the book was a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States, Greenpeace UK sued Robinson for libel, and, when she refused to remove the passages in question, the book was banned in Britain.
For Robinson, the book’s reception was evidence of the very cultural hubris she had diagnosed, and only confirmed her sense that the economic interests of the ruling few routinely inflict tragedy on everyone else, with nuclear pollution being simply the most recent and potentially most disastrous iteration. The state had failed its citizens, advocacy groups had failed the public, and an entire civilization had cosseted itself in a deluded sense of its own rectitude. Only the individual conscience could be trusted, she concluded, and moral courage would often place individuals at odds with society.
“Mother Country” also helped determine the future of Robinson’s fiction. After the Sellafield lawsuit, she sought solace in historical examples of people whose moral clarity was disregarded by their contemporaries. She read about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, then turned her attention to the life and work of abolitionists in the United States. The year after “Mother Country” was published, Robinson accepted the job in Iowa, and, once in the Midwest, began exploring a constellation of colleges those abolitionists had built, among them Grinnell, Oberlin, Carleton, and Knox. Many of these institutions were integrated by race or gender or both—an egalitarianism so radical that a century later it took federal courts and the National Guard to enforce it elsewhere—and Robinson wondered what had happened to the visionary impulses behind them. The Second Great Awakening began as a broad movement for social and moral reform and spread across the entire frontier, only to be snuffed out after a single generation and misremembered today as nothing but an outburst of cultish religious enthusiasm.
What puzzled Robinson was not the moral clarity of the abolitionists but how the communities they established could so quickly abandon their ideological origins. This was Jonathan Edwards all over again: historical figures, flawed because they are human but full of promise for the same reason, who are maligned, underestimated, or forgotten. We often say that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but that suggests that all we can learn from history is its errors and its failures. Robinson believes this to be a dangerously incomplete understanding, one that distorts our sense of the present and limits the possibilities of the future by overstating our own wisdom and overlooking the visionaries of earlier generations. “It is important to be serious and accurate about history,” she says. “It seems to me much of what is said today is shallow and empty and false. I believe in the origins of things, reading primary texts themselves—reading the things many people pretend to have read, or don’t even think need to be read because we all supposedly know what they say.”