February 18, 2011

Robinson on Freedom

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Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Marilynne Robinson argued that the Christian tradition in America has a history of promoting freedom at a lecture Wednesday in Max Palevsky Cinema.

Robinson, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her novel Gilead, said that history has been distorted to create support for modern movements. One example: Calvinism and Puritanism endorsed higher levels of personal freedom than many believe.

“Calvin has been very much misrepresented, and as a consequence the culture he has influenced has been misrepresented,” Robinson said.

She drew on readings from John Calvin and the Puritan writer John Winthrop, as well as historical legal examples, for evidence that freedom is supported by American Christianity.

“Freedom is something that we give one another, not something that we take,” Robinson said. “Freedom grows out of a history and out of mutual accommodation.”

Robinson encouraged the audience to read the works of Calvin and Winthrop to dispel their own misconceptions about freedom in American Christianity. “What [Americans] think is their past is generated around some cartoon in which everyone wears a black hat and Calvin hates everyone,” she said.

She noted that the texts from which she read are relevant to her own work as an American author. “Insofar as I can say I have an intention in writing, they have everything to do with it,” said Robinson, whose 2004 novel Housekeeping was named one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 by TIME.

A common misunderstanding in American literary scholarship, Robinson said, is “to view great [American] writers as people who have escaped from [Christian religion], rather than people who are deeply rooted in it.” Robinson cited Hawthorne and Melville as examples of authors who were deeply influenced by Christianity.

Robinson also argued that a “false memory of history” often inaccurately colors modern readings in American literary scholarship.

According to Robinson, the idealization of the American South after the Civil War reflects a romanticizing trend in history which can lead people to “forget that breaches of freedom occur on both sides [during war.]”

“The losing side wins the war, in a sense, in any war,” said Robinson, who has also written for Harper’s, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review.

The lecture was sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, the Committee on Social Thought, the Committee on Creative Writing, and the Department of English.