Robinson at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College
November 26, 1943
Sandpoint, Idaho, US
|Residence||Iowa City, Iowa, US|
Fred Miller Robinson
(m. 1967; div. 1989)
Marilynne Summers Robinson (born November 26, 1943) is an American novelist and essayist. Across her writing career, Robinson has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, National Humanities Medal in 2012, and the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. In 2016, Robinson was named in Time magazine's list of 100 most influential people. Robinson began teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1991 and retired in the spring of 2016.
Robinson is best known for her novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). Her novels are noted for their thematic depiction of both rural life and faith. The subjects of her essays have spanned numerous topics, including the relationship between religion and science, US history, nuclear pollution, John Calvin, and contemporary American politics.
Robinson was born on November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, the daughter of Eileen (Harris) and John J. Summers, a lumber company employee. Her brother is the art historian David Summers, who dedicated his book Vision, Reflection, and Desire in Western Painting to her. She did her undergraduate work at Pembroke College, the former women's college at Brown University, receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree magna cum laude in 1966, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. At Brown, one of her teachers was the celebrated postmodern novelist John Hawkes. She received her Doctor of Philosophy degree in English from the University of Washington in 1977.
Robinson has written four highly acclaimed novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014). Housekeeping was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US), Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (UK). Home and Lila are companions to Gilead and focus on the Boughton and Ames families during the same time period.
Robinson is also the author of many non-fiction works, including Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012), The Givenness of Things: Essays (2015), and What Are We Doing Here? (2018). She has written numerous articles, essays and reviews for Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Review of Books.
She has been writer-in-residence or visiting professor at many universities, including the University of Kent, Amherst (where she taught, among other illustrious students, the novelist David Foster Wallace), and the University of Massachusetts Amherst's MFA Program for Poets and Writers. In 2009, she held a Dwight H. Terry Lectureship at Yale University, where she delivered a series of talks titled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. On April 19, 2010, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In May 2011, Robinson delivered the University of Oxford's annual Esmond Harmsworth Lecture in American Arts and Letters at the university's Rothermere American Institute.
In the Spring of 2016, she retired as the F. Wendell Miller Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Robinson still lives in Iowa City, and spends the summers with family in upstate New York. She was the keynote speaker for the Workshop's 75th anniversary celebration in June 2011. She gave the 2012 Annual Buechner Lecture at The Buechner Institute at King University. In 2012, Brown University awarded Robinson the degree of Doctor of Literature honoris causa. On February 18, 2013, she was the speaker at the Easter Convocation of the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature honoris causa. The College of the Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Amherst College, Skidmore College, the University of Oxford, and Yale University have also awarded Robinson honorary degrees. She has been elected a fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford.
Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin have been important in many of her novels, including Gilead, which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister. In an interview with the Church Times in 2012, Robinson said: "I think, if people actually read Calvin, rather than read Max Weber, he would be rebranded. He is a very respectable thinker."
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has described Robinson as "one of the world's most compelling English-speaking novelists", adding that "Robinson's is a voice we urgently need to attend to in both Church and society here [in the UK]." On January 24, 2013, Robinson was announced to be among the finalists for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
On June 26, 2015, President Barack Obama quoted Robinson in his eulogy for Clementa C. Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In speaking about "an open heart", Obama said: "[w]hat a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls 'that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.'"  In November 2015, The New York Review of Books published a two-part conversation between Obama and Robinson, covering topics in American history and the role of faith in society.
The couple had two sons, James and Joseph. In the late 1970s, she wrote Housekeeping in the evenings while they slept. Robinson said they influenced her writing in many ways, since "[Motherhood] changes your sense of life, your sense of yourself."