It’s said that in a meeting at the White House, President Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the words, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The account is apocryphal, as no record of such an exchange was recorded until many years later. Nevertheless, the story was handed down by Stowe’s family and later biographers and has persisted in the popular imagination ever since.
If the story is a fiction, then it’s a “lie that tells the truth,” as Pablo Picasso, in another enduring attribution, purportedly said about art. For whether or not Lincoln actually uttered those words to Stowe, their essence holds: Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the hearts and minds of Americans about slavery and, in so doing, changed the history of the United States.
Literature can have that kind of power. The recent tête-à-tête between novelist Marilynne Robinson and President Barack Obama (who is considered a “talented writer” himself) is significant for this very reason.
It’s not often — if ever — that a sitting president carves out time to meet with a literary figure in such an official and public way as these two did in Des Moines, Iowa, last month. The New York Review of Books published the first of a two-part transcript (as well as the audio recording) of their conversation, which features Robinson as the subject and Obama as the interviewer.
Of all the contemporary authors Obama might have interviewed, his choice of Robinson is significant.
Of all the contemporary authors Obama might have interviewed, his choice of Robinson — with whom he has been conversing since they met at the White House when she received an award in 2013 — is significant. Both Robinson’s fiction and non-fiction clearly reflect her commitment to her Christian faith. She is a self-professed Calvinist and can be seen as representing the mainline American Protestant tradition.
In the interview, Obama expresses his admiration for her fictional character — Congregationalist pastor John Ames of Gilead, a novel which picks up, in some ways, where Stowe left off — and the theology that underpins all of Robinson’s writing.
Not surprisingly, the conversation quickly settles into the political — but, refreshingly, not superficially so. After noting that Robinson “cares deeply about Christian thought,” Obama asks her how her theology informs her views of democracy. Much of Robinson’s response reflects an essay published earlier at The New York Review of Books, “Fear,” a theme she was developing in the lecture I heard her give at Calvin College a few years ago.
While some Christians might be put off by Robinson’s hard-to-categorize theological and political views, her central points in the interview are ones Christians can readily rally around. In response to Obama’s tendentious remark that “it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them,” Robinson responds, incisively,
Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk … Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive — “Love thy neighbor as thyself” — which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
Here the conversation returns to the power of fiction as Obama responds, “Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?”
No, it’s not. Yet there is a certain comfort in the way Robinson’s deeply theological, beautifully crafted and profoundly human work speaks this truth — a truth that can move this literature professor as much as it does the president.