Anna Maguire Elliott continues our series of blogs from the symposium organisers.
In September 2015, President Barack Obama, made a trip to Iowa to meet with Marilynne Robinson for a lengthy conversation, which was adapted into two interviews for The New York Review of Books. In these interviews, Obama sets their discussion apart from his usual visits to speak with local people, which typically involve “trying to drive a very particular message,” and instead frames their conversation as a more relaxed discussion “with somebody who I enjoy” about “some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas.” (1). The idea that the President of the United States would participate in a published interview without a “particular message” is, of course, highly questionable. So what are these “cultural forces”, and why does he choose to discuss them with Robinson? What, in turn, does this say about Robinson’s work, and her position as an American writer?
In their discussion, Obama both emphasises the importance of her work in the current climate of financial crisis and globalisation (2), and he positions her writing as a moral centre set against the materialism of the public sphere: in contrast to “big systems where everything is all about flash” (5), he says, her work embodies “homespun virtues” (4). He briefly defines these virtues as “hard work, honesty and humility” (4), but the vague nature of these “virtues” is less interesting than his more lengthy exploration of their “homespun” origins. Obama suggests these values are recognisable in small towns “everywhere across the country” (5), and he notes they: “sounded really familiar to me when I think about my grandparents who grew up in Kansas.” (4). In referencing his maternal grandparents, rather than either his Kenyan family or more cross-cultural Hawaiian upbringing, Obama reinforces a message of morality that draws on white motherhood, family and home, and suggests Robinson’s work as part of a narrative of white, female, middle-class domesticity.
Although drawing on the values of his Kansas grandparents may be a logical reference, given that Obama was raised primarily by them and his mother, it also marks the construction of a politically astute narrative that relates his own to heritage to that of his white midwestern interviewee and likely predominantly white middle class readership in The New York Review of Books. The domestic ideal uses the white family to establish a model of the home as nation against a foreign other. As Amy Kaplan explains: “domestic has a double meaning that not only links the familial household and nation but also imagines both in opposition to everything outside the geographic and conceptual border of the home.” (581). These “homespun virtues” have typically been drawn on to expel a foreign other when the white American home has felt itself under threat in times of national instability.
Obama’s reading of Robinson’s work as representative of the morality of the white American home then positions her in a tradition of writing with the female domestic novelists of the nineteenth century. Their meeting, in fact, recalls the legendary (and quite possibly mythical) meeting of President Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this encounter, Lincoln is said to have acknowledged the profound impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the start of the Civil War (Douglas 19). Whether historical fact or not, the repeatedly told story of their meeting marks a popular construction of Stowe’s writing as a moral centre of familial and national values set against commercial materialism, in much the same way as Obama reads Robinson’s work. While Stowe’s novel is presented as galvanising the nation against a materialistic system of slavery, she infamously also advocated at this point for black emigration to Liberia, and thus reinforced the white domestic ideal. Although not infused with the racism of the nineteenth century, Robinson’s, and also Obama’s, relationship to white domesticity is similarly complex.
To a certain extent Robinson meets some of Obama’s expectations as a paragon of “homespun virtues.” In the current, unstable political climate, she suggests that she finds optimism about American citizenship in the people she speaks to at her book signings. She is encouraged by: “how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on – there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.” (2 9). Robinson’s references here to sustenance and the responsibility for others depict classic domestic ideals of family: of nurturance, and of caring for those who are “close.”
However, Robinson also proceeds to deconstruct the domestic ideal of the nation-as-family, as she asserts: “we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith.” (3). Here Robinson suggests an ethic-of-care that operates across difference, rather than through a dualism of white home set against “sinister other” (1). Similarly, in their conversation, Obama argues for a “more expansive” (3) sense of community. Locating Robinson’s work within the framework of American domesticity therefore functions to critique, rather than to reinforce, a white home/racial other dichotomy. The nation as home remains a powerful metaphor but the terms of inclusion into the American family have shifted and transformed, and drawing on the ideal of the white home cannily allows Obama to add a conservative legitimacy to his argument for a more inclusive understanding of American society.
Despite using their conversation to call for an expanded understanding of the ethic-of-care, Obama’s positioning of Robinson as an embodiment of the traditions of white middle class motherhood remains troubling. His reference to the “homespun virtues” of her work is problematised further when considering the definition of homespun as plain or unsophisticated. Values of nurturance and care have typically been denigrated as emotional rather than rational, and when morality is championed over materialism, it is often at the expense of intellectual value. The undervaluing of the intellectual sophistication of women’s writing about the home has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest challenges to a full appreciation of this work.
To my mind, the conversation between Robinson and Obama represents the continuing significance of domesticity as a “cultural force” that shapes the American nation. The “particular message” of their discussion is a carefully crafted one, of revision and transformation to the concept of the American home and family. Against the background of Donald Trump’s desire to turn the metaphorical walls of the American nation-as-home into a literal one, across the Mexican border, this is an important, inclusive message. However, their conversation also reinforces the association of Robinson, as a woman writer, with a set of moral values established within the home and is thus simultaneously limiting on the terms of gender. Their discussion is representative of the challenge for women writers who wish to draw on the ethics of care and nurture that have shaped domestic relationships, without remaining trapped within the walls of the house.
Douglas, Ann. “Introduction: The Art of Controversy.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By Harriet Beecher Stowe. London: Penguin, 1986. 7-34. Print.
Kaplan, Amy. “Manifest Domesticity.” American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581-606. JSTOR. Web. 8 Sept 2014.
“President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa.” The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, 5 Nov 2015. Web. 31 Jan 2016.
“President Obama and Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation – II.” The New York Review of Books. The New York Review of Books, 19 Nov 2015. Web. 31 Jan 2016.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.