Marilynne Robinson Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Rarely has any novel, let alone a first novel, attracted such serious critical acclaim as did Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which won the Ernest Hemingway First Novel Award for 1982 as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. The short novel, which has generally been described as “lyrical” and “poetic,” incorporates a number of provocative issues, including American cultural and social myths and women’s issues. A reasonably solid film adaptation, directed by Bill Forsyth and starring Christine Lahti, appeared in 1987.

Robinson is in the fourth generation of her father’s family and the third of her mother’s to have lived in northern Idaho, where her great-grandfather homesteaded. Her father worked in the timber industry; her mother, whom she describes in a 1992 interview as “very verbal and witty,” often read to her and her older brother, and she claims to hear her mother’s voice in her own writing. Elsewhere Robinson has written that Idaho “has had the profoundest impact on my family, but we have not reciprocated.”

Her novel, Housekeeping, can in some ways be regarded as her reciprocation, though it is not a traditional example of “regional” writing. The lake in the novel is not named, but it does have the features of the deep Lake Pend Oreille, which, prior to the construction of dams on nearby streams in the 1950’s, occasionally flooded the town of Sandpoint (which is named Fingerbone in the novel). Camps of “hobos” were common there until late in the twentieth century near the railroad tracks that run through the town north-south and east-west, and the railroad bridge that figures so prominently in the novel may be a composite of two bridges that cross portions of Lake Pend Oreille. Moreover, a train wreck in 1959 may be the source for the one mentioned early in the novel. The only direct reference to Robinson’s home state, however, occurs when Ruth remembers her grandmother’s scanning the shores “to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho.”


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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The younger of two children, Marilynne Robinson was born on November 26, 1943, in Sandpoint, Idaho. As a child, Robinson moved around quite a bit in the northwestern United States, living in the towns of Sagle, Sandpoint, and Coolin and several smaller towns. In 1962, she graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School and then entered Pembroke College, the former women’s college at Brown University, where she joined her brother, who was already a senior. Her college studies in religion and creative writing prepared the ground for her later novels, for religion plays a key role in all three of her novels.

After she graduated from Brown, Robinson taught for a year in France at the Université de Haute-Bretagne before returning to the United States to pursue graduate work in English at the University of Washington. She completed her Ph.D. with a dissertation on William Shakespeare in 1977, but she began writing her first novel, Housekeeping, while she was working on her dissertation. During graduate school she also married and began to raise a family. In 1989, she and her husband separated, leaving Robinson to raise her children alone.

Housekeeping was published to great acclaim in 1980, winning major awards and becoming an American classic almost instantly, yet twenty-four years passed before Robinson published her next novel, Gilead. During the years between novels, Robinson continued to write, producing two nonfiction books, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. During these years she also started teaching. Robinson has been a visiting professor at numerous universities, including the University of Kent and Amherst, and she has also taught in the University of Massachusetts M.F.A. Program for Poets and Writers and the New York State Writers’ Program at Skidmore College. In 1991, Robinson became a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.


(Novels for Students)

Marilynne Robinson Published by Gale Cengage

Source material providing biographical information on Marilynne Robinson is scant and all too often conflicting in its facts, focusing on her...

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