Marilynne Robinson, the author of a series of celebrated novels set in the American heartland, has been named the 2016 winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.
This lifetime achievement award, announced Tuesday by acting librarian of Congress David S. Mao, will be presented to Robinson at the 16th annual National Book Festival in Washington on Sept. 24.
Robinson, who has taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of four award-winning novels, including “Gilead,” which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. She has also published several collections of essays and works of nonfiction.
In his announcement, Mao said, “With the depth and resonance of her novels, Marilynne Robinson captures the American soul.”
The soul has never been far from Robinson’s work. A deacon for the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, she infuses her work with deep theological concerns. Her Gilead series, which also includes “Home” and “Lila,” revolves around the lives of two Iowa ministers.
Previous winners of this Library of Congress honor include Louise Erdrich, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.
Robinson said she was “awfully happy to be on the list” of winners because she feels such a strong kinship with the classic authors of the United States.
“The writers that have always been most influential to me have been early American writers such as Walt Whitman and Melville,” she said. “To a great extent, they have defined for me what language could do. So I really feel very much indebted to them and happy to be associated with them.”
The Prize for American Fiction seeks to honor an author whose work tells us “something new about the American experience.” Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Robinson’s work is her ability to draw such profound and resonant stories from a fictional mid-20th-century town so removed from the lives of most people in the United States.
“One thing that I have found,” she says, “is that with a fairly small population, I have created the possibility of many other novels. I could fill Iowa with fictional characters.”
Living and working in small-town America has not distanced her from the major concerns of the country at large. “I’m always aware of living in a great big dynamic society,” she says, “a society that’s so historically significant that you hate even to think about what it could mean.”
Robinson, who last year was interviewed by one of her biggest fans, President Obama, is a Hillary Clinton supporter. Yet she readily concedes, “It wouldn’t break my heart if Bernie wins.” Robinson has been following the tumultuous presidential campaign with rising dismay. “There are alarming things in our present moment,” she said. “These people who are stirring all this ire directed at immigrants and Muslim communities are very, very disturbing to me. There is no future in that.”
Noting that “the democratic system seems to be behaving in a very erratic way,” Robinson said, “It’s worrisome that we’re getting very emphatic news that a large part of the public doesn’t feel well served, and that’s something to take very seriously and try to understand — even though I don’t understand why in the world Donald Trump would seem like someone who would look like a solution.”
Robinson declined to confirm rumors about a new book set in Gilead. “I have been fiddling around with a new novel, but I don’t want to be more specific than that,” she said.
Robinson will be one of more than 100 authors at the Library of Congress National Book Festival at the Washington Convention Center on Sept. 24. The event is free and open to the public.
The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the festival, which is funded by corporate sponsors and private donors, led by David M. Rubenstein, the National Book Festival board co-chairman.