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Robinson eyes power of art in the Midwest

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | FEBRUARY 15, 2010 7:30 AM

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As the UI continues to plan the rebuilding of the fine-arts buildings damaged by the 2008 flood, Iowa Writers’ Workshop Professor Marilynne Robinson sought to remind the community about the significance of the arts to the entire region.

Robinson, an acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer, spoke about the importance of fine arts in the Midwest on Sunday during the 27th Presidential Lecture, titled “Being Here.”

The Presidential Lecture is an annual address given by a faculty member in a different discipline each year to “enhance communication across disciplinary boundaries,” UI President Sally Mason said. Robinson is only the second member of the Writers’ Workshop to give the lecture. The first was poet Jorie Graham in 1991.

“The Workshop’s star is so bright thanks to the talent of the likes of Marilynne Robinson,” Mason said when introducing the novelist.

Robinson’s work has garnered many awards, including the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and 2005 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, both for her novel Gilead.

Perhaps the most important prize Robinson has won, Mason said, is the prize she turned down in order to continue teaching. In 1998, the American Academy of Arts and Letters presented Robinson with a Mildred and Harold Strauss Living award, a stipend of $250,000 given out over five years to allow the recipient to write without having to worry about income.

The UI granted Robinson a five-year leave of absence to accept the award. However, as Mason recounted in her introduction, Robinson returned after only 18 months to continue teaching.

“She’s an inspiring teacher and a generous member of the community here,” said Samantha Chang, the director of the Workshop and a former student of Robinson’s.

Teaching brought Robinson to the Midwest when she first arrived at the UI as a visiting professor.

“I stayed because I learned to love the place,” she said. “Being here has made me rethink the history and mindset of American civilization.”

The Midwest represents the “survival of the American future,” Robinson said, because it plays a prominent role in support for the fine arts and education. This, often overlooked, gives the region major importance in a time in which more colleges and universities are increasing focus on math and science, she said.

“For decades now, [Robinson] has made the Midwest home, and she has written about us in ways that help those within other parts of this country see a part of America that they don’t always have access to,” Chang said. Robinson, she said, “feels that people in other parts of the country don’t know much about the Midwest. She’s one of the few people who have managed to illuminate it.”

Robinson also spoke of how, even if unseen and unrecognized by the rest of the world, the Midwest continues to remain a diverse source of much education and reform.

“The region figures in national and world mythology as a backwater,” she said, noting even Midwesterners have accepted it as truth.

When concluding the lecture, the novelist said people in the Midwest should embrace the regions support of the arts and education.

“It would be a great thing if the Middle West turned a kind eye on itself,” Robinson said.


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