Writer's Workshop professor and author garners White House recognition

BY JULIA SHRIVER | JULY 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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Writers’ Workshop Professor Marilynne Robinson has received plenty of recognition for her writing, both on the national scale and locally. But until today, she had never earned marks from a United States president.

President Obama will present Robinson with the 2012 National Humanities Medal during a White House ceremony today.

According to a July 3 White House press release, Robinson was selected for the National Humanities Medal “for her grace and intelligence in writing.”

“With moral strength and lyrical clarity, Dr. Robinson’s novels and nonfiction have traced our ethical connections to people in our lives, explored the world we inhabit, and defined universal truths about what it means to be human," the release said.

For Robinson, the high honor won’t steer her from her current work.

“Encouragement is always welcome … It will no doubt help me to do what I would do in any case,” Robinson said in an email.

Robinson is among 12 individuals to receive the award. Other recipients include New York sportswriter Frank Deford; editor and co-founder of The New York Review of Books, Robert B. Silvers; Herb Alpert, a cofounder of A&M Records; and Joan Myers Brown, founder of the Philadelphia Dance Company.

The award was first created under the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency created in 1965 to support the humanities through a variety of partnerships and government funding.  

To date, the agency has granted more than $4 billion to support the creative endeavors of communities and individuals throughout the country, the release said.

In addition to teaching at the Writers’ Workshop, Robinson, who has taught at the UI for more than 20 years, has published three award-winning novels, including 1980’s Housekeeping, 2004’s Gilead, and 2008’s Home.

Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Housekeeping was the recipient of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel, and Home took the 2009 Orange Prize.

She has also written four nonfiction books, including 19998’s The Death of Adam and her most recent work, 2012’s When I Was a Child I Read Books.

UI President Sally Mason said the new award calls attention to Robinson’s educational nature.

“… This recognition speaks to her stature as an educator and author, and we are proud to call her one of our very own," she said in a statement. "This is an extremely high honor. These medals are our national version of a Nobel prize. How wonderful for Marilynne and how magnificent for the UI. All of us at the University of Iowa warmly congratulate Marilynne for this remarkable achievement.”

Robinson also said she credits the award to her substantial educational background, which includes degrees from Brown University, Notre Dame, Oxford University, and she noted that the Writers’ Workshop received the same award in 2003.

“Its history and the fine work produced by its graduates give prominence to those lucky enough to be associated with it,” she said.

Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang has known Robinson for 20 years, beginning when she was one of Robinson’s students.

“I have vivid memories of sitting in the classroom making lists of words that she used that were not typical,” Chang said. “She speaks in such beautiful sentences that those of us who attend her classes and lectures often have the experience of sort of watching her sentences fly through the air.”

One of such classes, she said, was a Faulkner seminar that Robinson taught last spring.

Workshop graduate Susan Hazen-Hammond said she enjoyed her experience with Robinson during her first two years of college so much that she flew back and forth from New Mexico to Iowa each week just to attend the Faulkner seminar.

Writers’ Workshop student Micah Stack said he has also enjoyed having Robinson as a professor.

“I would say that Marilynne's greatest strength as a teacher is simply her own beatific presence,” Stack said. “She radiates a kind of calm well-being, and I find it seeping into my own writing.”

Robinson said she will continue to teach, and she is working on another novel, which she expects is near completion. In any case, she said, she appreciates such recognition and believes it can only help further her endeavors.

From a broader standpoint, Robinson sees the award as an important reminder of why the government should recognize the arts and humanities.

“If there is an American culture, an American civilization, who can or should recognize it at the national level but the American government?” she said.

Regardless of this high honor, Robinson will always have the loyal support of the many students and educators whose lives she has touched.

“She reminds us constantly that great fiction should have a loudly beating heart at its core, and her own novels are undeniable testaments to the truth of that maxim,” Stack said.

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