Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

9. Marilynne Robinson 1943 –

Some Marilynne Robinson readers may find her demanding at first; some may give in quickly to her prose; her sentences are wave-like, long and rhythmic. Robinson's style holds the reader up when the reader slows down and floats. Robinson wrote her first book as respite from her Shakespeare dissertation, but her respite was in writing prose as solid as Melville's prose. Robinson anticipated only academic readers for her dissertation and no readers for her own fiction, private writing meant for her only, she says, as a way of creating prose she'd want to read later. She wrote like this: "Of my conception I know only what you know of yours. It occurred in darkness and I was unconsenting. I (and that slenderest word is too gross for the rare thing I was then) walked forever through reachless oblivion, in the mood of one smelling night-blooming flowers, and suddenly—My ravishers left their traces in me, male and female, and over the months I rounded, grew heavy, until the scandal could no longer be concealed and oblivion expelled me. But this I have in common with all my kind. By some bleak alchemy what had been mere unbeing becomes death when life is mingled with it" (Robinson 1980: 214-215).

Robinson writes, she says, with the length and the rhythm of the sentence in her head, even before the meaning or the exact words come ("Robinson on Writing," Idaho Statesman, September 9, 2001). To read Robinson is to take in the long taught rhythms she learned in Latin classes, in Shakespeare, in the King James Bible, and from the American transcendentalists. She is a serious and brainy writer whose ideas keep shining on the reader's mind, set there by the rhythm and the syntax and the sound of what she says, long after her books are finished.

Robinson's first book is her the novel Housekeeping (1980). The book is taught widely, is the chosen title of numerous reading groups, and, in fact, was the first book chosen for the statewide "Idaho Reads" project in 2001. Since Housekeeping's publication, Robinson has written Mother Country (1989), an exposé of Britain's nuclear pollution of the North Sea and a book which also skewered the environmentalist group Greenpeace to the extent that Robinson was sued for libel by Greenpeace and, rather than retract her statements, saw her book banned from sale in England. Mother Country was a finalist in the United States for the National Book Award. Robinson's third book, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), is a collection of critical essays. Of this book the New York Times critic Roger Kimball said, "One would have to search far and wide to find another contemporary novelist writing articulate essays defending the theology of John Calvin or the moral and social lives of the Puritans." "Her book," Kimball writes, "is a goad to renewed curiosity" (Roger Kimball, "John Calvin Got a Bad Rap," The New York Times on the Web, February 7, 1999). Robinson's newest book, the novel Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize.

Housekeeping begins with a man's dreams of mountains; it becomes the story of a drowned railroad man's family and his drowned daughter's children who live in the loss-haunted home the drowned man built. The story is of Aunt Sylvie and her two nieces, Lucille and Ruthie, the novel's narrator. Sylvie and Ruthie wander and dream, and Lucille turns to home economics and the mysteries of stability. Lucille imagines the citizens of Fingerbone, a town much like Sandpoint, Idaho, to live in a better way, but the other two, niece and aunt, prefer to search the wider world more aimlessly, losing themselves in boxcars, in a stolen rowboat, in an abandoned homestead, and, finally, under cover through the smoke of their own home's flames.

Robinson's book shows the small Idaho towns to be serious places. Throughout her childhood Robinson read the thick books in her school libraries, was trained in Latin by rigorous high-school teachers, in Plato and in the American transcendentalists and Emily Dickinson by her older brother who loaned his books to her, and, especially, in the language of King James Bible at home and in church. She remains entranced by the Bible; her son James said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman (September 9, 2001) that "our way of bonding is to discuss Theodor Adorno's critique of Christianity." And Robinson said, "I believe the entire hypertrophic bookishness of my life arose directly out of my exposure . . . to the language of Scripture" (Mark Popkey, "A Writer's Life," The Idaho Statesman, September 9, 2001). Robinson teaches for the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, is a deacon in Iowa City's United Church of Christ, and remains a student of religious traditions and beliefs.

These bookish anchors hold Housekeeping in the country of Robinson's childhood—Northern Idaho, the high panhandle country, and the towns of Coeur d'Alene, and Sandpoint with its long railroad bridge, and the beside the great glacier-formed lakes in that region—Pend Oreille, Priest, Hayden, and Coeur d'Alene. How, a city bumpkin asks Robinson in the essay "My Western Roots" (1993) can someone from Idaho write a book? Robinson replies at length, and the reader knows that Housekeeping and all the rest of Robinson's writing began in the place all such writing begins, in libraries, solid teaching, in belief, and a place to see the world clearly.

For readers of Housekeeping, here are some questions to discuss:

1. The Idaho Statesman, describing the book for its series of articles on an all-Idaho reading project, said, "[Housekeeping] is accessible enough to be on the school district's list of books for the tenth-grade classroom. Its descriptions of Sandpoint, 'Fingerbone,' are crisp and moving. The book is topical, exploring issues of mental illness, conformity, and family dysfunction." Here one might object. Though the characters are a little wild, even feral, are they aptly deemed to be "mentally ill?" One may also ask how perceptions of the book might change between adolescence and adulthood, and through adulthood's various stages.

2. You are reading this site and its literature for examples of regional writing. Robinson probably didn't anticipate this regionalism as she wrote Housekeeping. She said, "I don't think of it as particularly more or less likely to occur anywhere" (O'Connell 1998: 253). Yet books like this define a place somehow. To what end do readers distinguish between the universal meanings of a book and its regional usefulness?

3. Housekeeping is praised for its language; one way to appreciate this is to look through the book for sections you annotated or underlined because the writing seemed remarkable and share those sections with other readers. Throughout the book are examples of Robinson's craft. One section to consider is the beginning of chapter 9, where Robinson describes life in a small, closely-knit town.

4. Robinson said she wanted to "have" Moby Dick, to deny that Melville's book was written for men only. "I thought if I could write a book in which there are no male characters-that men could read comfortably-then I could get Moby Dick" (Schaub 1994: 235). How could such a book affect the literary foundations of a region if that region's literature depicts, primarily, the actions of men?

5. Does this book help to resolve, or does it put the reader in a bind between, conflicting ideals? One ideal holds that community stability and material possessions are not the most important things; another ideal values stability and makes the reader suspicious of persons who don't accumulate conventional comforts. We praise and deride success; we praise and deride self-sacrifice. Does Housekeeping argue for one ideal over the other?

6. Hearsay says that urbane northeasterners accuse westerners of cultural ignorance. Housekeeping accents this accusation because, as Robinson says in "My Western Roots" (1993:165-66), "I find that the hardest work in the world—it may in fact be impossible—is to persuade easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling. On learning that I am from Idaho, people have not infrequently asked, 'Then how were you able to write a book?'" What are the bases for this cultural perception? Consider what it means to live in a place whose history in the dominant culture is short. Is there a difference in how one achieves cultural status in north Idaho as compared to New England?

7. What can the reader know of Lucille and Ruthie's cultural knowledge? Are the two girls separable from the sophistication of their creator who speaks for them? Review the book for clues to the narrator's cultural education. Can one tell what Ruthie knew as a character in the narrative and what she does not know until she, as narrator, is much older? Does the book seem to put a mature woman's head on a young girl's shoulders?

8. Sylvie, Ruthie, and Lucille walk along lakeshores, skate on the lake's frozen water, trudge through snow and up wild hillsides as they explore, for days at a time, the Idaho outdoors. Discuss whether the book's setting designs the book's meaning. Consider, at the same time, what the poet William Stafford said. "It's a pleasant thought, but the idea that the style is rooted to the landscape just sounds sort of quaint to me" (O'Connell 1998: 260). Marilynne Robinson said, "People in Finland have told me that they knew of precisely similar circumstances" (O'Connell 1998: 253). How does a region hold any claim to its literature?

9. Housekeeping makes frequent references to the Bible and to other texts from western culture. How much is it necessary to recognize and acknowledge these correspondences when one teaches or discusses the book?


New York Times reviews of Robinson: "Acts of Devotion," James Wood; "A Moralist of the Midwest," Meghan O'Rourke; "Books of the Times," Anatole Broyard

The Emily Dickinson Journal

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.

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