Northwest Schools of Literature: Texts

11. Marilynne Robinson, "My Western Roots"

Marilynne Robinson, "My Western Roots" in Old West–New West: Centennial Essays, ed. Barbara Howard Meldrum
(Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1993).

When I was a child I read books. My reading was not indiscriminate. I preferred books that were old and thick and dull and hard. I made vocabulary lists.

Surprising as may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did. I knew a good deal about Constantinople and the Cromwell revolution and chivalry. There was little here that was relevant to my experience, but the shelves of northern Idaho groaned with just the sort of old dull books I craved, so I cannot have been alone in these enthusiasms.

Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.

It may seem strange to begin a talk about the West in terms of old books that had nothing western about them, and of naïve fabrications of stodgily fantastical, authoritative worlds, which answered only to my own forming notions of meaning and importance. But I think it was in fact peculiarly western to feel no tie of particularity to any one past or history, to experience that much underrated thing called deracination, the meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one's eye, without ant need to make such tedious judgments as "mine" and "not mine."

I went to college in New England and have lived in Massachusetts for twenty years, and 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 frequently asked, "Then how were you able to write a book?"

Once or twice, when I felt cynical or lazy, I have replied, "I went to Brown," thinking that might appease them—only to be asked, "How did you manage to get into Brown?" One woman, on learning of my origins, said, "But there has to be talent in the family somewhere."

In a way Housekeeping is meant as a sort of demonstrations of the intellectual culture of my childhood. It was my intention to make only those allusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me at her age, more or less. The classical allusions, Carthage sown with salt and the sowing of dragon's teeth which sprouted into armed men, stories that Ruthie combines, were both in the Latin textbook we used at Coeur d'Alene High School. My brother David brought home the fact that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. I never thought to ask him where he found it. Emily Dickinson and the Bible were blessedly unavoidable. There are not many references in Housekeeping to sources other than these few, though it is a very allusive book, because the narrator deploys every resource she has to try to make the world comprehensible. What she knows, she uses, as she does her eyes and her hands. She appropriates the ruin of Carthage for the purposes of her own speculation.

I thought the lore my teachers urged on me must have some such use. Idaho society at that time at least seemed to lack the sense of social class which elsewhere makes culture a system of signs and passwords, more or less entirely without meaning except as it identifies groups and subgroups. I think it is indifference to those codes in westerners that makes easterners think they are without culture. These are relative differences, of course, and wherever accident grants a little reprieve from some human folly it must be assumed that time is running out and the immunity is about to disappear. As an aspect of my own intellectual life as a bookish child in the Far West, I was given odds and ends—Dido pining on her flaming couch, Lewis and Clark mapping the wilderness—without one being set apart from the other as especially likely to impress or satisfy anyone. We were simply given these things with the assurance that they were valuable and important in no specific way. I imagine a pearl diver finding a piece of statuary under the Mediterranean, a figure all immune to the crush of depth though up to its waist in sand and blue with cold, in tatters of seaweed, its eyes blank with astonishment, its lips parted to make a sound in some lost dialect, its hand lifted to arouse a city long since lost beyond indifference. The diver might feel pity at finding so human a thing in so cold a place. It might be his privilege to react with a sharper recognition than anyone in the living world could do, though he had never heard the name of Phidias or Myron. The things we learned were, in the same way, merely given, for us to make what meaning we could of them.

This extended metaphor comes to you courtesy of Mrs. Bloomsburg, my high school Latin teacher, who led five or six of us though Horace and Virgil, and taught us patience with that strange contraption called the epic simile, which, to compare great things with small, appears fairly constantly in my own prose, modified for my own purposes. It was Mrs. Bloomsburg also who trudged us through Cicero's vast sentences, clause depending from clause, the whole cantilevered with subjunctives and weighted with a culminating irony. It was all over our heads. We were bored but dogged. And at the end of it all, I think anyone can see that my style is considerably more in debt to Cicero than to Hemingway.

I admire Hemingway. It is simply an amusing accident that it should be Cicero, of all people, whose influence I must resist. This befell me because I was educated at a certain time in a certain place. When I went to college in New England I found that only I and a handful of boys prepared by Jesuits shared these quaint advantages. In giving them Ruth I used her to record the intellectual culture of the West as I experienced it myself.

The peculiarities of my early education are one way in which being from the West has set me apart. A man in Alabama asked me how I felt the West was different from East and the South, and I replied, in the West "lonesome" is a word with strongly positive connotations. I must have phrased my answer better at the time, because both he and I were struck by the aptness of the remark, and people in Alabama are far too sensitive to language to be pleased with a phrase like "strongly positive connotations." For the moment it will have to serve, however.

I remember when I was a child at Coolin or Sagle or Talache, walking into the woods by myself and feeling the solitude around me build like electricity and pass through my body with a jolt that made my hair prickle. I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and among fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusion—feeling that my solitude, my loneliness made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.

I remember the evenings at my grandparents' ranch, at Sagle, and how in the daytime we chased the barn cats and swung on the front gate and set off pitchy, bruising avalanches in the woodshed, and watched my grandmother scatter chicken seed from an apron with huge pockets in it, suffering the fractious contentment of town children rusticated. And then the cows came home and the wind came up and Venus burned through what little remained of atmosphere, and the dark and the emptiness stood over the old house like some unsought revelation.

It must have been at evening that I heard the word "lonesome" spoken in tones that let me know privilege attached to it, the kind of democratic privilege that comes with the simplest deserving. I think it is correct to regard the West as a moment in a history much larger than its own. My grandparents and people like them had a picture in their houses of a stag on a cliff, admiring a radiant moon, or a maiden in classical draperies, on the same cliff, admiring the same moon. It was a specimen of decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare.

In modern culture these are seen as pathologies—alienation and in-authenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States. At present they seem to flourish only in vernacular forms, country-and-western music being one of these. The moon has gone behind a cloud, and I'm so lonesome I could die.

It seems to me that, within limits the Victorians routinely transgressed, the exercise of finding the ingratiating qualities of grave or fearful experience is very wholesome and stabilizing. I am vehemently grateful that, by whatever means, I learned to assume that loneliness should be in great part pleasure, sensitizing and clarifying, and that it is even a truer bond among people than any kind of proximity. It may be mere historical conditioning, but when I see a man or woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.

I am praising that famous individualism associated with western and American myth. When I praise anything, I proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse. Tightly knit communities in which members look to one another for identity, and to establish meaning and value, are disabled and often dangerous, however polished their veneer. The opposition frequently made between individualism on one hand and responsibility to society on the other is a false opposition as we all know. Those who look at things from a little distance can never be valued sufficiently.

But arguments from utility will never produce true individualism. The cult of the individual that, to the best of my belief, enlisted me here was aesthetic and religious. The significance of every human destiny is absolute and equal. The transactions of conscience, doubt, acceptance, rebellion, are privileges, secret, and unknowable. Insofar as such ideas are accessible to proof, I have proved the truth of this view of things to my entire satisfaction. Of course, they are not accessible to proof.

Only lonesomeness allows one to experience this sort of radical singularity, one's greatest dignity and privilege. Understanding this permits one to understand the sacred poetry in strangeness, silence and otherness. The vernacular for of this idea is the western hero, the man of whom nothing can ever really be known.

By this oblique route I have arrived at the matter of the frontier, which, I would propose, was neither a place nor a thing, neither a time nor a historical condition. At the simplest level, it amounted to no more than the movement of European-origin people into a part of the world where they had no business being. By the mid-nineteenth century, this was very old news. The same thing had happened on every continent, saving Antarctica.

In this context it is best that I repeat again my governing assumption, that history is a dialectic of bad and worse. The history of European civilization vis-à-vis the world from the fifteenth century to the present day is astounding. The worst aspects of the settlement were by no means peculiar to the American West, but some of its better aspects may well have been. For one thing, the settlement was largely done by self-selecting populations who envisaged permanent settlement on land that, as individuals or communally, they would own outright. The penal colonies and pauper colonies and slash-and-burn raids on the wealth of the land which made the history of most colonized places so unbelievably desolate were less significant here. On the other hand, there was Utopian impulse, the hope to create a model of a good human order, that seems to have arrived on the Mayflower, and which flourished through the whole of the nineteenth century. By the standards that apply to events of its kind, the western settlement had a considerable positive content.

I have read fairly extensively over the last few years in nineteenth-century writing about American social and political issues. Whether or not the West would be settled was clearly not in doubt. The question was how, and by whom. It appears to me that the Homestead Act was designed to consolidate the Northern victory in the Civil War by establishing an economy of small-holder farming, of the kind that prevailed in the North, as opposed to plantation farming on the Southern model. English agriculture was very close to the kind practiced in the South, with the exception that the gangs of English farm laborers, though so poor they were usually called "wretches," were not technically slaves or chattels. In attempting to give the western lands over to the people in parcels suitable to making individual families the owners of the means of their subsistence—and the language I am using here is nineteenth century and American—Lincoln contained, more or less, the virtual slavery that followed actual slavery. In terms of the time, as things go in this world, the policies that opened the West were sophisticated, considered, and benign. No wonder such hope attached to them.

The American frontier was what it was because it expressed a considerable optimism about what people were and what they might become. Writers of the period assumed that human nature was deformed by drudgery, poverty, contempt, and self-contempt. They were obsessed with the fact that most people in most places— including American blacks on plantations and American whites in the city slums—lived lives that were bitterly unworthy of them. So it is not surprising that their heroes lived outside society, and neither did nor suffered the grueling injuries that were the stuff of ordinary life. In Whitman the outsider is a visionary. In Thoreau he is a critic. In the vernacular of western myth he is a rescuer and avenger. In every version he expresses discontent with society. So it is not surprising that he is the creation of generations that accomplished more radical reforms of society than had ever been attempted anywhere before.

This brings me around again to an earlier point, that there is no inevitable conflict between individualism as an ideal and a very positive interest in the good of society.

Obviously I have an axe to grind here. My one great objection to the American hero was that he was inevitably male—in decayed forms egregiously male. So I created a female hero, of sorts, also an outsider and a stranger. And while Sylvie obviously has her own history, to the degree that she has not taken the impress of society she expresses the fact that human nature is replete with nameless possibilities, and, by implication, that the world is accessible to new ways of understanding.

Perhaps it was a misfortune for us that so many interesting ideas were associated with access to a habitable wilderness. The real frontier need never close. Everything, for all purposes, still remains to be done.

I think it is a universal sorrow that society, in every form in which it has ever existed, precludes and forecloses much that we find loveliest and most ingratiating in others and in ourselves. Rousseau said, men are born free, yet everywhere they are in chains. Since the time of Hebrew prophets it has been the role of the outsider to loosen these chains, or lengthen them, if only by bringing the rumor of a life lived otherwise.

That said, I must say too how beautiful human society seems to me, especially in those attenuated forms so characteristic of the West—isolated towns and single houses which sometimes offer only the merest, barest amenities: light, warmth, supper, familiarity. We have colonized a hostile planet, and we must staunch every opening where cold and dark might pour through and destroy the false climates we make, the tiny simulations of forgotten seasons beside the Euphrates, or in Eden. At a certain level housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental. It is the sad tendency of domesticity—as of piety—to contract, and of grace to decay into rigor, and peace into tedium. Still it should be clear why I find the Homestead Act all in all the most poetical piece of legislation since Deuteronomy, which it resembles.

Over years of time I have done an archeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins. In the course of this re-education I have become suspiciously articulate and opinionated about things no doubt best left to the unself-conscious regions of the mind. At the same time, I feel I have found a place in the West for my West, and the legitimating of a lifelong intuition of mine that the spirit of this place is, as spirits go, mysterious, aloof, and rapturously gentle. It is, historically, among other things, the orphan child of a brilliant century.

I think it is fair to say that the West has lost its place in the national imagination, because by some sad evolution, the idea of human nature has become the opposite of what it was when the myth of the West began, and now people who are less shaped and constrained by society are assumed to be disabled and dangerous. This is bad news for the national psyche, a fearful and anti-democratic idea, which threatens to close down change. I think it would be a positively good thing for the West to assert itself in the most interesting terms, so that the whole country must hear, and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually put aside and too readily forgotten.

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