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From Marilynne Robinson's Fiction

Book cover for Housekeeping

From Housekeeping

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother’s house, build for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place. He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more than a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more. So my grandfather began to read what he could find of travel literature, journals of expeditions to the mountains of Africa, to the Alps, the Andes, and Himalayas, the Rockies. He bought a box of colors and copied a magazine lithography of a Japanese painting of Fujiyama. He painted many more mountains, none of them identifiable, if any of them were real. They were all suave cones or mounds, single or in heaps or clusters, green, blown, or white, depending on the season, but always snowcapped, these caps being pink, white, or gold, depending on the time of day. In one large painting he had put a bell-shaped mountain in the very foreground and covered it with meticulously painted trees, each of which stood out at right angles to the ground, where it grew exactly as the nap stands out on folded plush. Every tree bore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs, and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in the earth. Oversized beasts, spotted and striped, could be seen running unimpeded up the right side and hastened down the left. Whether the genius of this painting was ignorance or fancy I never could decide.

One spring my grandfather quit his subterraneous house, walked to the railroad, and took a train west. He told the ticket agent that he wanted to go to the mountains, and the man arranged to have him put off here, which may not have been a malign job, or a job at all, since there are mountains, uncountable mountains, and where there are not mountains there are hills. The terrain on which the town itself is built is relatively level, having once belonged to the lake. It seems there was a time when the dimensions of things modified themselves, leaving a number of puzzling margins, as between the mountains as they must have been and the mountains as they are now, or between the lake as it once was and the lake as it is now. Sometimes in the spring the old lake will return. One will open a cellar door to wading boots floating tallow soles up and planks and buckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gone from sight after the second step. The earth will brim, the soil will become mud and then silty water, and the grass will stand in chill water to its tips. Our house was at the edge of town on a little hill, so we rarely had more than a black pool in our cellar, with a few skeletal insects skidding around on it. A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.

(Housekeeping, 3-5)

From Gilead

Book cover for Gilead

Now this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is. We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress—there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained.

Two or three of that litter were taken home by the girls and made into fairly respectable house cats. Louisa took a yellow one. She still had it when we were married. The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell. She called her cat Sparkle, for the white patch on its forehead. It disappeared finally. I suspect it got caught stealing rabbits, a sin to which it was much given, Christian cat that we knew it to be, stiff-jointed as it was by that time. One of the boys said she should have named it Sprinkle. It was Baptist, a firm believer in total immersion, which those cats should have been grateful I was not. He told us no effect at all could be achieved by our methods, and we could not prove him wrong. Our Soapy must be a distant relative.

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of it I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.

(Gilead, 21-23)

From Home

Book cover for Home

After two days it was clear that Jack would stay in his room until his father woke up, and then he would come down, presentable, respectfully affable, and attend on the old man. He said no more to her than courtesy required. He must have listened for his father’s voice, or the sound of the slippers and the cane, because it was never more than a few minutes before he appeared. The thought that he listened, that he remained upstairs while his father was asleep, while it was only she who came and went and swept and dusted, played the radio—softly, of course—in short, the thought that he avoided her, was more than an irritation. He makes me feel like a stranger in my own house. But this isn’t my house. He has the same right to be here I have. So she decided to take him the newspaper as soon as her father had finished with it. His interest in the news surprised her a little. Time and Life and the Post had drifted up the stairs and gathered in a stack by his bed, and he came down in the evening to listen to Fulton Lewis, Jr. So she would take him the newspaper and a cup of coffee. With a cookie on the saucer. She thought, I’ll give him these things and go away, and he’ll see it as a simple kindness, and that will be a beginning. There is assaying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding. Her father had said this more than once, in sermons, with appropriate texts, but the real text was Jack, and those to whom he spoke were himself and the row of Boughtons in the front pew, which usually did not include Jack, and then, of course, the congregation. If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace.

Everyone was fairly interested in these sermons, though they recurred, in substance at least, more frequently over time, and though they told them all not to expect the grand exertion of paternal control that people always take to be possible and effective in other households than their own, and especially in parsonages. Seven paragons of childhood, more or less, all learners of times tables, all diligent at the piano, their greatest transgression the good-natured turbulence their father seemed to enjoy. And Jack. When did he begin to insist on that name?

His door stood open. The bed was made, and the sash of the window was up so the curtains stirred in the morning air. He was neatly dressed, in his stocking feet, propped against the pillows, reading one of his books.

“Don’t get up,” she said. “I don’t mean to bother you. I just thought you might want the newspaper.”

“Thank you,” he said. She wondered what it was that made him stand when she or her father came into a room. It looked like deference, but it also seemed to mean, You will ever see me at ease, you will never see me unguarded. And that thank-you of his. It was so unfailing as to be impersonal, or at least to have no reference to any particular kindness, however slight any instance of it might be. And of course there was nothing wrong with that. Certainly not in his case.

She said, “You’re welcome.” And then she said, “Papa would like us to talk.”

“Ah,” he said, as if the motive behind her coming into his room were suddenly clear. He brushed back his hair. “What would he like us to talk about?”

“Anything. It doesn’t matter. He just worries that we don’t talk. He hates a silent house.”

Jack nodded. “Yes. I see. Sure. I can do that.”

(Home, 44-46)

From Lila

Book cover for Lila

Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t. Someday she might ask him about that. Well, Doll always said, Just do what you’re told and be quiet about it, that’s all anybody ever going to want from you. Lila had learned there was really more to it than that. But She was very quiet. He didn’t ask much of her, though. Anything, really. In those first weeks she could tell he was just glad to find her there at the house when he came home, or in the kitchen when he came down from his study. Even a little relieved. Maybe he know her better than she thought he did. But then he might not have been so glad to find her there. She wished sometimes he would tell her what to do, but he was always so careful of her. So she watched the other wives and did what they did, as well as she could figure it out.

There was so much to get wrong. She came to that first meeting at the church, after he had asked her to come, and when she walked into the room, all ladies there except for him, he stood up. She thought he must be angry to see her, that he was going to tell her to leave, that she should have understood it was a joke when he invited her. So she turned around and walked out. But two of the ladies followed her right into the street to tell her how happy they were that she had come and how they hoped she could stay. Kindness like that might have made her angry enough to keep walking if she hadn’t had that idea in her mind about getting baptized. And when they came back in, he stood up again, because the kind of gentleman he was will do that when ladies come into a room. They almost can’t help it. How was she supposed to know? They have to be the ones to open a door, but then they have to wait there for you to go through it. To this very day, if the Reverend happened to meet her out on the street he took off his hat to her, even in the rain. He always helped her with her chair, which amounted to pulling it out from the table a little, then pushing it in again after she sat down. Who in the world would need help with a chair?

People have their ways, though, she thought. And he was beautiful for an old man. She did enjoy the sight of him. He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him. She liked his voice. She liked the way he stood next to her as if there was a pleasure for him in it.

(Lila, 17-18)


From Marilynne Robinson's Nonfiction

On her Christian faith

To illustrate this point I will make a shocking statement: I am a Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. It is likely to be at least demographically true of an American of European ancestry. I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. I am in church virtually every Sunday. The church’s celebrations shape my years. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed.

Over the years many a good soul has let me know by one means or another that this living out of the religious / ethical / aesthetic / intellectual tradition that is so essentially compelling to me is not, shall we say, cool. There are little jokes about being born again. There are little lectures about religion as a cheap cure for existential anxiety. Now, I do feel fairly confident that I know what religion is. I have spent decades informing myself about it, an advantage I can claim over any of my would-be rescuers. I am a mainline Protestant, a.k.a. a liberal Protestant, as these same people know. I do not by any means wear my religion on my sleeve. I am extremely reluctant to talk about it at all, not only because the language of religion has been appropriated for the uses of a politics I deplore, but also because my own tradition does not encourage a form of belief that readily reduces itself to simple statements. In other words, my religious beliefs are nobody’s business but my own.

(From “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion,” Social Research 71.1 (2004): 29-38.)

On the West

Book cover for: When I was a Child I Read Books: Essays

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 the East and the South, and I replied that 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 such as “strongly positive connotations.” For a 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 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 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 feed 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 the atmosphere and the dark and the emptiness stood over the old house like some unsought revelation.

It must have been at evening that I hears the word ‘lonesome’ spoken in tones that let me know the privilege attached to it, the kind of democratic privilege that comes with simple deserving. I think it is correct to regard the West as a moment in 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 inauthenticity 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 part a 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 a woman along, 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, whoever polished their veneer. The opposition frequently made between individualism on the 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 is properly aesthetic and religious. The significance of every human destiny is absolute and equal. The transactions of conscience, doubt, acceptance, rebellion are privileged and unknowable. Insofar as such ideas are accessible to proof, I have proved the truth of this view 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, otherness.

(From When I was a Child I Read Books, 88-90)


Selections by Rebecca Wingfield, Stanford University Libraries


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