Marilynne Robinson: Making the Given Great Again (Part 1)

There are many books I love that I would almost never wish upon my loved ones. When asked about these volumes (the rarest honor), I embark on a high and glowing encomium, only to slow down with wary admonition, and stop with a shrug. I feel the need to protect my friends and family from getting caught in Dickinson’s webs, for fear those words which are to me like continents of light will read to them like nought after nought after nought. I feel guilty for the length of half of my favorites. I only mention War and Peace if I am feeling the need to arrogate to myself a more Napoleonic status in the conversation; the same goes for The Brothers Karamazov and piety (or philosophical seriousness). I am overly apologetic about the generosity of Dickens. Bleak House is excellent, but it’s crowded full of characters, and those characters are so aspill with their own words—as if his Victorian, literary excess should make a mess of others’ tidy, twenty-first century brains.

But there is one author I frequently find myself wishing more people had read. One reason for this is aesthetic: she is accessible in the optimal sense. Whether through novel or essay, she writes of things available to common perception. She appreciates the capaciousness of common language—for instance, the potential inclusiveness of a word like “thing.” Her work consistently seeks to show the huge in the small, the unsaid in the said, the cosmic in the everyday. In this sense, she is a distinctly religious stylist: a positive puritan of prose, an inheritor of a long American estate of seeing the grand (or the Grandest) in the plain which we know best through Cather, Anderson, and Hemingway, but stemming even farther back than the prose of the King James translators to the Hebrew narratives from which it came. She takes nothing for granted, because she sees everything as given. No detail is spare; every word bears the meaning of considerable attention. This is all to say that, in the mercenary terms of commerce, the reader of this author’s work can receive abundant compensation for so little time and expense—if they have eyes to read it.

But another reason is more particularly social, even moral—perhaps I should say humanistic. This author represents, in her upbringing and background, her education and continued reading (or self-education), in her interests and commitments, an assemblage of identifications becoming less and less common in our society (or at least in our discourse). The labels she has chosen for herself overlap peculiarly, and together bear no easy summary. Sometimes they seem to press against and out of our small, symmetrical, isolated picture of political, intellectual, and religious identity. She shares commitments and interests beyond our expected boundaries. Her terms, taken together, resist the unhealthy satisfaction of pert association. It is for all this variety and contradiction of belonging that she is an individual.[1]

I am talking, of course, about the individual in my title, Marilynne Robinson. For about the past two decades she has been exemplifying all (and more) of the qualities I mentioned above. Her work serves to continue the multiple traditions she finds formative and instructive. However, it should be stated that, for all of her diverse influences, Robinson first and foremost identifies as a Christian and an American.[2] For all of the things she finds formative, these two are in some deeper sense normative. Nevertheless, like the totality of her labels, Robinson’s own Christianity and American-ness bear no easy summary. Those swift and simple associations that form the mind’s lazier morals will likely swerve to a stall in a variety of synaptic dead-ends. (Incidentally, these are the kinds of cognitive cliffs that William James identified as moments of truth.) Robinson’s work attempts to give those dead-ends firm and effective connections.

The things Robinson seeks to connect her readers with can be summed up, I believe, as the given. As her latest book of essays shows, Robinson regards all things as endowed with the quality of givenness. This givenness of things may be the unifying theme of all her recent work. More important, this move of Robinson’s to give connection to the given may be an important departure for American discourse itself—a departure that is in fact a return.


Today Robinson is well-known for her protean intellect and talent. In addition to four novels, she has written an abundance of essays, articles, and reviews—a slew of them not represented in her published volumes—given addresses and lectures at a wide range of cultural and intellectual institutions both at home and abroad,[3] appeared on television shows both within and far outside her usual element,[4] and all the while continued to teach at what is arguably the world’s most prestigious creative writing program.[5] She has become a widely respected public intellectual celebrated for her unique and trenchant insight into contemporary issues in literature, religion, history, philosophy, science, economics, and politics. But for the first twenty-four years of her career, and as late as 2005, Robinson was best known for her prowess as a fiction writer.

Robinson’s first (and for those first twenty-four years, her only) novel, Housekeeping, shows in some significant ways a very different kind of writer indeed. Her Americanness is there from the beginning, but her inherited traits are markedly different from what they will become in her maturity. Through the twice-orphaned Ruth, Robinson portrays a kind of frustrated Emersonianism, an independence arising from unwilled isolation. Unlike Emerson’s Over-Soul bearing man, Robinson’s Ruthie does not want to be free from the past. She is flung from it by her mother’s suicide, and left alone with it through her grandmother’s passing. Robinson’s young American bears the seemingly bottomless consciousness that Emerson propounded, but with a different theodicy. For Emerson—at least in the cosmos of his early and most influential rhetoric—every evil in the world is self-imposed. Thus, he insisted,

“There are no fixtures to men, if we appeal to consciousness. Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood; and if there is any truth in him, if he rests at last on the divine soul, I see not how it can be otherwise. The last chamber, the last closet, he must feel, was never opened; there is always a residuum unknown, unanalyzable. That is, every man believes that he has a greater possibility.”[6]

The Emersonian American dream is thus an ever-expanding circle of selfhood, for whom “[t]he only sin is limitation.”[7] But for Robinson’s Ruth, this sin of limitation has been handed down to her. It is a greater evil than any the early Emerson acknowledged: history as inborn limitation, and limitation as inherited impossibility. As a child, Ruthie finds herself haunted by the loss of her mother, and thwarted by a daughter’s will to see her mother.

“If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected—an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows. . . . And so the ordinary demanded unblinking attention.”[8]


“If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It as so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished.”[9]

Ruthie’s possibility is expectation of a presence that will never come outside of her cognition. Her “residuum unknown” is a place outside of physical nature—a bygone mothered childhood seen beneath the surface of the remembered past, mirrored by the depth of longing in her mind.

In a deep sense, the very style of Housekeeping is a continuation of those first fraught Emersonians, Melville and Dickinson.[10] As Robinson herself reflected, in a 1984 New York Times symposium a few years after Housekeeping was published, “I must be influenced most deeply by the 19th-century Americans – Dickinson, Melville . . . Nothing in literature appeals to me more than the rigor with which they fasten on problems of language, of consciousness – bending form to their purposes, ransacking ordinary speech and common experience . . . in the act of finding what will suffice.” In both of these writers, Emerson’s soteriology of language found particular thrust. “Literature,” Emerson says, “is a point outside our hodiernal circle, through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.” But whereas for Emerson, the use of literature is but one of “the myriad of possible transactions for the enhancement of human powers,”[11] for Melville and Dickinson (and Robinson after them), the transaction of literature may be the only possible transaction toward amelioration—and a dubious one at that.

Melville and Dickinson use prose and poetry to imaginatively render the impossible possible. But unlike Emerson, the platform from which they write is often one of alienation—a negative independence. Thus, the impossible they seek to make possible often takes the form of positive (imagined) transaction with a distant or departed thing. As James Wood points out, Melville’s Ishmael shows “an unusual devotion to the logic of metaphor,” because it is a form of language that “insists on relationship.”[12] Through metaphor and analogy Ishmael seeks a “rival life,”[13] one in which his orphan, wandering self can identify his soul in the spout of a whale or find his envisioned home in a circling pod of nursing whales.[14] Very similarly, Dickinson’s poetic voice serves to expand her own lonely and troubled domesticity: “I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose – / More numerous of Windows – / Superior – for Doors.” Through the expansive realm of poetry, Dickinson can inhabit an imaginative space far beyond her physical boundedness.

But for both of these writers, the possibilities of language have their own limitations, some of them obvious and some of them strange. The obvious is that Ishmael can never fully identify with the leviathan that kills his mates and leaves him yet “another orphan,” and Dickinson can never dwell in the house of her own poetic making forever. The strange is that both Melville and Dickinson discover a treacherous waywardness to the possibilities of language. Many of the colossal, underworldly qualities of the whale, read to their furthest allegorical extents, lead Ishmael to a heretical symbolism of divinity, and at times non-divinity—a monstrous, other-worldly God that can bear no relation to creation and thus leaves Ishmael theologically orphaned. And Dickinson’s spacious metaphors often—seriously, very often—lead her to dwell with and in an abyss, whether it be through sitting with her silent “shapeless friend,” a surrogate for the eternal Someone (God, a loved one, love itself) whose “Presence – is his furthest license”; lying in her the last few seconds of her sickbed or the alabaster chamber of her eventual grave; or wandering the furthest bounds of consciousness: “The Stars about my Head I felt / About my Feet the Sea – / I knew not but the next / Would be my final inch.”

In Housekeeping, Ruthie’s major metaphor is water. Specifically, the body of water that holds the body of her mother, the lake of Fingerbone. Indeed, the inscrutability of the lake embodies for Ruth the inexplicability of her mother’s suicide. The water both holds her mother and withholds her, permanently. It is in the wake of this loss that this perspicacious girl is driven to make a rival life through metaphor; as Robinson said of Melville and Dickinson, Ruthie uses symbols “in the act of finding what suffices.”[15] It is through the flow of imaginative language that she comes to seek a second birth from the lake itself. She comes to cognitively gestate in that abysmal womb; the water comes to take the form of her mother, and vice versa.

“Say that the water and I bore the rowboat down to the bottom . . . Then, presumably, would come parturition in some form, though my first birth had hardly deserved that name, and why should I hope for more from the second? The only true birth would be a final one, which would free us from watery darkness and the thought of watery darkness, but could such a birth be imagined? What is thought, after all, what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? . . . [H]ere we find our great affinity with water, for like reflections on water our thoughts will suffer no changing shock, no permanent displacement. They mock us with their seeming slightness . . . I think it must have been my mother’s plan to rupture this bright surface, to sail beneath it into very blackness, but here she was, wherever my eyes fell, and behind my eyes, whole and in fragments, a thousand images of one gesture, never dispelled but rising always, inevitably, like a drowned woman.”[16]

It is the kind of murky fantasy that would occur only to a pensive, bookish child intuiting unfathomable loss. Ruthie’s confluent hypothetical visions have the deep, dark whimsicality of a consciousness still processing childhood trauma. Her language yields up no clearer image of her mother, and actually often distorts it in its merging movements. It serves her only as a mirror-surface hinting at her own seeming bottomlessness. At times she seems calmly poised to follow her mother down: to attempt to sound the void, or else shatter it once and for all.

As a beginning writer, Robinson drew enormous influence from Melville and Dickinson. In a number of interviews spanning her career, she has readily deemed Moby-Dick her single favorite literary work, and on one in-person occasion, I remember her remarking to an audience that, perhaps more than any other writer, Dickinson had informed her writing of Housekeeping the most.[17] Undoubtedly, Housekeeping deploys the same “metaphorical acts of consciousness” and “hypothetical constructions of the world” that its author finds in her forbears, and the early Robinson proves herself to be a principal disciple of the Emersonian doctrine of literary supersession, which through Melville and Dickinson becomes imperfect imagined redemption. Thus, at the start of her career, Robinson seemed another explorer of limitation—a chronicler of American alienation.

But this is not the direction Robinson continued to go. During the long period between her first novel and her second, Robinson underwent what she herself called a deep, searching “reeducation”: “Over years 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.”[18] What she discovered went beyond the “legitimation” of “the orphan child of a brilliant century”—that is, the lonesome landscape of the American West that Ruth characteristically embodies[19]; what Robinson discovered, or uncovered, was that she had other ancestors than Ishmael, that grandfather of all American orphans. She found that the ground had been prepared for her, that certain seemingly impossible things had already been made possible for her.

By retracing her origins, Robinson turned away from the troubled independence of the broken Emersonian estate—for the cracked columnar self can only stand so long before it crumbles down into its wide foundations. In so doing, she also signaled a major turn in a shared tradition of aesthetic and moral isolation that has clutched so much of American culture. Of course, Robinson would still (rightly) hold a positive view of Ruth’s experience as being representative of the utterly capacious privacy of every human being. Nevertheless, her work in the decades after Housekeeping consistently focuses outward, on the shared, on the given, instead of the acquired or attempted. Her fictive language becomes plain but elliptical and conversation-driven, often gesture-driven, and her essays hold up the commonplace and the granted as full of implication beyond the page. This turn is, in fact, still in line with Robinson’s old generous American literary tradition: it is the other side of the Emersonian dialectic, the notion that one’s originality derives from greater origins beyond the self. It is a return to great sources. But as such, it also necessarily finds a home in other disciplines, such as the whole of humanities, and the natural sciences, and another, older, greater tradition than American literature, a Word passed down long before Emerson ever breathed. It is a turn that receives, finding its freedom dependent on the freely given. It is a turn that dwells—on the generosity of heredity itself, potential and actual, and that creation that happened to make it what it truly is: not an unbounded circle, or a lost or wandering center, but an all-around, girding abundance almost too big to be seen.

The Robinsonian theodicy, then, is how to truly see it.



[1] What Emerson would deem a true “original”: “If we require the originality which consists in weaving, like a spider, their web from their own bowels . . . then no great men are original. . . . Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all.” From Representative Men in Essays and Lectures (Library of America), pp. 710-1.

[2] Specifically, a unique, considered form of Calvinism and the positive, democratic anthropology of 19th century America a la Emerson through James. In her Kuyper Lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary, “Open Wide Thy Hand: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” Robinson announced both of these traditions as the highest standards of thinking and being.

[3] Ranging from Oxford University to the University of Iowa, from the 92nd Street Y in New York to the Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City. It should also be mentioned that in the past decade Robinson has also given the prestigious Terry Lectures at Yale University, in which “preeminent scholars in religion, the sciences and philosophy . . . address issues concerning the ways in which science and philosophy inform religion and religion’s application to human welfare” (, an honor that in itself could verify the multidisciplinary authority of any individual.

[4] Ranging from “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” on PBS to “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central.

[5] That is, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

[6] From “Circles” in Essays and Lectures (Library of America), pp. 405-6.

[7] Ibid., p. 406.

[8] Housekeeping, p. 166.

[9] Ibid., p. 160. Ruthie’s use of the phrase “not perished” has an interesting connection to the Gettysburg Address, which, as Robert Alter has pointed out, has its own interesting connection to the King James Bible. It’s as if, subliminally, the loss of her mother has for Ruth an utterly monumental and religious significance.

[10] From “The Hum Inside the Skull—A Symposium,” The New York Times, May 13, 1984.

[11] Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, p. 211.

[12] James Wood, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, pp. 51, 55.

[13] Ibid., p. 51.

[14] See the chapters 85 and 87, “The Fountain” and “The Grand Armada.”

[15]The Hum Inside the Skull—A Symposium,” The New York Times, May 13, 1984.

[16] Housekeeping, pp. 162-3.

[17] This occasion was a 2008 International Women’s Day reading at the Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City. Each female author had selected a section of their own work to read, as well as a favorite passage from another female writer they admired. Here I had the extraordinary privilege of hearing Robinson read to a small but cozy gathering some of the most poetic portions of Housekeeping and a few of Dickinson’s more positive poems.

[18] When I Was a Child I Read Books, p. 93.

[19] Ibid., 93.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s