In her new collection of essays, novelist Marilynne Robinson writes: "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."
Robinson grew up in Idaho and has lived in Massachusetts for 20 years. In her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson takes on misconceptions of the American West, the generosity of Christian faith, and the state of the global economy.
Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, speaks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the importance of storytelling.
On literary notions of the West
"I grew up in small-town northern Idaho, west of Montana. ... I started writing, actually, when I was in college, partly because I felt as if the idea of the West was so misunderstood by people. Probably, the understanding of the West has never recovered from the dime novel. I was the fourth generation of my family to live there. And there were many, many stories about settling, and all the rest of it. The importance of women was very great. And the idea that it's male, essentially, and that it is violent ... I just felt as if what was beautiful about it was really lost in these often very cheap dramas of violence and maleness."
On misunderstandings about American identity
Marilynne Robinson is also the author of the novels Housekeeping and Home. Her 2004 novel, Gilead, won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Kelly Ruth Winter/Farrar, Straus and Giroux hide caption
Marilynne Robinson is also the author of the novels Housekeeping and Home. Her 2004 novel, Gilead, won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.Kelly Ruth Winter/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
"I think that American history has been very seriously misrepresented in most of the conversation that's gone on about it. I talk about John Winthrop's [speech] Model of Christian Charity ... and how that is consistently misquoted in a way that can only mean that nobody has read it. The idea that we were 'a city on the hill' meant — as it means in the Bible — that our sins and failures would be particularly conspicuous and impossible to conceal. Winthrop makes that point very clearly. And then along comes the idea that we're suddenly boasting of being a shining city on the hill; there's no 'shining' in Winthrop. It's an argument, basically, that we have to be generous toward one another in order not to fail. That's what he's saying."
On our need for narratives
"There's a huge demand for them. In fact, the use of fiction gives us models of possibility. It gives us ways in which an event can fall out, you know? And it also gives us the pleasure of a sort of deeper competence, as if we see a wider landscape because we have put ourselves through the rehearsal of possibility in these various ways."
He was discovered in the henhouse/ Where she had confined him. He was incapable of saying anything.
Articles in Ireland’s Mourne Observer of September and October 1956 outlined the extraordinary discovery of 7 year-old Kevin Murphy kept in isolation in an outhouse almost since birth and subsequently the conviction of his 45 year-old mother Margaret Murphy, imprisoned for 9 months for the wilful neglect of Kevin, her fifth child. Kevin was born illegitimate.
‘Although his short life-time has consisted of continuous physical and emotional deprivation, the child has been able to transcend his kennel prison and achieved a hard and bright lucidity of spirit … He has journeyed ‘beyond patience’ and beyond the limitations of human ‘love’, and identified in the still and changing moon the constancy and grace, the love and loveliness his earthly mother lacked’(MP124);
The poetic eye pans camera-like across an ostensibly ordinary 1950s rural Irish farmyard at nightfall. The first sign of life (the lamp glowed) alludes unsettlingly to hens (A yolk of light/ In their back window. The sudden light brings with it a shocking reality: the ‘eye-camera’ zooms in to discover a social outcast:The child in the outhouse /Put his eye to a chink .
Heaney recalls both child and prison from the press coverage (Little henhouse boy)that left a photo image etched on his memory: the boy’s otherworldly expression; the gauntness of malnourishment (Sharp-faced as new moons); his relegation to the lowest rung of existence (Glimpsed like a rodent); still a low point of Heaney’s personal experiences: On the floor of my mind.
Heaney addresses the foundling’s memory with huge compassion: (Oh) Little moon man, tiny eye at the hole, she treated you like a dog (Kennelled) yet, as dogs do, you wagged your tail, faithful despite ill treatment; you were consigned to the rubbish-bin, to the foot of the yard; years of poor diet left you rickety (Your frail shape), your unhealthy skin luminous your skeletal body Weightless; you lived in squalid accommodation stirring the dust, The cobwebs, old droppings, in a shed fit only for hens (Under the roosts); your sustenance was kitchen leftovers (dry smells from scraps); you were fed like a prisoner in solitary confinement through your trapdoor /Morning and evening by the very person (she) who should have been caring most for you.
How could one as young as you have emerged from the shameful trauma you suffered: when human contact was made then withdrawn (After those footsteps silence), when you lay awake in the darkness (Vigils), when you spent long periods on your own (solitudes), when no food was delivered (fasts). How could you have known that the tears you shed were Unchristened,that your lack of baptism placed you beyond Christian redemption; how could you have understood something that comforted you but was beyond comprehension: A puzzled love of the light.
Progress at Nazareth House (see note below)! Taken into care the bye-child, once consigned to the margins, is drawn back towards the centre: his communication (now you speak at last) involves partially comprehensible sign-language (a remote mime) and a superhuman spirit to transmit meaning (something beyond patience); the nature of what he has suffered (Your gaping wordless proof) defeats the comprehension of all but those who know about the marathon test of endurance he has survived, deprived of human warmth (lunar distances/Travelled beyond love).
- yolk: the central yellow part of an egg that nourishes the embryo when fertilized;
- outhouse: such as shed, barn, henhouse;
- chink: narrow opening that lets in light;
- sharp-faced: at once with angular facial features and showing signs of perception;
- rodent: mammals such as rats and mice often referred to as vermin;
- kennel: small shelter for a dog;
- faithful: loyal; an adjective often applied to dogs;
- yard: piece of ground adjoining a building;
- frail: weak, feeble;
- droppings: (hen) excrement;
- roost: place where hens settle for the night;
- scraps: leftovers;
- trapdoor: hinged panel;
- vigils; moments when people deprive themselves of sleep to think or pray (religious connotation);
- fasts: periods when people do not eat (religious connotation);
- unchristened: unbaptized, nameless;
- puzzled: unable to understand, perplexed;
- remote: distant, faraway; also ‘preconditioned’ as in remote-control;
- mime: suggest people, things, actions or emotions without using words;
- patience: ability to wait for things to happen without annoyance;
- gaping: wide-open;
- proof: evidence that establishes the truth of something;
- lunar: relating to the moon;
- beyond: on the other side of;
- Heaney’s title offers intriguing alternatives: at its simplest, the shortened form of ‘bye-bye’ suggesting something placed ‘out of sight, out of mind’; a mid-16th century derivation that reducing the child to something ‘incidental’, ‘peripheral’ or ‘unimportant’; an issue with a strong ‘local’ dimension (‘it could only have happened here ..!’ cf. ‘bye-law’); punningly, the troublesome by-product of extra-marital sexuality that shaming an unmarried mother into selecting one of her five offspring for this dehumanising treatment.
- Sister Irene Maher of Nazareth House in Cape Town remembers: “I only met Kevin, the child in question, later in his life. The Sister who admitted him to a Nazareth House at the time related how the boy perched on his cot and cawed like a hen all through the first few weeks following his admission. During my stay there with the group of children, I saw him grow up, responding to love, enjoying music, but at the same time requiring a lot of medical treatment especially to his legs; in fact, he had to have a great deal of surgery to straighten them. His speech was also affected. Kevin left Nazareth House eventually for sheltered employment with the Sisters of Charity.”
- ‘According to a medieval Catholic doctrine, once powerful but now discarded, the souls of unbaptized children could not enter heaven … and by directing his gaze ( ) to illegitimacy and intimidated women, Heaney admitted – in a characteristic enquiry into facets of his culture that were taken for granted – long standing anonymities that were other than benevolent’(HV32-3);
- ‘As regards Heaney’s attitude to religion at this stage in his career: if Christianity did not possess either relevance or moral force why would it appear (‘unchristened tears’) in such major poems as ‘Bye-Child’? ‘Clearly Catholicism permeates his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (MP114-5);
- ‘both parts (of Wintering Out) share exemplary or emblematic figures of suffering or endurance, those of Part Two having a genuine role in establishing the chilly, disconsolate mood of the book … the victimized boy in ‘Bye-Child’ is a ‘Little moon man’ … These lunar associations suggest that Heaney is making the figure of the poet emblematic in this poem in the way of the volume’s other such figures’ (NC50);
- ‘Wintering ‘Out (1972), takes up anonymity with a different and new sharpness, exposing the raw underside of rural ‘decency’, and investigating the plight of women in a sexually repressive culture … in ‘Bye-Child’ a nameless half-grown illegitimate child, incapable of speech, is recovered from the henhouse where his mother had confined him since his birth. For such poems, which silently reprove the pieties condemning sexuality outside marriage, Heaney abandoned the broad and placid pentameter that had served him well for poems about churning and thatching and dowsing, turning instead to lines that are short, sharp, taciturn and, for all their pity, ‘cold’ and ‘lunar’
- Note also a 2003 film ‘Bye-Child’ directed by Bernard MacLaverty and co-written by Seamus Heaney – the film version of his poem of the same title;
- 6 quintets in 3 sentences (the first 20 line in lengths); line length 4-7 syllables; unrhymed;
- the balance of enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
- verb tenses: simple past of the scenario , a present continuous of a memory that will remain eternally current, simple present reporting the child’s progress;
- time clause ‘when’ describing a cause and its effect;
- potential popular press headline: ‘henhouse boy’ identified by his extraordinary circumstances;
- simile: boy’s face ‘sharp’, moon’s ‘new’;
- metaphor of child reduced to the status of a ‘rodent’ visible on the ‘floor’ of the poet’s mind;
- emerging ‘moon’ symbol: ‘new moons … moon man … luminous … lunar distances’;
- comparison: child and dog: ‘kennelled’ and, note, wagging tail, as it were, even when abused ‘faithful’;
- subtle introduction of gravity/ space travel to link with moon: the gauntness of neglect is ‘weightless;
- neglect reflected in the henhouse- cell the child is imprisoned within; stale smells; the actions of a prison guard implied other (‘her’);
- lack of human contact generates an enumeration of mental and physical conditions and an attachment to things he does not understand or know the name of: ‘puzzled love’;
- child in an unhappy limbo, beyond the reach of redemptive forces: ‘unchristened tears’;
- time present: progress in ‘speech’ using his hands (‘mime … wordless’); a nature that seeks to overcome non-understanding of his meanings (‘patience’); a long, unfathomable life-journey (‘remote … gaping … lunar distances’) without understanding of the notion of affection received: ‘beyond love’;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first lines, for example, bring together a cluster of alveolar sounds [l] [t] [d], ‘ch’/[tʃ] and velar plosives [k] [g];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth soundsvoiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouthsounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.