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The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.1 (2001) 9-33

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Enlarging Loneliness:
Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping as a Reading of Emily Dickinson

Thomas Gardner

In a short piece in the 1984 New York Times Book Review, the novelist Marilynne Robinson describes her interest in Dickinson, Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson in these terms: "Nothing in literature appeals to me more than the rigor with which they fasten on problems of language, or consciousness -- bending form to their purposes, ransacking ordinary speech and common experience, . . . always, to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, in the act of finding what will suffice. I think they must have believed everything can be apprehended truly when seen in the light of an esthetic understanding appropriate to itself, whence their passion for making novel orders of disparate things. I believe they wished to declare the intrinsic dignity of all experience and to declare the senses bathed in revelation -- true, serious revelation, the kind that terrifies" ("Hum Inside the Skull" 30). This is strikingly phrased: wrestling with "problems of language, or consciousness," constantly trying to create an arrangement that would "suffice" as an account of a just-out-of-reach order, these writers, for Robinson, communicate not exhaustion or speechlessness or retreat but wonder; they declare themselves "bathed in revelation." Returning to this subject in a 1992 interview, Robinson, author of the much discussed novel Housekeeping (1980), refers again to these writers, but now laments: "[T]here has been a rupture in the conversation of this culture, . . . all sorts of things that were brought up in the early conversation were dropped without being resolved, and . . . nothing of comparable interest has taken their place." She adds, and it is this idea I want to explore here, "[I]n writing Housekeeping I was consciously trying to participate in the conversation they had carried on and that I felt had been dropped" (Hedrick 1).1

That conversation, for Robinson, has to do with the issue of limits. In the [End Page 9] 1992 interview I have just cited, she calls attention to a characteristic pattern of American writing in which "people go through a journey that leads to a kind of realization that is just at the limits of their ability to comprehend or articulate, and after that, there's an openness where earlier experience becomes impossible, and you're abandoned into a new terrain without being able to use your old assumptions about how to find your way"(6). That discovery of a new terrain where old assumptions fall away allegorizes what Robinson calls "the characteristic mode of thought of most of the classic American writers, which is based on the assumption that the only way to understand the world is metaphorical, and all metaphors are inadequate, and that you press them far enough and you're delivered into something that requires a new articulation" (6).2 What Robinson is drawn to in these 19th-century writers is their peculiar combination of ambition and humility. In their hands, the limits of language are an open door: '[W]hat you're left with is an understanding that's larger than you had before, but finally it is a legitimate understanding because you know it's wrong or you know it's imperfectly partial . . . [W]hat they are all trying to do is use language as a method of comprehension on the largest scale, at the same time using all the resources of language and absolutely insisting that language is not an appropriate tool" (Schaub, "Interview" 240-41).

When Robinson criticizes current assumptions about writing in another recent essay, declaring that the contraction of imaginative language to strung-together "brand names, media phrases and minor expletives" amounts to a "notably ungenerous faith" in the ability of language to respond to experience, she is attempting to call contemporary writers back to the conversation about limits and linguistic ambition enacted in 19th-century American writing ("Language Is Smarter" 8).3 A contracted language is one comfortable with itself. It doesn't see itself as imperfectly partial or its metaphors...


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