- So Slight a Thing as a WordReflections on Marilynne Robinson
On slipping my submission for Marilynne Robinson’s class into her department mailbox, I attached a note. I don’t remember, this quarter-century later, exactly what the note said. I probably mentioned that “A Girlhood” was not really a story but an essay from House Dreams, a memoir that I hoped to publish. I do remember alluding to how the themes implied in my memoir’s title—the housiness and the dreaminess—echoed, by pure happenstance, similar themes in Robinson’s Housekeeping. I tried to convey my excitement at studying under a writer whose sensibilities, like mine, had been honed on western beauty.
On my way to class, I saw Marilynne advancing regally down the hall in her long gray raincoat and shoulder-length graying hair, surrounded by four or five students, all of them talking and gesturing with the utmost confidence. Even though I was ten years older than most of my classmates, I couldn’t imagine myself speaking with our illustrious teacher as if I were her equal. But after today, I thought. After today . . . I visualized myself taking my place in her entourage.
In “A Girlhood” I pitted my mother’s domestic space against the grand landscape my farming father and brothers inhabited. The essay described my world shrinking as I transitioned from tomboyish escapades around our Kansas farmstead into a less adventurous puberty. Although we lived in an ample two-story house that my maternal grandfather had built—with bay windows, a wide porch, and jewel-like beveled glass in the front entry—I pored with my mother over her plans for the new house that she and my father planned to build eventually, in town. I dreamed that in the new house we would live in [End Page 181] “magazine country, where sliding glass doors look out on lush trees, none of them ragged or windblown.” There would be so much light in the new house that I would never want to go outdoors.
Marilynne Robinson could not have been less impressed by “A Girlhood.” She told me that it was full of received ideas—ideas that, up to that moment, I’d considered my own original feminist insights. So began my most humiliating hour in graduate school. My fellow students, whose respect I’d thought the essay was sure to earn, piled on. Ms. Robinson said that the only interesting question “A Girlhood” raised had gone unexplored. “Why,” she asked, “did your family want to turn its back on its own history and way of life?”
For years afterward, I didn’t know what to think of that workshop experience. Had Robinson been reacting to the awkward and graceless note I’d written, slapping me down as reflexively as a mother cat disciplines a kitten who oversteps its bounds? Would she have cut me more slack if I hadn’t had the gall to compare my themes and sensibilities to hers?
The women in my writing group waxed indignant over her offhand dismissal of the gender inequality that had narrowed each of our girlhoods. Maybe Marilynne Robinson hadn’t experienced sexism. We had. Buoyed by my friends’ assurances, I went on to publish “A Girlhood” in the Iowa Review. House Dreams, in which the essay figured as the first chapter, never made it to print.
Why did your family want to turn its back on its own history and way of life? Not until I was well into the drafting of The Ogallala Road, the memoir I finally did publish, would I realize that Marilynne Robinson had asked me the question on which my family’s fate turned. The question echoed in my memory again and again as I sought to understand that fate, and each time I remembered exactly where I’d sat, diagonally from her position at the head of the table, close enough to touch. I saw the almost indifferent, truth-dealing look in her eyes. She didn’t invest the question with any hope that I’d be able to answer it, but it had fallen on fertile ground.
I guess it’s not much...