Marilynne Robinson and what writing should be

Marilynne Robinson

I love coming across new words that have to do with the craft of writing.  This happened recently for me when I found the book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible by Professor Robert Alter.  The word is parataxis, defined as “the placing of clauses or phrases one after another, without words to indicate coordination or subordination.”

In the last chapter of his book, Alter discusses the technique of parataxis as it appears in the writing of Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.  I highly recommend Pen of Iron for anyone who is interested in how the language of the Bible has impacted modern American writing.  But beyond that I commend it to those who have yet to discover the writing of Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson’s Gilead is writing on a level few of us can ever attain or even aspire to.  Yet Robinson accomplishes this feat with plain words sprinkled a pinch at a time.

Alter chooses this passage as his first example of Robinson’s prose.

We were up before daylight to milk and cut kindling and draw her a bucket of water, and she met us at the door with a breakfast of fried mush with blackberry preserves melted over it and a spoonful of top milk on it, and we ate standing there at the stoop in the chill and the dark, and it was perfectly wonderful.

Alter himself seems to marvel at Robinson’s use of the literary device, especially as she uses it to describe human introspection instead of as a means to drive the action of a scene forward.

As he puts it:

The use of parataxis for introspection is an instructive instance of how far a formal device can be stretched because introspection is not much in evidence in biblical prose..

He gives us another example from Gilead.

Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says.  I can’t claim to understand that saying, as many ties as I’ve heard it, and even preached on it.  It simply states a deeply mysterious fact.  You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it.  A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.

I would be hard pressed to decide what collection of words in that passage touch me more. What a great sentence, “You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it.”

Words like Robinson’s remind me of why I love to read and why hearing a few words stretched taut across a screen can move me so and set me outside myself.

What a gift.


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  • What Marilynne does is definitely what we should all strive to do. But then, that’s her voice, and a lovely voice it is. However, we all tell stories in a different voice, and thank God for them all.

    • Caleb, I agree. we all write as we write. But it is always an amazing thing to run across someone like Marilynne who has such a fantastic vibe to her writing.

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