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Days – Mary Robison

We just happened to have in our possession the uncorrected bound galleys of Mary Robison’s (pronounced Robe-eh-son)  first collection with Knopf and Lish, Days.  She was 30.

And lo, what is inside, but a letter typed by Lish his own self, dated February 26, 1979, addressed to someone named Bill, whoever this Bill is, seeking a blurb for the cover of the actual future book.

In the letter, written in Lishism, Lish talks about (when he talks about) the hard work he put into promoting –raising a “rumpus” — Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? and Hannah’s Airships.…and here, he feels Robison’s Days is equally as good and important for American letters at the edge of the 1980s, which was the salad days for the minimalist school.

In Cynthia Whitney Hallet’s published dissertation, Minimalism and the Short Story — Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison (Edwin Mellon Press, 2000), it is suggested that Lish did not press on Mary Robison his brand of minimalism, but that Robison influenced her style of minimalism onto Lish.

This could be — in Lish’s archives at the Lily, there are a number of memos from Esquire, Lish to Howard Hays, with Lish stating how much he admires Robison, worships her prose, and how he wishes he could publish her in Esquire…but: she has a first-look deal with The New Yorker and they have yet to reject the stories she send in; she can only offer Esquire a story if turned down by the editors at The New Yorker (a similar deal Carver would have there toward his end days).

Robison’s minimalism was intact, sans Lish, in The New Yorker pages, and those stories are presented in original form in Days…that is not to say Lish did not later start using the ink pen with her other collections for Knopf and her novel, Oh!

Who is Mary Robison? Robison was born to an attorney and a child psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. She has seven brothers and sisters as well as a half brother. From an early age she was interested in writing and as a child kept journals and wrote poetry as a teenager. She once ran away from home and journeyed to Florida in search of Jack Kerouac.  Funny, because Lish also moved from NY to San Francisco in search of Dean Moriarty from On the Road, thinking he was real — and then of course later befriending Neal Cassady and a lot of the beats.

While Days is not as canonical as Carver or Hannah’s Airships and Ray, and Robison has not attained their status (even Hempel seems to be above her)  it is a fine collection worth any bookshelf. As is her work as a whole.

Her latest books, however, seem to lack something that Days and Oh! do…wonder, youth…


5 responses »

  1. Ciao, Michael. Good post, & thanks, & let me raise a couple of points of discussion. Credit for the “discovery” of Robison (always a dubious concept; did John Hammond “discover” Bob Dylan? Or, for that matter, Aretha Franklin, who Hammond brought on board at Columbia, & recorded for years, before she went on to her breakthrough w/ Jerry Wexler at Atlantic)… anyway credit should go either to Roger Angell, the New Yorker editor who bought her first dozen or more publications, there, or perhaps to John Barth. Barth, on the basis of the young woman’s MSS, & despite a decidedly spotty undergraduate record, took Robison on as a Johns Hopkins graduate fellow; he provided her w/ validation, community, & a room of her own, as V Woolf would say, & sure enough, she responded by publishing her homework in the NY’R.

    Second, Lish indeed carved up a few of the DAYS stories. A signal case would be “Pretty Ice,” which appears in DAYS w/out what was, in the NY’R & in an anthology or two, appeared w/a meditative final ‘graph cut from DAYS. You ask me, the original is notably stronger.

    Third, Robison hardly petered out after, c. 1985. She had her slack periods, sure, as almost all writers do — but her 2009 novel ONE D.O.A., ONE ON THE WAY, on Counterpoint, was widely praised & made the very short finalist list for that year’s best fiction, at THE BELIEVER.

    As for “Bill,” my (half) educated guess would be William Gass. Thanks again, Michael.

    • If it is William Gass, what an odd coincidence as we are currently reading In The Heart of the Heart of the County and bought the paperback of The Tunnel the other day, a big novel to go on the Big Novel Shelf of Big Novels We Will One Day Find the Time to Read.

  2. WordPress coufounded me, & I’ve got to try one of those paragraphs again:

    >> Second, Lish indeed carved up a few of the DAYS stories. A signal case would be “Pretty Ice,” which appears in DAYS w/out what was, in the NY’R & in an anthology or two, a meditative final ‘graph cut from DAYS. You ask me, the original is notably stronger.


    There. Apologies.

    • THE TUNNEL has some of Gass’s most beautiful passages ever, anywhere, & that’s saying something. Doesn’t quite have a novel’s *body,* maybe, but few books throw off such brilliant glints.

  3. Pingback: Mary Robison and Lish | clusterflock

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