“The View from Castle Rock”
by Alice Munro
from The View from Castle Rock

“The View from Castle Rock” imagines the ship crossing that the Laidlaws made from Scotland to Canada in about 1820. I was surprised by the somewhat comfortable nature of the shipboard experience, there being no account of the unnatural crowding, rampant illness, or excessive death that I had imagined. Was Munro being careless with the truth?

It turns out: no. John Killick wrote a data driven account of emigration between 1820 and 1870 from Scotland and Ireland to America (here), in which he attests to the relative affordability of the ticket and the relative safety of these ships. So, no. Munro was not playing with the truth nor was she careless.

Even so, “The View from Castle Rock” itself glances at and questions the truth of what you might say at one time or another, the truth of what you write, and the truth of what you think you remember. Mostly, I think Munro is questioning how we experience the truth.

The old man who is taking his family to America in 1820 has told his son that that they can see America from Scotland. Twice. First, from Castle Rock in Edinburgh, and then, years later, from the deck of their ship as it is leaving Scotland. Such a big belief. Such naivete. But is there a grain of truth to this?

The old man can see America in his mind’s eye, looming and true. It is as near as his imagination can make it. Why? Why do some Americans still believe in the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence? In the right of everyone to the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Why can some of us see that looming and true — as true as anything?

In Scotland in 1820, all the land was owned by the lord.

At the time my own great-grandfather emigrated from Scotland, the Scottish place where he was from, the Hebridean Island of Lewis and Harris, was owned entire by James Matheson, a man who had bought it, cleared it of 500 families, and built himself a Victorian castle from which to lord it over the seaport he owned.

You go to America because you can own your own land. In Stornoway, my great-grandfather’s home, you lived on the man’s land and paid the man rent and lived in perpetual debt to the man and worked the land for the man or maybe worked on his ships.

Munro’s Laidlaw ancestor could see America in his mind’s eye as clear as if he could actually see it from Edinburgh’s Castle Rock.

Alice Munro has two actual letters that this ancestor wrote: one, a letter to his son that was reprinted in Blackwood’s Magazine in Scotland, and another he seems to have submitted to the editor of The Colonial Advocate. America, he told his son, was the place where men could own their own land and where men could, he later wrote, “ride in their Gigs . . . like lords.” The truth was that Munro depicts the old man as a gabbling fool and a truth teller at the same time. To the old Laidlaw, life in America is full of strangeness and promise. It is a place where the farmers “live far more independent than King George.”

The later letter to The Colonial Advocate is quoted at length.

I once wrote a bit of a letter to my Son Robert in Scotland and my friend James Hogg the Poet put it in Blackwoods Magazine and had me all through North America before I knew my letter had gone home. . . Hogg poor man has spent all his life conning Lies and if I read the Bible right I think it says that all Liares is to have their pairt in the Lake that Burns with fire and Brimstone but I suppose they find it a loquarative trade for I believe that Hogg and Walter Scott has got more money for lieing than Old Boston and the Erskins got for all the sermons ever they wrote.

Munro comments directly on her ancestor’s opinions:

And I am surely one of the liars the old man talks about, in what I have written of the voyage. Except for Walter’s journal and the letters the story is full of my invention.

Earlier, in the Forward, Munro referred to how she wrote these ancestor-stories.

Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious recreation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past could ever be.

Although Munro is writing about the “Castle Rock” stories, Robert Thacker makes a case in Writing Her Lives that Munro often works from real life in her stories, given how closely her stories recreate the situations her mother, her father, and Munro herself found themselves in.

Why this convolution regarding whether the writer (who uses “material” from their own life) tells the truth or lies? Why, in particular, does she defend these fictions about her ancestors as the truth?

I think it is this: we meet thousands of people in our lives, and yet, it is the people, or some of the people, in our own families, whose experience of life seems the most real to our own experience of life.

Note ~ my sense of what Munro is doing: I can remember sitting on my grandmother’s front porch in West Virginia. At that time, I am from a sophisticated part of Connecticut, I’m around 13, and I’m in private school. My grandmother is 75 or so and keeps chickens and has a cow. She has false teeth and her hands are all gnarled with arthritis. She cans a hundred quarts of everything (beans, peaches, tomatoes, apples, corn) and stores them in the root cellar at the end of each summer. She tells my father and uncle to slaughter a couple of chickens for dinner. She cheats at cards. She is a stranger.

And yet she does something on that porch that rivets my attention. When she was about my age, 12 or 13, she won an elocution contest, and the teacher took her around the county to perform her recitations. And she performed that recitation for me. Right there. On the porch. I knew right then I was her granddaughter. I knew we were blood. I knew it.

Even in her one-room school, she had probably studied the McGuffey Reader (here), which teaches: “The tones of the voice should be made to correspond with the nature of the subject, without apparent effort. EXAMPLES. Passion . . . Plaintive . . .  Calm . . . Fierce Anger . . . Loud and Explosive. . . ”

What was it she recited? With plaint and passion? I cannot say now. Barbara Allen? Lord Randall? The Ride of Jennie McNeal?

My father took a movie of my grandmother that summer, coming down the long stairs of her front porch, extending her ankles just so, swaying slightly, hand held delicately out to the white railing. “Look at her,” my father said. “75. Just like an actress. Still. Just like an actress.”

There are people in my father’s family who love the spoken word. Regardless of whatever it was my grandmother recited, the truth of the matter is that she loved the spoken word. I am tied to her. I recognized her. The spoken word is blood to me. My grandmother, my father, my uncle, my cousin, me, my son, my grandson . . . the  chosen word, the written word, the spoken word, the performed word, they all are in the blood.

I go on about myself. I have struggled with these stories that comprise Part One of The View from Castle Rock. But I see what it is that Alice Munro is talking about. She comes from a long line of writers. It’s in the blood. They are cantankerous and loquacious. It’s in the blood and she enjoys thinking about how she came to be.

I have spent the morning exploring the recitations and instructions of the McGuffey Reader and The Ideal Orator. Suddenly, I know even more about my grandmother. She was simultaneously a mountain woman and a sophisticated student. The readings in the readers she surely read were numerous and included Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Browning, Bret Harte, Charles Dickens, and on and on. The photographs in The Ideal Orator were of girls making suitable poses for declamation. My grandmother was an actress.

Years and years and years later my 85-year-old uncle told me he had been in a play in his village high school and he knew he was good. He was told so and he knew it was so. To become an actor was his fondest dream. There it was again. Blood. He didn’t become an actor, though, he became a soldier, an Army Captain in WWII, a captain in the South Pacific, and then he had kids and then he worked for a living. But I know. He lived his life telling stories, using his voice, throwing it, making people listen to its meanings and inflections. On his death bed, in his delirium, he told his sons, “My men are calling me.” He spoke from the center of his being and the center of his being was true. How often do you hear that? I hear him still. Speaking to duty and compassion and impossible responsibility. I hear him still.

I suppose I am a sort of Sir Walter Scott. I listen to everyone and I hope I get it right. I listen for grief and passion and plaint and anger and calm. What I really read is I read people. I long to understand what it is they need or want and why it is they need or want it. I assume that people are to some extent hidden and contradictory. I want to know, in the moment, which part is driving them today. And how all the contradictory parts of all their selves are connected. Where is the truth amid all these needs and wants and several selves?

Of course, in Castle Rock Munro is talking about writing. I read her (and treasure the experience) the same way, for the same reasons. Where is the truth amid all the contradictions? Contradiction being at the core of every story: how society and education and the church and paternalism and assigned gender role and psychology are all at odds with each other and with one’s essential self, and how the past and our perception of it and our memory of that perception can be at odds with the present moment.

The truth is more about how we experience life than it is about precision. The truth is more about intuition and experience, more about a sensation of truth than it is about precision.

That’s what Alice Munro is talking about when she mixes fact and fiction in these historical pieces about her family. She can mix fact and fiction because she knows it when it feels true.

I can imagine my grandmother’s triumphant trip around the county doing declamations. I have the feel of it, regardless of anything else. And the feel of it is electric — a kind of recognition of who she was and who I am and how our essential selves are so similar.

Ironically, I am not nuts about these stories in Part One of The View from Castle Rock. But as I have thought about Alice Munro and her line of Laidlaws, I am grateful. Because of her and this morning’s reverie that she inspired, I am closer to my own line (and myself) than I ever thought possible (at this late date).

What strikes me powerfully, though, about “The View from Castle Rock” is that it is the men who write. Among Munro’s line of Laidlaw ancestors, it is the men who write. Even the bardic Margaret Laidlaw Hogg did not write — she was written down by Sir Walter Scott. The women in this story do not write.

Agnes bears a child on shipboard, something so barbaric I can hardly imagine it, although Munro captures the barbarity with Agnes’s delirious vision — that the thunderous pain was actually a cow had sat down on her. “So heavy.”

(What’s the truth there? The pain and the burden of birth was unimaginable. One is distracted by the age-old burden of women.)

Two of the story’s other female characters are wonderful, but they are stunted and tiny. Neither one is full grown. One cannot breathe and has “fits.” It is the men who write. It is the men who have women and sons to take care of them; it is the men who have the time to write. Although Munro imagines the women as feisty and powerful and raw, still, they are stunted and squashed.

In this story, despite the old man’s doubt about the “Liares” who write, he’s a writer too.

It is as if one of the biggest challenges an author has to live with is the possibility that something they have written is not true.

It’s as if the old man, old in 1820, comes across to Munro as blood, as if his written word is a flash of self. He experiences life as something that must be put into words, even though he distrusts words.

When he calls Scott and Hogg men caught up in the “Loquarative trade,” his emotions are so so powerful and contradictory he has to make up a word to contain them, a word that is some combination of loquacious and lucrative and locution and quarrelsome.

One is put in mind of a passage in the first story, in which Munro mentions that John Knox’s Scots are: “the best educated peasantry in Europe. . . . they read the [Bible] with piety, but also with hunger, to discover God’s order, the architecture of His mind. They found a lot to puzzle about. [Ministers of the time] complain of how disputatious their parishioners are, even the women.”

After all, the old man had told his son you could see America from Edinburgh. But then, with the very long journey, it became so very obvious that you couldn’t.

Or maybe, you could. In America you could own your own land. Independence is a need so great that once it has been imagined it might as well be the rock beside your prison door. America, as a vision, was as true as the cow that sat on Agnes in the throws of birthing. The truth has a way about it. You know it when you feel it.

Munro recognizes this disputatious lot, who are filled with a “hunger … to discover … the architecture of His mind,” as people whose reality of life is the same as her own.

There is a fierce independence in these people. Bravery. Daring. There is conviction. They have a right to think things through.

Blood of the line, I would say. Munro sensed the blood of the line in the scraps and tatters of these long-gone men; she could sense a familiar self in their imaginations and their written word, which was how they experienced life.

Writers, as Munro’s ancestor said, are liars. But in the lies lie the truth. Contradiction is central to the truth in Munro. Disputatiousness and contradiction and argument are how Munro and her people recognize the truth. How they feel themselves recognized. How they discover the architecture of God’s mind.

Or, as a twentieth century writer might say, how a person can sense and make sense of the vast architecture of human experience.

Second Note: I get the twin issues of the truth and “material,” whether your sense of the material is true and whether you have a right to use it. It was my cousin who told me, at my uncle’s funeral, that shortly before his death, my uncle had heard his men calling him. Hearing this story was a central experience for me. But do I have a right to tell this story? Do I remember it right? Do I honor him? Do I honor the occasion? I hope so. Is my memory of that moment – my experience of it – the truth? For Richard and Roger and Steve, I hope so. For me, it was that my uncle spoke – from the deepest center of his life. When do you hear that? My thanks to my cousin who trusted me with that.

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