Relation of My Imprisonmentby Russell Banks
The Relation of My Imprisonment is a work of fiction utilizing a form invented in the seventeenth century by imprisoned Puritan divines. Designed to be exemplary, works of this type were aimed at brethren outside the prison walls and functioned primarily as figurative dramatization of the test of faith all true believers must endure. These "relation,"/b>
The Relation of My Imprisonment is a work of fiction utilizing a form invented in the seventeenth century by imprisoned Puritan divines. Designed to be exemplary, works of this type were aimed at brethren outside the prison walls and functioned primarily as figurative dramatization of the test of faith all true believers must endure. These "relation," framed by scripture and by a sermon explicating the text, were usually read aloud in weekly or monthly installments during religious services. Utterly sincere and detailed recounting of suffering, they were nonetheless highly artificial. To use the form self-consciously, as Russell Banks has done, is not to parody it so much as to argue good-humoredly with the mind it embodies, to explore and, if possible, to map the limits of that mind, the more intelligently to love it.
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Upon the dawn this drear and soppy month justpast, in a year now some twelve years past, ithappened that as I began my daily work at thebuilding of coffins, which is my calling, I was prevailedupon by certain superior officers of the town to cease anddesist from this work. I had left my young wife's kitchenand had arrived at my workshop at the side of the houseand before the road, where, as had been my proceduresince completing the apprenticeship of my youth andembarking singly upon the practice of this my calling, Ihad commenced to lay out the day's labor and to organizethat labor into precise allotments of time. Thus I was bentover my various plans and figures at my bench, whenthere appeared at the doorway a friend and neighbor,a man who must be nameless here but who was one ofmy chief supports in the early days of my tribulation.This man, all breathless and screw-faced with haste andconcern, related to me that this very morning, whilepassing through the marketplace across the common fromthe courthouse, as he was on his way to cultivate hisfields, which lay on the far side of the town from hisdwelling place, he had learned thatthe chief of civil,prosecution in the parish had sent an order to the chiefof civil prosecution in the town, to the effect that fromthis date forward all those men and women residents ofthis town who engage in the manufacture and/or sale of coffins, or of gravestones or of other such marker of graves, or of vestments for the dead, or of floral or other memorializing of the dead, or who in any way embalm, decorate or otherwise handle and prepare the dead for burial, must henceforth cease and desist from their activities.If this order is not immediately obeyed by those residents of this town who heretofore have participated in such activities, they will be arrested and charged with the crime of heresy and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the various laws.
Because my friend loved me, he wished, however, to do more than merely to warn me of my impending arrest and trial and imprisonment. He attempted as well to persuade me to close the doors of my shop immediately and, upon the eventual arrival at my shop by the officers of the chief of civil prosecution in the town, to deny that I was engaged now in any such activity as had become so recently a heretical activity, for, as my friend pointed out to me, I was an esteemed member of the community, welcomed among them for my comportment and orderliness and the consistent charity of my mind, and therefore the officers of the community would be reluctant to scourge me from them. My skills as a maker of coffins, my friend showed me, could easily be applied to the manufacture of items which the community felt it needed, rather than items which it had deemed not only unnecessary but dangerous to the pub public weal. He then told me of a growing desire among the better-off families for high wooden cabinets with glass doors for the purpose of exhibiting fragile and expensive possessions.
Having delivered himself both of his warning, which Ireceived with gratitude, and his suggestion regarding my future activities, which I received with the thought that my friend was perhaps putting his timorous self in my place (out of his love and fear for me, however, not of love or fear for himself), he began to gather up my drawings and figures and contracts for the several coffins I then had underway, wrinkling and folding them as if to toss them into the fire.
No, I said to him. This seems not to be our only recourse. Let us think a moment and look into our hearts before we decide what is the proper action. How would it seem to others of our persuasion, with regard to the matter of the dead, if their coffin-maker were to run and hide and, if found, lie outright? Come, I said to him, be of good cheer, let us not be so easily daunted, our case, to care for the dead, is good, so good that we will be well rewarded, finally, if we suffer for that cause. If, however, we deny our cause, and others like us, seeing our example, also deny the cause, then we will suffer ten hundred and infinitely more times over for the denial. For if we will not remember the dead, who among the living will remember us when we join the dead ourselves, as all men must? (I Craig., xiv, 12.)
My friend persisted and pleaded with me none the less, until I begged leave finally to closet myself briefly for prayer and guidance in this question and proceeded to close myself into the coffin that my father had employed his brother, the revered master to my apprenticeship many years ago, to build for me. And as so often has occurred in times of woe or quandary, the face of a beloved ancestor, in this case the wise face of my mother's great aunt, passed before me and gave me these words: Your guide in life can proceed from no other source than the mercy you tender the dead. To suffer for such tenderness is to receive mercy back from the dead when no others will show it to you.
Whereupon I arose from my coffin and confronted my good friend with these words: Leave me, if you wish, and tend your fields, and turn your coffin into a sideboard, if fear is what determines your actions. But as your fellow man who loves you, I am compelled to go on as before. I further stated that since coming to know myself, I had showed myself hearty and courageous in my coffin-making and had made it my business to encourage and teach others the skills and the meanings of the skills I now possessed, and therefore, thought 1, if I should now run and make an escape, it would be of a very ill savour in the land. For what would my weak and newly converted brethren think of it? Nothing but that I was not so strong in...
Meet the Author
Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is one of America’s most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.
- Date of Birth:
- March 28, 1940
- Place of Birth:
- Newton, Massachusetts
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