Wendell Berry's fiction

I’ve said on several occasions that I’m not much for reading fiction. For light reading I find that nonfiction holds my attention better; I don’t know why. And for thought-provoking reading I generally find fiction about ten times more difficult than nonfiction. For about five years in the early 90s I was part of a Great Books discussion group, which used collections of readings put together by the Great Books Foundation. I remember being very surprised that the fiction readings actually contained discussable ideas—and even more surprised at how much work it was to dig those ideas out, and how uncertain the process was. Many of those fiction pieces have stuck with me all these years, much more so than the nonfiction ones; I think often of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle and Shakespeare’s Othello and King Lear, and re-read them occasionally. But how much room is there in one life for written pieces that stick with you for decades?

So it’s no surprise that when I started reading Wendell Berry in earnest that I put his novels and short stories at the bottom of the stack. That was a mistake. After reading Jayber Crow and most of Hannah Coulter, I’ve decided that you can’t really understand Wendell Berry’s thinking, at least in depth, without spending some time reading his stories of the Port William membership.

For one thing, Berry seems to have reserved his warmth, and to a large degree his humanity, for his fiction. His essays are at best austere with a touch of melancholy, at worst just plain cold. For better or worse, this is a very powerful tool in his hands. When Joel Salatin or Gene Logsdon write indignantly, their overall warmth undercuts the fierceness of their message; it’s often easy to chuckle at their sputtering, even when you completely agree with them about an outrage. Not so with Berry. His nonfiction persona is forbidding enough that he can be blistering without a hint of writerly excess.

A good example is found in an exchange about his essay “Why I am not Going to Buy a Computer.” It was published in Harper’s magazine, which later published a number of unfavorable letters about the essay, together with Berry’s reply. Here’s how he responded to a couple of particularly rude letters:

I am also surprised by the meanness with which two of these writers refer to my wife. In order to imply that I am a tyrant, they suggest by both direct statement and innuendo that she is subservient, characterless, and stupid—a mere “device” easily forced to provide meaningless “free labor.” I understand that it is impossible to make an adequate public defense of one’s private life, and so l will only point out that there are a number of kinder possibilities that my critics have disdained to imagine: that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing. These gentlemen obviously think themselves feminists of the most correct and principled sort, and yet they do not hesitate to stereotype and insult, on the basis of one fact, a woman they do not know. They are audacious and irresponsible gossips .

Since I could have easily made the flip comments that Berry is responding to, I felt the full force of this blast when I first read it and felt thoroughly ashamed—for something I hadn’t even done! But looking at the words themselves, I see that Berry has simply stated his case, laying a foundation that makes the final sentence not an angry accusation but merely an inevitable conclusion. Ouch.

This austere persona lends his writing a great deal of authority, even dignity. It gives a weight to Berry’s words that I think allow him to write in a clear, precise, and unadorned manner without being ignored. When I read him for the first time five years ago, I did not really understand what he was saying, but much of it apparently drilled itself into my brain. As I re-read those essays last month, I found myself reacting the same way Doug Wilson reacted when after many years he re-read C.S. Lewis—”So that’s where I learned that!”

Powerful as this technique is, I still want to like my teachers—in fact, a large part of their authority with me is based on the fact that they are likable and therefore more fully human—and so I found myself wondering as I went to Bristol if I would like the man I heard. I couldn’t really tell from external observation; Berry is well-mannered and reserved, guarded in a way that I would expect a man to be who is only reluctantly a public figure. But when he read his two short stories, I knew that this was a man who loved and understood the folks who peopled his community, and that was all I needed to know. His wisdom is not some abstract thing, but the product of many years spent reflecting on how real people have behaved. It is a wisdom I can trust.

(As an aside, I already sort of trusted Berry because of the articles he had written for farming magazines about various farms that embodied agrarian ideals. In these articles it was obvious that he had a deep respect for his subjects and a love for the way of life they were working to preserve, things that are at least halfway to warmth.)

So Berry’s fiction enables me to trust him. But even more important, it puts his criticisms of modernity in proper context by putting flesh on the bones of his agrarian vision. Again, what is important about Berry’s vision is that it is not some speculative utopia but the understanding of an approach to life that in times past was lived out, however imperfectly, in Port Royal, in Henry County, in Appalachia, and in much of pre-WWII America. It’s odd how when we come to understand the shortcomings of modern industrial culture we are quick to embrace someone’s speculative, totally untested antidote, whether it be engaging the culture or retreating into intentional community, while at the same time we are quick to reject any proposal that we would do well to return to an earlier way of living. We hope that doing things differently might make the symptoms go away, but aren’t much interested in tracking down our mistakes and undoing them.

Knowing Berry’s fictional Port William membership is vital to hearing his message because, in being not a utopia but a thinly veiled account of life in Port Royal, it provides the positive agrarian alternative to the industrial modernism that Berry critiques in his essays. It embodies community as Berry understands that community ought to be. And it allows him to demonstrate exactly how modernist pressures managed to undermine, erode, and eventually destroy that community. For those of us who think that mistakes can be undone and the agrarian way of life can be reclaimed, Berry’s account of Port William is one to be studied and pondered at length.

Note: when I say “thinly veiled account of life in Port Royal,” I don’t mean that the characters or events in Port William have a direct correspondence to characters or events in Port Royal; Berry is quite clear that this is not so. What I mean is that what Berry’s knowledge of life, expressed in the fictional construct of Port William, is taken very directly from life as he saw it lived in Port Royal. When in Bristol someone asked if any of his characters were based on people he knew, he said no, but that the residents of Port William still had very many things in common with people he knew. For example, Wheeler Catlett is not his father, but when he wants to explore the character of his father he generally uses Wheeler Catlett as a vehicle for it.

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One thought on “Wendell Berry's fiction

  1. Hannah Coulter tells us: “Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn’t shirk it. Love, after all, “hopeth all things.” But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation.”

    Above and beneath all the joy, the sadness which the stories bring, the yearning for the old way, the aching for what might have been, the lamentation for what has been lost, Wendell Berry’s fiction gives me hope.

    Hannah, again: “Want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion.”

    Wendell Berry’s knowledge, love, compassion reminds me of what can be. His imagination inspires me, gives me hope.

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