Hannah Coulter

Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter is in large part about the disintegration of the Port William community. The first part paints a lovely and detailed picture of subcommunities within communities and how they form, as Hannah is first welcomed into the Feltner family when she marries Virgil, and then into the Coulter family as well (while still tied to the Feltners) when she is widowed and then marries Nathan, and they proceed to build a life together.

The second part shows how community disintegrates as Hannah’s family disintegrates. First her oldest daughter Margaret moves to Louisville, not all that far away, marries a man from the city, and begins to live a separate life. Next her son Matthew, who never really took to farming, moves to Silicon Valley and begins a totally different life. Finally her son Caleb, who took to farming quite well, went away to learn about farming in college and became an agricultural researcher. None are likely to ever come back to the home place, even if they inherit it.

The culprit in each case is education, or at least their attitude toward it. Hannah writes:

When I think back to the childhood of my own children now, I remem­ber that the thought of their education was always uppermost. Nathan and I, and I more than Nathan, wanted them to go to school. We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, and yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were edu­cated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did. We owed them that choice, and we gave it to them, and it might be hard to argue that we were wrong. But I wonder now, and I wonder it many a time, if the other choice, the choice of coming home, might not have been made clearer

As I read the chapters about Hannah’s children the inevitability of it weighed heavily on me. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t surprised, because the disintegration of family and community is a prominent theme in Wendell Berry’s essays. But I wasn’t happy, because we’ve chosen a path that we hope will buck this trend, and I don’t enjoy hearing about the hopelessness of it.

But then came a chapter about Danny Branch and his family. Danny was always a farmer, not much interested in school, dropped out at sixteen and married Lyda at eighteen, around the same time Nathan and Hannah (ten years older) married. It was seven years before Danny and Lyda had children, but then seven came over the next ten years. After writing the above, Hannah goes on:

Danny and Lyda’s attitude toward education was different from Nathan’s and mine. I can see it clearly now. Their attitude maybe had nothing at all to do with the future. The school was there, and so the children went to it. For a while after the oldest ones started, the school was in Port William, and they went there. And then the Port William school was closed, and the children rode down to Hargrave and back every day on the bus. Danny and Lyda seemed not to mind. They just accepted it as it came. They wanted the children to study and learn and behave themselves reasonably well, but I don’t think they felt any pres­sure from the future. I don’t think they had the idea that they owed it to the children to send them to college.

When the children got old enough to quit school, if they wanted to quit, they were allowed to do as their father had done. Of the seven, only Fount, who was the most bookish of the boys, and Rosie finished high school. Every one of them seemed to have a perfect faith in the educa­tion they got outside of school, which they didn’t even call “education.” Out of school, they learned what they evidently thought they needed most to know: to keep house, to raise a garden or a crop, to care for live­stock, to break a mule or shoe one, to fix a motor and almost anything else, to hunt, fish, trap, preserve a hide, hive a swarm, cook or preserve anything edible, and to take pleasure in such things. To learn things they didn’t know, they asked somebody or they read books. They were a lot like their friends among the Amish.

Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren’t going any place, they aren’t getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering. And they are all still here, still farming. They are here, and if the world lasts they are going to be here for quite a while. If I had “venture capital” to invest, I think I would invest it in the Branches.

They farm here and on the Feltner place and on the Jarrat Coulter place and on Danny and Lyda’s place, which is the Coulter home place, and on another place or two. Royal and Coulter have farms of their own, and so do Rosie and her husband. They survive and go on because they like where they are and what they are doing, they aren’t trying to get up in the world, and they produce more than they consume. Except for a manure spreader that Danny bought not long ago from a little Amish factory up in Ohio, I don’t think any of them has ever bought a new piece of equipment. A junk yard is a gold mine to them. If horses or mules will work cheaper than a tractor, then they work horses or mules. They use their cisterns and wells, even if the city water line goes right through their front yards. They catch or shoot or find or grow nearly everything they eat. When they need to, they do a little custom work on the side, they trade and contrive and make do, getting by and prospering both at once. It doesn’t seem to bother them that while they are making crops and meat and timber, other people are making only money that they sometimes don’t even work for.

Not only did the story of the Branches pick up my spirits, it also encouraged me about Wendell Berry, who apparently sees such families as a possibility. I wish he’d write more about them. I was surprised to learn, for example, that both his daughter and his son and their families operate farms just a few miles from his. I was even more surprised, given that Berry has never written about homeschooling, to read this article by his daughter (published in Chronicles!) in which she explains how bad experiences with public education led them to homeschool the younger two of their three children. Well, her dad is still thinking and still writing, so maybe there will be more along this line in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Hannah Coulter

  1. Your comments about the Port Wiliam community disintegrating as Hannah’s family disintegrates, made me think of how much of life in Israel was organized around familes and/or extended families. In the Old Testament the service of priests, singers, and musicians was organized by family groups. The army was organized by family groups and families were granted their land all in one section of Israel. A few weeks ago my family and I talked about this. I noted that even with distant relatives, I find it easy to understand their views. At my workplace there is a man who I am probably distantly related to – back about 150 years ago. I am surprised at how easy it is to relate to him. Not that I agree with his worldview, but I feel that I can understand his thinking processes. Makes me wonder if God did not design even extended families to work together more, rather than scattering all over as is the modern custom.

    Jim V

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