I’ve just finished Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack (1974)—see here for the revised 1999 edition. It’s my sixth Berry novel in the last six months. The previous five were Remembering (1988) and A World Lost (1996) (both in Three Short Novels), Jayber Crow (2000), Hannah Coulter(2004), and Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2006). In addition, I’ve read several dozen of his short stories, all in That Distant Land: The Collected Stories (CS) (2004) or A Place in Time (PT) (2012).
Most of Berry’s fiction is set in and around the small imaginary town of Port William, Kentucky, which closely resembles Berry’s own Port Royal community. Within about four miles of there all of his grandparents and great grandparents lived and farmed. He was born in 1934 in nearby New Castle, where his father, who also farmed, had a law practice. After graduate work at Stanford, a year in Europe, and teaching at New York University for several years, Wendell returned in 1964 to the English Department of the University of Kentucky, where he had studied as an undergraduate. The following year, he moved with his family to a farm in the Port Royal area, where he soon combined farming with his continued teaching and writing. Although he eventually gave up teaching, he continued to combine farming and writing.
The Appeal of Berry’s Fiction
Why do I keep reading Berry? What’s the appeal of his fiction? Here’s my list
- His characters and Port William setting possess a wondrous quality.
- His main characters are likeable, good people. There are not too many of them, so as we go from one novel or short story to another we continue to come across them and are happy to do so.
- They possess good values.
- They grapple with the important questions of life: love, marriage, aging, sickness, war, the environment, technological change, death.
- Berry’s style is very readable. Once into novels like The Memory of Old Jack, Jayber Crow, and Hannah Coulter, it is difficult to put them down.
Let me elaborate. (1) His fiction’s wondrous quality. Reading it leaves me with the same impression as reading some of my favorite poems such as Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us; Late and Soon” and “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” the Russian poet Lermontov’s “Angel,” and Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” What all four poems express is perhaps best summed up in Hopkins’ lines about our world, which is:
seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
The poets and Berry, who is also a poet as well as writer of prose (including non-fiction), all realize that beneath our humdrum, routine existence is a wondrous world of beauty, truth, and goodness. Caught up in our everyday struggles, we notice it much too little.
But Berry is more mindful of it, and his fiction often puts us back in touch with this enchanted world. For example, in his short novel Remembering, he has his central character, Andy Catlett, hear birds’ songs and experience the rising sun. “The light’s music resounds and shines in the air and over the countryside, drawing everything into the infinite, sensed but mysterious pattern of its harmony. From every tree and leaf, grass blade, stone, bird, and beast, it is answered and again answers. The creatures sing back their names. . . . They sing their being. The world sings. The sky sings back. It is one song, the song of the many members of one love, the whole song sung and to be sung, resounding, in each of its moments. And it is light.”
This is reminiscent of Emerson’s transcendental vision as expressed in his essay “The Over-Soul.” It is one that can be shared by conventional religious believers and those with no specific religious beliefs at all. It reflects a type of nature mysticism that we find in Wordsworth or Sierra Club founder John Muir.
(2) The likeability and goodness of his main characters. Many of his fictional characters are based on his own family, relatives, and other members of his Port Royal community, and he has a deep love for them. But he has also stirred his imagination into the mix. The Catletts, for example, have many similarities with his own family. Wheeler Catlett (1900-1992), who is a lawyer and a farmer, is much like Berry’s own father, John; and his son Andy (b. 1934) resembles Wendell in many ways and often reflects his views. But in Remembering, Berry depicts Andy as having lost a hand in a farming accident, something that never happened to Wendell
Besides the Catlett’s the other main families are the Feltners and the Coulters. The first is loosely based on Wendell’s mother’s family, and the second on Port Royal relatives of his. In Andy Catlett: Early Travels, the young Andy spends much time with both pairs of his grandparents (the Catletts and Feltners), and we sense Berry’s own deep appreciation of the simple farming lives of his own grandparents. One of his more loveable (and loving) characters, Hannah Coulter, is related by marriage to both the Feltners and the Coulters. She first marries Virgil Feltner and then, several years after his death in WWII, weds Nathan Coulter. He had also been a WWII soldier, and Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter (revised edition here), is devoted to his youth.
The most senior member of the Port William community who is portrayed at length is Jack Beechum (1860-1952), the hero of The Memory of Old Jack. The novel opens in 1952, with Jack in his early 90s, and then frequently flashes back to earlier times. He is the younger brother of Nancy Beechum, who married Ben Feltner (1840-1912). Ben is the oldest Feltner whom Berry portrays, but more briefly than Jack, mainly in the story (in CS) “Pray Without Ceasing,” which deals with Ben’s death. (Internet lists of the main families and characters are available.)
Jack shares many of the best characteristics of Berry’s male heroes. He loves the land he farms. He is hard working and honest. He has simple wants and tastes. He values his friends and community and is faithful to them. In The Memory of Old Jack, Berry identifies the men Jack loved most: Mat Feltner [Ben’s son]; the Coulter Brothers [Burley and Jarrat] and Jarrat’s son Nathan; Wheeler Catlett and his two sons, Andy and Henry [based on Wendell’s brother, John]; and Elton Penn. Only Penn is outside Berry’s three main families. But Old Jack, without a male heir, intends for the hard-working Penn and his wife, Mary, to take over his farm.
Berry does not ignore the imperfections of Jack. As a young man, he had a reputation for being “a dancer, a drinker, a wencher, a fighter.” After marrying, he faults himself for not being a more loving husband—although Berry blames his wife, Ruth, at least equally for their unsuccessful marriage—and Jack commences, and continues for a while, an affair with a widow named Rose. In addition, he is too ambitious in buying a neighboring property, and eventually fights with a black hired hand, Will Wells, whom he had greatly respected but, as he realizes later, did not fully understand.
Berry, however, is tolerant of the foibles and lapses of his major characters. He has a healthy appreciation not only of spiritual values, but of human earthiness—of nature, sex, eating and drinking, and dancing and singing. He realizes that we humans are a mixture of the spiritual and animal worlds and that “to err is human.”
One of Berry’s favorite characters is also one of Jack’s—Burley Coulter (1895-1977). Burley appears in many of Berry’s works, and is already a prominent presence in Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter (1960). Like the other men, Burley farms, but he is also one of Port Williams’ best hunters. He is a big, fun-loving, sociable man, who likes to sing, and sometimes plays the fiddle, but he also loves to roam alone in the woods. Never having completed the eighth grade, he is an unpretentious, but secure, man. In one of Berry’s best stories “Fidelity” (CS), Wheeler Catlett says about him: “He was wild, Burley was, as a young fellow. For me, he had all the charm of an older boy who was fine looking and wild and friendly to a younger cousin. I loved him and would have followed him anywhere. . . . His wildness was in his refusal, or his inability, to live within other people’s expectations.” In A World Lost Wheeler’s son Andy also had a great fondness for a man probably as wild as any he had ever known, his handsome and often hard-drinking and womanizing uncle Andrew. While most admiring judicious men like his father, Berry himself has a soft spot for such charming rogues who are sometimes wayward.
Both “The Wild Birds” and “Fidelity” deal with Burley Coulter’s relationship to Kate Helen Branch (d. 1950), whom he regrets never marrying, and her (and his) son, Danny Branch. (Berry also wrote a poem, “Burley Coulter’s Song for Kate Helen Branch,” which has been put to music.) Although the fiction was maintained that Danny was Burley’s nephew, Burley helped provide for him. Like Burley, Danny remains deeply rooted in the Port William community, “never had belonged much to the modern world,” and never had much formal education. He was “growing a crop of his own” before he started high school, and “he quit school the day he was sixteen and never thought of it again.” “Fidelity,” set in 1977, recounts how Danny sneaks the old, dying, comatose, hooked-to-machines Burley from a Louisville hospital to take him back home where he can die with more dignity.
Besides the men of the main Port William families, there are several others that display the solid qualities that Berry admires. For example, there are the Rowanberry brothers, Art and Mart; and Berry’s story “Making It Home” (CS) deals with Art, wounded in WWII, coming back from Europe to his beloved community. There is Jayber Crow, the Port William barber and hero of one of Berry’s best novels, which is given his name. There is Athey Kieth, the father of the beautiful Mattie, with whom Jayber is in love. Big Ellis, a friend of Burley Coulter, is the main character in several stories such as “Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows” and “The Requirement” (both in PT). And there is Ptolemy (Tol) Proudfoot, who weighs about 300 pounds. Along with his wife, former teacher Miss Minnie, who never weighed more than about 90 pounds, they are the chief characters in a half of Berry’s first dozen stories (set in the years 1888-1941) in his 2004 collection (CS).
There are also, of course, many admirable female characters, some of whom have already been mentioned. There are the two grandmothers of Andy Catlett, who resemble Berry’s own grandmothers. There is Miss Minnie, who tries to keep the unkempt Tol looking decent and whom he admires for her book-learning. There is Mattie Kieth, whom Jayber Crow puts on a pedestal as Dante did to Beatrice—but she is indeed a noble woman. There is Mary Penn, who is the subject of the story “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” (CS).
Most important of all, however, is Hannah Coulter. She appears in some of Berry’s earlier fiction, for example in The Memory of Old Jack, where she is described at about age thirty, when she is pregnant with her last child. “It is a beautiful face, wreathed by dark, heavy hair, radiant from the touch of the sun and her strong blood, the features clear. . . . Her beauty no longer has its source merely in her physical presence, though that is pleasing enough; it comes, rather, from some deep equanimity with which it has accepted the marks of an extraordinary knowledge of herself, her powers as a person and as a woman, her mortality.”
But it is only in 2004 that she receives her full tribute in Hannah Coulter. Like the men Berry most admires, his favorite women are those who adhere to traditional values. (For more, see my essay “Wendell Berry on Women and Feminism.”) But this brings us to our next section.
(3) Good Values vs. Poor Ones. The positive characters mentioned above embrace certain values. As mentioned above, they cherish the land they work and nature in general; they are hardworking and take pride in their work; and they have simple wants and tastes. But for Berry the most important virtue is love. Since, however, I have already dealt extensively with his thoughts on love, including as perceived by Hannah Coulter and Jayber Crow, I will merely summarize here what I have previously written and add a few new comments based on rereading “Fidelity.”
Jayber reflects much on love and thinks it is more important than anything. But Hannah’s love is more fulfilled and encompassing. She loves her first husband, Virgil, and his parents, the Feltners, and her daughter fathered by Virgil before he was killed in WWII. She loves her second husband, Nathan, and the two children (sons) she has with him. In “Fidelity” Berry depicts her grieving for the dying Burley Coulter and adds:
She thought it strange and wonderful that she had been given these [Coulter men] to love. She thought it a blessing that she had loved them to the limit of her grief at parting with them, and that grief had only deepened and clarified her love. Since her first grief had brought her fully to birth and wakefulness in this world, an unstinting compassion had moved in her, like a live stream flowing deep underground, by which she knew herself and others and the world. It was her truest self, the stream always astir insider her that was at once pity and love, knowledge and faith, forgiveness, grief, and joy. It made her fearful, and it made her unafraid.
In other works such as The Memory of Old Jack and Andy Catlett: Early Travels, where the young Andy imagines someday marrying a “lady as beautiful and kind as Hannah,” we also see her love beamed out toward others
While other honorable Berry characters do not reflect as much on love as Jayber and Hannah, they still value it. In “Fidelity” we have the following exchange between a “state police” detective investigating the “theft” of the comatose Burley Coulter from the Louisville hospital and Berry’s father-like figure, Wheeler Catlett:
“Well, anyway,” Detective Bode said, “all I know is that the law has been broken, and I am here to serve the law.”
[Wheeler Catlett:] “But, my dear boy, you don’t eat or drink the law, or sit in the shade of it or warm yourself by it, or wear it, or have your being in it. The law exists only to serve.”
“Why, all the many things that are above it. Love.”
Another important value to Berry’s characters is peace, especially to those who have experienced the traumas of war, like Nathan Coulter and Art Rowanberry, and the soldiers’ wives and relatives, like Hannah, her first husband’s parents (the Feltners), and Nathan, who lost his brother, Tom, in WWII. As I have detailed in two essays (here and here), Berry’s pacifist sentiments are clearly evident not only in many non-fictional works, but also in his fiction and poetry.
Berry also greatly values community. In the story “The Wild Birds” (CS), Burley Coulter comes to Wheeler Catlett’s law office in the fictional Hargrave, about 10 miles from Port William and at the juncture of the Kentucky and Ohio rivers. While there he says, in a more serious manner than usual: “I ain’t saying we don’t have to know what we ought to have been and ought to be, but we oughtn’t to let that stand between us. That ain’t the way we are. The way we are, we are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference ain’t in who is a member and who is not, but in who knows it and who don’t.
In “That Distant Land” (CS), Berry deals with the final sickness and death of Mat Feltner. He mentions all the family members who visited or sat with old Mat in his final days, including Hannah and grandson Andy Catlett. And then he adds that “others who were not family came: Burley Coulter, Burley’s brother Jarrat, Elton and Mary Penn, Arthur and Martin Rowanberry. . . . We were a membership. We belonged together.”
In his collection of essays The Art of the Commonplace, Berry writes: “Community, however, aspires toward stability. It strives to balance change with constancy. That is why community life places such high value on neighborly love, marital fidelity, local loyalty, the integrity and continuity of family life, respect for the old, and instruction of the young.”
At the end of Remembering when Andy Catlett returns home and experiences the wondrous quality of Port William, he sees “people of such beauty that he weeps to see them. He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move. He sees that they are dead, and they are alive. He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost.”
In the story “The Inheritors” (CS), set in 1986, Berry writes of old Wheeler Catlett and the younger Danny Branch as “survivors and heirs of a membership going way back, of which more members were dead than living, and of which the living members were fewer than they had been in a hundred and fifty years”
Valuing community also means valuing the place you live, its land and environment. In The Memory of Old Jack we read that Jack “believed that people could have no devotion to each other that they did not give at the same time to the place they had in common.”
In one of his non-fictional works, Berry describes that sense of community that permeates his fiction. “A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to—and will have to—encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations.”
In this same work, he makes a comment that at first seems strange: “The essential and inscrutable privacy of sexual love is the sign both of its mystery and sanctity and of its humorousness.” Humorousness? What does that have to do with sexual love? A good deal, as it turns out.
Berry’s attitude toward humor is akin to that of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who believed
humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. The sense of humor is thus a by-product of self-transcendence. People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to “stand off” from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions. . . . Life does not make sense as easily as those philosophers, who think they have charted and comprehended everything in a nice system of rationality, would have us believe. . . . If men do not take themselves too seriously, if they have some sense of the precarious nature of the human enterprise, they prove that they are looking at the whole drama of life not merely from the circumscribed point of their own interests but from some further and higher vantage point.” (See here for the source of the quote and more on humor and wisdom.)
Some of Berry’s favorite characters have a rich sense of humor. In “Turn Back the Bed” (CS), he writes: “To some, it seemed that Ptolemy Proudfoot didn’t laugh like a Christian. He laughed too loud and too long, and his merriment seemed a little too self-sufficient—as if, had there been enough funny stories and enough breath to laugh at them with, he might not need to go to Heaven.” In Jayber Crow he has Jayber reflect, “I had seen him [Athey Kieth] change from a vigorous man whose thoughts were all of life to a man who knew he was dying and who still lived willingly and thoughtfully and humorously.” And perhaps most of all there is the fun-loving Burley Coulter. In the same novel, Jayber comments on “Burley’s conscientious sense of humor” and relates examples of it.
In “The Discovery of Kentucky,” Jayber tells us all about Burley’s humorous and subversive participation in a 1952 inaugural parade in Frankfort. Its theme was supposed to be “Kentucky for Progress,” and Jayber and Burley are as dubious about how that is interpreted as is Berry himself. Jayber tells us that the idea to participate, to which he and Burley agreed, came from a certain John T. McCallum and that “John T. had no more humor than a bucket of ashes. He could not see the funny side of anything. If Burley Coulter came into the shop and announced that a certain creek had been so high he couldn’t get over it but he had just waited until it got a little higher and went under it, John T. would just stare at him as if he was an affront to the scientific spirit.”
A similar lack of humor characterizes many other unlikeable characters in Berry’s world. One of the most unlikeable is Troy Chatham, the husband of Jayber’s beloved Mattie, who is “just about completely humorless.” Troy’s son Jimmy, however, is more like his grandfather, Athey Kieth, than like his dad, “he had a sense of humor.”
Troy is characteristic of many of the more negative characters with lousy values that appear in Berry’s works. Jayber tells us “Troy’s ambition and his arrogance grew clear. . . . He had been seized by a daydream of ‘farming big,’ having what he wanted . . . to ‘manage’ the ‘operation’ from an office with a phone while other people (and machines) did the actual work.” Troy also has no regard for the land and environment.
Like Troy in his ambitions and disregard for the environment, but much more “successful,” is the rich businessman-farmer Meikelberger in Remembering. Despite his large farming operations, however, he is a frazzled man with an ulcer. He tells Andy Catlett: “You can’t let your damned stomach get in the way. If you’re going to get ahead, you’ve got to pay the price. You’re going to need a few pills occasionally, like for your stomach, and sometimes to go to sleep. You’re going to need a drugstore just like you’re going to need a bank” Andy reflects, “There was nothing, simply nothing at all, that Meikelberger allowed to stand in his way: not a neighbor nor a tree or even his own body.”
After visiting Meikelberger to interview him for the Chicago magazine Scientific Farming, the magazine he worked for before returning to Port William, Andy visits an Amish farmer, who still plows with horses. And Andy admires him much more than he did Meikelberger.
Both Troy and Meikelberger are what Berry would call “boomers.” In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he credits his mentor at Stanford U., Wallace Stegner, with contrasting such people with “stickers.” The boomers are “motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” The stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”
In Andy Catlett: Early Travels, he contrasts the nearby fictional town of Hargrave—“though it seemed large to me, [it] was a small town that loved its connections with the greater world, had always aspired to be bigger, richer, and grander than it was—to “the tiny village of Port William, which, so long as it remained at the center of its own attention, was entirely satisfied to be what it was.” Thus, a would-be-“boomer” town versus a community of “stickers.”
Another boomer is Old Jack’s son-in-law, Glad Pettit. He is a banker, and he and Jack’s daughter, Clara, live in a large house in Louisville. Reflecting Berry’s own discontentment with consumer capitalism, Jack criticizes Glad for making money by lending “money to people to make worthless things and buy worthless things.”
After Old Jack’s death, his friend Mat Feltner compares another couple to the Pettits: “The Berlews and the Pettits represent the two halves of the same distraction. What the Pettits are is what the Berlews dream of being. Is not the Berlew’s old car the hopeless dream of a Cadillac? Is not their tireless going a persistently frustrated pilgrimage in search of Easy Street?”
Mat had hired Lightening Berlew to help him on his farm and had provided him and his wife with a place to live. But besides being restless and always driving around in their old car, Lightening had a poor work ethic and took no pride in farm labor.
Whereas most of the women of Port William reflect Berry’s values, there are several who are more akin to the male “boomers.” One is Old Jack’s wife, Ruth. Berry tells us “that she was bound to him by a vision of him that she held above him.” Her view was that “no place may be sufficient to itself, but must lead to another place, and that all places must finally lead to money; that a man’s work must lead not to the health of his family and the respect of his neighbors but to the market place.”
Somewhat similar to Ruth is Jayber Crow’s Cecelia Overhold, who also married a Port William man who proved to possess too little ambition for her. She “never liked Port William. She was from Hargrave, and she had some of the social smuggery of the Hargrave upper crust. . . . [She] found that Port William was beneath her. . . . She did not like Port William pronunciation, diction, and grammar. . . . She did not like its preoccupation with crops, livestock, food, hunting, fishing, and weather. . . . She remembered all the personal affronts and insults that she had suffered, going back, I think, to about 1928.” She had a sister who lived in Los Angeles, and Cecelia regarded the area as a utopia, partly because it was so “up-to-date.”
(4) Grappling with What Is Important. Like Tolstoy, whom he resembles in many ways, Berry has his characters confront the important questions of life. How should one live? What makes a good marriage and family? How should one relate to other humans and one’s environment? How should one regard technology and the consumer culture that surrounds us? What Is the Meaning of Death?
Jayber Crow begins as what the Germans call a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, where Jayber discovers by trial and error perhaps the two most important questions any young man faces: what his vocation should be and whom to love most. After deciding to return to Port William and then becoming the town’s barber, he spends the rest of the novel dealing with his love for the married Mattie.
In Remembering, Andy Catlett also struggles with deciding how he wants to live. In flashbacks we discover his past: leaving Port William for college and then about eight years as an agricultural journalist in San Francisco and Chicago; returning home, with his wife and two children, to farming; after a dozen years, losing his hand in a farm accident, taking out his grief and misery on his wife, Flora, and then leaving home for a Midwest farm conference and a flight to San Francisco. In each novel the main character has to sort through his values in order to understand what is most important to him—just as Berry had to before he returned to farming in his early thirties.
Like Tolstoy, who started Anna Karenina with the famous line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Berry often writes of marriage and family life.
In Hannah Coulter he depicts Hannah as a happily married woman, too briefly to Virgil, who dies in WWII, and then after several years of widowhood, to Nathan, to whom she remains married for decades until his death. In Remembering, Andy’s marriage to Flora goes through a difficult period after he becomes depressed over the loss of his hand. In Jayber Crow the marriage of Troy and Mattie is a troubled one, and he cheats on her, while Jayber observes their relationship from a distance. In “Misery” (PT), Berry has his narrator, Andy Catlett, state that his paternal grandparents’ house was not a happy one because their marriage “had been so often a collision of wills.” But perhaps Berry’s best description of a troubled marriage is in The Memory of Old Jack.
It was troubled from the beginning because “he won her [Ruth] with his vices [e.g., his reputation as a womanizer], she accepted him as a sort of ‘mission field,’ and it was the great disaster of both their lives.” She wanted him to be ambitious and become more than just a farmer; he loved farming, was enticed by her beauty, and later realized he was a fool not to have realized their incompatibility. Whereas he was passionate and earthy, she was more cold and standoffish. “Her ambition would be forever as strange and estranging to him as the great heat and strength of his desire would be to her. It is a cruel thing for him now, looking back, to see the two of them working out the terms of their agony.”
Berry tells us that “the illusions and false hopes of their courtship could not survive the intimacy of their marriage, and in the failure of their courtship their marriage failed. From the ignorant pleasures of her maidenhood she was transformed on her bridal night to the martyrdom of sexual sainthood.” Later on, “There remained some prize, some vital gift that she withheld. She hid her eyes from him. As much as before their marriage, she remained to him an unknown continent. She offered him no welcome.” And still later, “but when she saw that he would not be changed, she turned away from him, punishing him with a denial that he now knew would last forever.”
Decades later, Berry described another poor marriage that bore some resemblance to Old Jack’s in relating that of Andy Catlett’s Uncle Andrew in A World Apart.
Although the relationship between spouses is crucial in most families, the family often extends far beyond that core, to one’s own children and parents, and to relatives including in-laws. To Berry, it even relates to dead ancestors and their legacy.
In Andy Catlett: Early Travels, we discover how important both sets of his grandparents are to the young Andy (and by implication also to Berry himself). In Hannah Coulter, Hannah is bound by love and kindness to her husband’s parents after he goes off to war and is reported missing:
“It was a kindness of doing whatever we could think of that might help or comfort one another.”
In Chapter 5, “Hunger,” of The Memory of Old Jack, Berry depicts a family-and-friends dinner at the Feltner’s house that reminds us of great dinning scenes from art, literature, and film (e.g., Brueghel’s Village Wedding Feast or the opulent Christmas dinner near the end of Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander). Of the men there, all but Old Jack have come in for a mid-day meal before going back out to the fields to work. They include Mat, his grandson Andy Catlett, Nathan Coulter and his uncles Burley and Jarrat, Elton Penn, and Mat’s hired hand, Lightening. Among the women there are Margaret (Mat’s wife), Hannah Coulter, and Mary Penn.
How one should relate to others and one’s environment is a central concern for Berry, and we see it depicted in his scenes of family and community and how his favorite fictional characters respect their land and nature.
Berry’s concern for the environment is evident mainly in how his protagonists deal with their land, but at times their concerns are broader. In Remembering, when Andy Catlett returns to farming in the 1960s, he sees in his Port William area
the costs that history had exacted: hillsides senselessly cropped, gullies in old thicket covered fields that would not be healed in ten times the time of their ruin, woodlands destructively logged, farms in decline, the towns in decline, the people going to the cities to work or to live. It was a country, he saw, that he and his people had known how to use and abuse, but not how to preserve. In the coal counties, east and west, they were strip-mining without respect for the past or mercy to the future, and the reign of a compunctionless national economy was established everywhere. Andy began to foresee a time when everything in the country would be marketable and everything marketable would be sold, when not one freestanding tree or household or man or woman would remain.
Berry’s makes very clear his attitude toward technology, “progress,” and our consumer culture in such essays as “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and “The Failure of War.” In the first he writes, “Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses.” In the second, he states, “Progress in war, progress in technology, and progress in the industrial economy are parallel to one another—or, very often, are merely identical.”
But we also see this stance represented by his fictional heroes. Regarding television in 1952, Old Jack thinks it strange that “that a whole roomful of people should sit with their mouths open like a nest of young birds, peering into a picture box the invariable message of which is the desirability of Something Else or Someplace Else.” And Jack’s comment about his banker son-in-law wanting “to lend money to people to make worthless things and buy worthless things” sums us his attitude toward the consumer culture that television does so much to promote. The parade activities of Jayber Crow, Burley Coulter, and their friends in “The Discovery of Kentucky” (CS), also set in 1952, lampoon the idea of Kentucky progress, which basically meant despoiling the land by favoring corporate and business interests.
In Berry’s 2009 story, “A Place in Time,” he writes that by the time Elton Penn died in 1974
the balance had tilted against such a life as he had aspired to and lived. The economy of industry had prevailed. The land and the people who did the land’s work were to be used, and used up, by the measures of mechanical efficiency and corporate profit. Greed was replacing thrift as an economic virtue. All was to be taken, nothing given back. In his last years, Elton saw that this was happening, and he raged against it. It was again a reduction to nothing, this time not just for him, but for him and his kind. When he died, the world as he had known it, and for a while had helped to make it, was ending.
Confronting aging and death are two timeless concerns of human being and ones that in Berry’s fiction, like that of the great Russian writers Tolstoy and Turgenev, often appears. Not only is “Old Jack” in his early 90s, but both Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter narrate the novels named after them when they are in their 70s. The dying Burley Coulter is in his early 80s in “Fidelity” (CS), and Wheeler Catlett is in his mid 80s in “The Inheritors” (CS). In two successive stories in CS, “The Boundary” and “That Distant Land,” Berry depicts the final year and dying of Mat Feltner (1884-1965).
And Berry’s fiction not only presents many older characters, but also sheds light on many of the challenges that the old face: diminished physical capabilities, the rapid changes of a technologically-driven economy, the death of spouses and friends, and the exodus of children to other areas. He is very good on the importance of memory to his older protagonists, not only in many of his novels, like The Memory of Old Jack, but also in short stories like “At Home” (PT), where in 1981 old Art Rowanberry wanders around his property and the surrounding countryside remembering earlier events.
In Berry’s novels and stories death is a frequent visitor. Not only does he describe the deaths of many of the old such as Old Jack, Mat Feltner, Burley Coulter, and (in Jayber Crow) Athey Kieth, but he also narrates the impact of these and other deaths upon those who remain behind. We see this with others such as the death of Elton Penn (see “An Empty Jacket” in PT) and especially with the deaths of soldiers like Virgil Feltner and Nathan Coulter’s brother, Tom.
In A World Lost Andy Catlett remembers back a half century earlier how he and others coped with the death of his uncle Andrew, who had been killed by a man named Carp Harmon. At the end Andy tells us: “In recalling him as I knew him in mortal time, I have felt his presence as a living soul. . . . The dead remain in thought as much alive as they ever were, and yet increased in stature and grown remarkably near. The older I have got and the better acquainted among the dead, the plainer it has become to me that I live in the company of immortals. . . . . I live in their love, and I know something of the cost.”
These lines are very typical of Berry, who believes that the dead continue to live on in us and that we owe much to them. He also has Andy state “how can I deny that in my belief they are risen?”
(5) Berry’s Page-Turning Fiction. Berry’s style is very accessible and makes his fiction popular with a broad audience, especially with those who share many of his values. His characters are believable, generally likeable and, like Burley Coulter or Ptolemy (Tol) Proudfoot, often humorous. Because his writing is concise and his plots in keeping with the personalities of his characters, a reader moves quickly from page to page eager to see how they will deal with the challenges they face.
Like William Faulkner and James Joyce, he has much of value to say through his characters, but his writing style is much easier to follow than are some of the dense passages of the two older writers. And like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Berry’s Port William, Kentucky is a fictional creation based upon an area were the author spent much of his life. And just as Faulkner’s characters span several generations covering over a century, so too do Berry’s. After reading a few of Berry’s novels and stories (and glancing at the map and family tree that are available on the Internet or in several of his works), we begin to feel we know them and the Port William community.
Although many of us have grown up in large cities and never experienced farm life or living in a small community like Port William, it still somehow appeals to us. Paradoxically, we almost feel nostalgic about a mythical place the likes of which we have never experienced. The secret is the wondrous quality and the sense of community with which Berry infuses it. In The Memory of Old Jack he writes that Rose had “so imparadised” Jack’s mind that “he went away from her newborn.” So too does Berry imparadise us in a world that is simpler, friendlier, often almost Edenesque, compared to our complex, noisy, traffic-snarled, and often impersonal urban world.
Berry’s World: Wondrous but Limited
Berry’s fiction appeals to me because it is wondrous and because many of his concerns are ones I share—the meaning of a good life, appreciating beauty and love, war and peace, the environment, fostering community, confronting historic and technological changes and our consumer culture, and the challenges of old age and death. But there are also many important issues upon which his fiction sheds little light, and in an earlier essay I’ve indicated some differences I have with him about staying rooted in one’s hometown.
Only occasionally do any of his main characters reside in big cities. The many problems of such cities are rarely glimpsed. At a time when our country is becoming increasingly diverse in regard to ethnicity and gender choices, Berry’s main characters are overwhelmingly white and “straight,” and his female heroines (like Hannah Coulter) fulfill traditional women’s roles. In his non-fiction Berry writes insightfully about racial problems and women, and occasionally mentions admirable blacks in his fiction—see, for example, “Not a Tear” (PT) about the fictional Dick Watson (apparently based on the real-life Nick Watkins), who worked for Andy Catlett’s paternal grandfather. But Dick and “Aunt Sarah Jane,” who lives with him, are exceptions.
Little occurs in Berry’s fictional world outside the Port William area, or less frequently in Hargrave, about 10 miles away. Occasionally characters go to Louisville, as does Burley Coulter before Danny Branch snatches his almost lifeless body from a hospital there. Even less frequently do Berry’s heroes leave Kentucky with the exception of Andy Catlett in Remembering, who spends considerable time in other places including San Francisco, and the young men who go off to war. But except for Nathan Coulter’s experiences in Okinawa, imagined by Hannah after his death, Berry describes very little of any foreign occurrences, preferring instead to relate the anguishes of the soldiers’ families left back in Port William.
Despite these limitations, however, Berry’s fiction offers us much. The problems his heroes face are universal: how to live a good life, whether single or married; how to be a good family member or friend; how to relate to nature and the environment; how to regard technology and the consumer culture that surrounds us; and how to deal with aging and death.
Walter G. Moss