by and about Wendell Berry
I picked up Wendell Berry’s Three Short Novels after stumbling across Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide by J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens. Let me first say a word about this book before I get to the novels themselves; consider this a “two-fer” review!
Starting with a bibliography of Berry’s works and a helpful introduction, Bonzo and Stevens trace out, in 10 chapters, the major themes and concerns of Berry’s 40 years of “mad farmer as social critic.” Combing through and quoting from his fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, they call attention to his “creational vision,” in which creation is good and worthy of our care, but also diseased and in need of redemption; his notion of “healing communities,” where “a sort of mutual at-homeness is at the root of community”; and his “invitation to hospitality,” because “hospitality is the pulse of such health, proof of willingness to be vulnerable.” In other words, “all of life is a gift of God to be received and shared communally.”
If you’ve read anything of Berry’s, you understand what Bonzo and Stevens are trying to get at. Berry has been both an inspirational and a controversial figure because he reviles the exploitation of both people and natural resources, but without suggesting easy answers; he forces his readers to think deeply and critically about nuanced responsibility. For example, he suggests that pristine wilderness is not the only alternative to exploitation; cultivation can be both faithful and sustainable if we properly understand creation to be “central to the connection between wild and cultivated.” As another example, Berry insists that place or community of origin is a vital element of spiritual well-being, and yet, rather than require us to “return to the house of our childhood” (as Berry did when he gave up academia to take over the family farm in Kentucky), he forces us to ask how “we enact the obligations of community and home in the place where we find ourselves.”
Bonzo and Stevens clearly have an affection for their subject but maintain a certain amount of objectivity. They raise mostly minor disagreements with Berry within their pages, but then also devote two chapters to wrestling with his criticisms of the church and the academy. (While they agree that the church has often operated as a “strip-mining corporation,” for example, they believe that Berry’s own principles demonstrate that the church has the potential to be “life-giving, not simply by countercultural reaction but through cultivation in time and place.”) To their credit, both authors seem to be attempting to live out, one in the city and one in the country, both in their churches and in the university where they both teach, the Berryan principles their book examines and promotes.
This helpful analysis gave me pause and convinced me it was finally time to buckle down and make a point of reading more than one of Berry’s stories or essays (the extent of my past Berry reading). But I think what prompted me to head immediately to the library was their statement that “the community itself is the protagonist of Berry’s fiction,” a statement they back up with quotes and outlines and lineages of his Port William membership.
Thus I was introduced to Three Short Novels, a single volume that brings together Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. It was a good place to start, as Nathan Coulter is Berry’s first novel as well as his initial foray into the people and land of the fictional Port William, Kentucky.
In Nathan Coulter, young Nathan wrestles first with his mother’s death, his Uncle Burley’s place in the family, the growing struggle between Brother and Father, and finally his grandpa’s death. Place is very much at the center of the story; the descriptions of the land and the community are spare but evocative. My reaction to the book was not a strong one (either way), but having seen a glimpse of what Bonzo and Stevens had explicated in their book, I was willing to keep going and see how Berry continues to build on this foundation.
That took me to Remembering, which immediately struck me as a much stronger work. The protagonist is Andy Catlett (the character Bonzo and Stevens consider most like Berry). A farmer, speaker, writer, and contrarian (see the resemblance?), Andy undergoes an internal crisis when he loses a hand to a corn-picking machine. In a series of flashbacks from a dark hotel room and then a San Francisco pier, Andy recalls the series of choices that led him to where he is and spurs him to make another choice to either chuck it all or cling to what he has left. Several passages stand out as examples of the close observation and perfect pitch that thrill Berry fans; I liked this one:
It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, running them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined. And though Andy did not understand this, and though he suffered from it, he trusted it and rejoiced in it.
From there I moved on to A World Lost, which, like the previous novel, features Andy Catlett as the protagonist; but in this case he is also the narrator. Here Andy recounts his childhood spent working on his grandma and grandpa’s farm and hero-worshipping his Uncle Andrew. But that world comes to an end with his uncle’s murder, and Andy invests a great deal of effort over the years to coming to terms with the circumstances that led to this event, learning something of destiny and choices along the way. Berry allows this novel to enrich the previous one by filling in some of the gaps to which Remembering alludes; and in this way I understand why Bonzo and Stevens and other readers/critics find the continued development of the Port William membership — which occurs both forwards and backwards in time — to be so intriguing. It creates a feeling like moving into a new community and getting to know all the locals slowly over time and from each other’s perspectives.
So now I have prepared a Berry reading list that includes essays; poems; and of course, long and short fiction of the Port William membership, up to and including his 2006 novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels. If anyone wants to join me, let me know. I’ll be sure to chart my progress here.