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Defending Wendell Berry

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but it keeps slipping my mind. Writer Jeffrey Bilbro disagreed with an essay I blogged about earlier — the essay is by Tamara Hill Murphy [1] — in which Murphy, an admiring reader of Wendell Berry — criticizes Berry for having rose-colored glasses about agrarianism and the agrarian past. Bilbro, who is co-editing a collection of essays on Berry’s fiction, writes a robust defense of the great Kentuckian. [2] Excerpt:

It is precisely this sense of a complex, multifaceted heritage that Berry’s fiction conveys. Port William’s past is riven with violence, anger, and sin, yet it also carries love, forgiveness, and beauty. This sense of an irreducibly entangled inheritance is poignantly articulated by Margaret Feltner after the funeral of an alcoholic relative. The drunken sprees of Andy’s great-uncle Leonidas Wheeler, known as “Uncle Peach,” cost his family great time and sorrow. They also had real costs for himself; one memorable night he fell asleep in the front yard and lost several toes to frostbite. On the way back from Uncle Peach’s funeral, Andy’s father’s stern sense of justice leads him to amend the preacher’s rosy confidence regarding Uncle Peach’s eternal state: “‘If Uncle Peach is in Heaven,’ Wheeler said, ‘and Lord knows I hope that’s where he is, then grace has lifted a mighty burden, and the preacher ought to have said so.’”

Read the whole thing. [2] I really appreciate Bilbro’s response. If I didn’t emphasize it before, let me say so now: I have read very little of Berry’s fiction (though a short story about Uncle Peach I did read, and shame on me for not recalling it), so my impression of his worldview is almost totally dependent on his nonfiction. Murphy’s essay resonated with me, in large part because I try to be vigilant against my own tendencies to romanticize the past. But it seems to me that Bilbro, in his short but detailed essay, has provided a strong rebuttal. I’m eager to read what you readers of this blog who are also close readers of Berry’s fiction have to say.

UPDATE: Great comment from reader Mister Pickwick:

I’ve read all of Berry’s fiction, and I think that Bilbro is mostly right. Berry really doesn’t whitewash Port William.

And yet….what has bugged me for a long time is that a certain type of character that Berry depicts seems to have largely disappeared from rural America.

I’m thinking about Wheeler Catlett, a major character in various pieces of Berry’s fiction. A small town lawyer and farmer, Catlett is (in his rural, Kentuckian way) one of the most genuinely sophisticated, erudite, articulate and learned men from American literature.

I think back over my 30-year career in the environmental/natural resources field in the West, which involved a lot of work in rural communities (mostly in Montana and Oregon). I fold in my experiences living in Central Montana for the past five years. And I also include recollections from visits to the rural areas where my parents and my wife grew up. Based on all this, my view is that the Wheeler Catletts have all but vanished from rural America.

My grandfather (my mom’s dad) was a mill worker in a lumber company town up high in the Sierras in California. In the evenings, he and my grandmother read Dickens aloud to each other. Very rarely will one encounter such a person in rural America these days.

My theory is this: when the Depression forced folks like my parents to leave their rural communities and seek jobs in the city, this skimmed off most of the rural “Wheeler Catlett” class and transferred it to urbanized areas.

Upshot: those familiar with the rural America of 2017 will rarely see there the full range of characters that Berry depicts in his fiction. That isn’t due to any fault in Berry’s vision. Rather, it’s a result of the social upheaval that occurred during the Great Depression, and which to some extent hollowed out rural communities.

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22 Comments To "Defending Wendell Berry"

#1 Comment By Adamant On January 9, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

I was a little taken aback by Murphys essay: no one who has carefully read Jayber Crow or Hannah Coulter could reasonably conclude that Berry is uncritical of his home or his people. There is a great deal of violence, stupidity, and human failings and sins that reverberate through generations in Berry’s work.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 9, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

I don’t think you’re remiss in sussing out Berry’s worldview from his nonfiction and stated opinions. In some ways, fiction is more artistic and prophetic, and themes can emerge that the author is sometimes more a conduit for the otherworldly muse, and even not fully aware of, while being honest in the best art.

#3 Comment By David Jansson On January 9, 2017 @ 1:34 pm

In addition to Bilbro’s essay, I would also highly recommend Jake Meador’s response to Murphy, titled “The Abolition of Troy Chatham” on MereOrthodoxy.com (I do not know how to link to it in a comment).

In his essay, Meador both rebuts Murphy’s argument and points to the qualitative difference with which Berry looks at different types of sin.

#4 Comment By David Walbert On January 9, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

Here’s a thought I didn’t get around to posting last week… speaking as one who has read nearly all of Berry’s fiction, as well of most of his poetry and nonfiction.

I think Berry is often making his point as much through the way a story is told as through the story itself. They’re not told from the perspective of a disinterested or nostalgic present. Much of his fiction might best be read as the collected stories of a community, told and re-told until they serve that community’s needs — polished until they gleam a bit, you might say, or perhaps just worn until they’re shiny. I’m thinking here of his Port William stories (collected in That Distant Land), and of the stories Jayber Crow recounts, having overheard bits and pieces of them over the years from behind the barber’s chair. They’re like stories long-married couples tell of their younger years; the hardships aren’t denied, but the context in which they’re set (the ultimately successful if not easy marriage) and the purpose to which their telling is put (the continuation of that marriage) defangs them and perhaps, in a way, sanctifies them. From the outside that can look like a “warm and fuzzy flow,” to use Murphy’s phrase. But it isn’t the glow of nostalgia for a lost past; it’s the product of a hard-fought effort to redeem hardships and troubles for the use of the present.

So, for example, in “Thicker than Liquor,” when the newly married Wheeler Catlett has to chase down his drunk Uncle Peach, bring him home, miss his supper, and then lie awake most of the night to comfort Uncle Peach through his bad dreams, every bit of Wheeler’s frustration comes through, but the story is told with the kindness and good humor with which Wheeler himself would have to tell it, later on, if he wanted to maintain his affection for his uncle. Those stories are how a couple or a family or a community understands and preserves its communal life. When you can no longer tell those stories, or tell them in that way, the family, marriage, or community isn’t long for this world.

In any case, I think it’s clear Berry has a love for such tales and their telling, and I believe he wants to preserve the telling as much as the tales.

#5 Comment By Mister Pickwick On January 9, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

I’ve read all of Berry’s fiction, and I think that Bilbro is mostly right. Berry really doesn’t whitewash Port William.

And yet….what has bugged me for a long time is that a certain type of character that Berry depicts seems to have largely disappeared from rural America.

I’m thinking about Wheeler Catlett, a major character in various pieces of Berry’s fiction. A small town lawyer and farmer, Catlett is (in his rural, Kentuckian way) one of the most genuinely sophisticated, erudite, articulate and learned men from American literature.

I think back over my 30-year career in the environmental/natural resources field in the West, which involved a lot of work in rural communities (mostly in Montana and Oregon). I fold in my experiences living in Central Montana for the past five years. And I also include recollections from visits to the rural areas where my parents and my wife grew up. Based on all this, my view is that the Wheeler Catletts have all but vanished from rural America.

My grandfather (my mom’s dad) was a mill worker in a lumber company town up high in the Sierras in California. In the evenings, he and my grandmother read Dickens aloud to each other. Very rarely will one encounter such a person in rural America these days.

My theory is this: when the Depression forced folks like my parents to leave their rural communities and seek jobs in the city, this skimmed off most of the rural “Wheeler Catlett” class and transferred it to urbanized areas.

Upshot: those familiar with the rural America of 2017 will rarely see there the full range of characters that Berry depicts in his fiction. That isn’t due to any fault in Berry’s vision. Rather, it’s a result of the social upheaval that occurred during the Great Depression, and which to some extent hollowed out rural communities.

#6 Comment By Drew Beauchamp On January 9, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

I’ve read a fair amount of Berry’s fiction, and I would argue that much of it, especially Hannah Coulter, is a commentary on exactly the flight of the talented, and even more so the educated, from the landscape of American rural life. Indeed Berry capitalizes “The Economy” as a force complicit in this draining. One of his most memorable lines in my view was “he [Thad Coulter’s son] was inflicted with that peculiarly American disease, the belief that life could be dramatically improved he were somewhere else.”

In Berry’s mind I don’t think the depression, or other large social forces, are to blame for the sad state of rural America, but rather this individual belief in finding a greener “pasture,”, which is often based on the calculation of an economic gain.

#7 Comment By Gracie On January 9, 2017 @ 3:04 pm

1. Second the Meador recommendation. The point about why Troy Chatham’s sin is qualitatively different from Thad Coulter’s (or, as he said, Saruman v. Ted Sandyman/Jadis v. Tumnus – really, to have a Berry/Tolkien/Lewis trifecta makes this girl so happy) is worth spending some time on.
2. Agree with David Walbert – and you should too! You’re the one writing about how very necessary it is to tell our own stories to ourselves, to our children, to keep our memories and not lose them to MTD assimilation. Port William, at least through Jayber and Hannah’s generation, keeps its memory through narrative, and the narrative reinforces the identity, the Membership.

#8 Comment By Jeff R On January 9, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

My theory is this: when the Depression forced folks like my parents to leave their rural communities and seek jobs in the city, this skimmed off most of the rural “Wheeler Catlett” class and transferred it to urbanized areas.

It wasn’t just the Depression. There’s simply more opportunity for people with high skills in urban areas. Falling commodity prices and the disappearance of American manufacturing (which took advantage of lower wages in rural areas, quite frequently) have continued to push ever higher the opportunity costs of remaining in a small town for many white collar professionals. Rural to urban brain drain has been a facet of American life for a long time, now, for better or worse.

#9 Comment By Camus On January 9, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

I’m thinking about Wheeler Catlett, a major character in various pieces of Berry’s fiction. A small town lawyer and farmer, Catlett is (in his rural, Kentuckian way) one of the most genuinely sophisticated, erudite, articulate and learned men from American literature…………….

I have to disagree with your update writer here. Perhaps I am not rural enough or perhaps the local college has made things different where I live, although the whole county does not have more than 37000 people. There are multiple book clubs, one I started. Two Art Council venues that hate each other and vie with each other. Some big time wealthy and wise farmers who have children taken over the farms. Perhaps I live in an anomalous, area after all the 3 or 4 richest man in the state lives here and sent his kids to school with the rest of us rabble and we all know his children by name and many people were friends with them growing up.

[NFR: I bet there’s a pretty funny story there about the two Art Council tribes. — RD]

#10 Comment By Cascadian On January 9, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

Part of my fantasy is that there does still exist an older Western rancher character. If this is no longer true, or no longer true for certain geographies, is the price of maintaining these underpopulated, character deficient locations, still prudent?

#11 Comment By jorge On January 9, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

Mr. Pickwick may be right about the effect of the Depression on the rural communities, but the two maps included in the article linked below show that the trend continued between 1970 and 2000.

[3]

#12 Comment By Edward Hamilton On January 9, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

Like Jake Meador, I’m inclined to see Berry as being judged by the most popular portions of his writing in a way that is out of balance with the aggregate. The tendency of Jayber Crow to embrace the Fisher King trope of internal moral flaws being externalized as a “blight upon the land” is really not such a broad feature of Berry’s other work. But it’s done so powerfully and memorably with Troy Chatham that it starts to feel like his central message, in a way that he probably didn’t intend.

Even within the book itself, Berry seems to be making a special pleading for the novel as a distinct literary form from the rest of his work, more allegorical and stylized. Jayber speaks with a narrator’s authority, and explicitly compares his own journey with those of Dante and Bunyan. He’s being brought in as an outsider with the aid of various guides, and then being brought to a state of convicted self-awareness and spiritual maturity. The cost of a realistic study of a single human soul is that the external forces that transform it need to be more cleanly drawn. Most of Murphy’s criticisms are arguments that Berry shouldn’t have the right to create cleanly archetypical characters like Mattie and Troy, but the genre really demands that these types of encounters occur. If someone complains that Dante’s inferno and paradise don’t function like realistic societies, I’d say that’s an instance of spectacularly missing the point. “Being an incompetent farmer is a reliable tell for poor character” isn’t the real message of the novel, any more than Dante’s Beatrice is intended as some kind of sociological commentary on the remarkable virtue of 13th century Venetian women.

The farther you read in Berry, the more you appreciate that this is a rare case of special pleading. Berry is not typically a romantic writer, and his works are full of hard-edged ideas that only feel soft because of his lyrical prose. The most recent thing I’ve read by Berry is the stories in That Distant Land, and the more memorable stories are the ones of terrifying depictions of country life. In one of the stories, a hog killing devolves into a drunken catastrophe, and then a KKK-like organization descends to threaten the perpetrators with violent retribution (and hypocritically consume the rest of the alcohol!), ending in a violent brawl that leaves both sides crawling home in a pathetic state. In another, Mat Feltner witnesses a stoic Nancy (still grieving the death of three of her own children) care for an injured man pursued by an angry mob. In yet another story, a group of men have to shepherd an impoverished mentally-ill man named “Nightlife” as he wanders through the forest with a gun, with the constant threat that he might kill himself or any of them. These are the backdrop for the heroic characters of his later novels, who are really intended (I suspect) to be exceptions to the rule, a rule about the broad fallibility and sinfulness of humanity. After you’ve read enough Berry, you start to dread any gathering of more than a half-dozen people in public, since that’s usually a cue that something violent is about to happen.

The Murphy article is reminiscent of the criticisms made against Tolkien by people who have read only his Hobbit and Ring trilogy — which is increasingly an unforgivable offense as his estate has published his full body of work. The release of huge swaths of broader legendarium (including the Silmarillion, the Children of Hurin, and other fragments) reveals a world of darkness and despair, punctuated by heroes with frequent moral failures who commit serious mistakes in judgment. Tolkien accumulated decades of unsentimental world-building to privately earn himself the right to the relative sentimentality of Hobbiton, and the eucatastrophe he desperately needed to rescue his world from the terrible corner he had written it into. Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter are Berry’s hobbits, the handful of exceptional protagonists who draw on hidden strength to overcome a world of adversity that more frequently leaves those around them broken and confused.

#13 Comment By Rob G On January 9, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

“I think Berry is often making his point as much through the way a story is told as through the story itself. They’re not told from the perspective of a disinterested or nostalgic present.”

Yes, it’s a mistake to confuse Berry’s narrative method with his philosophy. They are of course related but not identical. It is the same kind of mistake which turns Flannery O’Connor into a Jansenist.

#14 Comment By Victoria West On January 9, 2017 @ 6:57 pm

In response to Mister Pickwick, the energy and intellectual vitality in agrarian circles today is in the organic/natural farm movements. See Joel Salatin and Paul Stamens on TED talks

#15 Comment By Camus On January 9, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

[NFR: I bet there’s a pretty funny story there about the two Art Council tribes. — RD]

Oh you would not even begin to understand the pettiness involved.

[NFR: Try me, even if you have to put it in a private e-mail. I am a connoisseur of these disputes. Henry Kissinger had the best line about them, with reference to the bitterness of academic politics. He said they were so vicious because the stakes were so small. — RD]

#16 Comment By Rob G On January 10, 2017 @ 8:27 am

Big thumbs up to Edward Hamilton’s 5:57 p.m. comment. Speaking as a long time reader of Berry it seems dead-on.

I remember that when I read That Distant Land I thought that one could almost read it not as a collection of stories set in the same small town, but as fictional biography of the town itself, shown at both its best and worst.

#17 Comment By Cyril On January 10, 2017 @ 9:13 am

That awkward moment when your own culture’s artifacts has become somewhar foreign. I can relate.

#18 Comment By Josh Cooney On January 10, 2017 @ 10:24 am

Mr. Pickwick’s comments resonated with me.

My grandfather was a small town lawyer and county judge in the rural southern tier of western New York. He was a liberal democrat, who loved to read Dickens, Shakespeare, and Lincoln.

Yet me managed to be respected and popular in a very conservative region, winning election as county judge in a county where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1.

Yes, there are book readers out here still. But, alas, Mr. Pickwick may be correct that a certain rural type has disappeared from the earth.

#19 Comment By pbnelson On January 10, 2017 @ 10:42 am

Edward Hamilton, what a brilliant essay!

#20 Comment By Dina Strasser On January 10, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

I am surprised to see, amongst these smart and thoughtful comments, that no one has mentioned the “Notice” that greets the reader in _Jayber Crow_ before the novel even begins:

“Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand it’ will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.”

I read this in the tone of tough love that I have come to associate with Mr. Berry, and take it to heart as a warning not only to Ms. Murphy– perhaps especially Ms. Murphy, since _Jayber_ is at the heart of her argument– but also to me, who in rushing to Mr. Berry’s aid may love his work not wisely, but too well.

Perhaps we are all missing the point of telling the story in the first place: to shut up and simply, only, listen.

#21 Comment By Benjamin Glaser On January 10, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

One aspect of the “Wheeler Catlett” loss is that the mainline churches in these rural areas used to be able to host full-time pastors, who often were the most educated in the town and did a lot of tutoring and other similar labors which kept the Dickens, Latin, and other signs of the knowledge economy in active use.

Now, since the mainline denominations embraced the anti-theistic methodology of the Left, all of these small, rural churches are closing or have closed, and those still open most certainly cannot afford an educated clergy, and instead rely either on the incompetent who cannot find a call in more urban area or on the lay leaders already present.

There are many of us who would LOVE to move back to our rural valley’s (in my case to West Virginia), cannot, since the mainline’s hostility to orthodoxy is the only game in town and we are now theological exiles hoping to return one day.

#22 Comment By Tamara On January 17, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

Mr. Dreher, I’ve been so grateful for both of your gracious and thoughtful posts – as well as Jeff Bilbro’s and others – in response to my essay in Plough. I wrote a few more words clarifying my position on Berry’s fiction as a literary fan and practitioner in ministry, rather than a Berry scholar. I tried to bridge some of the gap between what we’ve all said (and with some additional input from Plough editors) at my own blog: [4]

Thank you, again. And please know how much I value your own multi-generational story of small town life. I’m especially grateful for the story you’ve shared about your sister in “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”

Peace to you and your readers!