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Defending Wendell Berry

His work does not airbrush the pain and brokenness of agrarian life, says editor

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 — 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. 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. 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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