“Membership & Memory”: Wendell Berry

Membership & memory

Wendell Berry Fidelity: Five Stories. Pantheon, 201 pages, $20

Since the appearance of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, in 1960, Wendell Berry’s fiction, poetry, and essays alike have spoken with increasing directness to a single theme: the relationship between man and earth. In the poem “The Old Elm Tree by the River,” he asserts that “In us the land enacts its history”; “An Anniversary” makes clear that the reverse is true as well: “What we have been becomes / The country where we are.” To Berry, a Kentucky farmer who tills the same land his family has worked for generations, man’s proper role is that of steward; yet in his view, most Americans, in this “self-exploiting, world-exploiting age,” are blind to the interdependence of man and earth, and live their lives “in the midst of a ubiquitous damned mess of which we are at once the victims and the perpetrators.” All that technology has done is to “save” us “from work that is meaningful and ennobling and comely” and to replace it with “work that is unmeaning and degrading and ugly.” Worst of all, we have lost the sense of mystical connection with others, past and present, that farm work gives; by working on the land, Berry writes in “Healing,” “we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us.”

The unfortunate side of all this is that Berry can sound like an anti-humanist ecology nut of the first water. A character in his story “The Wild Birds” describes people and other natural phenomena as “members of each other. All of us. Everything.” Berry’s notion of “membership,” of course, recalls Saint Paul: “For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Romans 12:4-5). Yet his work, while full of biblical echoes, hardly conveys a conventionally Christian view of things: though the word “stewardship,” of course, implies a special relationship between man and his Maker, Berry tends to see man less as a favored child of God than as an element of the natural order whose political history and cultural heritage are only a part of the planet’s ecological record, and whose achievements should be esteemed to the degree that they exist in harmony with the ecosystem. Berry isn’t impressed by scientific progress, and (though he allows for the possibility of an afterlife) doesn’t speak of salvation: to him life isn’t linear, moving toward an end, but cyclical. The means are the end. Words like “grace,” “mystery,” and “transcendence” appear frequently in his writings, but when he uses them his focus is invariably more on earth than on heaven; he sees the spiritual as inherent in, but almost never pictures it apart from, nature. Like orthodox Christians, he believes that “life is bigger/ Than flesh,” but he suggests that we transcend the particular conditions of mortal existence not by accepting Christ as savior but by recognizing that we are a part of the eternal whole, that we belong not to ourselves but to the earth, and that the things we bring into being are not ours alone but belong to all. (Accordingly, in his poem “The Country of Marriage,” he describes the poem itself as being “no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.”) One is tempted to describe his philosophy as transcendentalism minus self-reliance, or as Wordsworth plus work. In any event, the essential difference between Berry’s viewpoint and that of an orthodox Christian is made clear in his best novel, A Place on Earth (1967, revised 1983), when the local preacher drops by Max Feltner’s house to offer consolation after his son, Virgil, is reported missing in World War 11:

The preacher’s voice, rising, rides above all chances of mortal and worldly hope, hastening to rest in the hope of Heaven.

In the preacher’s words the Heavenly City has risen up, surmounting their lives, the house, the town—the final hope, in which all the riddles and ends of the world are gathered, illuminated, and bound. This is the preacher’s hope, and he has moved to it alone, outside the claims of time and sorrow, by the motion of desire which he calls faith. In it, having invoked it and raised it up, he is free of the world.

But in this hope—this last simplifying rest-giving movement of the mind—Mat realizes that he is not free, and never has been. He is doomed to hope in the world, in the bonds of his own love. He is doomed to take every chance and desperate hope of hope between him and death, Virgil’s, Margaret’s, his. His hope of Heaven must be the hope of a man bound to the world that his life is not ultimately futile or ultimately meaningless, a hope more burdening than despair.

It is from this possibility of meaninglessness that the preacher has retreated. So that the earth will not be plunged into the darkness, he has lifted up the Heavenly City and hastened to refuge in its gates. And Mat, in the very act of leaning toward that restfulness, turns away from it to take back his pain. His mind seems to steady and move out again to its surfaces. He watches Hannah and Margaret, anxious for them, sorry for their sorrow. He is conscious again of the room, the window, the wet street opening into the town. The buds on the maple trees leaning over the road have grown big. He notices this as he always notices it for the first time in the spring, with an involuntary pleasure, saying to himself that he is surprised to see it happen so early.

Berry leaves little doubt here where his own sympathies lie: he feels that true deliverance from human anguish is found not by denying one’s finitude but by embracing it. In his view, the preacher retreats from life’s fundamental realities and struggles to dispel his dread through an act of will; Mat confronts those realities and, in the midst of anguish, is surprised by joy. Berry’s point here is that Mat, by leading a productive life on the earth and attending to the rhythms of nature, is occupying his proper place in the scheme of things, is accordingly capable of recognizing his role in the eternal order, and is thus, even in times of extreme adversity, able to find peace, comfort, and—yes— pleasure.

And what about those who do not live on the land? That’s where Berry comes in. He is an evangelist, bringing to city folk the Good News of man’s harmony with nature. This makes for some self-glorifying rhetoric: in an unrhymed sonnet that is prefaced to his 1988 novel, Remembering, Berry invokes the “Heavenly Muse, Spirit who brooded on / The world and raised it shapely out of nothing,” and asks that spirit to “Keep my mind within that Mind / Of which it is a part, whose wholeness is / The hope of sense in what I tell.” He describes the world as something whose sense has been fragmented, its body broken, its wholeness scattered, and begs the spirit to “Rule my sight by vision of the parts / Rejoined.” There is —dare one say it?—something rather Christian in Berry’s implication here that life is an exile from and a journey to some greater harmony, and that the key to emancipation from a sense of life’s meaninglessness resides not, strictly speaking, in nature itself but in man’s recognition that he belongs to, is part of, and is dependent upon a creative intelligence apart from nature and larger than himself. Berry even uses a biblical text as an epigraph to Remembering: “to him that is joined to all the living there is hope” (Ecclesiastes 9:4). In thus suggesting that man, by virtue of his capacity to think and believe, to make decisions and create novels, might well be closer to his Creator than, say, a rock or a tree, Berry would seem to be contradicting the notion, implicit elsewhere in his work, that it is through nature and nature alone that man partakes of the eternal.

Berry’s ideas about man and earth under- lie all his fiction, most notably the series of books set in and around the imaginary hamlet of Port William, Kentucky, and the nearby town of Hargrave. Yet the value of these books lies not in his communication of those ideas, but in his sensitive evocation of his characters’ lives, his alertness to the nuances of human feelings and relationships. The first book in the series, the very fine short novel Nathan Coulter, regards Port William and environs from the perspective of the eponymous boy protagonist, who over a period of months watches his family become reconfigured. First his mother dies; then his father gives him and his brother, Tom, over to the care of their grandparents and their good-natured, ne’er-do-well Uncle Burley, who live elsewhere on the family farm; finally Tom, who has begun to show an interest in girls and to distance himself from Nathan, comes into open conflict with their father and runs away from home. In its gentle, luminous particularity, the book is rather reminiscent of William Maxwell’s novels of Midwestern boyhood. Like Maxwell, Berry impresses one with his vivid, meticulous reconstruction of a child’s growing awareness of life’s mysteries. In his low-key, matter-of-fact way, Berry makes us ever conscious of the gradually expanding limits of Nathan’s comprehension, and conscious too of the things that lie just beyond those limits.

To move from Nathan Coulter to A Place on Earth is to feel as if the camera has been pulled back: though the Coulters reappear here, they are only one of several families whose lives Berry chronicles over a period of several months. The novel, much longer than its predecessor, is set some years later. Among its signal achievements is its perceptive, deeply affecting account of Mat Feltner’s continuously shifting state of mind during the weeks after his son Virgil is declared missing in action. To be sure, Berry eventually missteps: near the end of the book, Mat’s wife asks him what he’s thinking about; he replies “Loss,” and they discuss the subject with an implausible articulateness and philosophical detachment that makes one feel as if Berry is feeding Mat his lines. But for the most part, this is a beautiful book, the sort of novel that Maxwell might have written had someone asked him, say, for a companion piece to Winesburg, Ohio.

Indeed, one might well observe of these first two Port William novels, as Dick Allen has said of Berry’s poems, that they glow with “great and good simplicities” and “are endangered by sentimentality, but escape into wisdom.” Time and again—as when Burley, in A Place on Earth, remembers how after his mother’s death he burned postcards and letters and photographs that were “dear to her for reasons that would never be known again in the world”—Berry finds precisely the right words to capture the texture and meaning of a human experience. One cannot read these books without being reminded repeatedly of how rare and valuable is Berry’s careful attention to earthly particulars, large and small, and to the eternal things of which they speak.

Both Nathan Coulter and A Place on Earth are books of memory, drawing on Berry’s recollections of the Kentucky of his childhood. In his two later (and quite short) Port William novels, memory becomes an explicit theme—and Berry’s ideas about man and earth are set forth with increasing bluntness. The Memory of Old Jack (1974) records the last day on earth of Jack Beecham, during which he thinks back over the major events of his life, notably his marriage to a well-born woman who could never understand or accept his satisfaction with the life of a hard-working dirt farmer. Throughout his fiction, Berry has a tendency to let conflicts fade away or disappear—as, of course, they often do in life—rather than bring them to a head; if Old Jack has a major flaw, it is that Berry doesn’t do enough dramatically with the tension between Jack and his wife, who live together in mutual frustration, each remaining, to a tragic extent, a mystery to the other. Fortunately, the merits of this novel are considerable—most notably, that Berry makes a flesh-and-blood man, sympathetic in spite of his obstinacy, out of potentially stereotypical materials.

Less successful is Berry’s most recent novel, Remembering, in which Andy Catlett, a young farm journalist in San Francisco, becomes exasperated by the careerist, progress-happy agricultural establishment and returns home to Port William. Here, for the first time in a Port William novel, Berry seems more interested in communicating opinions than in portraying sympathetic characters in plausible situations; the opening episode, set at a conference on agricultural policy, paints the ideological conflict between Andy and his adversaries in broad, unsubtle strokes. Nor does Berry engender any suspense by, for example, dramatizing Andy’s increasing disillusion and his indecision as to whether he should return home; it’s clear early on that he’ll end up back in Port William. To be sure, Berry’s chief interest here is not in Andy’s internal conflict but in the memories that preoccupy him—memories, for the most part, of his family and neighbors—and Berry’s purpose is patently to impress upon us the contrast between the good, hard-working country people who do much of the nation’s farming and the slick, self-seeking urban “experts” in agricultural policy whose decisions can change those people’s lives.

If all this isn’t as effective as Berry might wish, it is because Port William and its denizens are rendered with a self-conscious, almost self-parodic simplicity and sentimentality that at times recall some of the later works of Hemingway. To be sure, there are some fine touches here, as when Berry (in a rare excursion into space-age America) uses the characteristically odd emphases of a flight attendant—“Flight 661 has now been accessorized, and is ready for passenger boarding through the jetway at gate eleven” —to symbolize the unnaturalness of airplane travel and of modern life in general. Yet Berry is so determined to drive home the decency and quiet diligence of Port Williamites that he seems loath to make them human, to show us their dark side; at times this book’s scenes from rural life come across like so many Grant Wood paintings. And inclined though one is to agree with Berry’s verdict on agricultural officials who think that “the answers [are] in the universities and the corporate and government offices, not in the land or the people,” his glib derision of them sounds like nothing so much as the campaign rhetoric of some savvy congressional candidate out to win the farm vote.

Fidelity, Berry’s newest book, is a collection of stories, the second in the Port William series. (The first, published in 1986, was The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership.) Alas, Fidelity reaffirms one’s sense that Berry has become less concerned with capturing his characters’ lives on the earth than with making tendentious statements about such lives. In the first story, “Pray without Ceasing,” Andy Catlett tells how his great-grandfather Ben Feltner was shot dead, many years ago, by Ben’s friend Thad Coulter. Though the townspeople wanted to lynch Thad, Ben’s son Mat appeared at a town meeting and prevailed upon them not to do so. “I wish you could have seen him,” Andy recalls his grandmother saying; rather affectedly, Andy tells us that “now, after so many years, perhaps I have. I have sought that moment out, or it has sought me, and I see him standing without prop in the deepening twilight, asking his father’s friends to renounce the vengeance that a few hours before he himself had been furious to exact.” In any event, the lynching proved unnecessary, for the next day Thad hanged himself in his cell—after which, we are to understand, everyone in Port William lived harmoniously ever after, including the Feltner and Coulter families, who remained good friends.

Part of Berry’s purpose here is to show how crime is properly handled in a community with a strong sense of “membership.” In such a place, he believes, the involvement of civil authorities in citizens’ lives represents an assault upon the community’s unwritten covenant. Yet of course Berry stacks the deck, arranging things so that everyone behaves properly after the murder. But what if everything didn’t work out quite so neatly? What if an anguished Mat approved of the lynching? What if some townsmen chose to disregard Mat’s wishes and lynched Coulter anyway? What if Thad didn’t kill himself? Had Berry chosen to take the story in any of these directions, it would have been harder to hide from the fact that, in the real world, one man’s actions can destroy the harmony of a community and ordinarily decent people can, under pressure, act like barbarians. Here and elsewhere, Berry demonstrates an unwarranted degree of faith in the innate goodness of country people; in his view, rural murder would almost appear to be an act of innocence, and evil something strictly associated with cities.

Berry gives another thumbs-up for Port William values in “Fidelity,” the book’s longest story. Burley Coulter, now an octogenarian, is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, and his illegitimate son Danny Branch (who, of all the folks in Port William, “most clearly saw [the modern world] as his enemy—as their enemy—and most forthrightly and cheerfully repudiated it”) sneaks him out of the hospital and carries him to a place in the woods where he can die in nature. When a detective named Kyle Bode shows up to investigate Burley’s disappearance, the Coulters’ lawyer friend Henry Catlett lectures Bode about how people “belong to each other and to God,” not to the state, and says “I’m not going to cooperate with you in this case because I don’t like what you represent.” (Which law school, one wonders, did he go to?) Bode doesn’t stand a chance against the Catlett rhetoric. For once again, Berry has loaded the dice: not only is Bode unusually hostile to nature (“Kyle Bode objected to hills and hollows. He objected to them especially if they were all overgrown with trees. They offended his sense of the way things ought to be”), he is also unusually dense, not at all a fair opponent for Berry’s town full of articulate children of the earth.

Berry is, in fact, so glib here about so many complex matters—he writes, for example, that by giving Burley “over to ‘the best of modern medical care’” his relatives have “abandoned him”—that readers may find themselves shaking their heads in irritation. Bode, moreover, proves to be little more than a clumsily contrived assemblage of clichés about contemporary liberal “lifestyles”; and Berry, who might once have regarded such a man as spiritually deprived and thus deserving of pity rather than ridicule, exhibits surprisingly little charity toward him: when the Catletts lecture the man condescendingly about love and mercy, Berry plainly approves. He doesn’t seem to realize that if you want readers to like certain characters, you can’t have them constantly talking about how loving and merciful they are and chiding other characters for failing to measure up.

Two briefer stories in Fidelity record less sensational incidents and celebrate rural solicitude. In “Are You All Right?”, a couple of Port William men who haven’t seen their neighbors for a while drop in to check on them; in “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” an ailing farm wife is pleased, on awakening, to find a friend watching her, for it means that her husband, who has gone to a neighbor’s farm to help plow, cared enough about her to tell someone. Though these stories have a certain homely appeal, they’re slight, unremarkable. More substantial is “Making It Home,” in which Art Rowanberry, a newly demobilized soldier, finds his way down the rural roads back to Port William. At its best, the story renders Art’s journey with a beauty and exactitude and suggestiveness that recall Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”; at its worst, it sounds like bad Steinbeck, or even Saroyan: “‘I ain’t marching,’ he thought. ‘I am going somewheres. I am going up the river towards Hargrave. And this side of Hargrave, before the bridge, at Ellville, I will turn up the Kentucky River, and go ten miles, and turn up Sand Ripple below Port William, and I will be at home.’” At the end, there’s even a facile biblical echo when Art’s father bids a child to “Tell your granny to set on another plate. For we have our own that was gone and has come again.”

To read Fidelity is to feel at times that Berry has become obsessed with the Port William citizenry in much the way that Salinger became obsessed with the Glass family, loving them so much that he lost all literary perspective on them. I have compared Berry to William Maxwell, but Maxwell’s novels have more air and light and humor, broader sympathies, a fuller sense of life. Berry never examines or questions his philosophy, never creates a story where there’s a tension between his much-exalted notion of “membership” and some other good. He fails to acknowledge that families don’t always know best, that people often reject their progeny for appalling reasons, that adult children often have good cause not to want to be seen as “belonging” to their parents. He acts as if every question has a simple answer, every conflict a clear right and wrong. And he can come off as the worst kind of Luddite, ignoring the fact that agriculture has always changed in accordance with technological and scientific advances. Nor does he face up sufficiently to the ugly side of the Kentucky rural tradition: the slave cabin, the sharecropper’s shack. (Incidentally, whatever one may think of smoking, it seems astonishing, given Berry’s fanatic environmental concerns, that he shows no sign of being troubled by the fact that one of Port William’s chief crops is tobacco. One can hardly avoid concluding that Berry doesn’t mind if a crop damages people, so long as it doesn’t hurt nature.)

The more one reads of Berry, too, the more claustrophobic and intolerant his view of the world seems. Much as there is to admire about a book of essays like What Are People For? (1990), Berry is more than a bit too confident that the purpose of his life is also necessarily the purpose of yours or mine, and that what enriches and inspires and animates him would do the same for you or me. Though he is eminently suited by temperament to a rural life, his fiction reflects a growing lack of sympathy for those who aren’t thus suited and whose lives differ from his own. His philosophy makes no allowance for certain ways of thinking and feeling and loving; he seems unwilling to accept that the human family is full of differences, that they make life more interesting, and that it is in cities, not rural areas, that these differences tend to be most tolerated.

Yet Fidelity has its redeeming aspects. As ever, Berry’s depiction of ordinary lives yields small shocks of recognition. In “Making It Home,” for instance, when Art lies down to rest on his way to Port William, Berry captures, in a few words, the familiar feeling of simultaneous exhaustion and mental hyperactivity: “Many thoughts fled by him, none stopping. And then he slept.” And in “Pray without Ceasing,” Berry conveys the odd vulnerability that a patient’s relatives feel vis-à-vis the hospital staff when he notes that Burley’s doctor “spoke fluently from within the bright orderly enclosure of his explanation, like a man in a glass booth. And Nathan and Hannah, Danny and Lyda stood looking in at him from the larger, looser, darker order of their merely human love.” There continues, moreover, to be a great deal about Berry’s vision of human society that commends itself to readers. In “Pray without Ceasing,” Andy says that he learned about his grandfather’s death “without asking questions, both fearing the pain that I knew surrounded the story and honoring the silence that surrounded the pain.” Honoring the silence: a refreshing notion in the age of Phil and Oprah. This is not the first time that Berry has written with sensitivity about how speaking too often of something precious dilutes it, sullies it, betrays it. But even an admirer cannot help asking: isn’t Berry guilty of this himself? For Fidelity confirms one’s unhappy impression that this very fine artist is devolving into a tiresome, predictable cheerleader for rural values.

NEW CRITERION, November 1992