No Better Place

Mark Engler February 22, 2005

Our sto­ry is the sto­ry of our place,” says Han­nah Coul­ter, the pro­tag­o­nist and name­sake of Wen­dell Berry’s newest nov­el. It is a sto­ry of how we mar­ried and came here, moved into this old house and made it liv­able again … how we raised our chil­dren here, and worked and hoped and paid the mort­gage, and made a pret­ty good farm of a place that had been hard used and then almost for­got­ten; how we con­tin­ued, mak­ing our life here day by day, after the chil­dren were gone; how we kept this place alive and plen­ti­ful, see­ing it always as a place beyond the war.”

The place in ques­tion is a small acreage in the fic­tion­al farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty of Port William, Ky. The we” is Han­nah and her sec­ond hus­band, Nathan, whom she mar­ries after her first spouse is lost in World War II. In a wider sense, how­ev­er, we” refers to the entire com­mu­ni­ty that sur­rounds them — a group that Berry and his char­ac­ters call the Port William mem­ber­ship” — which shares in the labors, sor­rows and joys of rur­al life. 

Wen­dell Berry has staked his entire career as a nov­el­ist on this mem­ber­ship. With Han­nah Coul­ter and with That Dis­tant Land, a recent­ly released vol­ume col­lect­ing 23 short sto­ries about Port William’s inhab­i­tants, he has wagered that under­stand­ing the ordi­nary details of their mod­est lives could be rel­e­vant — even urgent — in liv­ing our own.

Most who cher­ish the work of Wen­dell Berry think of him first as an essay­ist. With his non­fic­tion he has estab­lished him­self as the nation’s pre­em­i­nent defend­er of small farms, as a ques­tion­er of tech­nol­o­gy, and as an oppo­nent of war and envi­ron­men­tal exploita­tion. Admir­ers have dubbed him the con­science of Ken­tucky.” He is also well known as a poet, with excerpts from his many vol­umes of verse show­ing up in places as unusu­al as an episode of ER.”

But Berry, who turned 70 this past year, has also writ­ten sev­en nov­els. These, plus the now-col­lect­ed sto­ries, trace five gen­er­a­tions of the Port William mem­ber­ship. Togeth­er they make the town into one of the most inti­mate­ly ren­dered com­mu­ni­ties in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture since William Faulkner’s Yok­na­p­ataw­pha Coun­ty, Miss. 

In sim­ple, direct prose, Han­nah Coul­ter pro­gress­es through its protagonist’s impov­er­ished upbring­ing, her mar­riages, her strug­gles in rais­ing chil­dren, and her lat­er tri­als tend­ing an emp­ty nest and mourn­ing those who have passed. That Dis­tant Land, mean­while, chron­i­cles hap­pen­ings in the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty. In both cas­es Berry presents sto­ries free of arti­fice. (“Per­sons attempt­ing to find a text’ in this book,” Berry warns in a pro­logue to an ear­li­er Port William nov­el, will be pros­e­cut­ed.”) Whether he is describ­ing a turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry hog killing, a Depres­sion-era har­vest crew bring­ing in the tobac­co crop, or a 90s con­ver­sa­tion between the wid­owed Han­nah and a land-hun­gry strip-mall devel­op­er, the strength of Berry’s fic­tion comes from his straight­for­ward loy­al­ty to his char­ac­ters — to their speech, their con­vic­tions and their lifestyles. 

I am think­ing of liv­ing right on, right here,” a deter­mined Han­nah tells the glad-hand­ing devel­op­er. His anx­i­ety … almost- pan­ic” esca­lates when she cagi­ly adds that she has giv­en some thought to donat­ing [her farm] as a wildlife preserve.”

Well!” is all he can muster in reply.

Port William lifestyles admit­ted­ly appear anti­quat­ed. Elder­ly res­i­dents’ past love affairs, in par­tic­u­lar, seem exceed­ing­ly inno­cent, mov­ing from furtive looks to mar­riage pro­pos­als with very few stops in between. Yet Berry loads the char­ac­ters’ glances with long­ing, so that even a roman­ti­cal­ly jad­ed read­er is ready to cheer on the bash­ful farm­ers when they final­ly con­fess their intentions. 

Berry’s sto­ries lack the dark under­cur­rent that runs through much of the lit­er­a­ture of rur­al soci­ety, includ­ing Faulkner’s. War touch­es Port William; it cuts short Hannah’s first mar­riage and scars her sec­ond hus­band Nathan, a vet­er­an whose sleep is haunt­ed by the blast­ed and burnt, blood­ied and mud­died and stink­ing bat­tle­grounds of Oki­nawa.” But in gen­er­al, Port William has a deficit of mean­ness and vice. Most trou­ble comes from tem­po­rary laps­es into insan­i­ty, some­times alco­hol-induced: A group of towns­peo­ple takes a bit too much pride in Ken­tucky moon­shine and ends up putting on a rau­cous dis­play in the governor’s inau­gur­al parade; a some­what senile Port William elder takes a younger man on a har­row­ing — but ulti­mate­ly harm­less — ride down the wrong side of the inter­state. Rather than last­ing dam­age, these episodes tend to pro­duce sto­ries for the grand­chil­dren to warm­ly remember.

Berry seems to share the atti­tude of his coun­try lawyer, Wheel­er Catlett. Though Wheel­er has seen those who come to him reveal their greed, arro­gance … cow­ardice, and some­times invi­o­lable stu­pid­i­ty,” he has nev­er­the­less believed in their gen­eros­i­ty, good­ness, courage and intelligence.”

The author saves his con­dem­na­tion for those who look down upon coun­try peo­ple from the perch of urban moder­ni­ty. Berry’s mem­ber­ship” doubt that city-dwellers, for all their advanced gad­getry, have dis­cov­ered any­thing tru­ly worth know­ing. One of Hannah’s sons leaves the farm to pur­sue a degree in infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy, a top­ic far beyond his par­ents’ frame of reference.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion of what?” Nathan asks.

God knows what,” Han­nah replies.

The polit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty that emerges in the Port William tales is appeal­ing both for envi­ron­men­tal­ists and pro­gres­sives try­ing to reassert their own brand of moral fiber. It is deeply root­ed in place and pro­found­ly antag­o­nis­tic to mar­ket val­ues. Every­thing about a place that’s dif­fer­ent from its price is a gift,” says Wheel­er Catlett, reflect­ing on the sale of a farm. Every­thing about a man or woman that’s dif­fer­ent from their price is a gift.”

Yet for all its virtue, Port William is dying. By the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, the Felt­ners, the Rowan­ber­rys, the Penns and the Coul­ters are all but gone, and the fam­i­ly farms that were cen­tral to their lives are van­ish­ing. Han­nah, whose chil­dren have moved to the city, explains: The old neigh­bor­li­ness has about gone from it now. … Peo­ple are liv­ing as if they think they are in a movie. They are all look­ing in one direc­tion, toward a bet­ter place.’ ”

We don’t have to yearn to live in Berry’s old-time com­mu­ni­ty to take this as a chal­lenge. Indict­ing the ide­al of a bet­ter place,” his char­ac­ters prod us to ques­tion whether, in our per­pet­u­al search for some­thing more, we will ulti­mate­ly be sat­is­fied with any place, no mat­ter how sophisticated.

And it is in grap­pling with this ques­tion that read­ers can appre­ci­ate Berry’s deci­sion to root his 50 years of fic­tion in a sin­gle locale, one that looks most ordi­nary and mod­est. With these two vol­umes he tells us that the tasks of mak­ing a house and car­ing for the land, of find­ing love and rais­ing chil­dren, of sow­ing peace and hon­or­ing the dead are not just the mun­dane details of life. They are life. To require a more glam­orous set­ting for fic­tion is to aban­don the respon­si­bil­i­ties of seri­ous lit­er­a­ture. For the nov­el­ist, too, there can be no bet­ter place.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached here.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH