The Bard of Kentucky

The long shelf of fiction by Wendell Berry—overshadowed by the colossal green canopy of his poetry and agrarian essays—has been brought into the light by the Library of America. Wendell Berry: Port William Novels and Stories, the first of two volumes that will enshrine the whole of Berry’s fiction, was released early this year and collects four early novels and 23 short stories.

It includes a detailed chronology of Berry’s life and career, including notes on his to-thine-own-self-be-true decision to leave New York in 1965, the year he won a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, to farm back in his home state of Kentucky. Editor Jack Shoemaker has also provided a map of Berry’s fictional yet very real town of Port William, a 120-year family tree of the four families that live out his stories, and eight pages of notes.

One of the book’s subtitles is The Civil War to World War II, and accordingly, the narrative begins with a story set in 1864, “The Girl in the Window” (2010), and ends with one set in 1945, “Not a Tear,” which originally appeared in 2012 in The Threepenny Review.

Presented by Shoemaker in the chronological order in which they take place, the stories were published in various journals, chapbooks, and anthologies since 1986, when “Thicker Than Liquor” appeared in The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership. However, they were written as they revealed themselves to Berry, who has said, “the order of writing was simply the order in which the parts became imaginable to me.”

In all, 950 pages thin to the touch yet abundant, like the fields which sustain many of Berry’s characters except when the land, subservient to the weather, fails. Somehow those as tough as the weather accept their losses—hoe in hand, mule by the reins—and carry on. Patient attention to the small and accumulated details of how his four dominant families (the Catletts, Beechums, Coulters, and Feltners) do so is the bedrock of Berry’s work.

That patience is evident when he tells of Dick Watson, a dirt-poor African American farmhand employed by the Catletts all his life. Over time, writes Berry, Watson “achieved an authentic gentleness,” as though his soul had benefited from an investment portfolio reaching maturity. Years later, the man’s “metal [grave] marker rusted away or was lost,” and not long after that, anyone who had known him was also gone. And then, no one alive could say just where ole Dick Watson had been laid to rest.

The prose is precise—economical without being dry—and the result is so seamless and moving it almost makes it offensive to call it writing. Berry is an old school storyteller telling stories that ring very true today. Without irony, I suggest that he is the Norman Rockwell (and most assuredly not the Norman Mailer) of American literature.

“His father cooked like he was putting out a fire,” says the narrator at the beginning of the novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2007). An entire personality in 10 words. Or this, which even a talented writer might not conjure after decades of wrestling the blank page: “And in all the years since, that look, which I did not see, has stayed in my memory.”

These are stories as detailed as the intersecting grooves on a butter crisp yet they never lose their way; dramatically subtle stories of not-so-subtle changes in rural America, its people, and their livelihoods; adventures set in and around Port William (a hologram of the actual Port Royal, on the Kentucky River, where Berry was born during the Depression).

Port William is Berry’s Yoknapatawpha, to which Berry and his work are often compared but, as editor Shoemaker says, “Everyone tires of being compared to Faulkner and no one does.” Really the comparison is somewhat haphazard since, for all of William Faulkner’s knowledge of northern Mississippi, he was content to savor it on horseback and rarely put his hands in the dirt as Berry has all his life.

Port William is described in the aforementioned novel—in which Berry’s alter ego Andy Catlett is nine years old—as standing “less than a mile from the river on an upland deeply grooved by branching valleys and hollows.”

Another novel in the anthology is A World Lost (2010), a title that could have stood for the entire collection. Note the sequence of words. Not a “lost world” but a world lost, one for which we were responsible and let slip away like so much slurry.

This is unhurried prose documenting a world changing so fast that the art of fiction cannot keep up with it.

Outside of the pages of his novels and stories—where Berry looms as a social critic colossus with enormous “farm cred”—lies postwar U.S. prosperity, ascendant just beyond “Not a Tear” and in full view in the fiction set to come in the second Library of America edition of Berry, whose release date has not yet been announced. Riding that prosperity like a combine roaring through amber fields of grain, the “agricultural/industrial” complex has conspired to vanquish those who have tended the land as surely as Berry’s ancestors and their peers vanquished the natives who lived on it before them.

Berry has called it “the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world,” and for this he is a hero to those laboring to turn back the clock in the farmhouse kitchen. How remarkable that one of America’s best literary artists would also be the acknowledged father of the “farm-to-table” movement.

Did you know that Wal-Mart has gone into milk-bottling, putting scores of dairy farmers out of business? Berry has lamented as much in interviews, though I’m not sure if his current fiction has come astride of the Warehouse that Ate America.

I asked Christine Grillo, a writer in my hometown Baltimore who cares deeply about the environment while finding many environmentalists “dreary,” about Wendell Berry. “When I met him after the nightmare of the 2016 election, he told me that he’s always been an underdog and would be until he died,” she said. The man known to answer letters from high school students in his own hand told Grillo that “fighting the good fight always comes with a lot of loss and that’s okay because the world is beautiful.”

Could Satchmo have sung it better?

So, riddle me this, gentle reader. Is the man born Wendell Erdman Berry on August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky—the author of more than 50 books who has farmed his own God’s Little Acre for the past half-century—is this man a farmer who writes? Or a writer who farms?

Casting about for answers (I had not read Berry before this assignment), I asked a chef and restauranteur in Baltimore about him. Spike Gjerde had years ago been given a Berry book by a friend. As soon as he started reading it, he saw that it expressed everything he wanted his restaurant to be. Gjerde was especially taken with a Berry tale called “Misery,” first published in 2008 in the journal Shenandoah. Its brilliance lay in showing “how the fiction is inseparable from the essays,” he said. “It wasn’t data or some quantification. The story gave the complete picture.”

The primary “action” of that grim portrait comes through the long, difficult, but enduring marriage between the grandparents of Andy Catlett (still aged nine): Dorie and Marce Catlett. Their house, writes Berry, “was not a happy one, though I was often happy in it.”

As the old man grows older, he suffers some sort of night terrors accompanied by physical pain, which his wife— “their strength had become labor and sorrow”—soothes by getting up in the darkness to sit by his bed, possibly administering a belt or two of whiskey.

But what caught Gjerde’s notice was this: During the Catlett couple’s final threshing season, Dorie, “old and ill and without help,” was no longer able to provide a bountiful country supper for all of the hungry men and boys who came to do the traditional work. Instead, Andy’s father—he of the cooking style akin to a firefighter—saves the day by buying a mess of ground beef and serving hamburgers.

“It was adequate,” writes Berry. “It was even admirable, in its way, I could see that. But I could also see that something old and good was turning, or had turned, profoundly wrong.”


Beautiful spring nature scene with pink blooming tree

Beauty and Politics

Beauty and politics don’t come naturally connected in our political discourse—perhaps they should be a deeper concern in our common life?