Front Porch Republic Books has just published a new book, Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William. This volume includes twelve essays that consider Berry’s work as a storyteller (you can see the table of contents below). Though he may be better known as an essayist or poet, Berry calls himself a storyteller, and the best introduction to his agrarian vision is his fiction. This is why when the Library of America issued its first volume of Berry’s writings earlier this year—Port William Novels and Stories: The Civil War to World War II—they chose to publish some of his stories.
In good Porcher fashion, these essays aren’t jargony or boring; they avoid what Hannah Coulter calls “the Unknown Tongue” of academic-ese. And the collection is endorsed by Scott Russell Sanders and Stanley Hauerwas, two of Berry’s most prominent admirers. But don’t take their word for it—get a copy for yourself (and tell your libraries to buy a copy or two as well). Wipf and Stock is running a 20% off sale on the collection, so it’s actually cheaper to avoid the online behemoth and buy it directly from the publisher. Our hope is that this gathering of essays will encourage readers to spend more time with Berry’s fiction. You can enjoy the first part of the introduction and the table of contents below.
Making Goodness Compelling
One of Wendell Berry’s most delightful fictional voices is that of Hannah Coulter, a woman who has endured great suffering and loss in her life, but whose memoir is marked by the deep sense of gratitude she feels for this only life she’s lived. “This is the story of my life,” she recounts, “that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.” Despite her lonely upbringing, despite the disappearance of her young husband into the mists of war, despite giving birth to their child in the emptiness of his loss, despite all of her children moving away from her and Nathan’s home—despite all her expectations that never came to fruition, Hannah finds a way to narrate the goodness of her life. Her story, then, is the story of a life and a place she has found deeply good: “This is my story, my giving of thanks.”
Yet while Hannah gives thanks for her life, she does not pretend it has all been easy. And this tension between gratitude for its goodness and honesty about its sorrows troubles Hannah. In fact, one of the greatest doubts she harbors is whether she and Nathan, her second husband and the father of two of her children, failed to narrate their story in such a way that compelled their children to recognize and care for the good possibilities of life in Port William. Hannah fears the stories she’s told her children have been marked by an edge of discontent. As she mourns over their departures for better opportunities in better places, she confides to Nathan, “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had,” to which Nathan replies, “Don’t complain about the chance you had.” Hannah is struck by the wisdom of Nathan’s terse words, and she is changed by them: “Was I sorry that I had known my parents and Grandmam and Ora Finley and the Catletts and the Feltners, and that I had married Virgil and come to live in Port William, and that I had lived on after Virgil’s death to marry Nathan and come to our place to raise our family and live among the Coulters and the rest of the membership?” The echoes of her question resound throughout her narrative, and she comes to a conclusion that “passed through everything [she] kn[e]w and changed it all”:
The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks. These are the instructions for telling our stories right, and stories told in this way compel us to tend the splintered light of goodness that shines through the cracks of our wounded world. But even as Hannah so beautifully comes to terms with the limits of her only life, she yet worries. She is unsettled by the thought that she and Nathan may have narrated their seemingly simple lives in a way that encouraged their children to leave: “But did we tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and the listening, usually the last thing before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life or a better place than we had?” Hannah is unwilling to answer her own question, though she must ask it of herself—she must live in her uncertainty. She ponders what would happen if someone, “instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, [said] that everything should have been different.” In the end, she knows that such a line of thinking is the “loose thread that unravels the whole garment.” And so Hannah resists a reductive story; she refuses to tug at the loose thread. Instead, despite the imperfect nature of her life’s garment, Hannah learns to weave her narrative in gratitude.
The essays that follow are our giving of thanks, our collective attempt at telling the right stories about life and its fictional representations; they are our efforts to trace some of the narrative threads that hold together Berry’s Port William stories. We have written in hope that our words can elucidate the workings of Berry’s fiction, which makes goodness compelling to so many of his readers. What does it mean to “tell the stories right?” This is a question that haunts not only Hannah and the authors in this collection, but Berry himself.
Yet while Berry identifies himself as “a storyteller,” his stories seem to receive less attention than his essays or even his poetry. In talking with those who read and appreciate Berry, we’ve gathered that people are more likely to have read his essays or poetry than his fiction. Many readers seem to agree with Edward Abbey’s assessment that the essay is Berry’s primary genre. As Abbey puts it in his blurb on the back of Berry’s Recollected Essays: “Wendell Berry is a good novelist, a fine poet, and the best essayist now working in America.” This ranking of his genres is corroborated by evidence from Google Scholar, which lists the number of times each of his books has been cited. Berry’s nonfiction books are cited much more often than either his poetry or fiction: his novels and short story collections are cited, on average, 1.03 times per year, his poetry collections are cited 1.15 times per year, and his essay collections are cited 12.22 times per year. It may seem sacrilegious to subject Berry’s oeuvre to big data analytics, and citation count may not correlate precisely with readership, but the large disparity indicated by these numbers confirms our initial hunch that Berry is known predominately as an essayist.
So why do Berry’s essays garner the bulk of his readers’ attention? Perhaps Berry’s essays are provocative in the etymological sense: they call forth responses. Their incisive cultural analyses and uncompromising positions—don’t buy a computer, farm with draft horses, accept your inevitable ignorance, don’t go to war, foster small farms, stop strip mining—seem to demand responses and engagement. Or perhaps his essays offer a more manageable entry into Berry’s complex body of thought than do his novels and short stories, particularly for environmentalists or agrarians who are most interested in ideas that are immediately practical. As Fritz Oehlschlaeger surmises in his essay for this collection, those committed to environmental causes may be drawn to activist polemics and have less patience for storytelling. Berry’s essays sound a strident, provocative note that activists are tuned to hear, while his fiction can seem nostalgic or passé.
Readers of his essays, then, may see Berry primarily as an uncompromising advocate for reform, as a crank who advocates against strip mining and tractors and who refuses to buy a computer. Viewed through this lens, Berry’s fiction can appear to be simply a didactic outworking of his agrarian ideas. Even his fiction teacher, Wallace Stegner, wrote to Berry that he thought Remembering was “somewhat didactic, a narrative on the theme of some of your essays.” One scholar states this claim more bluntly: “Berry’s stories tend to be glosses of his essays.” And he goes on to critique this moralizing mode: “No matter how much one sympathizes with Berry’s arguments against corporate agriculture, those arguments do not belong in his fiction. The purpose of the novel is to tell a good story, with believable characters engaged in a credible dramatic conflict. When the fiction writer subordinates art to polemics, narrative becomes argumentative discourse and the work lapses into didacticism.”
Berry’s stories—like his poems—do have a moral edge to them that unsettles our cultural preference for “pure” art, art that resides in some lofty aesthetic realm at a comfortable remove from the pragmatic concerns of our lives. Yet this division between art and life, between beauty and morality, is damaging and false. Part of telling the stories right, then, is telling them in a way that advocates for responsible membership in our places and communities. At the end of his essay “Imagination in Place,” in which he describes how his responsibility to his place fits with his work as a writer, Berry acknowledges the dangers of overt didacticism. Writing on behalf of the health of a place can lead an artist into “a sort of advocacy. Advocacy, as a lot of people will affirm, is dangerous to art, and you must beware the danger, but if you accept the health of the place as a standard, I think the advocacy is going to be present in your work.” Yet in his fiction, he advocates not so much for particular issues or stances as for the inherent beauty and goodness of his place and its community.
This advocacy, then, ultimately takes shape in his stories’ aesthetic sense of wholeness. When an interviewer asked Berry why he wrote fiction in addition to essays and poetry, he explained, “The reason for writing what we call fiction seems to be the desire to tell a whole story. And to stick strictly to the truth, what we call nonfictional truth—to tell the story that really happened—is invariably to have an incomplete story. Nobody ever knows all the facts. Time passes, gaps come into memories, and so on. The impulse is an artistic one, the impulse toward wholeness.” He clarifies the kind of wholeness to which his fiction aspires in an essay on the imagination, “No human work can become whole by including everything, but it can become whole in another way: by accepting its formal limits and then answering within those limits all the questions it raises.” The formal wholeness of Berry’s fiction is analogous to a larger harmony or pattern— the sense evoked by the Hebrew word shalom—into which our lives fit. In our industrial age, it can be nearly impossible to imagine how to lead healthy lives. We are so deeply formed by our culture’s consumerist vision of the good life that it is difficult to conceive of living differently. Berry’s stories, however, imagine an alternative order, one that attempts to fit together the fragmented pieces of our lives into a beautiful whole.
It is in this way that, while his stories include advocacy, their moral impulse does not compromise but rather flows from their narrative integrity. Hence Stegner writes elsewhere that Berry’s life and writing exemplify how “aesthetics and ethics do not have to be kept apart to prevent their quarreling, but [can] live together in harmony.” This quarrel is particularly damaging because on its own, didactic polemic is insufficient to change people’s minds or move them to action. All too often, we humans don’t do what we already know to be right. So what we really need is not more moral instruction about the dangers of industrial agriculture, unchecked capitalism, or techno-utopianism; rather, we need stories that will instruct our imaginations and affections so that we can envision and desire and embody the good. This is precisely what Berry’s fiction does; as Stanley Hauerwas writes, “Berry’s novels do what is next to impossible in our time, and that is make goodness compelling.”
As an example of the insufficiency of rational polemic, the philosopher James K. A. Smith recounts an occasion when he found himself reading Wendell Berry in the Costco food court, which is probably “a kind of shorthand for Berry’s picture of the sixth circle of hell.” This experience brought home to Smith the “gap between my thought and my action—between my passionate intellectual assent to [Berry’s] ideas and my status quo action.” Smith uses this example to point out that quite often what we need is not better thinking, but better habits and imaginations. As he claims later, human beings are “narrative animals” who are “less convinced by arguments than moved by stories; our being-in-the-world is more aesthetic than deductive, better captured by narrative than analysis.” So perhaps reading Berry’s fiction and learning to desire the goodness that it portrays shape us on a more fundamental level than does merely nodding in agreement with his essays. Perhaps Berry’s stories can lead us out of the Costco food court and through a Purgatorial refinement of our loves and desires.
Table of Contents
PART 1: NARRATIVE TRADITIONS
- Re-membering the Past Rightly: The Ubi Sunt Tradition in Wendell Berry’s Fiction, by Jack R. Baker
- Dreaming in Port William: Foreknowledge, Consolation, and Medieval Dream Vision Literature, by Ingrid Pierce
- Called to Affection: Exploring the Ecology of Christian Vocation in Port William, by Kiara Jorgenson
- Between the City and the Classroom: Stanford, Stegner, and the Class of ‘58, by Doug Sikkema
PART 2: BEAUTY’S INSTRUCTIONS
- Andy Catlett’s Missing Hand: Making Do as Wounded Members, by Jeffrey Bilbro
- The Gift of Good Death: Revising Nathan Coulter, by Ethan Mannon
- Living Faithfully in the Debt of Love in Wendell Berry’s Port William, by Fritz Oehlschlaeger
- Hiding in the Hedgerows: Wendell Berry’s Treatment of Marginal Characters, by Michael R. Stevens
PART 3: RESPONDING TO THE STORIES
- Kentucky River Journal, by Eric Miller
- “The End of All Our Exploring”: Homecoming and Creation in Remembering, by Gracy Olmstead
- “I’ve Got to Get to My People”: Returning Home with Jayber Crow, by Jake Meador
- On Resurrection and Other Agrarian Matters: How the Barber of Port William Changed My Life, by Andrew Peterson