Sunday, August 09, 2009

That Distant Land by Wendell Berry: Our Town, Now

(Reflections on THAT DISTANT LAND: The Collected Stories of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint Press, 2004.) Photo Shared via AddThis

Having read this collection of stories, I now possess the collective memory of (fictional) Port William, Kentucky. I could walk you from the house above the main street, where, in 1888, very young Mat Feltner watched his mother care for a man beaten up in a drunken brawl in town. We could make our way down past the other twelve buildings or so to the spot where the grown up Mat learned that his father had just been shot dead (1912), and on to the Coulter place, home of his father’s killer, where Mat as an old man will take a tour of the boundaries of the farm and relive his life – before collapsing into his final illness (1965).

There’s humor and joy to remember, too. Go east on that same road and you’ll see the old school house where 8th grader Burley Coulter improvises some poetry at the open house, and where much – beloved Ptolemy Proudfoot, “large, physically exuberant” bids very high on the cake baked by the tiny school mistress, a woman so high above him in his own estimation that he couldn’t communicate his admiration for her any other way. There’s the school mistress’s first swallow of whiskey. And her second, third, fourth, and at least a fifth, too. There’s the trip that Tol and his wife took in their car with young Elton Penn the driver, having only a vague idea of where they were going.

I can’t think of any event in the stories that happens inside the church, but there are many that parallel the stories and parables of the Bible. The story “Watch With Me” alludes to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but it’s the tale of the lost sheep – a daft neighbor with a gun – and how all the men in the vicinity leave their work to track him at a respectful distance for over twenty – four hours to prevent him from doing harm to himself or to others. A more subtle version of the same story is “Thicker than Liquor,” in which newlywed lawyer Wheeler Catlett foregoes an evening at home to rescue yet again his useless Uncle Peach from the throes of another binge drinking episode in town in 1930. There are several versions of the Good Samaritan. There’s the prodigal son, returning from World War II on foot (“Making It Home”).

I can tell you something of the rhythm of work in this agricultural community. There’s the daily cycle of milking and feeding and pasturing and bringing in, and the yearly cycle of building up stores of grain and dried meat for the winter months to feed all the lives that depend on the farm family. There’s the intense working of rows of tobacco when the plants ripen. There’s hauling to market. The unpredictable but never – ending round of repairs on fences, rooves, pens. There’s the hunting that interrupts the farming, ‘cause, when your dog has treed something, you don't want to disappoint him.

What comes through most strongly in these stories is built into the organization of the book: connectedness. It’s a small town, and it’s a tight community. People take responsibility for others. They remember each others’ pasts. They check up on each other in time of flood, in time of illness.

Until the last phase of the book brings us to the 1970s and 80s, “the city” is a place to visit, associated in these stories with hurried, thoughtless people, contemptuous and contemptible. It’s a place of vomiting, confusion, and double-dealing. Only in that last phase of the book, Port William seems to have passed away, and the outside city world has intruded. In those last stories, the few who remember the town as we now remember it, band together in a futile effort to keep the City’s and the Government’s hands off. There’s a remarkable story in which the family and friends of Burley Coulter band together to fend off the agents of the State so that he can die in familiar surroundings. A couple of these pieces start as stories but disappoint when the elements of story turn out to be pretense, window-dressing for tedious diatribes against American consumer culture and government intrusion in private life.

Was the typical small town in west Kentucky peopled by such strong, loving, gentle, hard – working, hard – fighting, amazingly forgiving, people? Wasn’t TOBACCO ROAD about just this sort of place? That was written by a disdainful man. Wendell Berry looks lovingly, admiringly, at a kind of life long gone. It’s not just nostalgia: these qualities of work, integrity, respect for others’ privacy, and communal responsibility aren’t dependent on a place and time.

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