Sunday, September 06, 2009

Wendell Berry's HANNAH COULTER: Love as a Place

(reflections on HANNAH COULTER, a novel by Wendell Berry (Shoemaker Hoard, 2004).)

Having enjoyed Wendell Berry’s collection of stories THAT DISTANT LAND, I grabbed the first novel of his that I could find. The story of Hannah Coulter intertwines with those of families and places familiar to me from the stories: Burley Coulter and his brother Jarrat, the Feltners – for whom I feel the greatest affection – and good old Wheeler Catlett, whom I remember as a young man. That’s how it feels when all the fiction of the author is cross-referenced.

Good thing, too, because I doubt that the novel could have much meaning or interest for someone not already immersed in Berry’s fictional world of Port William, Kentucky. The aged widow Hannah Coulter looks back on her life, and remembers with gratitude or at least with forgiveness the adults who raised her, the two men she married and lost, the friends, the children and the grandchildren. There are incidents and incidental pleasures in the book.

One scene is memorable as a staged event, and meaningful as a metaphor that extends throughout the book. Hannah’s first husband Virgil Feltner, home on leave before being shipped out to the battle that will kill him in 1944, takes Hannah to a spot where they imagine the home that he’ll come back to make for them. He sets stones at the corners, lights a fire, and cooks dinner. “We lived the dearest moments of our marriage in that dream house, in the real firelight, under the real stars” (48).

Throughout the novel, Berry develops the metaphor of love as a place. Walls, gardens, fields, fences are part of it. One grows within such a place. One is comforted there: the Feltners are her “refuge” when their son leaves her a widow; her second marriage to Nathan Coulter is a long process of turning a ruined farm into a beautiful place. There’s pain when children and grandchildren leave, and satisfaction when one returns.

Berry overlays another idea on the metaphor, that of “the membership.” Bad boy Burley Coulter, a grinning joker when we first see him in THAT DISTANT LAND, now is a kind of grinning, singing prophet, even delivering a mock sermon on “the membership” (133). It’s community with memory and responsibility, to be contrasted sharply with “organization” or employment.

The home that Hannah and Nathan make for themselves and their family is one focus; others surround that place in concentric circles; and many leave. Death doesn’t take one away, but the false promise of “a better place” through education, “development” and travel strips Port William of its characters and its special character. By the end of the novel, there’s little left of Kentucky that the interstate highway hasn’t turned into “the same ugly splatter of motels, filling stations, fastfood places, liquor stores, and shopping centers that you will find everywhere else” (175), sights I passed in a car myself just yesterday, with this book sitting on the back seat of my rental car.

Berry makes the experience of World War II a part of his metaphor. Hannah loses one husband in that war; she discovers only after Nathan dies just what he must have kept inside all those years after he fought at Okinawa. Berry’s gruesome account of an ordinary soldier’s experience has its effect, but it makes its strongest statement when he describes Okinawa, pre – war, as an island of small farming communities where people were “peaceable and courteous, hospitable and kind” in “a land of song and dance”: Port William in the Pacific. They hadn’t caused or invited war, the battle was an accident, and the armies of “ignorant boys killing each other” passed “like a wind-driven fire over the quiet land and kind people. I knew then what Nathan knew all his life: It can happen anywhere” (172).

As I read, I thought a little of Faulkner, who also dwelt in an imaginary place over decades’ time, and achieved a similar depth. It’s been three decades since I read any Faulkner, during which I lived in his home state. I suspect that his attitude towards his people is less generous and admiring than Berry; Faulkner might say that Berry has idealized his people.

I also thought of D. H. Lawrence, in those passages of his books in which he was most annoying. He created real – seeming characters, working class, involved in the real world, and kept imposing on these stories long passages of high – sounding abstract statements about life, love, passion, a man and a woman, the future, and fate, and who knows what – all else. Berry has a tendency to do that, too.

I am very pleased to have read a portrait of Berry by poet Donald Hall that compares him to D. H. Lawrence, because I sensed a connection between Berry and Hall. Seeing that Berry acknowledges “Don Hall” for reading a draft, I’ve discovered on – line that the two have known each other since 1963, and have been close friends and readers of each others’ works – in – progress since 1975. The poem by Donald Hall that I love above all his others is a very Berry-like anecdote in verse, telling how a farmer’s cows got loose one fall night, how folks in the New Hampshire neighborhood gather to round them up in the dark, and how Hall’s memories of them stretch back decades. In it, Hall notes that a farmer and his grown teenage son, walking home together, un- self-consciously hold hands. The poem encapsulates themes of Berry’s, the “membership” and its rarity now, and an all-encompassing love in a place. (Link to my reflection "Night of the Cows"). 

Follow a link to the article by Donald Hall, “The Best Noise in the World” (referring to Wendell Berry’s laughter) in WENDELL BERRY: THE LIFE AND WORK, by Jason Peters, here.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Thanks for your perceptive words on this lovely book, you are so right on! I disagree however that Hannah wouldn't have much meaning or interest for anyone not familiar with Port William. Unaware that he even wrote fiction, I went to see him years ago expecting politics. Instead he read from the recently published Hannah Coulter. I was mezmerized, bought the book that night and devoured it. I've since read the rest of the cannon, and loved them all, but Hannah is still my first and favorite.