Wendell Berry's Port William books

If you're interested in getting to know Berry's work, here's a compendium of the articles I've written in this blog over the last few years as I learned to appreciate his fiction.

So, a middle-aged man sits in a café with a friend who has also read stories by Wendell Berry.   At the mere mention of a character's name, waves of emotion come over him, and he starts to weep over his omelet.

Because Berry's stories cover over a century of history among a handful of families in a tiny Kentucky town, attentive readers develop strong feelings for characters. After all, we readers have known them since they were little, and when they grow old, we remember them in their primes.

The memories that got to me this morning were: Mat Feltner's boyhood experience with an injured man, Burley Coulter's 8th grade poetry recitation, Mat Feltner's response to his father's murder -- sorry, I just had to pause again while I cried, but I'm not sad, and that's what's hard to convey -- Hannah Coulter's picnic dinner with her husband Virgil Feltner in the clearing where he plans to build them a house, old Mat Feltner's walk around the perimeter of his property late in life, and the episode of the unknown driver who pulls up to old Hannah Coulter's farmhouse but stays in the car.

Here are the articles I've written after reading the books:
  • JAYBER CROW: Deep Rivers  Of all my reflections on Berry's work, this comes closest to being a comprehensive view of what I've learned and loved from all of them.   As town barber, Jayber himself is more an observer of town life than participant, whose religious bent inclines him to seek an all-encompassing appreciation of things.  
  • I wrote  JAYBER CROW: More fun in Port William,KY  mid-way through reading the novel.  Berry's novels have been beautiful, funny, thought - provoking, "but JAYBER CROW is the first book that struck me as fun." It is the memoir of the man who serves the town both as barber and as a kind of priest.
  • HANNAH COULTER: Love as a Place Hannah's life story. Incredibly, my essay about the book does not specifically describe the homecoming of a prodigal son, which I could not describe for a friend this morning without weeping openly. Sorry, the same effect is getting to me as I type this. Geez.
  • Not Who You Are, But What You Serve: Two Novels... NATHAN COULTER and MEMORY OF OLD JACK. Nathan's life story shows us a seamier side to Port William life. The other novel moves forward on two tracks, as we follow Old Jack -- not the brightest of men in Port William, but good  -- through one day in the old man's "present," while every sight conjures memories from boyhood forward.
  • Grief and Belief: Three Pages from Wendell Berry   A PLACE ON EARTH has no story, but explores a situation: The town waits in a kind of suspended animation for soldiers to return from World War II.  I reflect in this article mostly  on one passage about a pastor's visit to a mourning family.  The passage affected me strongly.
  • A WORLD LOST: Wendell Berry's Detective Novel Andy Catlett, who appears in many of these novels, investigates the truth behind the death of a favorite uncle during Andy's childhood.
  • Forty-eight Hours, a Life ANDY CATLETT: EARLY TRAVELS. This slim book purports to be old Andy's memory of his "travels" as a very young boy, which amount to a long weekend visiting two sets of grandparents at Port William, KY, during World War II. It's funny. It also covers what he learns and loves over a whole life.  The story also contains one of those scenes that I can't even type about now without tearing up.
  • THAT DISTANT LAND: Our Town, Now This is a collection of Berry's stories about Port William, my entree to that world. I never wanted to leave.

My tour to a cabin from 1845 hidden away in the middle of suburban sprawl north of Atlanta brought about some thoughts related to Berry, with photos of the cabin.  Our guide is no re-enactor, but someone who has lived in that cabin since 1971, when there was still a farm around it.  See Georgia Landmark Takes me Back.

No comments: