Wendell Berry Essay - Critical Essays

Wendell Berry American Literature Analysis

Stegner has written of Berry’s work, “It is hard to say whether I like this writer better as a poet, an essayist, or a novelist. He is all three, at a high level.” What connects all of Berry’s work is a tough-minded regional vision whose constituents are not the traditional southern pieties but the integrity of language, farming, marriage, labor, and place. His regionalism is more akin to that of William Carlos Williams than that of William Faulkner. It has less to do with mythologizing a region than with the complex cultural memory of a particular place that comes from many generations of continuous settlement in that place. He is not interested in evoking a mythic past or recounting the decline and fall of a planter aristocracy but rather in describing an ethic and a way of life based upon devotion to land and place.

Berry’s decision to return to his native region was based on his desire to avoid the rootless, urban nomadism of modern American life. In A Continuous Harmony, he criticizes the restless mobility of modern motorized culture. Deserts may produce nomadic cultures, but for the rich, fertile, well-watered land of Kentucky to do so is preposterous. Berry’s regionalism might almost be described as ecological:The regionalism that I adhere to could almost be described simply as local life aware of itself. It would tend to substitute for the myths and stereotypes of a region a particular knowledge of the life of the place one lives in and intends to continue to live in. It pertains to living as much as writing, and it pertains to living before it pertains to writing. The motive of such regionalism is the awareness that local life is intricately dependent, for its quality but also for its continuance, upon local knowledge.

All of Berry’s writing has derived from this vision of stubborn loyalty to a particular place. It has its roots in Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the intelligent yeoman farmer and in the Southern Agrarian ideals articulated by Allen Tate and others in I’ll Take My Stand (1926). To these political and literary antecedents, Berry brings a keen ecological awareness along with a profound respect for the culture of farming—in the root sense of “agriculture.” His interest is in developing long-term sustainable methods of agriculture that will not exhaust the land or harm the environment and will allow a rural village culture to reestablish itself in the United States. He is opposed, therefore, to the powerful economic and social forces that have combined to disrupt rural American life since the end of World War II.

In his novels, Berry celebrates three families of his fictional Port William community—the Coulters, the Feltners, and the Beechums—who farm the rolling hillsides and rich bottomlands of the Kentucky River Valley region, west of the Appalachians. In a carefully controlled, meticulously detailed style, he recounts the small triumphs and disappointments of their lives. They are all small tobacco farmers with mixed livestock and grain crops who struggle from year to year, sustained by the pride and discipline of their work. Berry evokes the strengths and continuities of the community that sustained this way of life until recently. Economic issues often pit the greed and indifference of outsiders against local farmers who struggle to produce a livelihood and preserve their farms.

In his first novel, Nathan Coulter, Berry recounts the growth of a young Kentucky farm boy whose loveless home is dominated, after his mother’s death, by a harsh father driven to overworking his farm and himself. In this brutal, male environment, young Nathan Coulter finds nurturance in his carefree Uncle Burley, who is not driven by the obsession to own and dominate the land.

In Berry’s next novel, A Place on Earth, Mat Feltner tries to come to terms with the loss of his only son, Virgil, during World War II. In the seasonal idylls of work and family, Mat struggles to continue working his land in memory of his son. The Memory of Old Jack, Berry’s third and perhaps most accomplished novel, traces the life of Jack Beechum, a retired farmer of ninety-two, who relives his life as farm boy, husband, father, lover, farmer, and community figure on a radiant day in September, 1952. A short-story collection, The Wild Birds, recounts six more stories of the families of the Port William fellowship, and a novella, Remembering, tells the story of a crisis of faith experienced by farmer Andy Catlett after he loses his right hand in a corn picker. In all these works, Berry’s fictional style is spare and deliberately understated, in the formalist tradition, with carefully chosen narrative and symbolic incidents.

Berry’s poetry celebrates the lyrical dimensions of his agrarian vision of the farmer as husband to farm and land as well as to wife and family. Stewardship is the major unifying theme—between the farmer and his family, community, land, and region. As a pastoral poet, Berry writes about the land, the seasons, the cycle of the agricultural year. His root metaphor is husbandry—caring, rearing, nurturing, growing, and harvesting what the land yields. In the vision of his poems, the mythos of male generativeness finds its response in female receptivity. The voice in his poems is, in turn, pensive, meditative, celebratory, and affirming. One of his chief personae, “the Mad Farmer,” sometimes voices radical or whimsical agrarian social or political positions that reflect the more polemical arguments in Berry’s essays, but there is a quiet, elegiac mood in his poetry as well, one that celebrates the richness of the moment in the poetic perception and gives thanks for his marriage, his land, and his community.

Berry’s essays are his most assertive genre; in them he voices most directly his concerns about the ravages of strip mining, corporate farming, agribusiness, racism, and consumerism, balancing these against the virtues of small, self-contained farms and rural communities. His The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture has become a basic text of the environmental movement.

For Berry, environmental responsibility begins with personal frugality, careful land use, and intact farming communities. The environmental crisis, he argues, is at heart a human problem, rather than an economic or technological one. It is a problem of optimal scale, of knowing how to farm in a sustainable manner, rather than exploiting and ruining the land. The healthiest farms and rural economies are the most diverse; they are not the huge, one-crop monocultures encouraged by corporate farming. Such diversity depends upon the kind of family farms that survived in the United States until the end of World War II.

In his essay collections, Berry traces the social and economic decline of the family farm and its environmental consequences. Water pollution, pesticide contamination, and topsoil runoff are but a few of the adverse consequences of poor farming practices. With the demise of small, carefully run farms and the subsequent loss of farm labor, corporate farmers were forced to adopt wasteful practices. Berry’s Kentucky countryside was once a good farming region, with many small farms lovingly tended. Now there are abandoned farms and rural poverty. In What Are People For?, Berry concludes that “we have nearly destroyed American farming, and in the process have nearly destroyed ourselves.”

Nathan Coulter

First published: 1960 (revised, 1985)

Type of work: Novel

Nathan Coulter, a young Kentucky farm boy, faces a harsh, demanding father and the loss of his mother and as he grows to maturity.

Berry’s first novel, Nathan Coulter, is a spare, lean Bildungsroman that traces the development of the young protagonist, Nathan, as he grows from childhood to adulthood in a Kentucky farming family. Narrated by Nathan in the first-person voice, the novel recounts the working lives of the Coulters, who raise tobacco on a hill farm outside Port William. The action is set in the early part of the twentieth century, when the farm work was done by hand and with mules. Each person’s value was known by his labor. Nathan and his older brother, Tom, are slowly initiated into this work of farming. The novel re-creates the mythos of a pre-World War II farming community.

Nathan Coulter is the story of a male-dominated family, of a father who drives himself and his sons too hard in a continual struggle to force his farm to yield. Jarrat Coulter is competitive and driven, as was his father, and he tries to instill in his sons the same stern discipline of work. Unfortunately for him (and for them), there is no joy in his labor or his land, nor any real nurturing for his sons or his farm.

Jarrat unconsciously blames his sons for their mother’s death. He leaves them in the care of their grandparents and withdraws into sullen resentment. This resentment of his children culminates in a terrible fight with his older son, Tom, during the tobacco harvest, after he has driven his help beyond endurance. Beaten and humiliated, Tom leaves home, and Nathan is left...

(The entire section is 3794 words.)