Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620
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 in the care of his Uncle Burley, who has refused the burden of landownership. Burley is virtually the only kind and humane figure in this bleak novel.
In his portrait of Jarrat Coulter, Berry reveals the limitations of this harsh work ethic. Jarrat has attempted to dominate both his land and his family, to the detriment of both, without any compassionate attachment to either. In his “severe and isolated manhood,” he has closed himself off from healing relationships with his sons or his land. When the break comes with his children, it is complete. Jarrat’s brother Burley, on the other hand, lacks the ambition to farm, preferring instead to hunt and fish when he is not working for others. Burley has a gentler nature, however; each brother has something that the other lacks, and each is, by himself, incomplete.
There is much cruelty in this novel—much agrarian violence—toward men, animals, and the land. The two boys blow up a friend’s pet crow with a dynamite cap and fuse, Uncle Burley shoots the heads off live ducks at a carnival, fish are blown out of the river with a stick of dynamite, and Burley’s hunting dogs tear apart a live raccoon. This cruelty seems to emerge from a masculine agrarian culture that is bent on dominating the land rather than living within its limits. Women are scarcely mentioned in the novel except as background figures, and there are few community customs or celebrations to soften this harsh frontier ethic.
Berry writes about the succession of generations on the land, but the Coulters are too competitive to work the same land, so Jarrat buys the farm adjoining his father’s land. In the original 1960 version of the novel, Berry traced Nathan’s maturation until he starts to farm himself. In the condensed version of the novel, published in 1985, he cut the work considerably, ending it with the death of Nathan’s grandfather after the fall tobacco harvest. Unable to live with his father, Nathan’s older brother, Tom, has already left to farm elsewhere, and the novel ends with the hope that Nathan and his father will eventually be reconciled.
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