Berry, Wendell (Vol. 8)
Berry, Wendell 1934–
Berry is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Although primarily known as a poet, his reputation as a novelist has been growing steadily. Berry writes in a clear, conventional prose style about the people and the region of his native Kentucky. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6.)
One of the major uses of the novel is to define modes of life; we value Turgenev for his understanding rather than for his narrative skill. He is, as the Europeans use the word, "a poet," and Mr. Berry elicits the same appreciation. A Place on Earth is one of the most beautiful records ever made of a particular shape of American life. Its form is musical, and though it contains many brilliant passages of narrative—two of them involving that vulgarest of monsters to be bred from the American mind, the automobile—it is not essentially a narrative but a long elegy. Mr. Berry's prose is an essayist's; he touches his subject with an inquisitive hand. He has no talent for objectivity or satire or any degree of coldness. He is thoroughly Kentuckian in beguiling us into a kinship with his characters. And he has written a novel the goodness of which is deep down in its wisdom, for it neither asks nor answers questions, nor fidgets with ideas; it projects whole and articulately a picture of a world.
If the novelist understands his world as well as Wendell Berry, he cannot trim it to satisfy existing literary forms. The pace of his novel is that of Kentucky itself, and the plot is nicely natural and wild, as devious and unstopping as a Kentucky river. At a time when novels vie with one another for notoriety, so warm and humane a book distinguishes itself with its intelligent and wholesome difference, and is all the more welcome for that. (p. 1282)
Guy Davenport, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1967; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 14, 1967.
[Findings] is comprised of two sequences, The House and The Handing Down, and a coda of three brief elegiac poems. The book reads slowly and gains cumulative force through its unvarnished, honest dealing with the basic grounds of human life. Berry may find himself suddenly popular among the emerging crowd of ecology enthusiasts, for ecology is preeminently his theme. It is not just that he writes in a rural setting out of a reverence for nature and a fear of its being despoiled; his poems are an attempt at placing man in his environment, at rediscovering the roots of community, family and locale that preserve men from alienation. The Handing Down is most successful in developing these concerns: it has for its hero an old man who is "in the habit of the world", who yet, remembering steamboats, can say, "'I've lived in two countries / in my life / and never moved.'" Berry's voice is not modulated enough, perhaps, to carry off sequences as long as these with entire success—sometimes a passage which you might, in a more patient mood, accept as unaffected simplicity, can seem flatfootedly commonplace. I think the poems could have been pruned a bit to their advantage, but they still show Berry to be a valuable poet. Without raising his voice he commands respect. (pp. 112-13)
Robert B. Shaw, in Poetry (© 1970 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1970.
Farming: A Hand Book brought to mind eighteenth-century instructive poems like Dyer's The Fleece or Grainger's The Sugar Cane, also Samuel Johnson's dismissal of the former by insisting that "The subject, Sir, cannot be made poetical. How can a man write poetically of serges and druggets?" Here is Wendell Berry in the garden:
the early garden: potatoes, onions,
peas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots,
radishes, marking their straight rows
with green, before the trees are leafed;
raspberries ripe and heavy amid their foliage,
currants shining red in clusters amid their foliage,
strawberries red ripe with the white
flowers still on the vines …
Everybody loves marvelous vegetables and fruits, though it is hard to see what they're doing there in the poetic line. "Johnson said, that Dr. Grainger was an agreeable man; a man who would do any good that was in his power … but 'The Sugar-Cane, a Poem' did not please him; for, he exclaimed 'What could he make of a sugar-cane? One might as well write "The Parsley-bed, a Poem"; or, "The Cabbage-garden, a Poem".'" The title of Wendell Berry's poem, of which a few lines were just quoted, is The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer yet there is no madness, no strangeness in the verse; rather there are endless tributes to "the work of feeding and clothing and housing, / done with more than enough knowledge/and with more than enough love, / by men…." Eventually one feels smothered in goodness and sincere human response to The Land. Things do not noticeably liven up in a short play called The Bringer of Water that has timeless characters named Mat and Hannah and Little Margaret, and an eighty-four-year-old wonder called "Old Jack Beechum" who begins a poetic line with "Piss on them!" In general, everything is so designedly moving and humble and always wise, wise that I could only feel depressed. It would all be forgivable if the poems sang in your head; but to my ears they sounded no more musical than Guthrie's, and just about as morally complex. (p. 163)
William H. Pritchard, in Poetry (© 1971 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1971.
[The Memory of Old Jack] takes for its subject the thoughts of a 92-year-old Kentucky farmer, Jack Beechum, on the last day of his life. It is 1952. Beechum's mind sets off on a journey that draws him back to the last days of the Civil War. Then forward, as he learns to work and to put himself in touch with his land. He moves through successes and failures, a friendship, enemies, courtship, a loveless marriage, a romance. Occasionally the present interrupts Beechum's thoughts for a meal or a greeting as Berry effortlessly shifts the reader 50 years in mid-paragraph.
It is not a story that trades in nostalgia; nor even, until the last 30 pages, in any facile celebration of pastoralism or "lost values." Up to those final scenes, which deal with the events following Beechum's death (corrupt city relatives give Old Jack an obscene funeral and ride roughshod over those who learned from and took care of him), there is not a false note in the book.
Jack Beechum is senile. He experiences the present as a man going blind. The past is supernaturally clear, the way a long-dead friend turned a phrase or moved an arm can organize 20 years of Old Jack's life. Like a field worked every spring for half a century, everything in Jack Beechum's life that he refuses to surrender, or that refuses to surrender to him, has been gone over again and again, until it has given up its last kernel of meaning or mystery. His life exists at once in his mind and outside of himself, as if it were both predestined and a conscious creation, a work of art—a life that can simultaneously be reexperienced and judged for its worth.
The book at first seems to be a celebration of Jack Beechum's character, but its genius is in Berry's voice, a tone that harmonizes Beechum's adventures into the past with his last hours in the present. The book is not about the past, or the way in which the past is a prelude to the present, but rather about the way in which the past can be made congruent with the present, made part of it. Following Old Jack's thoughts, one feels a strange lucidity. When one understands that Berry intends this senility as an expression of Jack Beechum's will, the book turns into poetry:
Having no longer the immediate demands of his place and work to occupy his mind, he began to go into the past. His place and his life lay in his mind like a book and what is written in it, and he became its scholar.
Only a few works in recent years have insisted that one man or women's life, lived in rhythms of its own, can make more sense out of the American past, and connect us to it more surely, than a chronicle of great events or biographies of the Men Who Made History. One can think of the TV version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, the Band's second album, Theodore Rosengarten's All God's Dangers. The Memory of Old Jack is of a piece with them. And that Wendell Berry loses his hold on the book once Jack Beechum is dead is perhaps as it should be. Berry invented a character, found its rhythm, and then let that rhythm play itself out. That done, there was nothing more that needed to be said.
Griel Marcus, "Old Jack: The Harvest Has Surely Come," in Rolling Stone (© 1975 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1975, p. 89.