Wendell Berry Berry, Wendell (Vol. 4) - Essay

Berry, Wendell (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berry, Wendell 1934–

Berry is an American poet, novelist, and essayist.

Wendell Berry is a spokesman for the rural and natural. His subjects and images come almost exclusively from the outdoors, yet Openings is an introspective volume in which the speaker seeks to understand himself and his world of rural Kentucky, a world to which he has made strong allegiance.

At times Openings reveals a good sense of movement, but while there are triumphs, there are failures in Berry's manner that are capable of producing an image like "eats/at my heart," which is consistent with the feeling in the poem but which is, no matter where it is found, bad writing. And I question why he includes some poems, such as "The Winter Rain," "March Snow," and "April Woods: Morning," three in succession in which the speaker states or suggests meanings occasioned by observation or experience; the poems lack the special quality of implied force a calm, colloquial poetry needs in order to be remembered….

Berry can be wordy and rather endless when he hooks on to a subject. I much prefer his shorter poems, such as "The Change," "The Quiet," "The Snake," and "Before Dark," each of which is distinctly good, bearing the firm control yet loose manner of Berry at his best.

Ronald Moran, in The Southern Review, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 249-50.

[The Memory of Old Jack] is a simple, quiet story, told in elegant but restrained prose; it has the pace and mood of an elegy. What makes it far more than a sentimental celebration of a flawed but good man is the variety of distinct but interrelated themes it explores. One can, if one wishes, read it as merely the story of the life of a small town's revered elder statesman, the first fellow in a fellowship of friends. But The Memory of Old Jack is also about such matters as laboring for one's own fulfillment rather than that of others; attempting to use others for private, selfish purposes; and the "immemorial kinship" between man and the land he loves.

Jonathan Yardley, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 3, 1974, p. 3.

Distressingly few novelists treat both their characters and their readers with the kind of respect that Wendell Berry displays in [The Memory of Old Jack, a] deeply moving account of the final day in the long life of a remarkable human being….

Mr. Berry largely avoids cornball sentimentality by letting us see the warts on his hero—his stubborn pride, his sick marriage, his adultery with Rose ("She was a woman without devices, who possessed her body in her eyes"), his sometimes suffocating narrowness. And the occasional highflown over-insistence on rural virtuousness in this agrarian elegy is redeemed by the solid ballast of chapters like "Hunger"—a root-touching evocation of the cooking and eating of a noontime meal during tobacco harvest….

In the driving, near-Biblical rhythms of his prose, Berry does at times get a little preachy about modern ignorance, laziness, frivolity and the curses of technology. And I'm still not quite sold on the sublimity of "the yeoman's tradition of sufficiency to himself, of faithfulness to his place," especially since this tradition seems to suggest that a man who submits himself to the demands of the land ("that complexity of returns between labor and hunger") is by definition a superior being. Yet all this is more than salvaged by the handling of Old Jack's dignified death, ceremonial viewing and funeral, which may well rival even James Agee's subtler and more complex treatment in "A Death in the Family."

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1974, p. 38.

The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry's compassionate and profound third novel, celebrates a pastoral life which our nation in this century has abandoned. Our loss of the pastoral ideal is built into [its] structure and texture….

The pastoral life celebrated here is stunningly rich. Jack is "faithful to his land, through all its yearly changes from maiden to mother, the bride and wife and widow of men like himself since the world began." This marriage brings him peace through toil, through the cycles of work and season: depletion, repetition, bounty. Often the work is its own reward. The most telling sign that a man does not easily accept the sweat of his brow is the constant teasing into work. "Settle for the half-assed, and then, by God, admire it!" "If you're going to talk to me, you'll have to walk." Laggards are coaxed into the fields with taunting praise. Work must be faced with comedy.

The book makes us grieve that these rhythms of work and speech are lost to us, as they are lost to Jack's daughter Clara, married to city banker Glad Pettit, who can buy anything, but who passes from car to porch steps without touching earth….

Jack's world is lost to us. The second loss is more profound: Eden must contain loss; not the serpent but the condition of occupancy. And only here this magnificent novel fails us, for Berry does not permit Jack to work out the consequences of his painful dilemma. Rose is killed off and Jack remains: pained, bereft, yet essentially unchanged, in many ways a moral innocent. He and Berry both get off easily.

But this is the only misstep in a novel filled with a sense of humor in the face of pain and a sense of loss as the price of completion. At its center we behold Jack: "When he stepped into the first opening furrow of a new season he was not merely fulfilling an economic necessity; he was answering the summons of an immemorial kinship; he was shaping a passage by which an ancient vision might pass once again into the ground." Berry's prophetic language gives that vision voice; Old Jack's life and death gives it flesh.

Joan Joffe Hall, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 6, 1974, pp. 26-7.

Faulknerian in tone and intent, [The Memory of Old Jack] manages to be only soporific in effect. For, uniformly, the characters lack passion. And therefore they lack depth. They spend the better part of each day coping grimly with grim realities. They seldom speak and even less often enjoy themselves.

In fact, the big orgasm in Port William, Ohio, is paying off the mortgage. And this state of affairs simply does not make for either an engaging or pertinent sort of fiction.

Jack Friedman, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), April 18, 1974, p. 31.