Port William Novels & Stories: The Civil War to World War II
by Wendell Berry.
Library of America, 2018.
Hardcover, 1018 pages, $40.
This January, the Library of America released its first volume of Wendell Berry’s writings, Port William Novels & Stories (The Civil War to World War II). Apparently, three more volumes are on the way: one containing the rest of the fiction, one of poetry, and one of non-fiction. Berry joins a select company of only two other living authors to be included in this series, and the timing could not be more appropriate. In our day of Twitter-fueled polarization, this contrarian Kentucky farmer speaks across America’s political and cultural fissures. Berry may be the most prominent American intellectual who lives in a county that voted for Trump. His readers and admirers span the increasingly polarized divides between urban and rural, Democrat and Republican, secular and religious. And Berry unsettles them all. To give just one example, his recent essay “Caught in the Middle” articulates a conflicted pro-life and pro-homosexual marriage position, and it is merely the latest example of his heterodoxy.
Significantly, however, the first volume from the Library of America is not a selection of his essays but of his fiction. And indeed it is as a storyteller that Berry is most uniquely able to unite our divided country. His fiction probes the virtues that sustain heterogeneous communities and the vices that threaten them, and reading his stories can help us imagine how we might set to work mending the fractures that threaten our communities. In particular, Berry’s stories bear witness to the redemptive, reconciling power of patient imagination; before we try to convince others of our firmly held convictions, we need to learn how to belong in membership with them.
Particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many observers have pointed out America’s increasingly polarized geography. More and more of us live with people who think like we do, who share our income bracket, and who consume news from the venues we do. Yet Berry doesn’t easily fit into any of our major political or cultural tribes. He’s not a nationalist or a globalist; he’s a patriot. He’s not an industrialist or an environmentalist; he’s an agrarian. His unorthodox thinking has attracted a broad and diverse readership: you are as likely to find his words in a church bulletin as on a climate-march sign. In spite of his own occasional participation in nonviolent protests, Berry is fundamentally against movements and “the fashionable politics of the moment” (in 1969 he presciently warned that “popular causes in the electronic age” almost invariably become fads).
This may be why, in addition to his provocative essays, Berry has turned to poetry and especially fiction in search of literary forms that can shape readers’ imaginations and affections. Several prominent cultural critics, drawing in part on findings in social science and psychology, have recently reminded us why such an approach is so desperately needed. It is a “rationalist delusion,” according to Jonathan Haidt, to believe that we can simply reason our way to truth and agreement. Rather, as Daniel Kahneman has also argued, our intuitions and emotions, our affections and imaginations steer our reasoning. In this same vein, Alan Jacobs articulates the ways that many of our bad intellectual habits—our refusal to consider new ideas, our rush to assume the worst of our opponents, our desire to win arguments—stem from our prior communal commitments. In other words, before we can learn how to think, we need to learn how to belong.
The work of membership is necessarily slow, but fiction, and particularly Berry’s fiction, can help us imagine how we might belong to those with whom we disagree. The stories and novels collected in this volume recount the life of the Port William “membership,” an imagined community inspired by Berry’s own Port Royal, Kentucky. As we read stories narrated from the perspective of its different members, we are gradually “admitt[ed] … into the flow of its talk, the unceasing meandering of its story of itself by which it diverted, amused, and consoled itself.” Port William’s story is full of pain, joy, anger, tenderness, murder, love, abuse, compassion—the multifarious traits of a human community making its feeble way through “the order of time” all the while being “shaped and held within the order of eternity.”
The order of time that delimits this collection of stories is marked by deep division and war. As the title indicates, the first story takes place during the Civil War and the last one at the close of World War II. We may think we live in a polarized country, but in the mid-nineteenth century brothers lined up on opposite sides of the battle lines to kill each other. Neighbors picked off neighbors on their way to different military camps. In many ways, our current urban-rural divisions are descended from the North-South, Hamilton-Jefferson divisions that have defined America since its inception.
Through these times of division and turmoil, Berry’s exemplary characters patiently love their neighbors: they suffer together, they wait together, they watch over each other, they mend one another’s wounds. By such humble acts of imagination and love, they try to walk the “tottering edge between eternity and time.” Patience may be the most fundamental virtue we need if we are to balance on this tottering edge. Patience, as its Latin root implies, entails suffering; it requires us to admit that we don’t yet understand our neighbor and never fully will this side of eternity. Yet in Berry’s fiction, the practice of patience, of suffering alongside those we still don’t understand, opens up the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The first story takes place in the waning years of the Civil War, when anarchy and vigilante justice mark life in Port William. Rebecca Dawe comes to Port William to help her aunt, whose husband is languishing in a Union jail. Rebecca’s sympathies initially lay with the Confederacy, and her brother was murdered by a neighbor on his way to volunteer for the South. But by 1864 she has simply grown weary of the unending, indiscriminate violence: “By now all the violent ones in their bunches she called, without distinction, ‘creatures.’ It was a vital, reverberant word when she said it, for as she acknowledged with frank reluctance the belonging of all creatures to God she pointedly refused to these the classification of ‘human.’” Rebecca can barely imagine how her violent time belongs to God’s eternal order, but she continues to acknowledge him as Creator. So when a band of armed men ride through town, looking for easy plunder, she stands in the window of her aunt’s house, “refus[ing] to be cowed” by their inhumanity. She continues, as best she can, to sustain love and dignity in the midst of the intimate barbarity of neighbors killing each other.
The other story set in the nineteenth century, “The Hurt Man,” introduces us to another of Port William’s matriarchs, Nancy Feltner. One Saturday afternoon a fight breaks out in town, and a bloodied man comes running toward the front porch where Nancy is sitting with her five-year-old son Mat. She opens the door for the fleeing man and cares for his wounds. Looking back on that day, Mat marvels at his mother’s courage and love. Nancy has her own sorrows—she has buried three young children—yet instead of turning inward in grief and self-pity, her suffering leads her to care for others. Looking back on this moment, Mat imagines his mother leaning “in the black of her mourning over the whole hurt world itself, touching its wounds with her tenderness, in her sorrow. Loss came into his mind then.… And this was a part, and belonged to the deliverance, of the town’s hard history of love.” As Nancy’s example shows, the hard history of love is a history of patient care.
If it is hard to practice patience and forbearance in the face of intimate violence, it is not any easier to do so under the threat of abstract violence. The two world wars, which loom in the background of many of these stories, challenge Port William to sustain its membership when global forces would draw its attention, resources, and young men to distant conflicts. When Jasper Lathrop joined the army at the start of World War II, leaving behind his general store, his father clears it out and leaves it vacant, a “carefully tended emptiness.” Several of the town’s men regularly gather in this vacant building to play rummy. These men all have sons or nephews or friends fighting in the war, and this card game becomes a kind of ritual that helps them endure their painful waiting: “The rummy game is a creature of the war, shaped in the suspension of action, the suspension of all certain knowing, that the war has imposed on them.” At the end of each day, they tally the scores on a large sheet of paper tacked on the wall, but “they never declared a winner, never totaled the scores, but just let the numbers accumulate on that brown sheet until the war ended.”
Andy Catlett, the great-grandson of both Rebecca Dawe and Nancy Feltner, sat and watched this game as a young boy. Many years later, he realized that this ongoing game held the men together during the long years of the war: “They were suffering and enduring and waiting, waiting together, joined in their unending game, submitted as the countryside around them was submitted.” When confronted with divisions and violence that they cannot understand or control, these men look for ways to wait and suffer together.
Many times, however, their waiting takes more active forms. In one of the richest stories collected here, “Watch With Me,” Tol Proudfoot practices the virtue of patient suffering-with that sustains community. Thacker Nightlife, a mentally troubled neighbor, picks up Tol’s gun while under one of his “spells” and walks off into the woods, threatening to shoot himself. It is a delicate situation with no clear resolution, so Tol and some other neighbors just follow Nightlife, risking their lives to be present with him in his loneliness. Their vigil lasts through the day, the next night, and into the following day before a rainstorm drives them all into a shop. There, Nightlife delivers a sermon based on Matthew 18:12, the parable of the lost sheep. Nightlife certainly knows what it feels like to be lost, and yet, through the grace that his neighbors embody, he is found.
Not all of the stories end so happily. In A World Lost, Andy Catlett tries to reconstruct the meaning of his Uncle Andrew’s murder, an event that took place when he was ten years old. Uncle Andrew was a complex figure: he loved bourbon, dancing, and women, but he also loved his family, particularly his nephew Andy, and he intermittently strove to live responsibly. From the distance of so many years, understanding his uncle is not an easy task, but Andy models the kind of patient imagination that seeks to understand others in all their complexity and mystery: “For fifty years and more I have been asking myself, What was he? What manner of a man? For I have never been sure. There are things that I remember, things that I have heard, and things that I am able (a little) to imagine. But what he was seems always to be disappearing a step or two beyond my thoughts.”
While he remains unable to determine what exactly happened the day of his uncle’s death, Andy does come to the conclusion that murder is “the ultimate oversimplifier. It is the paramount act (there are others) by which we reduce a human being to the dimension of one thought.” Murder, then, represents an absolute failure of imagination. It signals an extreme impatience with others. Yet as Andy’s parenthetical observation reminds us, we reduce other humans “to the dimension of one thought” in many ways. Andy’s efforts to understand his uncle show us how we might resist such reduction by patiently seeking to understand the particular others to whom we belong rather than looking for polls or think-pieces to provide some tidy explanation of sociological groups whose behavior seems bizarre to us.
Uncle Andrew’s murderer receives only a two-year sentence, and when he is released, Andy’s father determines to get vengeance by shooting him. His wife Bess, however, restrains Wheeler. As Jack Beecham had held her father, Mat Feltner, many years before when he was rushing to avenge his father’s murder, so now Bess prevents Wheeler from perpetuating the violence that has marked Port William for so many generations. She forces Wheeler to be patient. Her action reminds us that redemptive patience is a communal virtue, one that can’t be practiced merely by individual willpower.
And of course, as Uncle Andrew’s wayward life demonstrates, no amount of patience guarantees that others will change. His mother, Dorie Catlett, spent her last years mourning her son as well as her younger brother who, despite her best efforts to rear him after the death of their mother, had led an even more profligate life. Yet even in her mourning, Dorie’s love for them remains steadfast: “She could see plainly what a relief it would have been if she could have talked some sense into their heads and straightened them out. It would have been a relief too if she could have waved them away and forgotten them. In fact, she could do neither. They were incorrigible, and they were her own.” Dorie never stopped trying to change these two prodigals, yet her love for them remained primary. No matter what they did, they were her own.
What if we, like Dorie, spent more time and energy patiently suffering with others than we did trying to convince them to change their minds? This isn’t to say that what people think doesn’t matter or that truth isn’t important. And this isn’t some kind of sneaky tactic—just because you patiently love people doesn’t mean they will in turn come to agree with your political or theological beliefs. Rather, patient love names the posture that should define how we live with others in time while being “shaped and held within the order of eternity.” And if that posture changes no one else’s mind, it might at least change our own.
I write this as a terribly impatient person who teaches college freshmen the arts of rhetoric so that they can better persuade others. But reading Berry’sfiction reminds me that patient love remains more important than being right or winning arguments. Rather than watching TV or scrolling through a newsfeed—mediums that encourage us to treat others as avatars we can manipulate and control—perhaps we could all benefit from more time spent reading about Port William. The four novels and twenty-three short stories collected here run to nearly one thousand pages. Readers who sit down and immerse themselves in this community’s conversation will learn much about how to belong to their neighbors and family members, even those with aggravating politics and infuriating personalities.
At the conclusion of A World Lost, after his slow effort of imaginatively remembering his uncle, Andy receives a vision of his loved ones held in the eternal light of divine love:
I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time. It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed. It is Hell until it is Heaven. Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment. And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled. In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they imagined it, they would have wished to be.
That light can come into this world only as love, and love can enter only by suffering. Not enough light has ever reached us here among the shadows, and yet I think it has never been entirely absent.
Berry’s sympathetic imagination is “a little flickering lamp,” bringing this light of love into the darkness of our polarization and impatience and carelessness. This light judges our failings even as it shows the possibility of forgiveness, love, and redemption. It is the light that our dark time longs for and fears.
Our communities would be healthier if we conducted our conversations not in the blue light of cell phone screens, but in the harsh yet merciful light of this eternal love.
Jeffrey Bilbro is an Associate Professor of English at Spring Arbor University in southern Michigan. His books include Loving God’s Wildness: The Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature, Wendell Berry and Higher Education: Cultivating Virtues of Place (written with Jack Baker), and Telling the Stories Right: Wendell Berry’s Imagination of Port William (edited with Jack Baker). He also tweets.