Discover the charm of Wendell Berry’s rural tales

From The Economist

Wendell Berry was almost 30 when he packed up his life as a New York intellectual and decamped to Port Royal, a tiny community in Kentucky where generations of his forebears had farmed the land. His friends thought him mad. Mr Berry said it was “not an altogether pleasant fate”. But he felt obliged—destined, even—to record the history of the place.

Since moving to Port Royal in 1964 he has lived as if he were in the 19th century, writing by hand and ploughing his fields with horses. His eight novels and more than 50 short stories are usually set in Port William, a stand-in for Port Royal. Yet his appeal transcends his backwater milieu. The feminist bell hooks was a fan. Nick Offerman, an actor, wanted to adapt his work for the screen. Mr Berry refused, for the “tv cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household”.

His Luddism also belies the prescience of his encompassing theme: that humans must nurture the earth that grants them life. “The soil is the greatest connector of lives,” he has written; “without proper care for it we can have no community.” This philosophy dominates his novels and polemics. In “The Unsettling of America”, published in 1977, Mr Berry critiqued the natural destruction caused by giant agribusinesses. He thinks capitalism has divorced farming from culture, severing people from nature.

Mr Berry’s fiction explores the deterioration of convivial values by following Port William’s interwoven clans as their pastoral outpost enters the modern age. In “Dismemberment”, a short story, Andy Catlett loses a hand to a harvesting machine and becomes a recluse. He sees his withdrawal is mistaken and reconnects with the town, finding “the wealth of an intimate history” in belonging to “his ancestral place”.

Port William’s inhabitants often come to such realisations. In “Hannah Coulter”, Mr Berry’s seventh novel, the titular character grows old after a tragic life and anticipates loneliness when her children leave to find work in the city. Instead, her hope is restored when an estranged grandson returns to run the farm. Mr Berry paints the community in atmospheric hues, each brushstroke deepening the reader’s understanding of how the link between soil and people sustains the town.

The author’s rural world is not always melancholic. “Watch With Me”, a series of short stories, traces the loving marriage of Ptolemy and Minnie Proudfoot. In one tale set in 1932, Ptolemy, an expert horseman, struggles to drive a motor car. Here the clash of old and new is humorous, as the couple go “easy into the modern world, never really getting the hang of it”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Chestnut Trees

From The Paris Review:

Everywhere we’ve lived takes on a certain shape in our memory only some time after we leave it. Then it becomes a picture that will remain unchanged. As long as we’re there, with the whole place before our eyes, we see the accidental and the essential emphasized almost equally; only later are secondary matters snuffed out, our memory preserving only what’s worth preserving. If that weren’t true, how could we look back over even a year of our life without vertigo and terror!

Many things make up the picture a place leaves behind for us—waters, rocks, roofs, squares—but for me, it is most of all trees. They are not only beautiful and lovable in their own right, representing the innocence of nature and a contrast to people, who express themselves in buildings and other structures—they are also revealing: we can learn much from them about the age and type of arable land there, the climate, the weather, and the minds of the people. I don’t know how the village where I now live will present itself to my mind’s eye later, but I cannot imagine that it will be without poplars, any more than I can picture Lake Garda without olive trees or Tuscany without cypresses. Other places are unthinkable to me without their lindens, or their nut trees, and two or three are recognizable and remarkable by virtue of having no trees there at all.

Yet a city or landscape with no predominating woods of any kind never entirely becomes a picture in my mind; it always remains somewhat without character, to my feeling. There is one such city I know well—I lived there as a boy for two years—and despite all my memories of the place, my image of it is of somewhere foreign and alien; it has turned into a place as arbitrary and meaningless to me as a train station.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a real chestnut-tree city—this thought occurs to me whenever I see a single beautiful horse-chestnut tree around here or sadly catch sight of the shabby little horticultural chestnut trees in certain villages. If they only knew how chestnut trees could look! How mightily they can stand there, how luxuriantly they blossom, how deeply they rustle, how luscious and complete the shadows they cast, how they swell with monstrous fullness in the summer and lay down their golden-brown leaves in such thick, soft piles in the fall!

Today I am once again thinking of the city with the beautiful chestnut trees: a town in southwest Germany. In the center is the old castle, a massive sprawling boxy structure, with the whole sprawling building ringed by an amazingly wide moat, long since turned into a dry ditch, and surrounding the ditch in a wider circle is a splendid avenue. On one side of the avenue is nothing but old low houses and little gardens, and on the other, open side, facing the castle, is a mighty garland of large chestnut trees.

On one side hang signs for shops and inns, the joiners hammer away, metalworkers smash menacingly at their sheet metal, cobblers lurk in the twilight of their cavelike workshops, tanneries give off their mysterious stink. On the other side of the wide avenue there is silence and shade, the smell of leaves and the green play of light, the song of honeybees and the flight of butterflies. So the poor devils beating carpets and doing handicrafts have their windows facing an eternal holiday, the never-ending peace of God, and they squint longingly at it all the time, and on warm summer evenings they cannot go out to visit it early enough, or with enough sighs.

I stayed in that little city once, for a week, and although I was actually there on business, I liked to look patronizingly in through the merchants, and craftsmen’s windows and put on a show of strolling—slowly, aristocratically, and often—on the shady, leisurely side of the street and of life. The best thing, though, was that I was staying by the moat, at the Blond Eagle, and had the many blossoming chestnut trees, red and white, outside my window in the evening and through the night. Now, enjoying this visual pleasure was not entirely without a cost, since the seemingly dry moat still had a damp enough moss-green bottom to send up a hundred thousand hungry mosquitoes a day. But a young person traveling doesn’t sleep much on such summer nights anyway, and when the mosquitoes got too rude I rubbed some vinegar on myself and sat by the window with a cigar lit and the light off.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Another Lovely Long Sentence

All round them, ten, scores, it seems like hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and bellying up the stairs with arterio-sclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novel items as Joy Buzzers, Squirting Nickels, Finger Rats, Scary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them, past Fred’s barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the kind of baroque haircuts one can get in there, and up onto 50th Street into a madhouse of traffic and shops with weird lingerie and gray hair-dyeing displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings and a pool-playing match between the Playboy Bunnies and Downey’s Showgirls, and then everybody pounds on toward the Time-Life Building, the Brill Building or NBC.

Link to the rest at The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolf

A Lovely Long Sentence

From Stuart Little:

In the loveliest town of all, where the houses were white and high and the elms trees were green and higher than the houses, where the front yards were wide and pleasant and the back yards were bushy and worth finding out about, where the streets sloped down to the stream and the stream flowed quietly under the bridge, where the lawns ended in orchards and the orchards ended in fields and the fields ended in pastures and the pastures climbed the hill and disappeared over the top toward the wonderful wide sky, in this loveliest of all towns Stuart stopped to get a drink of sarsaparilla.

Link to the rest at Stuart Little by E.B. White

O. Henry: 101 Stories

From The Wall Street Journal:

Before he was known as O. Henry and the author of “The Gift of the Magi,” William Sidney Porter wrote another yarn about a husband and wife who miscommunicate. Instead of trading Christmas presents in a touching tale of self-sacrifice, they exchange “some hard words” over breakfast. A little later, they regret their remarks and seek to make peace. When they meet again, however, they fire off a new round of accusations—painful to them in their fictional world but amusing to readers who recognize a comic mixture of spite and affection in a marriage.

Porter never published this piece of apprentice work from about 1895, titled “The Return of the Songster.” It has languished in an archive at the University of Virginia, and it might be there still (or never archived at all) except for the fact that, under the name of O. Henry, Porter went on to master a form of the short story that featured a surprising conclusion. “The Return of the Songster” is now collected, along with two other previously unprinted pieces, in “101 Stories,” the Library of America’s comprehensive edition of this popular writer’s work, edited by Ben Yagoda. The book’s appearance in this distinguished series provides fresh evidence that, despite occasional skepticism from critics and scholars, O. Henry has secured a place in the country’s literary pantheon.

Born in North Carolina in 1862, Porter worked as a pharmacist, ranch cook and land-office clerk. In Texas, he took a job as a bank teller but fled to Honduras in 1896 following an accusation of embezzlement. He returned to the U.S. after a few months to care for the ailing wife he had left behind. It didn’t go well: She died, and he was sentenced to a federal prison in Ohio.

Behind bars for three years, Porter took up his pen name, published from the penitentiary and started his decadelong run of success. After his release in 1901, he moved to Manhattan and contributed to newspapers and magazines, scribbling under deadline pressure as he invented stories about ordinary people in his adopted city.

If he had written only “The Gift of the Magi,” which appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Sunday World in 1905, he’d still be read today. Although cynics may sneer at what they consider the aesthetic equivalent of a Hallmark Christmas movie, this 2,000-word celebration of unconditional love and holiday spirit remains one of the most beloved tales in American literature.

Yet O. Henry was more than a one-hit wonder, and a handful of his stories continue to appeal. “The Last Leaf” begins with a deathbed scene and ends with a message about the power of art. “The Cop and the Anthem” involves a vagrant who tries but fails to get arrested. “After Twenty Years” chronicles a reunion of friends who have fallen out of contact. Each features an agreeable jolt in its final sentence or paragraph. Harvard professor Hyder E. Rollins described the effect in 1914: “Children play ‘crack-the-whip,’ not for the fun of the long preliminary run, but for the excitement of the final sharp twist that throws them off their feet.” The pen name “O. Henry,” in fact, may be read as an exclamation of delight.

Although his characters are usually forgettable and his plots often turn on coincidence, O. Henry compensated for these weaknesses with several strengths. One is deadpan humor: “My salary as bookkeeper in the hardware concern kept at a distance those ills attendant upon superfluous wealth.” Another is a playfulness with words, such as “jagerfonteins” (a reference to diamond-like eyes, borrowed from the name of a South African mining town) and “philoprogenitiveness” (a tendency to produce offspring). When O. Henry wanted a colorful way to label a Central American nation, he came up with a term that has entered our vocabulary: “banana republic.”

He could also render the details of ordinary life in evocative prose. In “The Furnished Room,” one of his better stories, he depicted the dimly lighted steps of a low-rent boarding house: “It seemed to have become vegetable; to have degenerated in that rank, sunless air to lush lichen or spreading moss that grew in patches to the staircase and was viscid under the foot like organic matter.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The People We Think We Know (and the Characters They Inspire)

From Writer Unboxed:

Basing fictional characters on people we know carries both distinct risks and unique rewards.

The risks include potentially offending the person inspiring the character, especially if unflattering facts are revealed and the characterization is not adequately camouflaged—or poorly executed.

That said, a great many writers I know have reported that the people on whom they’ve based characters have seldom if ever recognized themselves, if only out of misguided vanity.

On the other hand, the rewards of basing characters on people we know include the ability to use personal, real-world knowledge and observation in the characterization, with the added plus of being able to use one’s own distinct intuitive impression of the person.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that knowing someone assures that you know them well. How much of someone’s life goes unnoticed by even intimate companions? Absent clandestine surveillance, we can’t know the secrets of others unless they’re divulged to us, either by the person herself or by someone betraying a confidence. And the violation of trust revealed in the latter circumstance is only enhanced if the secret is passed along by us, fictionally or otherwise.

I first began thinking of these matters when I was working on The Art of Character, specifically in response to the question of where our characters come from, i.e., are they created or discovered. (Answer: they’re a little of both.)

And while I was working on that section of the book, I happened upon a poem John Updike wrote late in his life, titled “Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth.”

. . . .

In that poem, Updike remarks:

Dear friends of childhood, classmates, thank you,
scant hundred of you, for providing a
sufficiency of human types: beauty,
bully, hanger-on, natural,
twin, and fatso—all a writer needs

These thoughts came crashing back to me recently when I returned to Columbus, Ohio, to attend my 50th high school reunion. (Yes, I really am that old.)

In particular, I was repeatedly struck by how much or how little many of us had changed, and in both instances why.

Link to the rest at From Writer Unboxed

PG found the entire text of Peggy Lutz, Fred Muth here.