Monday, February 12, 2007

Wendell Berry, part two

Part one is here.

When someone is writing about a mostly lost way of life that he clearly loved, there is of course a tremendous danger of his falling victim to the falsifications of nostalgia, but Berry is far too clear-eyed to pretend that life when he was young was perfect—in part, I think, because he did appreciate that way of life so much that to be dishonest about it would be a betrayal. He writes well of the difficulty of manual labor and the precariousness of farming, and of the complications inherent to longstanding family and neighborly relations. Even more important, given that he’s writing about mid-twentieth-century Kentucky, is that he deals head-on with the issue of race. When his white characters interact with his black characters (who are usually working for them), Berry lets the issue of race remain complicated, refusing any easy answers, be they condemnation or absolution. The problem of race, and the complicity of those he's loved in its evils, gnaws at him as a storyteller, and he lets it gnaw similarly at his characters, forever unresolved.

That sort of honesty is also what allows Berry to avoid turning his fiction into polemic: by remaining true to the characters themselves rather than to ideas, he allows both the characters and the ideas they largely embody their full power. He’s not always completely successful. A whiff of polemic hampers portions of the otherwise masterly Jayber Crow (2000), and in the recent Hannah Coulter (2004) an effort to incorporate a reading of E. B. Sledge’s devastating memoir of the Pacific campaign in World War II (prompted, presumably, by anger over the Iraq war, underway as Berry was writing and to which he was an early, strident, opposing voice) threatens to derail an otherwise excellent look at a previously little-known character. But those are rare slips; for the most part, Berry is simply telling stories about believable people living a way of life he is just old enough to have seen firsthand and that he, in one way or another, misses every single day.

This post about Berry doesn't really break into equally sized chunks, so today's a short one. More tomorrow.

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