The Bard of Kentucky

A review of Wendell Berry: Port William Novels and Stories (Library of America, 2018), Jack Shoemaker, ed.

The long shelf of fiction by Wendell Berry—overshadowed by the colossal green canopy of his poetry and agrarian essays—has been brought into the light by the Library of America. Wendell Berry: Port William Novels and Stories, the first of two volumes that will enshrine the whole of Berry’s fiction, was released early this year and collects four early novels and 23 short stories.

It includes a detailed chronology of Berry’s life and career, including notes on his to-thine-own-self-be-true decision to leave New York in 1965, the year he won a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, to farm back in his home state of Kentucky. Editor Jack Shoemaker has also provided a map of Berry’s fictional yet very real town of Port William, a 120-year family tree of the four families that live out his stories, and eight pages of notes.

One of the book’s subtitles is The Civil War to World War II, and accordingly, the narrative begins with a story set in 1864, “The Girl in the Window” (2010), and ends with one set in 1945, “Not a Tear,” which originally appeared in 2012 in The Threepenny Review.

Presented by Shoemaker in the chronological order in which they take place, the stories were published in various journals, chapbooks, and anthologies since 1986, when “Thicker Than Liquor” appeared in The Wild Birds: Six Stories of the Port William Membership. However, they were written as they revealed themselves to Berry, who has said, “the order of writing was simply the order in which the parts became imaginable to me.”

In all, 950 pages thin to the touch yet abundant, like the fields which sustain many of Berry’s characters except when the land, subservient to the weather, fails. Somehow those as tough as the weather accept their losses—hoe in hand, mule by the reins—and carry on. Patient attention to the small and accumulated details of how his four dominant families (the Catletts, Beechums, Coulters, and Feltners) do so is the bedrock of Berry’s work.

That patience is evident when he tells of Dick Watson, a dirt-poor African American farmhand employed by the Catletts all his life. Over time, writes Berry, Watson “achieved an authentic gentleness,” as though his soul had benefited from an investment portfolio reaching maturity. Years later, the man’s “metal [grave] marker rusted away or was lost,” and not long after that, anyone who had known him was also gone. And then, no one alive could say just where ole Dick Watson had been laid to rest.

The prose is precise—economical without being dry—and the result is so seamless and moving it almost makes it offensive to call it writing. Berry is an old school storyteller telling stories that ring very true today. Without irony, I suggest that he is the Norman Rockwell (and most assuredly not the Norman Mailer) of American literature.

“His father cooked like he was putting out a fire,” says the narrator at the beginning of the novel, Andy Catlett: Early Travels (2007). An entire personality in 10 words. Or this, which even a talented writer might not conjure after decades of wrestling the blank page: “And in all the years since, that look, which I did not see, has stayed in my memory.”

These are stories as detailed as the intersecting grooves on a butter crisp yet they never lose their way; dramatically subtle stories of not-so-subtle changes in rural America, its people, and their livelihoods; adventures set in and around Port William (a hologram of the actual Port Royal, on the Kentucky River, where Berry was born during the Depression).

Port William is Berry’s Yoknapatawpha, to which Berry and his work are often compared but, as editor Shoemaker says, “Everyone tires of being compared to Faulkner and no one does.” Really the comparison is somewhat haphazard since, for all of William Faulkner’s knowledge of northern Mississippi, he was content to savor it on horseback and rarely put his hands in the dirt as Berry has all his life.

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About Rafael Alvarez

Rafael Alvarez was a city desk reporter on the Baltimore Sun for nearly a quarter of a century. A former staff writer for the HBO drama The Wire (he helped create the character of Ziggy Sobotka), Alvarez recently completed a feature script about the Nazi occupation of Greece. His new collection of stories is Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown, published in 2017 by CityLit Press. More from Rafael Alvarez

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