There are times when some of the onerous aspects of our modern world overwhelm us.
We are constantly being pushed to learn this or that. We need to master new technologies and learn elaborate strategies for dealing with troubling social, educational and mental health situations.
Only by such means, we are told, can we make our world safer, more accessible and more bearable. Contemporary novels often contribute to my uneasiness.
When I feel overwhelmed by such insistence, I am happy to return to a quiet place of refuge.
Literature offers many areas of escape. One of those places for me is the writing of Wendell Berry.
His imagination focuses on the agrarian past of his Kentucky ancestors in the region where the Ohio and Kentucky rivers gently meet. Small towns like Hargrave and Port William dot this rolling landscape.
Berry is now 87 years old and his literary achievements are legion – he has written over 50 books (collections of fiction, poetry and essays) which mark his steady and human passage through our common “Valley of Tears”.
Novels such as “A Place on Earth” and “Remembering” are well thought out and beautifully written. They recognize but generally sidestep the aspects of our modern world that tend to drag many of us down and undermine our positive thoughts about life; on the contrary, they have the power to give us a clear vision and the insight to carry on as best we can.
My lifelong passion for Berry was refreshed by a recent essay titled “Late Harvest” in “The New Yorker” magazine (February 28, 2022). There, editor Dorothy Wickenden recounts Berry’s long career and celebrates her unwavering commitment to agrarian life and her vision for community — “that vanishing slice of America,” she says.
All of his subjects deserve our attention: “peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, [and] good work.”
Berry is sometimes referred to as a Luddite or utopian thinker. His imagination points backward rather than forward. He focuses his interest on pre-industrial Kentucky; its vision is community and agrarian.
Recalling his childhood experiences, he embraces a timeline that stretches back from World War II to the days before the Civil War. Although rooted in the industrial present, it sought to perpetuate these old ways of life.
Devoting himself to working his small Kentucky farm as productively as possible, he commemorated those compelling family and community values he witnessed as a boy. In his writings, he articulates a human philosophy of work and life, thus blending his life as a farmer and as a writer.
I want to share with you some thoughts on his book “Fidelity” (1992). It’s a moving collection of five stories from Kentucky about family relationships. I will also draw some ideas from his collection of essays “What are people for?” (1990).
Do not be alarmed by the dates of these two books – Berry continued his steady production during this century. I’m not going to overwhelm you with new titles, but rest assured, there are plenty. Two new books will be published this year.
“Fidelity” is the kind of book you’re glad you read. He stays with you as a friend. It celebrates a small community of workers and their shared values. No Berry character would ever claim to represent “loyalty” or loyalty – rather their actions and sense of responsibility speak to their intuitive commitment to their loved ones and community.
In the title story of the book, a farmer named Danny Branch does something quite unexpected due to his deep concern for his dying father. Known to his family as “Uncle Burley”, Burley Coulter is 82 years old and a highly respected man. However, by summer he is dying – in his own ruthless words he had become “as anonymous as a cut cat”.
Aware of Burley’s failing health and unsure of what else to do, his family reluctantly agrees to take him to a hospital in Louisville, seeking medical help. They find little comfort there – Burley is considered “a very sick man” by doctors and is ordered to be mechanically monitored – he is placed on a ventilator and connected to various tubes to keep him alive. For his family, this looks like an inhuman incarceration.
The idea of Burley “lying and motionless in a mechanical room, in the unforgiving light” of his hospital room, is unforeseen horror for all of them. This distant hospital is not their world or Burley’s. After much anxiety and frustration, Danny decides to take matters into his own hands.
Without telling anyone about his plan, he leaves the house in the middle of the night, driving his battered van for over an hour to the hospital where he manages to get Burley out of bed. Wrapping him in his sheets, Danny walks him out of the hospital without being questioned. The only witness is a nurse who evokes a tall man in a blue shirt.
He then takes Burley home to one of his father’s favorite spots in the nearby woods. Now in familiar surroundings and gently coached by Danny on what he is doing, Burley passes away in the comfort of his most beloved surroundings. Danny then meticulously digs his grave in a nearby grove and buries it in the woods he loved so much.
Meanwhile, modern social accountability mechanisms kick in. The hospital reports a missing patient and the police get involved. Was it a kidnapping? Was a crime involved? Within hours, it becomes commonplace for Burley’s family and friends who can only guess what happened.
Two members of the family are lawyers, the father and son team of Henry and Wheeler Catlett. The job of the police falls to a detective named Kyle Bode. Mr. Bode soon finds himself in over his head with a situation and community beyond his limited experience. Although he comes to terms with his superiority over these unschooled goons, he is soon disillusioned with this notion.
Faced with Bode, Wheeler Catlett plays the detective like a hooked fish. “And what are you going to accuse (Danny) of” he asks, “by impersonating an undertaker?” Wheeler then launches into an argument that questions the sense of responsibility of police and healthcare workers in cities like Louisville.
For them, money and operational order are their justifications for service. It’s not a matter of family care. Wheeler fondly remembers Burley’s savage youth, but also recounts his love of hunting and family. “The best thing about him was the pleasure he took in nice things. We won’t forget his laugh.
He was, Wheeler concludes, “a faithful man”. He was faithful to his family and to his place.
When Danny finally appears in Catlett’s office, he’s wearing “a green shirt like the forest” and he’s smiling. When Bode leaps up to ask, “He’s dead, isn’t he, and you buried him somewhere in those hills and hollows out there at the end of nowhere?” he destroys what remains of his authority.
The case is clear – there is no evidence of any kind against Danny. Wheeler sums it up succinctly. “A man disappeared from your world, Mr. Bode” (and was repositioned) in his own people and place…”
It’s a brilliant story, delicately and dramatically told. There is a lot of wisdom and fun in the writings of Wendell Berry. His stories take us back in time and help us escape some of the discontents of civilization as we increasingly know them.