Farming Kentucky: The Fiction of Wendell Berry

By Ditsky, John | Hollins Critic, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Farming Kentucky: The Fiction of Wendell Berry


Ditsky, John, Hollins Critic


Perhaps even better known as a poet and essayist, Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is also the author of six books of fiction to date--four novels and two collections of stories. The values espoused in all four genres are, not suprisingly, consistent, and places, characters, and events recur in the fiction, in a manner that might be called Faulknerian, though to do so might also be to drag a red catfish across a critical path. In no real sense does Berry mimic Faulkner, though the two also share a sense of communitas, and to open a work by either is to become immediately aware of the presence of a humane and intelligent Southerner's compelling voice. The same might be fairly said of any number of writers--of Reynolds Price, for example. Readers of Wendell Berry's fiction will readily acknowledge that he has always been very much his own man. (Incidentally, the first two novels also exist in revised form, though there is hardly space available here to consider these revisions; nor can the uncollected fiction be included).

Wendell Berry comes from the very same region in northern Kentucky where he now lives and farms; he also teaches at the same university, Kentucky, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1956, and his Master's the following year. Various teaching and learning stints brought him back to Port Royal, Kentucky (his fictional Port William), by 1963, after a brief career at New York University, which for obscure reasons of its own had decided to hire a creative writer to run Freshman English. Berry soon decided that this place and lifestyle were not for him. This story is perhaps apocryphal, but too telling to ignore-it gets told among former graduate students who were at NYU during Berry's brief tenure there. In its usual form, the anecdote has Berry approaching his Department Chair to inform the latter that be was returning to Kentucky. The Chair, a crusty scholar who doubtless remembered Thomas Wolfe's unhappy period at NYU as an instructor in the late '20s, is supposed to have roared back at Berry, "Son don't you know you can't go home again? Whereupon Berry--like Faulkner receiving permission to work on his Hollywood screenplays at home (Mississippi)--apparently answered, "Like hell I can't," and was thereafter to be found raising Burley tobacco in his home country. He has been there ever since-as if he really left. Farming Kentucky.

The "red catfish" of the opening paragraph is not meant to be patronizing, nor should there be any misinterpreting of his customary farm poses. It is rare to see a photo of Berry in a suit and tie, unless to underscore the seriousness of some environmentalist purpose or other; to do so seems almost unnatural. Perhaps, even more than the sight of Faulkner futzing about at a Rowan Oak at the woodshed with a favorite mutt one morning, Berry's farm shot opportunities show a real man about to enter a real farmlot to follow a real horse around its directed plowcourse. That real horse would soon drop real dung during its very real progress across the Berry land, just ahead of the very real poet and fictionist and essayist. To the question, "What's wrong with this picture?" Berry's fiction would seem to answer: Absolutely nothing.

Just beginning to develop a reputation as a poet, Wendell Berry published Nathan Coulter in 1960; that the publisher of this by-now-scarce volume, Berry's first novel, was the esteemed firm of Houghton Mifflin augured well for a writer still in his 20s. Not only does the work avoid the pitfalls encountered by Faulkner's initial attempts to escape his postage stamp of native soil, but Nathan Coulter also seems a wise attempt to get that autobiographical first novel out of one's system, and to do so honesty. Honesty is, in fact, the compelling and salient feature of Berry's writing as a whole, and it exonerates, one hopes, that image of the real farmer following a real horse and plow alluded to above. This is the opening paragraph of Berry's first sustained fiction:

   DARK. … 

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