A Form for Living in the Midst of Loss: Faithful Marriage in the Revisions of Wendell Berry's "A Place on Earth"

By Bilbro, Jeffrey | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

A Form for Living in the Midst of Loss: Faithful Marriage in the Revisions of Wendell Berry's "A Place on Earth"


Bilbro, Jeffrey, The Southern Literary Journal


    Jayber always finds himself taking up the defense ...    of marriage itself, of what has come to be, for him, a    kind of last-ditch holy of holies: the possibility that    two people might care for each other ... and that,    with a man and a woman, this caring and knowing    might be made by intention, and in the consciousness    of all it is, and of all it might be, and of all that    threatens it.    --Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth      

In 1960, just three years after completing his master's degree and marrying, Wendell Berry began work on his first full-length novel. In 1967, A Place on Earth was published by Harcourt, Brace, and World, and sixteen years later, when North Point Press offered to republish the novel, Berry took the opportunity to make major revisions, cutting about one third of what he called a "clumsy, overwritten, wasteful" book (1983 Preface). (1) While critics have mentioned this revision process, none has investigated its significance, and yet in the sixteen years between the first two editions of the novel, Berry went from being a relatively obscure poet/professor to a writer/farmer with several honorary doctorates and a growing reputation as a cultural critic, poet, and fiction writer. From the cuts and edits, the novel's style and form necessarily changed. The question that remains to be answered is how these changes in technique affect and illuminate the subject of the novel.

A study of the revisions and themes of A Place on Earth reveals Berry's understanding of marriage and the reason it stands as the central metaphor in his work. In order to appreciate the significance of the revisions, however, I first want to set aside Berry's changes and focus on the novel's treatment of marriage and fidelity. Several essays, such as Jack Hicks's "Wendell Berry's Husband to the World: A Place on Earth," have examined the novel's central themes of farming and marriage, but previous studies have been limited in at least two ways: they work from only one edition, and they do not attempt to understand why Berry chooses marriage as his central metaphor. As Hicks states, "My interest here is in the continuity of Berry's vision, and particularly in how the image of the exemplary husband ... is refracted in ... A Place on Earth" (122; emphasis added). Hicks demonstrates the important role of husbandry in the novel, but he fails to address Berry's motivation for this focus. (2)

Beginning with Berry's conception of pattern and moving to the different farming and marriage relationships in the novel, I will demonstrate that Berry upholds marriage because of his conviction that humans live in great ignorance and are surrounded by mystery; individuals must choose to act and love on a small scale because only within these limits may they be able to imagine and carry out proper, faithful action. Marriage, because of its tightly limited form, contains the highest possibility of successful fidelity in a world where so much is unknown and mysterious: even in times of confusion and loss a husband might be able to adequately understand his wife and love her, and vice versa. The novel demonstrates this possibility through other relations analogous to marriage, particularly farming, as characters must choose small, faithful actions in the midst of great upheaval. In the first edition, Berry's prose provided too much explication and context to readers, exempting them from the difficult ignorance his characters endure. The revised edition more successfully reflects the mystery that Berry's characters live with; his spare writing forces his readers to read without knowing the full context, to read surrounded by ignorance.

Faithful marriage enables humans to enter into the pattern that Berry perceives around him in the natural world. As he explains in "Discipline and Hope," an essay written between the editions of A Place on Earth: "human life is subject to the same cyclic patterns as all other life. …

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